An Interview with Bryan Talbot

Mr. Talbot, thanks a lot for taking the time to drop by (virtually) for a little Q&A session on some work you did more than 35 years ago. Since a lot of our readers were either children or not yet born at that time, perhaps you could give us a little introduction to yourself and your work. Who is this “Mr. Talbot”, where does he come from and how would you describe his occupation.

I’ve been writing and drawing comics for over 40 years. I’ve worked on famous characters such as Judge Dredd, Sandman and Batman, but I prefer to work with my own creator-owned material.

You started out during your school days in the late 1960s for fanzines like Mallorn (the British Tolkien society magazine, which is still in print annually) or Dark Horizons (the British Fantasy Society magazine), then created your first longer comic stories like the three issues of the Chester P. Hackenbush series or the Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which ran for nine years. Science Fiction, parallel universes, fantasy, steampunk - how would you describe the settings you were working on at the time? 

The Chester stories were psychedelic adventure stories - underground comics, influenced by the works of Dave Sheridan, Robert Crumb and, later, Moebius. Arkwright was a multi-genre story, but basically an adult science fiction adventure across parallel worlds.

Do you have any background or experience in pen and paper roleplaying games? Have you ever rolled a d20? Did you know Dungeons & Dragons before working on The Dark Eye?

No, not at all.

So you were an up-and-coming young British comic artist, who suddenly found himself working on a strange German fantasy roleplaying game called The Dark Eye. How did you get the job? Was it Schmidt Spiele, Droemer Knaur or any of the three main authors (Ulrich Kiesow, Hans Alpers, Werner Fuchs) who contacted you?

I can’t remember now who it was that commissioned the illustrations, but they were living in England at the time, and they approached the Society of Strip Illustration to find an artist. I was a member at the time and a few of us applied for the job by sending sample drawings to them. For some reason, they chose me because, I think, mine were grittier, more realistic. The other artists didn’t really “get” fantasy stories and produced images that were like fairy-tale illos.

Havena harbour at nighttime (source: Ulisses)

Schmidt Spiele decided to create their own competing roleplay game when the Dungeons & Dragons licensing deal with TSR failed in 1984. Since they only had a couple of months to finish the basic rule books and adventure modules before the release date in 1985, the texts and illustrations had to be completed in a very short time period. Do you remember how much time they gave you? How many pictures did you have to draw in that time? How much did you sleep in those days?

Can’t remember the time frame exactly but, yes, they wanted them pretty quickly. I did about 100 illustrations for them, for which they paid a flat fee for each illustration. It wasn’t very much and some of the larger pictures took several hours to draw. On the other hand, many of the illos were very quick, simple drawings of, eg a sword, so the payment wasn’t too bad.

For many years, I used to work till 2am anyway, especially when I worked for 2000AD, so the lack of sleep was no problem.

Despite the short timeframe, your illustrations matched the final text descriptions in the books pretty well. Did you get detailed instructions on what to draw, or did you have access to the full manuscripts? Are you able to read any German texts at all? Were you in contact with the authors during that time?

Never had any contact with the authors or the German text. I didn’t even know the stories behind the pictures. I just received brief descriptions of what was required, such as: “An Orc”, “a fantasy map on a scroll”, “A demon carrying a club stepping through a broken mirror”.

A demon carrying a club stepping through a broken mirror (source: Ulisses)

Your depictions of orcs, trolls, dragons and adventurer parties still hold up pretty well, and have shaped the images of these creatures in the minds of countless players. What was your main inspiration for the art style and character design?

As you’ve said, I’d earlier supplied illustrations for the Tolkein magazine. I just used the same style I had for those, so I suppose that the images I’d imagined while reading The Lord of the Rings were the main inspiration.

A group of monsters from the first TDE rulebook (source: Ulisses)

Tell us a little bit about your creative process. What kind of pens or brushes, colors, paper and tools did you use to create those pictures? Did you draw in the original size or were the images scaled to fit the pages?

I seem to remember that they were the same size, and mostly inked with a brush, using rotring pens for any fine detail, all in black ink on cartridge paper.

Do you know what happened to your original artworks? Do they still exists or have they been sold or destroyed? Is there any hope of ever seeing those originals in an art exhibition or an art book? Are there any unpublished TDE illustrations by Bryan Talbot?

No, I never received the originals back. No idea what happened to them. As far as I know, they published all of them.

During the introductory adventure of Silvanas Rescue, one of your illustrations caused the first “scandal” of TDE history: An orc tried to rip the shirt of the captured damsel in distress. Although the picture was pretty tame by any standards and almost no skin was visible, the image had to be replaced by a censored version for the second edition. What did you think of this event at the time? Did you approve of Schmidt Spiele’s decision to replace the image? How does it feel to have been responsible for a scandal that is still well-known among TDE players 35 years after the fact?

I actually can’t remember it at all! It’s amazing that it’s still talked about.

The uncensored and censored versions of Silvanas predicament

On one of your images you showed a partially rolled up scroll showing a rough map of the continent of Aventuria, including seas, mountains and cities. As the game world had not yet taken shape at the time, your map was the first depiction of the setting. Since then Aventuria has turned into one of the most detailed and comprehensive world descriptions ever created. Although the final shape of the continent differs a bit from your sketch, it was clearly used by Ulrich Kiesow and Werner Fuchs as an inspiration during the creation of the first official map of Aventuria. Have you been aware that even today thousands of players are still roaming the realms and landscapes that are based on your sketch from 35 years ago?

I hadn’t a clue, but it’s very nice to know!

The first sketch of the world of Aventuria (source: Ulisses)

After about a hundred illustrations for TDE, you returned to your original occupation, the creation of comic books and graphic novels. You worked on many successful comic franchises like Judge Dredd, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Batman, Hellblazer or Fables, and created your own award-winning original works like The Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland, Grandville or Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. Why did you quit your work on The Dark Eye? Were there ever offers or requests for you to come back to work on further publications? Did you ever want to return to Aventuria?

I was never asked to do any more, after these original ones. As far as I knew, they only did the books I worked on. I didn’t realise they’d gone on to produce more.

After you left, did you follow the development of The Dark Eye? Have you seen any of the great artworks your successors contributed over the decades? Were you aware that TDE is still alive and kicking? Did you expect it to be such a success story?

Absolutely not. I’ve never been into rpgs. I did play a couple of the original Luther Arkwright game scenarios with the gamesmaster who wrote it and some friends, just to experience it, but that’s all. There is a much more recent Arkwright RPG now on sale, from The Design Mechanism, also one based on my Grandville books from Ocelot Games.

Do you have any personal favorite illustration(s) among the bulk of work you finished in those months?

I can’t remember all of them, but I like the one of the elf shooting an arrow at a dragon.

The favorite TDE illustration of Bryan Talbot and of Ulisses editor in chief Nikolai Hoch (source: Ulisses)

You and your wife Mary were the founder patrons of the The Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal, and you are the artistic director of the Wonderlands Graphic Novel Exposition in your home town of Sunderland. Are there any other upcoming comic festivals or conventions (perhaps even on the continent or in Germany), where your TDE fans could see you and thank you personally for your great work?

I’ll be at the comic festival in Naples in May. I think that’s it until the next Lakes Festival in October. 

On a personal note, our game group played the adventure module “The Secret of the Black Boar Inn” last year, and also completed the new “The Black Boar Inn” boardgame that was released in 2019. And on both occasions, it was great to revisit the original book from 1985 and relive the spirit of those very first adventures through your timeless artwork. Thanks a lot, Mr. Talbot, for taking the time for this interview, and for being an integral part of our childhood memories! May the Twelve Gods watch over you!

Many thanks!

If you want to read more about The Dark Eye - the most successful German roleplaying game since 1984, with thousands of publications and one of the most detailed game worlds ever designed - please take a look at the German, English, Italian, French, SpanishDutch or Russian edition of the game.