ART OF DARKNESS: TAZIO BETTIN
40 years since a generation of children were lured into Firetop Mountain with the promise that they were ‘The Hero’, the iconic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are back.
To mark the anniversary the series’ original creators, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, have penned two new titles, Shadow of the Giants and Secrets of Salamonis, Jackson’s first contribution to the line for 36 years.
On the eve of their release we spoke to Tazio Bettin, the Italian artist whose work features on both the cover of Secrets of Salamonis and throughout Steve Jackson’s long awaited return to Alansia.
Tazio, thank you for joining us. So we’d love to know who, or what, was it that inspired you to become an artist, and especially to work in comics and fantasy/sci-fi art?
Art has always been a hobby and a passion for me. Parents tend to not see art as a viable career option, and will often advise their children to study something that will get them a "real" job. So, following that parental advice, I studied languages in university but despite that I never really abandoned art, merely pursued it as a hobby.
It was a fortuitous meeting with a talent scout that changed everything and made me take the possibility of an artistic career seriously. I was working in tourism at the time, not a job I felt was my thing. Then one day a friend suggested that I submit a portfolio to this talent scout who was attending a convention here in Italy. I did so half jokingly, telling myself "well why not?"
Against all expectations my portfolio was selected, and that's when I started taking seriously that possibility, working in comics. I decided to quit my job and started working seriously on my anatomies, perspectives and storytelling, until I was eventually ready to publish my first graphic novel with writer Victor Gischler for UK publisher Titan Comics.
Secrets of Salamonis isn’t your first game work, and over the years you've worked with the likes of Games Workshop, Evil Hat and White Wolf. Were you into tabletop games growing up? Or did your interest in art come first?
The art always came first, but the two things aren't really mutually exclusive. I have been drawing and sketching since I was a kid, since one winter day when, I'm told, my father took me in his arms, went to the window, breathed on it and drew something on the frosted window. I was utterly captivated, like only a child of less than 2 years can be. We agree that's the beginning of me having this passion.
I used to draw some comic strips for my personal gratification in elementary and mid school. Around the age of 6 or 7 I got my first book ever, and it was a Lone Wolf gamebook by Joe Dever, with art by the amazing Gary Chalk.
That left a lasting imprint on me. It was both the way I learned how to love reading, and how I learned about illustration, and was captured by that world. Later on that led me to comics and roleplaying games.
So apart from the Lone Wolf books what else were you playing back then?
Gaming culture has always been lagging in Italy until the last couple decades or so, and even now, it's nothing comparable to the German or Anglo-Saxon gaming culture, so it was always a struggle to find likeminded players.
That forced me to mainly pursue solo games, and gamebooks were an ideal outlet for my gaming needs.
I already mentioned Joe Dever's Lone Wolf, but there were many titles published in Italy in the 80s and early 90s. Fighting Fantasy was obviously among them, as was Steve Jackson's amazing Sorcery! series. Gamebooks in general were very popular in Italy during my childhood and early teenage years. The same publisher that published most of the gamebooks available in the market, E. Elle, also published novels like The Trolltooth Wars.
There were also some roleplaying games being published in Italian. I had a group of friends with whom I met to play at the local library. Warhammer and Mutant Chronicles were rather popular during my teenage years, and I loved them for their imaginative worlds, and the fantastic artwork by artists like the legendary Paul Bonner, Ian Miller and John Blanche. It was always the artwork that captured me first and foremost.
So how did you go from playing tabletop games to providing the art for them?
The first time that I ever drew something professionally was for White Wolf. That was thanks to the patronage of a dear friend, Melissa Uran, an artist I was a big fan of for her work in roleplaying games like Kindred of the East and Exalted.
I was still a university student at the time, and it was far from being a full time job. But it felt great to be able to publish my art. I think there still are people who have some of those old RPG manuals in their bookshelves. It was that feeling, the idea that you had just created something that would last in books, that perhaps influenced me and made me feel that longing later on when, as I mentioned, I worked in tourism.
I kept doing some occasional freelance illustrations for White Wolf until the company closed, as well as for other indie publishers and authors from time to time, rounding my income up a little but most importantly doing something I loved. It only became something serious after I chose and pursued a career as a comic artist.
Do you find time to play games much now?
Not as much as I wish I could! There are several games I love, but most often I play Games Workshop's Warcry and Age of Sigmar (I'm a miniature gaming and painting hobbyist), as well as the amazing card game Android: Netrunner by Fantasy Flight under the Wizards of the Coast license, which I consider the best card game ever created.
It was actually too popular! So the license was revoked and the game regrettably discontinued.
Speaking of roleplaying games, I'm currently enjoying a campaign of Lancer, a splendid game about mecha pilots designed by the legendary Tom Parkinson-Morgan, creator of Kill 6 Billion Demons, which I consider the best comic book published in the last decade. You should definitely check it out.
Secrets of Salamonis marks not just 40 years since the first Fighting Fantasy book was released but it's the first one Steve Jackson has written for most of that time, how did you get involved in the project?
Whenever I'm reminded of the uniqueness of this title it's always both amazing and very humbling. It's a true privilege to be part of such a momentous project and it's thanks to writer Jonathan Green, who wrote some of my favourite Fighting Fantasy titles like Bloodbones, that I was able to participate. I had previously done an illustration for his Ace Gamebooks and it was a fantastic experience. He was so kind as to put my name forward and, of course, I enthusiastically said yes! And was determined to do my utmost best.
How did it work, were you giving specific scenes to illustrate?
I was given art notes including samples of artwork when a creature or place had already been drawn in previous books, and so I tried to recreate the same atmospheres and be true to the spirit of the book as best I could.
I took some liberties with some of the details, like the tax collector carrying a small wooden strongbox for the money instead of a bag, I thought it made the character feel more avaricious and covetous. But I always made sure that my suggestions were okay with Mr. Jackson and in general the art direction of the book.
Talking of that art direction, throughout your career you've worked in quite a wide range of styles, do you have a preferred style or medium, or are you just happy to adapt as the work demands?
Ever since I started working on comics and reading articles and guides written by comic artists, one of the concepts that stuck with me the most was first explained by a great comic artist and one of my major influences: Brian Stelfreeze.
He said that style is nothing more than a byproduct of what one does just by creating art, and that fixating on finding one's own style is just a way to limit your drawing skills. Ever since, I’ve tried to learn different media, from pencils to inks, to gouache and oils, and of course digital painting to keep myself versatile and be able to tackle different subjects and atmospheres.
And how do you work these days, is it mainly digital or do you still work with physical media?
I almost never draw digitally. It's always pencils, inks, sometimes gouache or, in recent times, oils. I don't want to lose that tactile, handcrafted and natural feel that traditional media alone can deliver. When I create painted illustrations, I often mix that with digital colours and painting, using texturized brushes to avoid colours feeling too cold, like I did for the cover of Secrets of Salamonis.
But it entirely depends on what I am drawing and what effects I am aiming for. My tarot drawings and the covers for books like Dan Abnett's Pariah and Penitent are the opposite of that: geometric, almost abstract ink line-art and flat colours without any trace of volumes or shading, like you can see in traditional tarot art like the Rider-Waite deck.
Your art in Secret of Salmonis definietly captures a lot of the atmosphere of the original Fighting Fantasy books...
When deciding how to approach the art of Secret of Salamonis, I had one thought very clear in my mind: I wanted it to feel like Fighting Fantasy art made me feel when I was a wee lad. It had to be traditional media. To me, when a gamebook sports digital art in the interior I feel cognitive dissonance.
“ I HAD ONE THOUGHT VERY CLEAR IN MY MIND: I WANTED IT TO FEEL LIKE FIGHTING FANTASY ART MADE ME FEEL WHEN I WAS A WEE LAD”
I mean no disrespect to the artists who create fantastic works of illustration through digital media, and it's a very personal bias, but I definitely wanted my art to have that inked illustration feeling that made those books special to me, including the detailed hatching and rich line-art often used to render volumes and tones of grey.
In addition, it's not a technique we see very often in today's illustration world and I feel like that's a real pity.
Do you have a favourite illustration from the book?
Well, this is a bit silly, but I'm fond of the smaller insert art pieces I did. Back when I read gamebooks as a child, the choice of small illustrations often was what made the atmosphere of a book more than the bigger art. I don't know why but especially when it depicted everyday things like your adventuring bag, or some object you encounter during the adventure. It tells you something very mundane that makes the world you're reading about all the more real.
I especially loved inventory art showing a collection of objects, like what you could find on an apothecary's table. In every fantasy game healing potions are a popular trope, but what do they look like? What shape does the bottle have? Or is it a vial? Or an ampoule? So I was thrilled to be able to draw my own for work. Like I said, it probably sounds very silly.
There’s been a lot of talk about AI art recently and what effect that will have on artists, especially comic book artists...
So called "AI" generated images can be used by an artist to get some inspiration to start from sometimes, but it's always a jumble of shapes and parameters taken from images and art and remixed together and averaged by algorithms, following search terms and social media tags.
Since the source material is always the same, the result is extremely homogeneous, because it draws from and creates averages of existing images taken from that big cauldron that is internet. But what makes people love an artist's work is what makes them unique, not the average.
What makes a Mike Mignola, a Dave McKean, a J.H. Williams III or a Frank Quitely amazing is their unique human journey, a visual interpretation of their distinctive, individual sensory experience, and a knowledge of techniques that took years and years of fine tuning. People tend to ignore that part. They use words like "talent" that diminishes the years of effort, exercise and fine tuning an artist goes through, as if it was all innate and came easy to them, when it's something they worked on long and hard.
WHAT MAKES A MIKE MIGNOLA, DAVE MCKEAN, J.H. WILLIAMS III OR A FRANK QUITELY AMAZING IS THEIR UNIQUE HUMAN JOURNEY
But we live in a world of immediate satisfaction and consumption, and long processes aren't glamorous. A program that takes seconds to create an image causes more sensation for sure. The word AI used to designate digital entities capable of self-awareness, but because we live in an easily bored culture, we need sensational words and any program with the slightest machine learning capability is nowadays called an AI.
Maybe some art gallery could expose some AI generated art to propose a reflection on technology and what makes us human and unique. That's the best use I can think for AI generated images. That reflection is the art, not the images.
So, returning to Fighting Fantasy, it’s a bit of a British institution but not the only one you’ve hand a hand in, we’ve mentioned Games Workshop but you’ve also gone from posting fan art of Judge Dredd to doing your first 2000AD cover last November. How did you become an art droid?
So far it has been a very natural progression actually. As a kid, I loved comics, Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy. Among the comics I most loved were Judge Dredd and especially Slàine. Eventually I started working in comics, and I came into contact with Games Workshop by working on some Warhammer 40,000 comics, the Will of Iron trilogy with writer George Mann and Deathwatch with writer Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
By working on the covers for some Games Workshop novels I came into contact with the legendary Dan Abnett, one of their top writers, which led me to working with him on his 2000AD strip Sinister Dexter, and at the same time I caught the attention of Fighting Fantasy writer Jonathan Green, with whom I started collaborating after he saw my art on Artstation. I am very much looking forward to seeing where this brings me.
So that’s 2000AD, Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy, any other British titles on your wish list you'd love to work on?
Oh please don't say it like that, you're exposing my plot to dominate Britain, it was supposed to be a secret! Joking aside, I actually hadn't considered that... but it's true that the bulk of my work is with British publishers and companies. I'd definitely love to work some more in concept art for animation and video-games if the chance arises.
Remaining in the world of comics, I wouldn't mind widening my collaborations to some European major publishers. For instance, I have never worked for the French market of bande dessinée and I'd be curious to experience that if a chance arose. Many of the influences in my art come from that world through artists like Moebius and Bilal. I'd certainly also welcome a chance to work with more American publishers.
But right now I feel like my place is with 2000AD and working with Dan Abnett. I'm finding some beautiful, precious support and encouragement in expressing myself artistically and that is a rare blessing.
Finally, after this book, what are you working on at the moment?
Whether you're a 2000AD fan or not, you should stay tuned for the upcoming work that is coming to the magazine. It's the most interesting, weird and imaginative comic strip I have ever worked on, and I think you'll love it!
This interview originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue