It’s impossible to imagine the Fabled Lands without the involvement of Russ Nicholson, who died this month. His filler drawings are my favourites, little vignettes necessary for gamebook layout so that options don’t spill over a page, but also perfect for evoking the ambience of each book’s setting. He always put something extra into all the pictures: comic book style inserts, fragments of unknown scripts, characterful onlookers in the background of a scene, a thousand touches that convey personality, colour, humour and reality.
For some reason we had a struggle getting the Pan Macmillan art director to let us use Russ for the world maps. They had a different illustrator lined up but, as you can see by comparing the first four FL books with the last three, Russ’s cartography was streets (and forests, and mountains) ahead. In FL book 3 they printed the two halves of their map the wrong way round, at which point they admitted that maybe we’d been right all along and Russ should handle it.
“I first met Russ in 2010, when I was his interpreter at a gaming event in Paris. He’d illustrated many, many books that I owned and loved, and I was incredibly excited to spend a weekend with him. Throughout that event, Russ was interesting, and kind, and humble; whenever a fan of his work asked him to sign a book, Russ also took the time to draw an illustration in there, too.
“At some point that weekend I asked Russ if he’d sign a copy of Citadel of Chaos for me. I was expecting a signature, and perhaps a quick sketch. Instead, Russ took the book back to his hotel room so that he could spend some time on a picture. When he returned the book to me the next day he’d drawn a phenomenal illustration (an axe-wielding warrior and a dragon) right across the book’s copyright and title pages – and he actually apologised that it wasn’t as good as he’d hoped. The paper in the book wasn’t ideal for ink drawing, he explained; the ink had bled on the page a little. I guess that’s an artist term. Bleeding ink or not, I was overjoyed with the illustration.
“I’m happy and grateful that I was able to work with Russ after that, and to meet him in person a few more times. He was a creative powerhouse, and a joy to be around. Incidentally, it was Russ who introduced me to the Fabled Lands books, showing me a book that somebody had brought for him to sign. He (correctly) told me I’d enjoy reading them.”
Jamie Thomson adds:
“A sad loss indeed, both personally and professionally. I remember meeting him in our White Dwarf offices a few times way back when, just a nice guy and so talented. Iconic game book and WD illustrator. I guess the ink blot story is my favourite. He was doing a Fabled Lands map and blotted it by accident. Me and Dave immediately came up with 'The Hole in the World' so it looked like it was deliberate. Well, I think we did, maybe it was Dave or Russ that came up with it, I can't remember. Anyway, there were quite a few things that we added to the stories and the lore that came from Russ; he inspired us too.”
At first I wasn't sure about Jamie’s recollection there because Russ's world map for FL didn't appear in print until books 5 and 6, so how come he drew the Hole in the World before anyone else? It's probable that he drew his own version of the world map right from the outset in order to have a context for the regional maps in each book. It's typical of Russ's boundless enthusiasm for and professional pride in his work that he'd do that even without a commission from the publisher. He improved every idea we gave him. He was our Jack Kirby, our Billy Preston, the Eno to our Roxy Music. As film directors value a great cinematographer, we valued Russ – as a good friend as well as a collaborator. He won’t just be missed, he’s irreplaceable.
He leaves behind his partner Jacqui. His wife, I should say, as they had planned to get married while Russ was in hospital, only he got moved to another ward which couldn’t accommodate a bedside ceremony. Had he come home I’ve no doubt they would have had the wedding then, but sadly he died in hospital. Fans will remember him fondly, friends with love, but the real wrenching loss is Jacqui’s.
However, as long as we have Russ’s art we can still see the expression of his personality. In that sense he’s with us always. Here is a small selection of illustrations by him that you might not have come across before.
This from the summer 1978 issue of Fantasy Tales:
This from A Dying Trade:
A sample page Russ did for The DFC:
Two more sample pages for The DFC, this time for the John Blake strip:
A test page for Mirabilis, because in the early days we thought Leo and Martin would be too busy on the gazetteer book to handle the comic strip chores as well:
Layout page for “Rich and Strange”, one of several Mirabilis standalone stories I wrote to run in The Guardian newspaper:
Some concept art for Shadow King:
A rough that Russ prepared for A Town Through Time, a project we pitched without success to publishers in the late ‘90s: