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John Howe Fantasy Art Workshop
posted October 20, 2007


Creators: John Howe, Terry Gilliam, Alan Lee
Publishing Information: Impact, soft cover, 124 pages, 2007, $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781600610103 (ISBN13), 1600610102 (ISBN10)

CR occasionally gets put on a list for review works that aren't in any way, shape or form comics themselves or directly about comics. Many of these books have some sort of general fantasy element that people assume would be of automatic interest to comics fans. This may be the best book I ever received that way. John Howe Fantasy Art Workshop bills itself as a "practical art book" by a fantasy illustrator named John Howe, who I take it is an admired person in that field. He was also one of the conceptual designers that worked on the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films. His work seems to be very meat and potatoes fantasy, high-end gigs that are closer to source material for and prominent works within that genre, as opposed to the bulk of one's assignments coming from fifth generation copies of the more vital material or from obscurities. The art in the book comes from places like Tolkien, Beowulf, and Lovecraft, and modern practitioners like George RR Martin, Ursula Leguin and Robin Hobb.

imageI initially kept Fantasy Art Workshop rather than walking it over to the library figuring that at some point I'd read the text pieces contributed by Alan Lee and Terry Gilliam. Those essays were fine, but in having it around at arm's length I ended up reading much of the rest of the book and liking it enough to keep it. I think Lee put it well in his short piece when he talks about how some of us look at art books the way other folks might look at books of recipes; we may have no intention of ever cooking any of those things, but there's a pleasure to be had spending time with someone who does. So it is with listening to Howe talk about his life's work. At the same time, I don't think this is a great book; I bet there are sharper reproductions to be had, and it lacks the kind of jaw-dropping, heart-stopping insight of the kind that transcends its subject matter. It's more a solid and articulate book, accessible and friendly, wholly pleasant like a long Thanksgiving holiday afternoon spent in the study of a smart person who really enjoys what they do and has the ability to communicate why. The pictures are pretty, most of the art tips stay on character and approach in a manner that benefits those of us just looking at them, and there's some great shelf porn where we get to see Howe's storage facilities and workspace. All in all, a nice package.

For cartoonists I imagine there might be an opportunity to learn how to get more power out of a single image, which is a perfectly respectable thing to emphasize in comics no matter the reputation it may have in some circles as being less essential than pushing the eye from panel to panel and across the page. I would also imagine that Howe's notes on character design and the emphasis on incidental but crucial details like the evocative elements of where someone portrayed is looking might prove to be interesting notions for artists working at a certain skill level. Mostly, I think this book works far better on its own terms than it serves some utilitarian purpose: a glimpse into someone's life whose job it is to work in the world of image-making. If this were published back in 1983 and sat on my high school's library shelves, I would have checked it out at least a half dozen times.