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Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery Reviews

Infinity Plus
November 2002
Reviewed by Nick Gifford

Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery edited by Paul Barnett
(Paper Tiger, £14.95, 142 pages, trade paperback, published August 2002.)

The Paper Snarl was a fanzine launched by fantasy artbook publisher Paper Tiger to publicise its list, but it was always far more than that, and for two or three years (the zine is currently in hibernation) it was consistently one of the more interesting reads for those seriously involved in the genres of the fantastic. Somehow it always seemed to strike the right balance between informality and deep insight: reading the Snarl was like eavesdropping on professionals relaxing in each other's company and talking shop. The artist interview was always central to this, and the somewhat misleadingly-titled The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery brings together 25 of these interviews (with another volume due in 2004). Despite my grumbles outlined below, these two volumes will form a significant snapshot of fantasy art as it stood at the turn of the millennium.

As ever with Paper Tiger, the book is nicely produced, and each interview is accompanied by a number of illustrations -- the generous space given to these works perhaps explaining the book's title. The selection of artists ranges from the legendary to those less familiar (to this reviewer, at least), but it also encompasses a wide range of approaches and styles, from the digital gloss of Fred Gambino (who, for me, is outstanding at his best but also inconsistent) to Ron Tiner's comic strips, Anne Sudworth's wonderfully atmospheric pastels, Lisa Snelling's mixed media sculptures and John Harris's stunning combinations of big thinking and intense mood. Two real discoveries for me here are the powerful yet intimate character studies of AB Word, and Martina Pilcerova, whose gritty, atmospherically-lit works are an antidote to the clinical gloss that's the established norm in fantasy art. Both deserve Paper Tiger books of their own.

The danger with a book like this is dilution of effect, and The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery doesn't entirely escape from this problem. Some of the interviews are too short: Brom's, for example, is a particularly staccato series of questions and answers, with little in the way of follow-up -- a questionnaire rather than a fully-rounded conversation. The format works far better with subjects willing to answer at length. Judith Clute, for example, barely needs the interviewer's promptings at all, and is both insightful and self-effacing about her work. She tells of a publicity letter from The Women's Press telling her husband John Clute how they were repackaging Joanna Russ's books "without those tacky sci-fi covers"; apparently, he took great pleasure in replying to inform them of the identity of the artist... (Incidentally, Paul Barnett describes those Judith Clute covers as ground-breaking.)

There are many such stories in The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery, including Joe De Vito's rather gruesome account of his early artistic efforts, sculpting sharks or squid, inserting them down a Play Dough whale's throat, then peeling layers off the whale until he could see the sea creatures within. Aren't children lovely? But still, there's an underlying sense in the book of too much packed in too thinly.

The other area of frustration in this volume is in its selection of artwork. There are some superb pieces reproduced here, but also some gaping holes. Fangorn talks about his work on David Gemmell's Legend graphic novels but we don't see any examples; he talks of two favourite pieces of work but only one is included. Barnett tells Frank Kelly Freas "...it's your black-and-white work that really sends tingles up my spine" but no examples are included. The rather brief Bob Eggleton interview concentrates on his The Book of Sea Monsters and Greetings from Earth but ... no examples. Everything hangs together so much better when text and images are related: the discussion of John Harris's The Zig-Zag Path makes much more sense because that painting is included. One suspects complex issues of rights must dictate the selections of artwork to an extent, but it's frustrating when text and illustration don't correspond.

The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery's breadth of coverage is both its weakness and strength. A bit like those wallpaper samplers hardware stores used to stock: you want a roomful to get the true effect, but only get a small sample. Give me the same range of artists, but allowed two or three times as much space and I'd be happy! Ultimately, I think the strength wins out: I'm left with the impression of a lot discovered from this book, and a number of artists I will look out for in future. The judges' commentary on Tom Abba's Paper Tiger Award makes the point that in a field wedded to pushing and breaking boundaries (although that's another debate), so much of the art is safe, "locked into recycling themes and motifs" that have changed little over the decades. The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery demonstrates how this need not be the case.

Infinity Plus
December 2002
Reviewed by Randy M. Dannenfelser

Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery edited by Paul Barnett
(Paper Tiger, £14.95, 142 pages, trade paperback, published August 2002.)

Once upon a time, for far too short a time, there existed a wonderfully massive e-zine called The Paper Snarl. It was created toward the end of the last century by Paul Barnett (Commissioning Editor of the Paper Tiger imprint of Collins & Brown Ltd) as a free fanzine-by-subscription, geared toward the interests of the readers of the imprint's catalogue of fantasy art books. At as many as twenty-five thousand words (sometimes even more) per month, it was nearly thick enough to choke the PCs and Macs that attempted to download it; but once onscreen The Paper Snarl was a delight to read. It was a whimsical array of news and reportage (indeed, the frequently mentioned Snarl reporter's kit of hipflask, rumpled trench coat, slanted fedora and pad with pencil -- listed in order of importance -- created the picture of Barnett's transient "staff" as a gang of sottish Columbos and Kolchaks), columns, caustic editorials, letters to the editor ("You Snarl!") and "The Famous Paper Snarl Review Section". And, each month, artists and writers of various levels of renown would slip into the trench coat, pick up the pad with pencil, and pitch in with guest pieces. One month, award-winning artist Bob Eggleton might be mentioned in a convention report; the following month he'd be reporting on a convention himself. Acclaimed sf writer and critic John Clute wrote the RIP piece on Poul Anderson, among other pieces. In one edition, Barnett inserted a list of the reckoned IQs of recent US presidents. There were extracts from forthcoming Paper Tiger books, and sometimes the offer of a free download of a complete text. And so on. In short order, The Paper Snarl became a monthly cyber-visitor welcomed by fantasy and sf artists, writers and their patrons. It was an endeavour unlike any that had come and gone before.

The centerpiece of TPS was always the Paper Snarl Interview. Each month, editor Barnett would chat with one or often two prominent personalities connected with the fantasy art community and, most likely, with Paper Tiger. One month, it might be an enchantress such as Anne Sudworth. The next, a legend the likes of Frank Kelly Freas. Or, maybe, a hot property such as Fangorn. Each conversation was lively and each reflected the personality of the interviewee. And each was a treat to read.

But sadly, for reasons known only to Barnett and those in the executive offices of Paper Tiger, The Paper Snarl went on hiatus sometime during 2001 and there are no imminent signs of its return. The website that housed it on the net was, essentially, deactivated around the same time, and it floats as a derelict through cyberspace today. (Occasionally, a hopeful rumour of impending reactivation will surface, but thus far none has proven to be true.) What we have left is access to various Snarl pieces through Google and other search engines. There is also a site housing over thirty Paper Tiger-affiliated artist interviews with artwork samples on a web page called The Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery. The interviews are reprinted from The Paper Snarl.

And that leads me to the subject of this review.

For, you see, Paper Tiger has placed twenty-five of Barnett's Paper Snarl artist interviews in a glossy, 144-page soft cover accompanied by brilliant, high-resolution photographs of selected works by each of the subject artists, and called it -- you guessed it -- Paper Tiger Fantasy Art Gallery. What one finds between the covers is sheer enjoyment, because the interviews were so entertaining to read in the first place. The artwork, though only somewhat representative of each creator, is still a feast for the eye. And on this basis alone the issue is worthy of the $21.95 you will have to shell out to a US bookseller to own it. (That is, if you don't pick it up from some discounter on the net for less.)

However, I do have a few minor issues ...

First, there is the title. I expect to see wall-to-wall artwork in a "fantasy art gallery". Granted, there is artwork on each page of this book, but the majority of the space has been allotted to the interview text. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that the title doesn't truly reflect the focus or contents of what's to be found inside. Maybe if it had been called something like "Interviews Within the Fantasy Art Gallery" it would have conveyed more effectively the nature of the book. Further, Barnett evidently wasn't aware when he wrote the introduction that so much artwork would be included, since he makes only minor mention of it in the form of a gracious thankyou to the artists for their permission to reproduce it. It's a matter of "Welcome, then, to my conversations ..." and off we go. I got the impression that the editor was as surprised as I was when he saw the title of his book.

Then, there is the layout of the cover itself. I admit it's a difficult task creating a cover for a compilation such as this without making it look as though it's been aimed towards the seconds pile at a chain store, but that's just what this one looks like. The cheesy banner running diagonally across the centre of the book tells me, rightly or wrongly, that I won't have long to wait before I'll be able to pick it out of some book bin near the store's cash register and make off with it for under five dollars.

And, fellows and gals of the editorial office, you should probably have identified the title and artist of each of the pieces you used on the front and back covers somewhere other than within the interviews with the artists themselves. I might have suggested the copyright page as an appropriate location. Although I was familiar with seven of the eight works of art you chose for the front and back covers (along with the artists), most of your readership will be forced to comb through the book to find identifications. That might prove a bit frustrating to them, as the "Where's Waldo" craze in America seems to have just about run its course.

I wasn't upset that an occasional work or period of art mentioned in an interview didn't show up anywhere in the gallery. I did find it confusing, however, when the interview with Eggleton, done in 1999, referred to his The Book of Sea Monsters and Greetings from Earth, while the artwork supporting the interview was actually done one to two years later. Couldn't this piece (although to be fair its date, July 1999, is given at the head of the interview) have been updated a bit to include the work illustrated?

Nevertheless, you should buy this book for the Judith Clute section (Barnett draws a wonderful rant from her about the restrictions of being tagged with a "style"). Buy this book to get into the mind of a successful cover artist like Chris Moore. Buy this book to discover the vividly colourful realism of the art of Fred Gambino. Buy this book for the lump in your throat you will get when the late Ron Walotsky tells you about his future plans. Buy this book, period. The minor flaws I've pointed out don't detract from the delights to be found within.

Paul Barnett is a master interviewer because he makes it look easy. His conversations with award-winning contemporary artists turn us all into eavesdroppers, as we glean personal tidbits and philosophical insight from each artist's response. It is the discussion within the gallery, not the gallery itself, which is of value to the reader here, hipflasks and rumpled trench coats hovering in the background, as always.