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Art of the Genre: The Art of Gor

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Vallejo does Tarnsman of Gor in 1966, and the 'legend' begins...

Vallejo does Tarnsman of Gor in 1966, and the 'legend' begins...

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.


D'achille wonders 'So you think you can dance?  Well you better, or its off to the pens with you!' in Tribesman of Gor

D'achille wonders 'So you think you can dance? Well you better, or its off to the pens with you!' in Tribesman of Gor


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.

Hescox paints 'She's mine!'  'No she's mine!' in Fighting Slaves of Gor

Hescox paints 'She's mine!' 'No she's mine!' in Fighting Slaves of Gor

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.

Ken Kelly asks 'Why use a wooden figurehead when you can go real?'

Ken Kelly asks 'Why use a wooden figurehead when you can go real?'

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.

Vallejo, go figure, shows some skin in Assassin of Gor

Vallejo, go figure, shows some skin in Assassin of Gor

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].

Yeah, I had to include Kelly's cover for Kajira of Gor just so I can add to the laughs

Yeah, I had to include Kelly's cover for Kajira of Gor just so I can add to the laughs

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.

14 Comments »

  1. Vallejo has always been interesting, unlike a lot of artists where i either like, or dislike, the entire body of their work, he is hit or miss on an individual basis for me. Even then, each individual piece, either is love or hate. Rarely anything in-between.

    As for Gor, I read a bunch of the books years ago. I’d say that they are overrated. Overrated by both the fans and the detractors. They are an example of middle of the road pulp (and there is plenty worse, in both writing and subject matter). They have spots where they are good, but many spots where they are cringe-inducing. I remember being shocked when I found out that people emulated the things. I also have always thought the near frothing just the mention of them seems to bring out in some circles to be nearly as funny. IMNSHO There are way too many things in the real world that deserve the reaction the books bring out in people, which get ignored.

    I think you should read the first couple, just to see… ;)

    Comment by TW - June 1, 2011 6:18 am

  2. I’ve always thought Vallejo’s style to be cleaner and more polished than Frazetta’s, which is to say it usually looks static. I’ve never been a fan.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - June 1, 2011 11:21 am

  3. TW: So I should read a few huh? Well, I’m heading back to my old stomping ground in a week, so maybe Mark still has Tarnsman on a shelf someplace ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - June 1, 2011 1:51 pm

  4. Jeff: I was as comic reader in the early 90s when Joseph Linsner came out with is sex-candy character Dawn. In his initial work, Dawn had the anima for which I spoke, but as she developed, she turned into a soulless china doll, or as you put it ‘static’. I see this a lot, but you know, I never saw it in Frazetta, which is why he’s probably the greatest fantasy artist of the past 100 years.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - June 1, 2011 1:55 pm

  5. Great story, Scott. My college DM’s bookshelf is exactly where I found Gor…and left it after borrowing the first few books. Couldn’t stomach it after that. And of course it was the covers that made me borrow them in the first place.

    Comment by Theodric the Obscure - June 1, 2011 7:37 pm

  6. Theo: I guess our old DMs had the same idea about fantasy reading :) Glad you enjoyed the story, and always nice when you comment so I know you came by!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - June 1, 2011 10:46 pm

  7. It’s amazing what inspirations covers can be without considering the book.

    Comment by Mary - June 1, 2011 10:47 pm

  8. Mary: Well said! And its the primary reason I do this blog, because often the art moves me far more than the story [but not always ;) ]

    Comment by Scott Taylor - June 1, 2011 10:55 pm

  9. Inspiration is tricky like that. And it helps avoid ripping off other people’s stories without filing off the serial numbers well enough.

    Comment by Mary - June 2, 2011 11:14 pm

  10. I like that you mentioned the “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” saying. That, more than the lurid Boris covers, drew me to the Gor books. In my young life I’d heard that phrase ad-nauseum and so it gave me wicked pleasure to find something that was the exception to the rule…

    However, the books do adhere to that rule because it isn’t just what you see is what you get, they do have a message, a wickedly anti-PC one:-)

    My favorite is this: http://www.jonrhus.com/books/?gorcover=Marauders+of+Gor#gor09c

    Would you believe that Kelley Freas actually did some covers? Here’s his cover for that work: http://www.fictiondb.com/author/john-norman~marauders-of-gor~100160~b.htm Superior to the Brit and IMO on par with Frazetta in his more Gernsback era fashion, but I like the Brit’s one the best, just pure raw primal energy.

    I bought Captive of Gor for the Lesbo erotica, kinda nice seeing a spoiled preppy b-tch beaten down.

    I got “Assassin of Gor” ’cause the bondage setup on the cover was beyond the stuff even in dirty mags I could obtain at the time despite being non-explicit. However, I LOVED that story in and out, for the cool adventure.

    IMO, Gor is a victim of “Political Correctness” and not as those pushing that lie would have you believe a product of what the market supports in changing times but what is put into a largely monopolized market regardless of what did or did not sell. Most good non-PC stuff sold regular until it disappeared from the market overnight. Suddenly the company was bought out by someone else and the core titles were canceled. Or in the case of DAW books the head had a heart attack and his daughter took over and canceled a lot, starting with GOR, before his body was even cool.

    Prof Norman suddenly had no publisher and of course the entire market immediately ignored him. Luckily he’d kept his “Day Job” as a real professor so it didn’t drive him to drink and despair as the PC mafia did to so many others.

    Norman should not have been taken off the market and blacklisted. That he was was proof of this conspiracy I claim. If we had a “Free Market” even by a geometric line he should have had at worst 10 more publications before he started to get too low a threshold to make it profitable and that’s an IF because his fan base was growing and the awful movies gave him a larger reader base.

    First, his books SOLD. That should be first and last. His books sold, they advertised themselves, and they made a LOT more than it cost to print and promote them. Why close a seller?

    Second, he was a publisher’s dream writer. He never let his fame/success go to his head. He stayed a professor and gave a yearly manuscript, at worst on the 11th month a month ahead of the deadline. Being a professor of education and history his manuscripts were flawlessly written with virtually no spelling/grammar problems and only requiring the slightest suggestions from the editor, which he happily worked with him. He even didn’t yammer over his script to the publisher, just left the pages with his secretary and a polite note and waited for the usual one-month later “Let’s do lunch” so he could talk over changes/suggestions, etc. He also just waited for his royalty checks to come, not needing the $ except to pad his savings.

    Norman wasn’t a brilliant writer, Lin Carter at best, but Carter was very good only reducing himself by accident since he’d saved so many greats from obscurity. But Norman wrote good, sold well, gave the publisher little/no problems and he had a “Fan Base” that both would guarantee base sales/profit.

    The only “Failing” that Norman had was that his work was fundamentally anti-PC when the forces controlling the media and market decided to force their PC tripe down the public’s throat.

    The other writers started making stories with women in primary or at least fashionably equal roles. Also stuff showing perversions as OK “Alternative Lifestyles”, all sorts of things attacking the image of the “Old Order” reducing classic sci-fi to mockery (Hey, spaceman spiff can breathe easy in his Asbestos space suit-hahaha) and worse to Sword and Sorcery. But Norman had NO intention of leaving his expertly chiseled niche he defended as savagely as his super male barbarian heroes, so he had to go.

    I personally not so much agree with Norman’s vision as that I do think a media controlling force is behind this. I don’t for real want a world where men go around stabbing each other with Gladius and women are simpering slave girls. I’d like to reverse laws and standards to 60s/50s but even then women are plenty manipulative/domineering enough, I wouldn’t want them literally slave girls; “Oh, golly master, I boopied in my loincloth! But I am just a pleasure slave master, please clean it up. Oh, goodness, your mighty sword is lowering!” But on the other hand I’m really F-cking angry that so much out there is LAME PC SH-T that is boring and it’s NOT that the “Groupthink” for real supports it it’s that they’ve been spoon fed it and denied anything else.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - June 3, 2011 2:36 am

  11. [...] NPCs… And who can forget the art of Boris Vallejo? Scott Taylor at Black Gate offers a few of Vallejo’s pieces related to the Gor book series. Nothing like old-school primal fantasy and half-naked women to get you [...]

    Pingback by RPG News from Around the Net: 03-JUN-2011 | Game Knight Reviews - June 3, 2011 8:04 am

  12. GreenGestalt,

    I don’t think the books are disparaged because they are not PC. Rather, unlike yourself, the overwhelming majority of people don’t share your opinion of: “…kinda nice seeing a spoiled preppy b-tch beaten down.”
    However, I’m sure you have plenty of torture-porn drivel from Hollywood to sate your tastes.

    Comment by Tyr - June 3, 2011 1:23 pm

  13. Again, never read Norman, but I will say this; If the likes of Abercrombie, Martin, and Goodkind can be not only published but raised on high as ‘great’ writers with huge book deals, TV shows, and $ for the absolute brutality they write, then Norman seems to deserve his spot alongside them. I have to wonder why the U.S. society has such an issue with domination and yet raping and killing seems perfectly fine… It makes no sense to me and frankly is the reason I moved to reading YA rather than standard fiction.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - June 3, 2011 4:33 pm

  14. [...] I’m not sure what it is about this particular threat that men find so intriguing, but I’m betting it has come from the school of sacrificing virgins. It seems the subconscious mind of the Y chromosome simply gets off on the threat of female subjugation, or even the deliverance of said act [see Art of Gor]. [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Art of the Genre: Why do they all want our women? - October 26, 2011 12:30 am


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