Why the Art of Gor? Well, why not. I mean, I could title this piece ‘The Art of Boris Vallejo’, but that just isn’t as much fun. You could also go with ‘The Art of BDSM’ but I’m afraid of where Google would link me.
Anyway, The Art of Gor is apt because I’ve never read a book by John Norman, but as an avid reader and hardcore gamer, I can hum a few bars of what Gor is about, as anyone could if you’d ever seen one of these book’s covers.
The more famed covers of the first seven novels [in the original DelRey/Ballantine editions] were done by Boris Vallejo. Vallejo, in most circles considered the greatest of the Frazetta clones, hammered out resounding images of male dominance in a bleak world. These images rise out of the late 60s, and I see them as showing what I would consider the pinnacle of Vallejo’s raw talent before the artist’s mastery turns into something with less anima.
Each cover is so powerful, so primal, that as I look over them I’m moved to the world in which they take place. I feel the dread, the strength, and the dry heat of it all. That, for those of you scoring at home equates to Vallejo/FTW.
Don’t judge a book by its cover? I’m calling shenanigans on that old statement, because there are times that you absolutely have to judge a book by its cover. I mean, there’s a reason publishing houses get great artists to do covers, that being to sell them before anyone reads a single page!
Whatever Norman is writing inside that cover doesn’t matter when you see those Vallejo covers, and to be honest I’m not really that much of a Boris fan, but in these works he’s got my money, and not because he might be selling sex, but because the art is profound in its execution.
Let me digress into a story here. In 1991 I was back from college and visiting Mark, my friendly DM, as we were both on Spring Break. There, as I waited to do some old-school gaming, I found a copy of Tarnsman of Gor on his bookshelf. I remember staring at it in a kind of appalled daze, everything about the cover filling me with a vile hatred for whatever lay beneath. Such is the power of Vallejo’s conceptual art for Gor. I finally put the book down and went about my gaming day, but that image stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it, and the more I thought about it the angrier I got.
A year passed, and still my mind clung to the ‘wrongness’ of the image, which is to say the injustice of it all, and if anyone knows me on a personal level, they understand two things, I never, ever, forget anything, and injustice makes me want to break whatever is within reach. So, having lived with Tarnsman for a year, I decided to design an entire campaign around that image.
No, I didn’t read Norman’s books, I didn’t research his world, I simply created an epic adventure that, unknown to Mark, would pass through an ancient desert where my party would stumble upon the very scene played out on the Vallejo’s cover. It’s true, I really did it, and when I got to that encounter, the bloodshed and vengeance was great, let me tell you. The girl? Ah, well she went on to become a high priestess of the Egyptian god Seker, marry a king, and eventually transcend to the immortal isles of the planes. Yeah, if you’re going to go to all the trouble, why not make it one of the ultimate in happy endings.
Vallejo, however, wasn’t the only famed artist to put their stamp on the series, and Norman kept cranking these domination manuscripts out to the tune of more than twenty volumes from 1966 to the present.
Following Vallejo’s lead, Italian artist Gino D’achille, provided six covers for the series, his work lacking some of Vallejo’s depth, but nonetheless striking in certain perspective, especially his cover for Tribesman of Gor in 1976. I’d like to also call him a Frazetta disciple, but his early work suggests a more seventies flat design, the images lending to a trendy shag art of the period.
Gino was the chosen representative for Daw publishing who took over Gor after book seven, and he held the position as prime cover artist until 1980 when Richard Hescox took the reins [or perhaps whips and chains…] of the Gor tradition and gave us the covers for Fighting Slaves of Gor and Rogue of Gor. Fighting Slaves is a wonderful work in its own right, the combat below and the slave girl above making this work stand out with fresh earth-tones and a masterful splash of color in the girl’s bikini that matches the design beneath the gladiatorial throne.
Hescox, for all his talent, only did those two covers before he was replaced by Ken Kelly in 1981’s Guardsman of Gor. For Kelly’s debut work, how about lashing a live woman to the prow of a ship! And if that’s not ‘good’ enough, then let the barbarian above her be holding a fistful of her hair because I guess tying her to the prow isn’t cruel enough… Yep, Norman does it again, and you know what, I think I’ve got another RPG campaign brewing in my head just thinking about it.
No matter the subject material, Ken Kelly still delivers some fantastic art in the astounding ten volumes he did. His work included a more subdued feel, the image edges washed and the shadow of the world played out in a more dark-scape instead of the deserts brought forth by Vallejo. I love his tone, as though the world of Gor is aging around us, almost as if twilight has set and we should fear the coming night.
In all, the artwork involved might brush against the veil of common decency, but that shouldn’t detract from the talent that went into it. Vallejo, D’achille, Hescox, and Kelly are nothing to sneeze at, and if we give them some credit in that they were painting the subject matter given, then the art tends to take on a new light.
I’m certainly not saying go read Gor, as I’ve yet to do, but I will say that the work should take a place in the history of fantasy literature simply for art alone, well, and maybe it’s power to stay viable in a single series format for more than forty years as penned by a single writer.
Oh, and before I leave you I had to pass this humor along from the RPG side. Dragonsfoot had a great forum post concerning John Norman’s opus, Gor as a possible RPG. Here is an absolutely fantastic quote from the forum member Bochi that I had to share, and I would assume that anyone who has ever read Gor should get a kick out of this [because I was tickled pink even without a proper written reference].
For the Forum click here.
“Master, may we roll the dice?” asked the slave.
“It is in the nature of the dice to be rolled” I replied. “It has twenty sides, and so we call it a d20. Cast the dice, Kajira, and watch.”
The beautiful girl cast the dice, which rolled acceptably across the floor towards the sleen pits.
“Truly it rolls, Master.”
“Had it rolled into the sleen pit, slave, then you would have followed it.”
The girl shuddered.
(Role Players of Gor, pp 638-639.)
Cheers! And have a great week from your friendly neighborhood art guy.