As usual, the official Swedish version is found on SvenskaMagic.
INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA BENSON
August: Hello, Melissa. Thank you for accepting this interview! It’s always an honor talking to one of the original artists.
Back in 94, my cousin traded me his Lord of Atlantis for my Tundra. It was eleven years old and it never occurred to me that I was being cheated since Lord of Atlantis just looked so damned cool.
Indeed, the art was what got me into the Magic the Gathering in the first place. 23 years later I’m still playing the game and the art remains a great interest of mine, but the early art will always hold a special place in my heart.
There’s others like me and there’s also a rising old school trend within Magic. The original art, your art, means a lot to a lot of people. Is this something you have noticed?
Melissa Benson: Hello August. Actually, I can’t say that I have noticed any more interest in my art from the Magic community, but the fans who do contact me are always so enthusiastic. It is good to hear that I was able to add to their enjoyment of the game.
August: Of course! In my opinion, the art was instrumental in the early success of the game.
Before getting into MtG, I’d like to talk about how it all began. You studied art at Paier College?
MB: Yes, I did. Paier college of Art had degrees in Illustration, Graphic art, Fine Art and Photography when I was there. Each discipline put an emphasis on working professionally, which made it especially attractive to me. Most of the instructors are still working professionally in the field, so they know what is currently going on in the industry.
Au: Before that, what started your interest in art?
MB: Reading and classical music. The stories I read had great descriptions of fantastic creatures and locations, but the accompanying illustrations never matched what was in my head. I wanted very badly to see them, so I started drawing.
Au: Yeah, I know what you mean. It's the same reason that people aren't satisfied with the casting choices for the Lord of the Rings movies and so on. The imagination of others can never compare to their own. But I'm curious, what stories are you referring to?
MB: Any Greek myth that revolves around anthropomorphic creatures, Grim’s Fairy Tales, Norse mythology, Dracula, Frankenstein. That was a VERY long time ago.
Listening to classical music created great emotional images as well.
Au: Well, you actually studied music. Can you tell us more?
MB: The plan out of high school was college, join a symphony as a bassoonist, then become a conductor. I received my associates degree from Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport CT. The music program was about to begin, and my mother worked in the business office. This meant I got a break on tuition which made the choice of college easy. Most of the students in the program had a jazz orientation. This was because it was Sonny Costanzo who began the program there in the mid ’70's.
Sonny’s brother Sam taught the music theory class. I was already very familiar with the subject. My fellow students didn’t have a good grasp on these basics, and Sam asked me to tutor them through the college tutoring program. He said everyone would flunk if I didn’t.
So I put out a shingle for basic music theory and later on, for the harmony classes. I had as much work as I wanted. Tutoring is great because it is one on one. I don’t think I would be any good with a roomful of people though.
Au: There’s a great old interview from the Duelist where you talk about how you went to a comic book store to copy some game developer’s addresses. How did you come up with the idea to illustrate games?
MB: I was getting no traction with paperback book cover work. That same interview goes into more detail about that. My husband is a big comic fan and was a dealer back in the day. The comic shop we went to had some games. I began writing down manufacturer contact information to send my query letters to. One of the contacts told me he wasn’t a manufacturer, but he had a list of gaming companies that he would send me. It was a huge list. I went through every one.
Au: Well, it eventually paid off!
Jesper Myrfors told me that the portfolio you sent him was a triptych. He says he fell in love with it and kept it at his desk until the work with MtG began and he gave you a call. What’s your take on this?
MB: That’s so nice to hear! Yes, he did call and said there would be work soon. I thought it was really nice of him to call, but I had my doubts about ever hearing from him after that. I was so thrilled when he did call! Those triptychs were a real work horse for me.
MB: I had no idea what to expect. None. I am not a gamer. I still don’t know how to play the game. When I watched kids play it, they went too fast for me to pick it up. To me it looks like a combination of War and Go Fish. Many fans tell me that isn’t too far off.
Au: Lord of Atlantis, Nightmare, Fire Elemental, you’ve done so many classic cards. Do you have a personal favorite?
MB: I don’t really. I have favorites within expansions, but not one favorite over all.
Au: Well, please excuse my persistence, but could you mention some favorites from certain expansions?
MB: Let’s see… Alpha: Holy Armor; Legends: Ragnar; Fallen Empires: Hand of Justice; Ice Age: Fiery Justice. I’m talking about the idea behind them more then how successfully the art came out (or not). I had to do the Kjeldoran Dead three times because of materials failure, however, I really like the idea for that one. But I digress… Portal Second Age: Alluring Scent; Unglued: Spatula of the Ages.
Au: Thank you!
The big one back in the day was Shivan Dragon. It was almost mythical. I remember a friend saving the money to buy it, only to immediately lose it to me in the sadistic game of ante (I felt bad about it and gave it back).
I bet my readers would love to hear more about good old Shivan. Does it have any special meaning to you? Got any stories about this piece?
MB: To tell the truth, no.
I can say that if I had realized the card was going to have a red background, I don’t think I would have made it a green dragon. I will say that because we had so much freedom then, it came very close to being a Chinese dragon. I didn’t think it would work as such a small image. When I did a Chinese dragon, it was used for a Shadowfist expansion.
The important part of Shivan Dragon to me was the pose. I wanted it to look like the last thing you saw when you met it. I tried to make it look as though the light was coming from the viewer holding a lantern. I could pull that off better today than I could then. Seems to have worked though.
Au: I think it's great!
What is your best memory from working with Magic?
MB: Probably meeting the other artists. It was great to put a face to the colleagues I was working with. I met Quinton and Mark Poole at a show in Burlington VT. We three did a piece together. Each of us drew one of our characters, and Quinton said to us, if you want, I can ink this. Mark and I couldn’t say YES fast enough!
Au: I'm feeling very curious about this piece! You don't happen to have a link somewhere?
MB: I don't. It was never published. I think we gave the original to the organizer of the show. I do have a copy somewhere in the labyrinth that is my studio. I'll se if I can find it in a timely fashion.
And now, you lucky devils, it's my pleasure to tell you that Melissa did find her copy. Probably for the first time ever online, here's the piece she did with Quinton Hoover and Mark Poole. Quinton drew the faerie from Earthbind, Melissa herself did Xira Arien and Mark did Jedit Ojanen.
Are you ready for this? Ladies and gentlemen, "Mischief in the Mountains"!
|"Mischief in the Mountains", collaboration between Quinton Hoover, Melissa Benson and Mark Poole.|
Isn't it amazing? Back to the interview!
Au: You’ve got one of the most iconic artist signatures I’ve ever seen. How did you come up with it?
MB: Two things were at play. At that time, it was still hard for a woman to get work as an illustrator. I wanted a genderless signature to avoid influencing the first impression of the art.
Secondly, publishers want the public to associate the art they see with the company, not with the artist. It was, and still may be, common to omit the artists’ name from the work on a book cover. So I made the “M” see-through and placed it where it would be a real pain in the butt to edit out, so not worth doing.
Au: If I’m not mistaken, the last art you did for MtG was in Urza’s Legacy. Was it your choice to quit working with the game?
MB: The company and I had… issues. Most revolved around copyright and what the artists could and could not do with their own images. After Urza’s Legacy, the contract had changed yet again, and I could no longer live with the restrictive terms of subsequent contracts.
It went from being a supportive partnership between company and artist, to being a confrontational “Us vs. Them” relationship. I imagine the suits at the company suggested that I no longer be contacted for work. That’s what my sources said anyway. I’ll leave it at that or I’ll start to rant.
Au: Sorry to hear that. I've heard similar accounts in previous interviews I've done.
Are you familiar with how Magic looks today? How do you feel about it?
MB: Honestly, I don’t like the look it has today because there is no variety of style anymore. All the art so homogenous. It all looks the same. When Magic started you could easily pick out Quinton’s art from Drew Tucker’s art. The different styles of so many artists made it exciting.
Now it all looks slick and sterile. There is a “company” look. Hm, seems like I said something similar earlier in this interview…
Au: Returning to my first question. Today there’s a MtG format called 93/94 were you play exclusively with cards from those years. Have you heard about it? It’s got a very dedicated community. Have you noticed any increase in the interest of your old work for MtG?
MB: I like that idea, but no, I was not aware of it. And since I only sell my artists’ proof cards and not regular playing cards, I have not noticed any increased interest in my old work. I had an increase in recreating Magic cards that I had done. Perhaps it was sparked by that format.
|Nightmare and Mesa Pegasus, yin and yang.|
MB: Not a joke. Most commissions I do are of rpg characters.
Rpg’s are great fun because I like translating someone’s character description unto paper. Everyone sees their character in a unique way and it is wonderful to be a part of that vision.
I don’t do a lot of portrait commissions since likenesses are not my forte. They are a real labor for me. I will do them, but I have to have a very good photo to work from. I practice doing portraits all the time, usually as warm ups.
Au: You also make pagan art. Care to elaborate to my readers what that is?
MB: Sure. Paganism is any non-Abrahamic faith. Often Pagan beliefs are Nature or Agrarian based, and very often more than one deity is involved.
There is a rich variety of paths and traditions in Paganism. Each tradition’s stories, symbolism and mysteries are unique unto themselves. They inspire a lot of ideas that I turn into images that mean something to myself and others.
I would like to note that “Paganism” and “Wicca” are not interchangeable terms. All Wiccans are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Wiccan. Like Zak said on the Big Bang Theory, all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.
Personally, I gravitate towards natural forms and colors rather than mechanical ones. I am drawn to Pagan concepts, feel a connection with them, and identify as a Solitary Eclectic Pagan. I also feel that there isn't enough Pagan artwork represented or available today, so I am doing my part to make it more main stream.
Hopefully, I will be doing more commissions with Pagan subjects as I connect to more Pagan groups and individuals.
|Green Man with Oak Beard.|
MB: Now THAT, is a tough question. I was sorely disappointed that the vampire game was set in modern times. I was looking forward to the gothic costumes, gadgets and architecture… But fantasy has creatures and landscapes, magic and mystery…
Don’t make me choose or this interview will never get done!
Au: Haha, ok, I'll let you off the hook!
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!