Jagged Visions: Warriors and Warlords of Angus McBride

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“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

I was introduced to RPG’s at a reasonably young age by two little shits on the school playground. It was the very end of the 1980’s and I was an introverted 10 year old at a new school. At lunch I overheard two kids talking about killing some form of demonic wolf creatures that couldn’t be seen without a magical spell. Now being a fledgling fantasy fan who had watched the Ralph Bakshi ‘Lord of the Rings’ at least 20 times, this sounded supremely interesting. I edged closer and closer hoping to enter the conversation through some weird form of social osmosis, willing them to notice me. They finally stopped talking and looked at me in unison.

“What are you guys talking about?”

“Roleplaying” came the brisk reply

“What is that? Sounded cool.”

“We play a game were we’re warriors and wizards who kill all kinds of monsters and get magic. It’s called Dungeons and Dragons.” The words sort of escaped in a lazy rambling manner as if this was the most boring question I could have ever asked.

“Can I play!”

“I guess” was the reply with barely hidden distaste for the tedium.

Keep it cool Brinton I thought to myself. This sounds fucking amazing. Don’t mess this up. They told me I needed a character, and then said I could be a warrior if I wanted. Sounded pretty sweet so I was in. They told me I’d start at 1st level but that would be okay as they’d give me a powerful magic sword for protection. I asked them what level they were and they said 20th. There was not a book or die in sight but knowing nothing about it, I didn’t know this was weird. I asked what we would fight and they said I couldn’t really fight anything as I was only 1st level.

“What about my powerful magic sword?”

“Oh I want that, give it to me” said one of the kids.

“But it’s mine right?”

“I kill him and take his sword” said the same kid.

And that was that. I was dead, and no longer in the two kids D&D party. I quickly decided lunch was for kickball and fuck those kids. Strangely, that was still not the worst experience I’ve had playing RPG’s, but definitely not a good start. What this briefest of encounters with roleplaying did do was light a fire of imagination in me. I’d been playing pretend for years, but I was about to enter that awkward time in a kids life when you’re no longer socially allowed to dress as a weirdo and fight pretend goblins. Roleplaying sounded like a good fucking time and I wanted in, even if those jerks at school had excluded me right quick. So I did what any sensible child does when they want something. I begged my mom for Dungeons and Dragons until she braved the dark little hole of a game store that was open at that time in Old Towne San Diego, a wretched hive of scum and villainy to be sure.

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Now a trait I inherited from my mother is the ability, when left to our own devices, to always purchase the wrong version of something. If you have me blind pick an album of a band I don’t know at a record store, I will undoubtedly grab the worst fucking thing they released and sheepishly carry it to the counter. After first hearing about the Sex Pistols back in the day, I rushed out and bought “Great Rock and Roll Swindle” blind and wondered what all the fuss was about. That’s how bad I am at picking things without research. So my mother did not buy Dungeons and Dragons for my Christmas present, but instead ended up with Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP, which is a pretty sad acronym), 2nd edition, which is a pretty confusing mess for someone as young as me. Luckily, the fact that I had no idea how to play an RPG, or care too much exactly what any of it meant, meant all that did matter was this was Lord of the freaking Rings! And because as a kid I spent as much time staring at books and making up my own stories as I did reading them, the single thing most important memory in all of this is the cover, a painting by the supremely talented Angus McBride. It depicted the fellowship on the journey to Mt. Doom, and what strikes me to this day is how natural the scene seems. Here we have an elf, dwarf, some humans, a collection of hobbits and a wizard staring down a mammoth task, and it feels like it could be real. Not real in the way an Italian master captured the perfect texture on his portrait, but real in that this motley collection of adventurers could, and should exist somewhere. It has a lived in feel that connected with me, even as a child, that somehow this was a drawing of an event that happened. It was as if a candid had been snapped brilliantly by the artist, capturing this moment in time.

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Angus McBride actually did the cover paintings for a ton of their sourcebooks too, which I could never buy, but admired the times I was able to con my way into going back to that same sketchy game store. His depictions of Middle Earth, even though it represented a familiar story I had at this point seen and heard through various mediums, was different and truly engaging for me. His version of the fantastical was squarely grounded in reality, a harsh reality of dangerous encounters between man and beast, and that allowed my imagination to flourish. His background was in historical and educational illustration, and this style made his covers feel like an alternate history, where instead of Romans and Picts we had Rohirrim and Orcs, and that sounds fucking awesome. See I was never as big a fan of the heavily abstract or crazy forms of fantasy. I didn’t want disc shaped planets with waterfalls running in reverse and magic as common as electricity. Sure there is room in my brain for a chaos filled dimension of incomprehensible forms and ideas, but that is where it should stay, in that unfathomable place that characters only speak of in fear that occasionally leaks into a fantasy world to cause havoc. The worlds that most resonate with me are those that tweak our human experience in fantastical ways, and Angus McBride, even to my young and uncultured eyes, was knocking that right out of the fucking park. His was a world of hard men (and women) scraping by and just trying to survive the day.

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Years later I rediscovered the artist through his work with Osprey publishing (and others) while studying military history. He was a prolific historical illustrator who elevated the genre with accuracy and feeling beyond simple drawings of soldiers and equipment. Just as I had been as a child I was enamored with his skill at conveying depth and emotion with just a small number of subjects in a painting. He is a master at setting a scene and creating a narrative. One of my favorites depicts a Viking battle at sea. A lord of some kind (judging on his kit) stands defiantly at the head of a longboat with his last surviving retainers around him. Facing them are the dangerous enemies, poised on the edge of aggression, ready to rush the lord. Broken bodies, battered weapons and blood lie between the two sides in these cramped quarters, but this unnamed leader, bathed in light, looks ready to die, but not alone. While everyone else on board looks unbalanced and hunched, crouching to hide behind their shield or gain footing on a heaving ships deck, he stands straight, sword and shield at his side, no fucks given.

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In one of his Lord of the Rings paintings, we see a human backed up against an ancient standing stone, blood soaked blade held above to block the strike of a troll twice his bulk. Scenes of chaos unfold behind him with carrion birds already appearing to be circling. Within an instant of looking you know the stakes of this encounter are high. Life or death hangs in the balance, but is not determined. This fight is perfectly poised, captured at the exact moment of equilibrium where it could swing either way.

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The characters in his paintings just feel substantial more so than anything. The addition of a weary stoop or a bandage selling these subjects as lived in and part of a world that is somehow alive. The choices he makes, to depict all the realities of war and a soldier’s life, adds vitality and truth to his body of work. Instead of only showing heroic charges or parade ground salutes, McBride paints them in idleness, boredom, humor and despair. He chooses to show Dacian warriors returning to their village after a Roman legion has pillaged it, leaving only graffiti in blood and the bodies of those that opposed.

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Angus McBride is sadly no longer with us having passed away a few years ago after a long and tireless career. He leaves with us an incredible body of work that unlocks the past in an incredibly visceral way. I found his work through the fantasy covers of a game I never really honestly played, and eventually fell in love with his historical world of fierce warriors and long dead cultures. Rest in power Angus.

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About Brinton Williams

Currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Brinton spends far more time painting & waffling on about miniatures on the internet than actually gaming. Plays (or more likely played) just about anything including Warhammer Fantasy, 40k, RPG’s, weird indie games and historical miniatures. Doesn’t mosh as hard as he used to but can occasionally be found scowling at bands from the old people section of a show. Is deathly afraid of horses, played in multiple laser tag national championships and has appeared on San Diego local news doing the weather. One item from the last sentence is a lie.

1 thought on “Jagged Visions: Warriors and Warlords of Angus McBride

  1. So, so good, had no idea he ever ventured into Fantasy territory, those cover illustrations are fantastic – particularly the Eowyn vs Witchking one. The illustrations he did for ‘Medieval Warlords’ obsessed me as a kid, really going to have to grab the miniatures that were made to go along with them soon. Be rad to have Jan Zizka and Vlad Tepes fighting in a war band together!

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