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Behind The ‘Monstrous Manual’: PART 4

June 10, 2024

Moving beyond Parts 2 and 3 of fantasy humanoids, we’ll now take a look at a several monsters I had the opportunity to illustrate for the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual that have been celebrated for centuries in epic myths. We’re talking the Cyclops, Medusa, Minotaur and more!

ILLUSTRATION #44: Giant, Cyclops

Our first monster was also part of my submission to TSR in 1992. Actually, it was my second, followup, submission. You see, originally I’d sent Art Director Peggy Cooper (seen here) a pile of monster and character drawings–which didn’t score me any work because I didn’t show whether I could actually illustrate scenarios required for an adventure: characters fighting monsters, characters finding treasure, setting off traps, etc.

I listened to Peggy’s guidance and sent in new samples within 2 weeks. Unbeknownst to me, this showed her that I could not only take direction but meet a deadline–key traits required for a freelance illustrator. My second submission impressed her and she took and chance with this Florida kid, fresh outta art school, hungry for work. Peggy changed my life.

Though my ambition had won the day, I still had a lot to learn. D&D, like any good story, isn’t just about characters: the setting, artifacts, lighting, emotion and more convey important information to the players and Dungeon Master. You’re showing them what this experience could feel like.

But for me, I struggled with depicting action scenes. Maybe that’s why I steered away from trying my hand at superhero comics. Instead, staged moments–by the likes of Norman Rockwell or J.C. Leyendecker–that told story through acting and props sparked my artistic drive. You can see it in The Secret Staff illustration above…”But,” you say, “Cyclops Point, on the left page, has action.” True. But I didn’t create that scene. It was lifted it from one of my heroes, Mike Kaluta, in his epic comic, Starstruck.

Kaluta, along with William Stout, Bernie Wrightson and Charles Vess created comics that hearkened back to the Golden Age of Illustration (1880s-1930s). Among them, Mike Kaluta is a legend. I’ve learned a lot from studying his work and (years later) hanging out to talk shop. I even connected Mike with the D&D art team back in 2000 for the 3rd edition Monster Manual, where he contributed a few pieces! Talk about a full circle moment.

Of course, I would have never allowed my submission to be published. I was just trying on another artist’s brain to figure out how they worked. It’s how I learn. I still do exercises like this today. I am still learning…still trying to become a better illustrator.

Tim approved my submission piece for the mythical Cyclopskin. I redrew it and changed the pose. His expression completely captures the overwhelming and dumbstruck feeling I’d felt back then that I was actually getting paid to do this. All he needed was a handful of markers and pens balled in his fist.

Although I did not illustrate the other giant entries, Tim intended for me to contribute to the smaller Giant-Kin: the Cyclops and the Ettin. Possibly as an oversight on Tim’s part, the Ettin was assigned and completed by Jeff Butler, who was illustrating all the giants. Of course I did not know this and sent in my finished Ettin.

…But due to that mix-up, he never made it in the final book (which is why he is so grumpy). This design was based on a drawing from my 1992 sketchbook, along with doodles of halfling faces…and illuminates how my younger brother’s head was shaped exactly like a light bulb.

ILLUSTRATION #198: Medusa

Present since the first edition of the game, Medusa has always fascinated me, especially after seeing Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvel, Clash of the Titans.

If we look back to that first submission (the one where I just drew monsters hanging around, doing nothing), you’ll see I included a portrait of Medusa.

As mentioned previously, Project Coordinator and Monster Wrangler, Tim Beach, loved my interpretation of this fearful gorgon, adding: “We like the snake ponytail; shorten the ears by about half.”

I’d love to say that my unique take, of styling a topknot full of slender snakes, just popped into my head and onto paper in one instant but it required some exploration.

To save time, I laser copied the original ink drawing from my submission, pasted it onto a new sheet of 11×17″ paper and added her extended right hand holding the dagger sheath.

This line drawing was laser copied onto an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper, then colored (a technique I would use on several other images, including the Cockatrice, Rakshasa and Mindflayer).

This piece was a favorite of mine and Tim’s. We went back and forth trying to the get all the details just right. The above color laser copy is not the final image. Tim had a few more tweaks before I sent off the artwork: “After some more late debate (with the production team), we decided a couple of things. First, the ears need to be bobbed a bit, at least the part above her forehead snakeline. Pointed is still okay, but not so long and sharp. Second, the description says she has glowing red eyes. We can rationalize our way out of this, by saying her petrification is voluntary, and her eyes glow when she uses it. In other words, it would be nice to be consistent with the text, but we won’t push it if it doesn’t fit your color scheme. Finally, the forearms are a bit spindly, but tolerable. How about some light scales on her stomach? I like the way the bottom is left ambiguous, so she could have a snake body or human legs.”

In the end, I did adjust the ears, add some reddish glow around the eyes and the scaling. Unfortunately, I no longer own the original so you’ll have to compare this with the printed image in the book.

Also, as with several other designs in the Monstrous Manual, my rendition of Medusa was sculpted (by the late Geoff Valley) as a miniature for Ral Partha and released shortly after publication. That was really cool.

ILLUSTRATIONS #134 & 135: Golems

Moving from mythic monstrosities to mythic constructs, here are a quartet of classic foes. Like so many of D&D’s legendary monsters, all four of the golem types–clay, flesh, stone and iron–made their debut in the Greyhawk supplement.

There’s little doubt the clay golem (above, left) was inspired by the animated being of Jewish folklore and the flesh golem (above, right) taken from Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic story, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, while the iron golem was likely taken from this iconic scene of the mythic automaton, Talos, in the 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts.

The stop motion puppet certainly inspired David Sutherland when it came time to illustrate the Monster Manual in 1977 (below, right). I am unsure where the inspo came from for the stone golem (below, left), though its unique design brings to mind Japanese toys from the 1970s, like Jumbo Machinder.

I liked the idea of multicultural influences in a D&D world, and my 1992 sketchbook had fairly detailed drawings of golems inspired by monuments of the ancient world.

Tim liked this approach saying,”I like the left hand golem on page 68 (seen above); having a different cultural look for the some of the golems is a fine idea. Do you know about the Chinese Terracotta Army that was buried with an emperor. Call me if you don’t.”

I was not familiar with the Terracotta Army but was fascinated by the story that he shared. In fact, there are documentaries on this archeological marvel that are worth watching.

A page of sketches followed which Tim approved adding, “… for the Iron Golem, make sure the color is consistent throughout, so it doesn’t look like someone in plate mail.” Though plate mail armor is clearly what I used for reference along with the (incongruous) Sutton Hoo helmet from 620 CE. With the go-ahead from Tim, all four golems were finished in the final stretch of this monster marathon.

ILLUSTRATION #214: Naga

Although I was quite aware of the serpent-like spirit of Asian myth, there were no naga (or, more accurately, nagini) drawings in my ’92 sketchbook. I was familiar with David Sutherland’s illustration from the Monster Manual and a plastic toy I had since the 80s, manufactured by the company Dimensions for Children from one of their epic fantasy playsets. (They would later be sent a Cease & Desist by TSR.)

Now, growing up in south Florida, I’d seen my share of lizards, snakes, turtles and alligators. I had several handy guidebooks to help identify what was slithering, crawling and creeping while I was camping, hiking, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, etc.

A photograph of a Western Rattlesnake in my copy of the Audubon Society Pocket Guide served as the reference for the naga illustration, as can be seen in the sketches below.

Tim commented: “This illustration will serve for the dark naga and the other naga types. You can use one of the other types if you wish. In any case, I would prefer to go with a more human-looking head. However, remember to keep the lidless snake-like eyes, and I think reducing the ears to more reptilian holes gives it a good feel. If you stick with the dark naga, keep the crest and the tail stinger. Also, nagas have traditionally had female heads, but I don’t have a preference.”

The last tweak I did was add fangs. Better pack the antivenin.

ILLUSTRATION #7: Basilisk

Another classic creature from the 1974 edition of D&D is the basilisk, seen here in a drawing by Greg Bell.

As I’ve mentioned, David A. Trampier’s art has been a favorite since middle school and his depiction from the Monster Manual does not disappoint.

Most historical renderings of the deadly basilisk are serpent-like or more akin to a cockatrice (coming up next). Trampier’s unusual, eight-legged version may have been inspired by Ulisse Aldrovandi‘s, Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae Libri duo, from 1640.

Regardless, Tramp’s depiction was so iconic that it stuck in my memory for over a decade when I conjured up my own rendition of this mythical monster.

Tim noted: “You sketch is not bad, but again, don’t emphasize the upturned fangs, also maybe round the snout some.”

The final was completed in the first half of my assignment. I did round out the snout, as requested, and added downward pointing teeth, too. Despite that, one designer apparently complained that it was, “…a shame it doesn’t show the proportions.” with regard to the pose. Tim had approved my sketch and time was tight, so we ran with it…but it would not be the last time I’d hear rumblings that not everyone at TSR was fond of my art.

ILLUSTRATION #34: Cockatrice

Based on the beast of medieval folklore, in which a snake hatches a rooster’s egg, the cockatrice first appeared in the original D&D set in 1974 and subsequent supplement, Eldritch Wizardry.

My rendition was straightforward and adhered to classical depictions of this foul creature…or is it fowl?

Reference was taken from a copyright-free engraving of a hen from the book, Animals: 1,419 Copyright-Free Illustrations of Mammals, Birds, Fish, Insects, Etc. More on that treasure chest of a book later…

ILLUSTRATION #203 317: Minotaur

“A minotaur’s labyrinth is rarely natural.”
Monstrous Manual, p. 252

The basilisk, Medusa and naga may have been completed in the first batch of artwork sent in for the Monstrous Manual in February 1993, but there were other pieces that came at the very end, including a few Tim didn’t initially order.

Looking at my checklist, you’ll note a handful of additional “X-Tras” handwritten to the side. Though I didn’t follow through on highlighting the completed images, all but the harpy were finished and printed in the final book, except for the aforementioned Ettin.

Recently, Tim explained that the “Plant People” (Shambling Mound, Myconid, Vegapygmy and Treant) were all intended for me despite not being listed in my original art assignment. They, along with the Minotaur and Ettin were the very last pieces I’d turn in to TSR in March of 1993. The Minotaur was intended to replace the existing piece of artwork, which Tim was not satisfied with. However, time got away from us as the printing deadline loomed closer, and instead, my Minotaur became the final illustration in the book (number 317) joining my rejected goblin at the Index. At least he had company.

*The note at the bottom says “50% at 1/2 page at back”, meaning reduce the art by 50% and place it at the page of 1/2 text at the back of the book (the Index).

Tim later expressed that he felt my depiction was not burly enough. The slimmer size and proportions were taken from the mechanical Minoton in the 1977 classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. As I’ve said, I was inspired by fairy tale artists and less interested in the popular muscle-bound depictions of fantasy characters that were prevalent in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

By the way, instead of a spear-wielding Minoton, this Minotaur is holding an axe-knife, or bhuj, which I referenced from this handy book.

…now, I know what you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute. You can’t be finished with this entry, T-Rex. What about the Nymph, the Sylph and the Dryad? They’re all mythical creatures too.”

They are indeed and I’ll cover them, along with other fairy folk, in my next entry. See ya then!

NEXT: Part 5: The Fairy Folk
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Never Abandon Imagination Tony DiTerlizzi: Never abandon imagination.

Imagination is a world of possibility that exists within each of us. It is what makes us uniquely human. It is our creative fingerprint that touches and influences the world around us. Imagination is essential to art and science; to innovation and prosperity. It gives us hope, calls us to action and leads to change.

Whether it’s fairies, dragons, robots or aliens, all of my children’s book characters are siblings born of my imagination – an imagination strengthened through years of encouragement from family, teachers and friends. While so many others abandoned it during their transition from childhood to adulthood, I fiercely held onto mine, hoping for a day when I could share it to inspire the next generation of dreamers. Innovators. World changers.

Imagination empowers us to envision and create a reality of what could be. We must hold it dear, foster it and never abandon it.