One of the things that is immediately striking about FAB’s artwork is just how gruesome some of it is, which, fair, they named the game “Flesh and Blood” after all, so you can’t accuse them of not being on Front Street about it. It seems LSS has staked out a claim on the “mature” theming space with a 16+ suggested age rating compared to Magic’s 13+ rating. The artwork has to be a major component in that gap; by the time I exited the Magic scene, the art had become more standardized overall, sure you got an occasional provocative piece, but nothing like the early days where the art was wildly divergent in seriousness, style, and (to be fair) quality. Opening my first Welcome to Rathe packs and seeing some of the cards really set a tone for the world of the game that was a bit weightier than the abstract “clean” fantasy violence that had come to dominate most Magic cards. I’m certainly not the only one who noticed, as I’ve seen the topic resurface every few weeks in the Discord, often with people questioning where the line was in terms of how violent FAB could get and whether particular cards had already crossed it.
With those thoughts as my starting point, I want to take a bit of a journey back through some of Magic’s more graphic art and discuss what I think these pieces added to the game, and then, in Part 2, I’ll move into FAB and talk about how its art diverges from Magic’s and the different sort of tone it sets for the game.
Magical Body Horror
My absolute favorite Magic artist, Rebecca Guay, is known for her soft, sumptuous, feminine pieces (well, known to the Magic crowd; her post-Magic work, also excellent, has definitely explored more erotic and provocative themes); anyway, it may come as some surprise that one of my other favorite Magic artists is, for my money, the early master of body horror is Magic: Anson Maddocks. Maddocks is one of the original Magic artists who started in Alpha. He was known for the iconic Hurloon Minotaur, which was the mascot of the game for the early years until it was shuffled off due to artists getting royalties from pieces for the early sets (I believe). As will be the norm for this piece, we’re going to talk about art in the context of specific pieces:
As noted, the gruesome nature of Maddocks’ work is rooted in body horror more than actual gore or acts of violence rendered directly. Living Wall is an amalgamation of eyes, teeth, viscera, and a seriously messed up fetus, and it tells a story. The wall overwhelms, filling the entire card without any sight of boundary; it’s an oppressive mass of flesh that sets a tone of horror lurking in the dark corners of Dominaria. Per the flavor text “Some fiendish mage had created a horrifying wall of living flesh, patched together from a jumble of still-recognizable body parts. As we sought to hew our way through it, some unknown power healed the gaping wounds we cut, denying us passage.” There are some seriously disturbed mages out there, and it sets up a stark juxtaposition to something like the Serra Angel, a “heavenly incarnation [that] embodies both fury and purity”.
Maddocks’ style was showcased wonderfully in Fallen Empires, which while it wasn’t a good expansion from a gameplay or financial perspective, did evoke a compelling world of shards of mana at war with themselves. The thrulls provided an opportunity for taking familiar forms and distorting them into nightmarish spectacle. These cards are emblematic of one of the elements that made me fall in love with Magic in the early days; the interplay of art of a flavor text (the repeated excerpts from various volumes of Sarpadian Empires, for instance) really helped to create a world from the snippets we saw in cards. While Magic is first and foremost a game, it’s hard to imagine that it would have made it without the art.
Outside of the disturbing Cronenberg-like monstrosities, Maddocks was also notable for a Gigeresque blurring of the body horror and eroticism (something that Magic has, more-less, abandoned).
These pieces play with body horror while retaining elements that are aesthetically pleasing – Breeding Pit’s thrall is a traditionally attractive sleek feminine form that flows into (or out of) a disarray of guts. The song of the titular siren in Siren’s Call is made visible in the form of an organic-seeming chitinous projection, blurring the line between the beautiful and the monstrous. Blood Lust is one of my favorite Maddocks pieces because the art plays with the title in an unexpected way: literal lusting for blood. The woman splayed out on what seems like a landscape of tissue is probing it in a downright sensual manner. These sorts of art really gave early Magic a distinct feel that was provocative and wondrously weird.
That isn’t to say that Magic has entirely abandoned body horror. Scars block had some really fantastic pieces that would have made Pinhead proud – Elesh Norn is literally the “Grand Cenobite”, and while some might claim the Grecian usage of the word, I think you’d be hard-pressed to dispute the Hellraiser influence, and the Zendikar sets did eldritch horror in the form of the eldrazi which also played with distorted bodies.
Eldritch Moon featured a spectacular marriage of mechanics and theming. Literally taking two angels who had appeared years earlier in Avacyn Restored, reimaging them as corrupted entities, and then literally merging their cards together into a corrupted eldrazi horror. The effect is such an excellent realization of the horror of taking angels, which are such idyllic perfect entities in Magic, and making them grotesque in a way that is distinct from earlier riffs on this theme of angelic violation, such as Maddocks’ own Fallen Angel.
What we get from all of this is that when Magic decides to do graphic art, it skews hard towards this sort manipulation of forms compared to out and out gore and violence. For Magic these cards have built settings – the grim underbelly of Dominaria, the body horror of Phyrexia, the gothic horror of Innistrad, and the eldritch distortions of Zendikar.
Though that isn’t to say that it’s all body horror. Magic has definitely thrown out some pieces that feel like they’d be at home in Flesh and Blood in recent years.
I’ll leave these here as a teaser for part two.
*Header Image: Macabre Waltz by Jim Murray