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Book Review: Spectrum 19

By (December 7, 2012) One Comment

Spectrum 19: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art

edited by Cathy Fenner & Artie Fenner

Underwood Books, 2012

Every year for nearly the past two decades, Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner have cast their net wide over all the various corners of the science fiction and fantasy world, bringing together for the Spectrum series as much of the artwork of that world as would fit between two covers. As the world of fantasy art grew to encompass different media, from pencil to oil to ceramic to digital, so too have the Spectrum volumes grown. New artists have found broader audiences for their work; fans have found new names to follow; and, in a sad grace-note, recently deceased artists have received what’s often their most knowledgeable tributes (in this current Spectrum, #19, two such artists given special essays are Jeffrey Jones and Darrell K. Sweet – lovely work in both cases, although many a comic book fan will wish room had been found for a special mention of the great Gene Colan, who also died in 2011). Work is divided into categories (book covers, comics, advertising, etc.), and much-coveted awards are given in each. The books are always an incredible feast for the eyes and the imagination.

They can also be a sounding chamber for unexpected resonances – ‘memes,’ to use the nonsense word popularized by Richard Dawkins (apparently because he considers himself too intellectual to use the word ‘fad’). The genre ghetto of sci-fi/fantasy is notorious for its memes – especially visually, there’s a very small list of tropes: ray guns, space ships, scantily-clad barbarian women, robots, and of course dragons. Outsiders to the genre scorn it for this very thing, hold up the recursive stranglehold of those few images as a shorthand for the intellectual poverty of the entire genre. Devotees of the genre protest in vain that a dragon is as a dragon does – everything is in the execution.

Some years, you can watch the contest unfolding in the pages of Spectrum. Two years ago, the collection was accidentally dominated by Dorothy and her friends from The Wizard of Oz; other years, it’s been vampires or dinosaurs. This year, I was expecting a glut of zombies, with perhaps a statistically relevant smattering of renditions from Game of Thrones.

Not so, however. Instead, this year’s collection belongs firmly to a young lady named Eowyn.

Fantasy readers will know the name instantly. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Eowyn is a shield-maiden of the horse-loving warrior people of Rohan, and when her king Theoden rides off to battle and orders her to stay behind, she disobeys him, disguises herself as a male warrior named Dernhelm, and goes off to battle with one of the book’s annoying hobbits, Merry, at her side. In the trilogy’s third volume, The Return of the King, Theoden is struck down by a hugely powerful supernatural creature called the Lord of the Nazgul, who rides a monster Tolkien describes as essentially a mutated pterodactyl:

And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord too it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed.

And as for the rider himself, he’s been so consumed by evil that he’s not even properly visible anymore:

Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgul. To the air he had returned, summoning his steed ere the darkness failed, and now he was come again bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death. A great black mace he wielded.

He means to finish off fallen Theoden, but he encounters an unexpected obstacle: slim, defiant Eowyn, blade in hand, alone on a blighted field, stands guard over her king:

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”

A cold voice answered. “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

It’s a grand little moment, one of Tolkien’s finest, and in wild abandon, in utter madness, the Fenners have allowed it to re-appear no less than six times in this volume. This will be a treat for fantasy fans – and the ultimate, utterly damning confirmation for everybody else of just how conceptually incestuous the genre is.

And what of the six depictions? Well, the least engaging is a black-and-white doodle by Andrew Ryan called “Eowyn and the Nazgul”:

Not much better is Jim Reid’s “Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul,” in which not only is Tolkien’s clearly-enunciated mace nowhere to be found but there’s something decidedly funky, anatomically speaking, about Eowyn’s sword-hand:

Milivoj Ceran’s “Eowyn and the Witch King” is rather frantically overdone but has a pleasing scarlet end-of-the-world hauteur to it:

Far more comic-booky is Craig J. Spearing’s “Carrion Lord,” which catches the action of the moment at the expense of its pathos:

The angle is exactly the same in Adam Schumpert’s “Eowyn v.s. the Witch King, although since the Nazgul’s loathsome steed is missing, the drama of the combat is more fully emphasized (although Theoden’s trusty horse is given a little extra help dying with the addition of that arrow-out-of-nowhere):

The best of the bunch has the dumbest title: “ArtOrder Challenge” by Cory Godbey is delightful in its use of muted, dawning light, with our game Eowyn running headlong to the great adventure of her life (she does no running in Tolkien’s description, but what the hey):

Taken together, the six Eowyns provide a fairly accurate representation of the technique-range of the book as a whole (amazingly, nobody seems to have cast a ceramic or bronze of the encounter) – but as noted, they also provide a warning about laziness. Spectrum 19 is full of glories and hard work, but it also has six near-duplications of the same scene from the same book, which ought not to be so in a field as gloriously varied as sci-fi/fantasy.

So next year, maybe no Eowyns at all? We’ll miss her pluck, but we’ll be the stronger for it.