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Book Review: Spectrum 17

Spectrum 17: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art

edited by Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner

Underwood Books, 2010

Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner have labored and once again brought forth a stunning, briskly entertaining collection of outstanding fantasy artwork from the year 2010, artwork conceived and executed across a broad variety of media – painting, sketching, sculpture, computer programming – with one goal in mind: to pop the reader out of visual complacency. These works vary wildly in sympathy of artistic vision, but they enjoy a singularly high level of technical execution – and the lively, deviant imaginations on display here are a brower’s pure joy. Fenner & Fenner assemble the same kind of fascinating volume every year, and every collection feels a bit stronger than the one before it.

One can’t help picking up on certain trends, especially considering the fact that most of these artists don’t know or consult each other about their work. In any collection like this, there will be dragons – that’s inevitable. But in most previous Spectrum anthologies, one other given has been Tolkien … illustrations of, adaptations of, interpretations of The Lord of the Rings have been a staple of the Fenners’ job for twenty years. Not so in #17, which features a meager handful of such illustrations.

Which isn’t to say trends don’t exist in this volume – far from it. But the two most prominent ones came as something of a surprise, at least to me: there were repeated visual allusions to both The Wizard of Oz and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” books. The latter is perhaps a twitching of the zeitgeist, since there’s finally to be a big-budget Hollywood special effects extravaganza adaptation of A Princess of Mars (starring a piece of him-meat that might, I suppose, appeal to a certain type of viewer). The former is tougher to understand, unless the world’s professional artists out there have been as impressed with Skottie Young‘s ongoing illustration of Eric Shanower‘s comics adaptation of Oz as they should be.

Whatever the reason, there are multiple iterations of both those themes here, ranging from the scrupulously faithful and slightly boring, as in this John Carter painting by Julie Bell and Boris Vallejo:

To this more vivid and minimal shot by Gregory Manchess:

 

A recognizable Dorothy in an outlandish Oz, as pictured by Billy Norrby:

Juxtaposed with a far more radical treatment by Justin Gerard:

(Not to mention the interpretation on this volume’s cover, also by Manchess)

Of course, there are hundreds of artworks in Spectrum 17 that have nothing to do with these two persistent little themes (although the variety seen on just these two ideas gives a good measure of the delightful range of the whole volume), as in Tyler Jacobson’s vigorous recreation of the climactic battle in Moby-Dick:

Or in my personal favorite from this latest collection, David Stevenson’s “Snowy Path,” which features no more fantasy than anybody could find in a snowy wood at night – and no less:

Personal lists of favorites automatically accrue when wandering through a collection of this kind (one of the richest pleasures of the series is going back to the earliest numbers and looking at everything with time-changed eyes), and it’s true there’s something for virtually every fantasy-art taste, from buxom warrior-women to demonic children to superheroes to quiet pastoral scenes of dreaming robots. The Fenners have once again selected a handful of works as prize-winners (and selected the great Al Williamson for its Grand Master Award), but every work included in these pages is a gateway to strange and often wonderful places.

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