We Talk Realms With Tony DiTerlizzi
Tony DiTerlizzi is a legend in the gaming world. Having been involved with Dungeons and Dragons from a young age, he ventured into art and then ended up illustrating numerous of the D&D titles from the 1980s and 1990s. He has been a fan and a contributor almost as long as the game has existed and a retrospective of his art was released recently by Dark Horse. This artbook titled Realms gives fascinating insight into his creative mind and what it takes to sort out the goblins from the ghouls. We got a chance to talk with him about the new book and his art.
Graphic Policy: What is your experience with gaming?
Tony DiTerlizzi: My experience has been a wonderful mix of enjoyment, excitement and camaraderie. It has also been revelatory as my years contributing to gaming taught the complexities of world building in the books that I now craft for young readers.
GP: When did you start and what is your favorite fantasy based RPG?
TD: I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980’s. It started with the D&D Basic Set, then I moved on to explore the popular modules of the day, like “The Keep on the Borderlands” (I’m pretty sure every old-school gamer conquered that one). I created all sorts of player characters, copied drawings from the AD&D Monster Manual, and spent weekends painting my Grenadier lead miniatures. For a few years D&D was a big part of pop culture, so it was a good time to be a geek.
TD: I find inspiration in a variety of places, especially in our natural world. As a young teen, D&D introduced me to classic myths and folklore as well as the writings of Tolkein, Lovecraft and Moorcock. My fascination with folklore–especially fairy folklore–planted the seeds that would later grow to become The Spiderwick Chronicles.
GP: There are some classics in the fantasy genre which everyone knows about and which help define it, but are there any works of fiction which you think do as good a job but have less acclaim?
TD: Two favorites of mine are Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and (what I consider its companion) “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman. Both books explore permutations of a common theme in a fantastical way. Calvino creates all manner of imagined cities, some of which are not bound by the laws of physics, while Lightman plays with various planes of existence where time works differently in each. Though they are not considered traditional fantasy as far as genre is concerned, these books are incredibly imaginative.
GP: In Tim Beach’s description of your work he describes how it struck him as a unique interpretation that Medusa would pull her snake hair into a ponytail. With that in mind and although you focus on fantasy art, do you draw inspiration from fields such as fashion when drawing?
TD: To me, fantasy worlds are often a reflection of our real world. I incorporate imagery or iconography from the real world in order to make the fantasy world more approachable to the reader, viewer or gamer. This approach includes mirroring the trends found in the art of fashion, hair and make-up designers. The introduction of the fashion influence is mostly due to my wife, Angela, who was a make-up artist during the years that I contributed to roleplaying and collectible card games.
GP: Do you ever think that fantasy draws too broadly from legends and myths for its creatures and monsters? For instance the minotaur comes from ancient Greece and fairies come from more of a Celtic origin, but they can stand side by side in fantasy stories.
TD: I am certainly guilty of mixing myth and folklore in the creation of the Spiderwick books with Holly Black. I think this was due to the fact that I found that mix so exciting while playing D&D as a kid. Also, I had many collections of fairy tales and myths that I read and reread when I was younger. These stories—from different times and different places in the world—mixed in my imagination to become one fantastical universe. Creatures of legend, like the Minotaur, will always have their home in the myths that told their story first. But they should live on in storytellers and artists who celebrate them in re-imaginings for the next generation.
GP: In terms of human-animal lycanthrope mixes the animals often get characteristics that we give them as humans, for instance were-rats are sneaky or werewolves are vicious. Is there an animal that deserves a better treatment by the writers and artists?
TD: Heh, heh – that is true. I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder what would the defining characteristics of a were-jellyfish?
GP: In more than one setting pointed ears are used to show a race that is very similar to humans but also very different (elves and humans in fantasy, or humans and Vulcans in Star Trek). Why is it that such a minor change is so meaningful in conveying what is alien?
TD: That’s a great observation, and I can only theorize why it may be used as a defining characteristic. Perhaps it is to appear animal-like and signify a race that is more harmonious with nature…or beast-like and meant to show a character from a primal world?
GP: There are a few monsters that you have come up with your own design. Do you have a favourite or a few favourites?
TD: I put my unique spin on classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters from the beginning of my career. I didn’t think the editors at TSR (then publishers of D&D) would go for my redesigns, but many were accepted and used in the “AD&D Monstrous Manual”, released back in 1993. Inspired by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud and Alan Lee, my view on certain monsters carried a humor as well as an animated exaggeration in shape and form. Monsters like the Mind Flayer, Shambling Mound and (the aforementioned) Medusa were favorites from this time. When I began work on the Planescape campaign setting, I had more freedom to redesign monsters like the Modrons, devils and the Cat Lord. I was the first to illustrate the tiefling—a race with demon in their bloodline—for characters to play. The tieflings have remained in all subsequent editions of D&D, right up to the current 5th edition. In the years since my contributions, Wizards of the Coast (current publishers of D&D) has redesigned and reinvented the look of the game, through the characters and monsters, for the latest edition of the rules. I find that exciting. The visual presentation must evolve to appeal to the gamers, which is why (I suspect) the current edition looks a lot like an RPG video game. As long as D&D’s illustrations of monsters, adventurers, keeps and castles incite the player’s imagination then they’re doing their job.