07 March, 2021

In Memoriam — Martin McKenna

From "Revenge of the Vampire"


A few years ago people were chatting on the Hero Games forums about how the system lacks a really short and user-friendly guide to applying it to the fantasy genre.  The idea of tackling this as a personal project immediately grabbed me, and I quickly banged out a 28-page intro called the Fantasy Hero Primer.  But while it was purely a fan work, intended to be free, I didn't want to just throw it out there without art.  Casting about, I found some nice images online from that classic British CYOA-type series, Fighting Fantasy.  Rather than the cartoonish weird of early D&D or heroic realism of the game's 1980s period, the artists of Fighting Fantasy—Bob Harvey, Russ Nicholson, Ian Miller, Dave Carson, Alan Langford, etc—and their British Gothic style were absolutely formative to me in shaping what I thought "proper" fantasy art should look like, and none more so than Martin McKenna.


From "Daggers of Darkness"

McKenna secured his first paid illustration work when he was just 16, with Games Workshop.  Of breaking into the industry, he recalled:  

“It was probably more like a lot of little breaks.  Really early stuff like meeting Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in ‘86 was helpful.  They liked the fanzine work which had included a Fighting Fantasy spoof, and they recommended a submission to Warlock magazine.  Coincidentally Marc Gascoigne had seen my fanzine stuff and liked it, and he was then editor of Warlock.  Most importantly, an invitation came from John Blanche, then art director at Games Workshop, to produce work for him.  John’s initial contact came as a result of me entering an art competition featured in the Citadel Journal.  Instead of the hoped-for prize of a two quid postal order, I got a letter from John expressing interest in my stuff.  This led to my very first paying commission: illustrations for an Out of the Pit article in Warlock. So a bunch of things came together in the very beginning."

He provided a steady flow of work to GW in its early years, working on early 40K and WHFRP releases like Death on the Reik.  On the recommendation of Blanche, McKenna sent some samples to the editor at Puffin Books, and to his surprise this resulted in him being assigned an entire Fighting Fantasy title.  Daggers of Darkness was an early work and it shows: he told me, "I was 17 when I did that first book, still at school and doing it in my spare time.  I was very unsure of myself and it looks like I was emulating the style of John Blanche.  When Puffin amazed me by asking me to do another book I found much more confidence."


From "Howl of the Werewolf"



His style improved by leaps and bounds, and soon he was producing some phenomenal work, being regularly called in on some of the darker and more gothic titles in the FF line, like Revenge of the Vampire, Howl of the Werewolf, and Night of the Necromancer.  He wasn't just good: he had a fantastic imagination.  McKenna said that he had "pretty much a free hand on the look of the artwork, as long as it followed the important details in the brief."  Even his filler pieces—those small art bits the FF editors used to fill out page space during layout—were lively and full of character.







He was asked to avoid anything too horrific in his FF pieces, but his ideas on what that meant vs those in charge sometimes differed: for Revenge of the Vampire a Puffin editor edited out some rivulets of blood he had running across a female vampire's cleavage.  It was a series intended for the young, after all.


From "Revenge of the Vampire"


To return to where I started, I emailed McKenna with some trepidation, asking how much he would charge for the use of some of his old FF artwork in this primer I was making.  He was extremely welcoming, allowing me to use it for free as long as there was no profit involved.  A few years later, when I started to put together my homebrew Simulacrum, I asked him again to buy some older FF pieces, with the idea that this time I would eventually be selling it, even if I anticipated a vast audience of several dozen.  He charged practically nothing and was nicely complimentary when I showed him early drafts.  The two books will be full of his art, and I only wish I had the opportunity to acquire more to show off; I had hoped to commission an original cover from him.  In September 2020, Martin McKenna committed suicide.

There's a page where you can buy prints of his art, with the proceeds going to his family.  It also serves as a nice overview of his work.


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