Jeff Butler, Fantasy Artist: Luck's Got Nothing To Do With It
Today, Rediscovered Realms has the rarified privilege of talking with one of the old school fantasy artist greats, Jeff Butler.
Jeff is an American illustrator, comic book and video game artist with a career that spans decades. He worked at TSR during the golden days of the 1980s making RPG, book & module covers and illustrations, most notably for D&D, AD&D, Marvel Super Heroes, Top Secret, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and one my personal favorites, Conan.
Jeff moved on from TSR to an ultra-successful illustration career with comic books, including The Green Hornet, Mr. T and the T-Force, Godzilla vs. Barkley, Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force, among many others.
Jeff then reskilled himself for digital art and was a key designer for video games such as X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Wolverine, Wolfenstein, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II, Soldier of Fortune, Heretic II, and more.
These days, Jeff lives with his beautiful wife, Jennifer, in Madison where he teaches drawing at Madison College and Making Comics and Illustration for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Curtin (1964-2023), an old school fantasy adventurer whose torch was snuffed out way too soon. Half the team of the vintage RPG store, DEI Games along with his surviving wife of 41 years, Linda, Kevin was a great guy to chat with about all things Dragonlance, D&D, Gamma World, fantasy art, and beyond. Kevin, thank you for all the encouragement, kindness and fun you shared with me and with the entire online old school fantasy community.
Return this man to Huma's breast:
Let him be lost in sunlight,
In the chorus of air where breath is translated;
At the sky's border receive him.
JQ: Jeff, thank you so much for making the time for this interview. I’m so excited! Let’s start off by winding back the clock a bit. I read in your website bio that you LOVED comics as a kid, which wasn’t the choice activity your dad wanted you to do. Obviously, those comic books shaped who you are and set you on the path to your amazing career. What were your favorites and why?
JB: Well, Dad was a sportswriter, and his opinion of comics was surely colored by the “black-eye” days of the early 1950s, when comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency, among other things. Mom had read comics as a kid and thought they were inspiring me to read… and draw!
When I was 5 or 6, I was a Batman kid. Mom sometimes helped-out at her dad’s business. She’d have to take me along with her. To keep me occupied, and out of the other employees’ hair, she’d buy me a bunch of Batman comics from the convenience store, across the street. I loved the pictures, and the stories, when I was old enough to read them.
Of course, the Batman TV show hit when I was 8 and I was hooked, along with everyone else! In first or second grade, I saw an early issue of Spider-Man and it made a huge impression! I became an instant Marvel fan!
The neighborhood barber always had a batch of comics for the kids. He’d let me take some home, after they’d been around the shop awhile. I loved the DC characters, but the Marvel comics commanded my attention even more! I started collecting.
Me and my friends had a “comics route.” We’d find out when the new comics hit the stands in every store that carried them, within about a 5-mile radius of our houses. We’d ride our bikes all over to find the latest issues of our favorites!
Mom used to joke that Stan Lee taught me how to read. That wasn’t an over-exaggeration. Jack Kirby’s art obviously grabbed me! From the age of about 10 on, I became very interested in the artists and tried to learn as much as I could about them.
Kirby, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Gil Kane, and Murphy Anderson were among my favorites. But Neal Adams and Steranko were special. Adams’ drawings had so much mass and implied realism!
Something else was going on with Steranko, and it inspired both me and my childhood friend, Steve. We’d pour over our latest issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and discuss every panel. We’d try to copy some of the art on sheets of typing paper.
JQ: I love hearing about that. I read that you found fantasy through some Conan the Barbarian books, Fritz Leiber and Lord of the Rings. What was it about these books and fantasy in general the drew you to them?
JB: I was shopping with my mom at our neighborhood pharmacy, circa 1969. This store was just a half block from my house, but it didn’t carry comic books. So, I would look at the magazines and paperback books.
One day, I saw the Frazetta’s Conan vs. the Frost Giants cover staring back at me from the paperback rack. That old Lancer book hypnotized me, on the spot! My Mom bought it for me, with the attached condition that I would read it! She knew it was the cover art that really attracted me! Then, I searched for the other books in the series.
My older brother, with whom I shared a bedroom, was a voracious reader. Once he saw I was into Conan, he started to push some of his favorite fantasy and science fiction books my way. Lord of the Rings and Dune were a bit much for me, at first. But The Hobbit and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were a little more my speed.
Ultimately, I graduated to the classics. I read Frankenstein and Dracula too and was particularly taken by Bram Stoker’s tale and narrative style.
JQ: Very cool! Before we move on to the hallowed TSR years, I saw somewhere you had quite a few nicknames: Jeff “Bang!” Butler, Jubilant Jeff Butler, Jumbo Jeff Butler, Badgered Jeffrey Butler, or simply, Butler. Some of these obviously have to do with your high school and college football playing years but tell me more about these monikers of mayhem.
JB: Where did you see this? The only nickname that ever really stuck was an unfortunate abbreviation of my last name: “Butts.” I was pretty-much “Butts,” all through high school and college. Starting with TSR and later, at Raven Software, I worked with a lot of other “Jeffs” and “Jeffreys,” so I was often referred to as simply, “Butler” to avoid confusion.
JQ: Ha! I guess this is a perfect example of why you can’t trust everything you see on the internet! Thanks for clarifying.
Jeff, on your website, you made mention of being a lucky guy, in fact, so much so that your dad made the comment that you could fall into a bucket of dung and come out smelling like a rose. From what I can tell, serendipity was in full swing for you when a teacher mentioned a job opening at TSR.
JB: Oh yeah… but I’m pretty-sure Dad used a more colorful word than “dung.”
I think that “luck” thing started with my mom, who couldn’t believe that, after growing up drawing all these comic book and fantasy characters… I actually found a job that would pay me to do it!!
After toiling for several years, pursuing a fine art degree, I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was supposed be doing. I became very restless. I did illustration jobs for local businesses, college clubs, fraternities, and others. I got to know Steve Rude, who had just started doing NEXUS with writer, Mike Baron. Baron saw a fraternity poster I had done with a Conan-like character on it and showed up on my doorstep, asking if I’d like to do comics. That’s the short version of how BADGER came to be.
Much to my parents’ chagrin, I took time off from school to work on the first few issues of BADGER for Capital Comics. I learned a lot, along the way… including that I didn’t think I was ready to draw a regular, 22-page comic. I felt that my comic art wasn’t professional-enough, yet.
It was at this time that a teacher friend, Eric Nesheim, told me that there was a company in Lake Geneva (about a 90-minute drive south of Madison) was looking for a black-and-white, line artist. Of course, it was TSR and I knew about D&D. But I had just blown-out the ACL in my right knee playing adult, city-league basketball and couldn’t drive because my leg was in a cast.
God bless her, my mom drove me to Lake Geneva for the interview. I was quite a sight, with my suit, cast, crutches… lugging a big portfolio. Jim Rosloff, the art director, hired me almost immediately. It all happened very fast. Next thing you know, some friends helped me move into my apartment in Lake Geneva.
JQ: Your Mom is like, “Jeff, we simply can’t afford your comic book habit anymore. Son, you need to get a job - here, let me drive you. Don’t worry about your ACL, just hobble on over to the car . . . “ Seriously though, that was awesome she supported you like that.
February 1984. Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, David (Diesel) LaForce, and Keith Parkinson. These are the guys you worked with at TSR. Never heard of them. What did they do there?
Obviously kidding. I don’t know how to express to you how cool that is. What is your recollection of working beside them when you first got to TSR? Did you know of their work before?
JB: Yeah, I thought it was pretty amazing! I was certainly familiar with their work. Of course, I played D&D in college and enjoyed the artwork a lot!
Can you imagine the excitement of touring the art department, meeting these amazing artists, and seeing their original work, hanging on the walls?
Those guys were very welcoming and made me feel right at home. Larry was (and is) a talker and storyteller and always kept the conversations lively. Clyde was a little quieter but was always in the middle of a fun discussion or debate. Jeff Easley was quieter still… but incredibly witty and often injected a quip or comment that left us all in stitches. Diesel was funny and snarky and often needled the rest of us. Keith could be a prankster and was also great to chat with.
We all talked a lot while we were working and generally enjoyed each other’s company. There were a lot of big egos in that room, but we all got along great!
Before we moved into the new art room, the art department was in sort of a corner, situated near the editorial department and designers. There was no door. We had very nice drawing boards, taborets and bookshelves. Our boards faced inward, and we were arranged in something of a “C” shape, around the room. Everyone had their artwork pinned-up to the walls, behind them. It was very impressive, and the “suits” regularly brought “tours” to see the art department.
We were like brothers. We worked, played, and socialized together. We helped with each other’s projects, posed for reference photos for paintings, and generally behaved like a group of artists who felt lucky to be doing what we were doing. I suppose I had a little “imposter syndrome” at first. But that didn’t last long.
JQ: That really does sound like it was a special time. I find it so interesting that we all seem to go through imposter syndrome at points in our lives when we’re thrown into something exciting & new . . . especially when we have to expose our work to the outside world. I’m sure it didn’t last long for you since your talent and hard work is apparent.
JQ: There is a lot of love for Keith Parkinson in the fantasy community to this day. He left us too soon. What’s a favorite memory or two you could share with us about your time with him?
JB: Like everyone else in that room, Keith was incredibly talented. Keith and I were the same age, but he was already married and owned a house across the street from my apartment.
He was probably the most natural “colorist” I’ve ever been around. We were all impressed by his keen sense of color. Sometimes, when Keith would go to the bathroom, the rest of us would congregate around his palette and marvel at the colors he was mixing. He was fearless with his palette.
He was also one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. Whether it was our afternoon dart games, or playing one-on-one in the loading dock, Keith was always “all-in!” His prowess at darts was legendary. But occasionally, we all have a bad game. Keith would get pretty upset when this happened. He expected to be excellent all the time!
He challenged me to play basketball against him, one-on-one, during lunch. I was a decent athlete, but my bum knee had slowed me down a bit. Still, Keith couldn’t beat me. But that only made him more competitive! He would keep playing until he could figure out a way to win. Frustration only fueled him to try harder! I always respected that.
We were all crushed when we lost him. We always feel his presence when we’re together.
JQ: Wow, thank you for sharing those memories.
JQ: When I started this newsletter a few months back, I was looking to reconnect with the joy from being a kid in the 80s and the fun I had with role playing games and other fantasy books and magazines. I featured the Conan Role Playing Game in an early newsletter because:
I still have it, and
It is one of my most cherished fantasy items from that time with kickass artwork throughout.
When we were talking a couple months back, I think you mentioned that this was your first project at TSR! Tell us more about that.
JB: Well, Conan wasn’t my first TSR project. That would have been the D&D module, “Quagmire.” But the Conan box art was my first, high-profile painting for TSR and I was a bit nervous.
Through a quirk in our scheduling, that project fell to me. I have no idea how it happened. But I was very excited, and I spent a lot of time outside of work, toiling on that box cover art.
During the painting process, I got some good advice from both Larry and Jeff. I still don’t know how I got to do that project. I was still a novice painter at the time. It was huge and I learned so much from the experience! It was so educational to be able to watch the others paint every day.
While the other guys worked in oil, I kept to acrylic, because I was used to it and it was more suited to my approach, due to the quicker drying time.
Did you miss that Conan Rediscovered Realms article?
JQ: I included a picture of the Hyborea map in my article – that foldout map is EPIC, btw. I can’t describe how vibrant and cool it still is after all these years. You had mentioned to me a neat piece of trivia about yourself, the map, and the artist known as Diesel. Do you mind sharing it here?
JB: At that time, Diesel and Dave Sutherland were creating most of the maps for the games. Dave kept a workspace with the graphic artists and Diesel worked with us in the Art Department. While he was the youngest artist (a year or 2 younger than Keith and me) he had been at TSR the longest.
Diesel and I wanted that Conan map to be special, so we decided to tag-team it. I did the wrap-around artwork and Diesel created the map, based on the Robert E. Howard original. We were both very pleased with how it turned out.
Diesel owns that original art and, last time I heard, it’s framed and hanging in his home.
JQ: Badass. Also, in that article I was trying to track down some more information about Ruth Hoyer, who appeared to be instrumental in the Conan RPG graphic design, as well as countless other TSR products. Clyde Caldwell remembered her face, and Jeff Easley told me he thinks that “Hoyer” may have been her married name. Anyway, I figured I’d ask you, Jeff, if you recall anything about her as I try to shine the light and give credit to the behind-the-scenes creators?
JB: Sorry, I can’t help you with that. I don’t have a strong memory of Ruth. I didn’t know a lot of the staff, especially in the first year or so. After we moved into our new art department space, the graphic designers and typesetters were located right next to us, so we worked more closely with them.
Of course, I worked very closely with game designer, Jeff Grubb on the Marvel game. I just saw him at GaryCon! I hadn’t seen Jeff in years!
JQ: Oh wow. Jeff Grubb - author, computer and role playing game designer - another TSR legend! That had to be really fun to see him again.
Later, at TSR, the art department was joined by Brom, Fred Fields and Robh Ruppel. Tell us about working with these amazing artists!
JB: By then, the old band was starting to break-up. I’m thinking that it would have been sometime in ’88 when Keith and Larry left TSR and opened their own studio in downtown Lake Geneva. We still saw a lot of them, but not daily, anymore.
I had been collecting new responsibilities at work. Aside from my regular art duties, I was managing freelance artists, overseeing and editing the DragonLance graphic novels, organizing our presence at the San Diego Comic Con, working with DC on their new line of TSR-based comics, and working with Flint Dille on a new look for Buck Rogers.
By late 1988, I was getting burned-out. In March of 1989, I left the company on good terms, and continued to do freelance work for them for several more years, while also working on the new, Green Hornet comic.
Sometime after Larry, Keith and I were gone, they hired Brom. I was still doing a lot of freelance work for TSR and would drive down from my home in Franklin (Milwaukee suburb) to drop-off work and go to lunch with the guys. That’s how I got to know Brom. He was young and uber-talented! I remember he worked in Keith’s old area in the art department. I thought that was appropriate, because, like Keith, he had a wicked-good sense of color and was already doing some seriously amazing work! Brom is a great guy and I enjoyed getting to know him.
Fred and Robh came in later. I didn’t get to know them as well. I remember Fred didn’t work in the art department at the time. I guess he had his own office and didn’t socialize as much.
By the time Robh had started, I was doing less work for TSR and didn’t visit as often anymore. But I remember first seeing Robh’s paintings and thinking that he might be the most commercially slick talent the TSR art department ever had! He was good! His book covers were beautiful! Of course, he’s another TSR brother who has gone on to have an amazing career!
JQ: Jeff, you being such a huge fan, it must have been some boon to get to work on the Marvel Super Heroes RPG boxed sets! I still have my originals by the way. I would stare at the artwork for hours and compare superhero stats of who was the mightiest super-being in the cosmos. I would also try and draw the characters from your illustrations! Anyway, talk to us about your favorite experiences with working on the Marvel stuff at TSR.
JB: That’s cool! It’s always fun to hear from people who said they were inspired to draw by my old illustrations. I totally get that because I was certainly a fan-artist. Most of us were! We were all spawn of Frazetta, Boris, Whelan, Wrightson, Adams, Steranko, et. al.
I’m certain that one of the reasons Jim Rosloff hired me was because TSR had the Marvel license, and I could do superhero art with ease. Of course, I was intimately familiar with the Marvel characters and had been drawing them for most of my life! So, I had to pinch myself when that Marvel work became a big part of my job! Again… LUCK!
Interestingly, that happened again, later in my career when I worked in video games. I was the lead character artist for several Marvel video games, like X-Men: Legends I & II, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance I and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
JQ: Amazing! I can imagine your interview with Jim Rosloff going something like this: “Jeff, you’re green, kid, but I really like your splats, biffs, pows and blaps. Welcome to TSR!”
Now, you also did a bunch of work with the Dragonlance books, D&D modules, graphic novel adaptations and numerous other projects. Were there any fun experiences you had that stood out?
JB: Well, I was thrown right into production on day one at TSR. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Jim Rosloff got me working on interiors for Quagmire!, a D&D module. That was fun and I really enjoyed the process! I remember that one, mainly because it was the first and I worked very hard on it.
After that, it became more of a job, with a series of deadlines. But don’t get me wrong… I was having a blast! I loved going to work and hanging out with all those talented guys!
I can tell you that I probably learned more about art and practical applications and techniques in my first 6-8 months at TSR than I had during several years of college! I learned so much, just watching the other guys work. Each had their own process, and each had specific techniques that were fun to experiment with, and try to implement in my own work.
As far as fun experiences go… where to start? We had a lot of fun, from our daily dart games to Halloween parties (Easley usually had the best costume), to our regular lunch outings, to our Renaissance Fair excursions, to our annual trek to Gen Con, wherever it happened to be. Too many stories to recount, here!
JQ: Oh boy. Sounds like you, Easley, Caldwell, Diesel and the rest are now on the hook for a follow-up interview or memoir with me - “TSR Road Trip: Too Many Stories to Recount”
Jeff, you were the captain of your highschool football team, so though I haven’t met you in person, I imagine you’re a pretty big guy. I’ve seen some pictures of you surface not too long ago that seems to imply that you may be the true Caramon of Dragonlance fame. What say you to this?
JB: Well, I’m bigger than I’d like to be, these days! In high school, I was 6’-2” and about 190 lbs.
Yeah, I was one of four captains on my high school football team. I was a decent quarterback on an exceptional squad. Our offense shattered a lot of total yardage and scoring records, at the time. Our defense was remarkable, too!
Madison, WI was a real hotbed for athletics, especially in the mid-late ‘70s. Two of our rival city high schools placed high-impact players on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Mark Johnson from Madison Memorial was the U.S.A. team’s high-scorer, and Bob Suter, from Madison East was a top defenseman. Both were my age.
A friend from my Madison West High homeroom was none other than 6-gold medal winning speed skater, Eric Heiden. Eric would’ve been the BIG story of the ’80 Winter Olympics, had it not been for the shocking performance of the hockey team! One of my football teammates, Jon Hallingstad, became a world-class decathlete. So, we were surrounded by great athletes!
As far as being Caramon goes, we frequently modeled for each other in the art department. So I ended up modeling for several characters, mainly in Larry’s and Clyde’s paintings.
I know I modeled for Caramon at least once. But I modeled for Raistlin a few times. For The Time of the Twins book cover, I modeled as Raistlin, embracing Larry’s wife, Betty as Crysania.
@YoDanno (on Twitter) is a HUGE old school fantasy fan (especially Dragonlance) who unearths great trivia about fantasy art, artists, books, magazines and RPGs all the time. Make sure to check out his posts!
JB: At GaryCon, last year, Betty and I recreated that pose and Larry took a photo. Fun memory. I often don’t recall which paintings I modeled for until I see them. Then, the memories return!
I did a Thor montage for a Marvel Gamers’ Guide. If you look closely, you’ll find Keith is “Ego, the Living Planet.”
JQ: In my recent quest to collect cool fantasy things I didn’t get a hold of as a kid, I came across these Pick A Path To Adventure Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Show Books that featured the cartoon characters from the 80s. Imagine my surprise to find your name on all five of them as the cover illustrator! Though designed for younger kids, I think these books are amazing. Anyway, what do you remember about them?
JB: Those were a fun diversion. I’m a big, classical animation fan. Because those covers were based on the animated TV show, I decided to do them as animation cells, with backgrounds. So the figure art was inked on a sheet of clear acetate and placed over a painted background.
I also did licensed art for a tabletop pinball game, based on the animated D&D show. It was fun to see those characters show up in the recent D&D movie with Chris Pine.
JQ: I still need to catch that new movie!
Book 5 in this series, “The King Who Wore No Crown” additionally lists Keith Parkinson with your name – you did the first 4 covers solo, so why this collaboration? Was Keith in competition mode, or did you get in trouble, Jeff?
JB: Ha, no trouble. As was frequently the case, our schedules dictated what we had time to do, and I needed help with the last 2 covers. Keith had a little time in his schedule, so I asked if he could do some cool backgrounds and he came through gloriously. I added the character figure cells.
JQ: Nice! Book 1 was written by Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame. I see in some of my Top Secret RPG stuff which you illustrated, Tracy Hickman - the other half of Dragonlance - was a writer. Did you ever get to work with them in person?
JB: Oh sure! Tracy and Margaret were staffers, like the rest of us! Nice folks! I probably got to know Margaret a little better, over the years. But I’ll never forget some great advice Tracy offered me, as my responsibilities mounted at TSR. I won’t share it, here… but it was greatly appreciated at the time!
JQ: I got advice once as a kid from my friend’s dad - he told me, “don’t take any wooden nickels”. Still holding on tight to that chestnut though I’d given up searching for them years ago whenever I’d get change back at the store . . .
JQ: Jeff, I LOVE gamebooks. In fact, I’m writing my own right now in the heroic old school epic fantasy style. But anyway, I saw that you had also illustrated the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Gamebooks (1986-1988). I never had those but will have to start hunting them down. Any cool experiences working on these?
JB: I love the gamebooks, too! The real treat for me came when TSR began publishing those Marvel Adventure Gamebooks and I would get the chance to actually paint the Marvel Superheroes for the book covers!
The first cover (featuring Spider-Man) was another collaboration with Keith Parkinson. I did the composition drawing and Keith turned it into a brilliant painting!
Next, I got to paint Captain America for a book titled, Rockets Red Glare. This was a dream come true.
Remember how I mentioned how the Frazetta Conan/Frost Giants cover (and all his other Conan covers) had inspired me? Well, around that same time in my youth, I bought another paperback called The Great Gold Steal. It was one of 2 Marvel novels that was released in the late ‘60s. This book had an amazing painting of the figure of Captain America on the cover. It was so realistic and impressive! I had never seen anything like it! I was knocked out! But the art was unsigned!
After many years of trying to find out who painted this beautiful piece, I learned the artist’s name from Kevin Long, an artist friend and colleague at Raven Software. That’s a long story for another time. But Kevin told me the painter was well-known paperback cover artist from that era, Mitchell Hooks. Apparently, Hooks wasn’t overly proud of the piece, which may explain why he didn’t sign it. But I can honestly say that, between that Captain America cover, and all the Frazetta covers, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up!
I did a whole series, 7 or 8 of these Marvel paperback covers. Then, came a series of covers for The Gamers’ Handbook to the Marvel Universe! I was in art-heaven working on those! Certainly, these covers are some of my favorite pieces and a fondly remembered time in my career!
(Featuring artwork from Clyde Caldwell & Luke Eidenschink!)
JQ: I see you’re still active on the conference circuit. I asked Clyde Caldwell this too, but what is the craziest Comic/Gary/Dragon/Gen/-Con experience you’ve ever had?
JB: I still do a few conventions. Comic and game conventions. But I’m not thrilled with travelling, when I can avoid it. I don’t know about “craziest” con experience. There was a funny story about a fan asking to have her t-shirt autographed, but first, requiring a kiss. That was at the last GenCon in Milwaukee and my friend, Kevin Long tells the story better than I. I met a lot of nice people at conventions… both pros and fans!
I got to spend a weekend with one of my art-heroes, Jim Steranko, at an East Coast convention, back when I was drawing The Green Hornet comic. We went out to dinner with Jim, Van Williams (TV’s Green Hornet and another great guy) and The Destroyer author (among many other things,) Will Murray. That was a great evening with some extremely interesting people. Unfortunately, my weekend ended when I got sick with what would become a severe illness that kept me out of action for over 6 months. The plane ride home was miserable.
JQ: Ugh - that’s a long time to stay sick! But considering how you obtained your job at TSR even while bedraggled and on crutches, this could have been a great opportunity for you to interview a for a different job . . .
I’m going to do some rapid-fire questions that I think fans like me would be really interested in. Feel free to elaborate as much or as little as you’d like with your experiences or thoughts. Here we go:
Favorite fantasy piece you’ve created?
JB: Those “favorite piece” questions are always tough. You do a lot of work, over 40+ years.
I did a couple posters for GaryCon that I like a lot. One is a Fire Giant with a 2-headed hell-hound. The other is a young Gary Gygax as an Archangel, blasting a lich king with heavenly light. Those were fun.
I like the Conan box art, and a more recent Conan piece I did as an homage to Frank Frazetta’s work.
But, if I had to pick one fantasy piece, it would probably be the only dragon I got to paint at TSR: The piece was originally done for the 1990 Forgotten Realms calendar. It eventually became the cover for the AD&D module called “The Shining South.” I always called it, “Desperate Duel.” It’s a red dragon, in an airborne duel with a flying ship.
JQ: Favorite piece by another artist?
JB: Almost anything by Frazetta. But the Conan covers inspired me the most. As I mentioned, Hooks’ Captain America cover painting was a big influence, too. Jeff Easley did an amazing dragon pencil piece that he gave to me, years ago. I love that drawing a lot!
JQ: Favorite Comic/Superhero piece you’ve created?
JB: Another tough question. The Captain America Gamers’ Guide cover is a favorite.
I’ve always been proud of the first issue cover for the Sting of the Green Hornet mini-series. That was a special project for me. Coming off my long illness, Now Comics asked me what I’d like to do. After working on 10 issues of our reimagined, modern take on the Hornet, I was dying to do a WWII era period story… like the old cliffhangers.
I gave my collaborator, Ron Fortier my plot idea… and after a little back-and-forth, he crafted a great, 4-part story. I got to plot, pencil, ink (except for the fourth issue) and paint covers for each issue. What a blast! I’ve always wanted to do a sequel with Ron!
JQ: Stan Lee?
JB: I only met Stan on a couple of occasions, and only for a few minutes, each time. He was always “Stan the Man” in public. Very friendly and gracious and talkative.
I got to know Jim Shooter a little better. There are a lot of strong opinions about Jim Shooter out there. But I must tell you, he was always a perfect gentleman to me… and very encouraging and helpful.
In many respects, Jim helped put me on a more professional trajectory. Jim introducing me to Joe Rubenstein (who gave me some great tips on penciling and inking comics.) Jim also sent me a bunch of great, unused, original pencil pages to practice inking on! I think this may have helped me get the TSR job… because I could make my work fit visually in the Marvel Universe.
JQ: Any other artists you’ve met or become friends with over the years?
JB: One of my best friends is Kevin Long, who still works at Raven Software. Kevin was a successful illustrator who did a huge amount of work for Palladium Books in the 80s and 90s.
Our mutual buddy, Ed Binkley has really been getting a lot of attention in the fantasy art world, lately. Google him. His work is amazing! Ed developed the Animation Program at Madison College (one of the colleges I currently teach at) and taught there for many years. Now retired from teaching, Ed continues to create some truly stunning fantasy character art!
I still keep in touch with Jeff Easley, and we usually see each other a few times a year. Jeff’s a dear friend. Of course, it’s always great to see Larry, Clyde, Diesel and my other artist and game-design brethren at least once a year at GaryCon and some at GameHoleCon, in Madison.
JQ: Ooh - I LOVED the artwork from the old Palladium books! I just pulled out my old copy of Ninjas & Superspies and see Kevin’s work! I’m excited to take a look at Ed’s stuff, too.
JB: I never knew Gary that well. He was my boss for a time, and we were friendly. But we didn’t socialize outside of work. Diesel probably knew Gary and his family the best of all of us.
JQ: Ok, thanks for that rapid-fire segment. On a different topic, I saw you had done some work with Flint Dille on the Buck Rogers RPG. I recently was researching Flint for my article about the Sagard The Barbarian gamebooks he wrote with Gary Gygax.
Missed the Sagard newsletter?
That’s when I came across his recent (2020) memoir (“The Gamesmaster: Almost Famous in the Geek ‘80s”) – it’s been a really interesting read! This guy seemed to be connected to a ton of big geek culture cartoons, movies and games I grew up with. I wanted to ask about any fun or interesting experiences you may have had with him?
JB: Yes, I worked closely with Flint on several projects at TSR, including the two Agent 13 novels he co-wrote with David Marconi, the cover for the graphic novel of the same name, and of course, the “reboot” (for lack of a better term) of the Buck Rogers IP, which was the Dille family jewel.
Flint is sort of a “force of nature.” Big guy with a big personality and creative after-burners. I just saw him at GaryCon, and it was as if no time had passed.
Back in the day, I invited several of my Chicago and Wisconsin-based comic art buddies to a couple of weekend retreats at TSR to create a bunch of new concept art for Buck Rogers. A lot of cool art came from those sessions, but I don’t think much of it went anywhere.
I had some Buck Rogers designs that Flint liked, and some of those images made it to the back of the Buck Rogers box game. But, beyond that, I don’t remember a lot of fertile concept sessions.
We tried to get a Buck Rogers graphic novel going, but we had some trouble nailing down a creative team and getting the money budgeted for the project. At the same time, I was doing some active research concerning the possibility of TSR publishing their own line of comics. I talked to several industry folks, including my eventual agent, Mike Friedrich. Everything added up to a financial outlay that was prohibitive for TSR at the time.
JQ: You talked about the GaryCon posters earlier. These were done at the request of Gary’s son, Luke. Flint speaks highly of him in his book. Were you friends with Luke back in the day?
JB: Luke is a great guy! I’ve gotten to know him through his great annual convention in Lake Geneva, GaryCon.
Remember, Luke would have been a little kid, back in the 80s. I didn’t really know any of Gary’s family, back then. But Luke invited me to GaryCon, several years ago and we hit it off. He’s commissioned 3 posters from me, over the past few years. He’s always got a great idea for the artwork and they’re a blast to work on. His convention is amazing, and he treats everyone great!
JQ: One of my goals with Rediscovered Realms is to keep it fun and detour around controversy as much as possible. I honestly don’t know the whole TSR story and the aftermath of Gary’s passing, legal battles, WotC, etc. - but have picked up that there may still be sensitive topics and people that didn’t have an optimal experience while involved in its different iterations.
Not discounting that, I just want to say that I have so much respect for what was created. I wish only the best to Luke, his family and all TSR artists, employees & creators who provided such joy to millions.
JB: Well, like any business, there is going to be good and bad. Believe me, TSR wasn’t perfect by a long shot… but I don’t dwell on the bad.
On balance, it was (and remains) a very positive and formative experience for me… and I’m sure many of my former colleagues would tell you the same. The good memories and experiences tend to crowd-out any bad ones.
JQ: That is really good to hear. Jeff, I noticed on your online portfolio, you talked a little bit about your Doctor Strange illustration. You mentioned losing your big brother, Terry, who was a big fan of the Doctor even though you were not. Your words hit me pretty hard. Do you mind telling us a little about him and how he influenced you?
JB: My big brother, Terry was the first-born of 5 siblings. He was my only brother. We had 3 sisters. (Kathy, Jayme and Peggy.) He was 6 years older than me, but we shared a room until he was about 18, when he moved into a space in the basement, before moving into his own apartment.
You’d think the age difference would have made him resent me. But he was such a great big brother and was loved by everyone in the family. He helped inspire me to read and taught me a little about speed reading and comprehension. I could never read as fast as he could. He could read an entire book in 2-3 hours.
My Dad the sportswriter, had been an athlete. Me and my little sister, Peggy picked up those traits and interest in sports. Terry wasn’t traditionally athletic but was the first “Renaissance Man” I ever encountered.
He was a great student, was well-read on any number of subjects. Terry studied Taekwondo. He raced sports cars and motorcycles, was a world-class sailor (missed the U.S. Olympic Sailing Trials in 1980 when President Carter boycotted the Moscow Summer Games.) He also taught sailing and windsurfing, while he was a graduate researcher, studying sharks at the University of Miami in Florida. To our unending grief, he was tragically killed by a drunk driver in Florida at the age of 29.
Terry had always taken a keen interest in his siblings and what we were interested in. When I started bringing comics home, he read them and fell in love with many of the Marvel characters, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
For his birthday (I’m guessing his 25th) I did a big ink drawing of Doctor Strange for him. He loved that drawing! When I went to settle his affairs in Florida, after he died, I brought back that framed, Doctor Strange drawing with his other belongings that we didn’t dispose of or sell in Florida. I still have it… but I can’t display it, because it triggers too many memories of the two of us, late at night, laying in bed, talking about comics and other things.
I’ll always miss that guy! He was one of a kind!
JQ: Terry sounds like he was an amazing guy and great big brother. Thank you for sharing that, Jeff.
JQ: Considering the busy life of an artist like yourself, what’s a dream project you’ve been putting off and hope to get to or be part of?
JB: Well, like I mentioned before, I’ve always wanted to do a sequel to Sting of the Green Hornet. But I doubt that will ever happen.
I’ve also got a gothic horror story that’s been percolating in my brain for a year or so. I think it might make a good graphic novel. My problem is, I have too many interests, and that can dilute one’s focus!
I do enjoy summers. Besides the obvious reasons, things slow down a bit for me once school is out and I’m able to do commission drawings… which I really enjoy. Fans of my work contact me to do comic book or fantasy related drawings and the composition ideas are almost always too fun to turn down!
I’ve got a couple I’ll be starting soon. One is a very cool comic cover composition, based on ‘50’s horror comics. The other, will be a detailed reimagining, based on my old ink drawing of DragonLance character, Lord Gunthar, in his rose encrusted chest plate. Fun stuff!
JQ: Oh boy - Lord Gunthar evokes a lot of positive emotion in Dragonlance fans (just don’t let anyone talk you into illustrating Derek Crownguard - everyone still hates that guy!)
Oh, and I know it’s been a while now, but congratulations on getting your art degree back in 2018! That’s an amazing accomplishment at 60 years old. Though you look nothing like him, I can’t help but picture Rodney Dangerfield from the movie Back To School. Any fun parties or diving competitions happen while you were doing your classes?
JB: Heh, thanks! Yes, somewhere, my parents are smiling!
During the holidays in 2017, my spring teaching schedule was looking a bit light. My wonderful wife and her amazing father suggested I use the extra time to finally finish that Bachelor of Science – Art degree that I had put on hold, way-back-when, to work on Badger. I had promised my parents I’d go back and finish… but the career postponed that idea.
It’s funny you referred to Back to School, because that movie was filmed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison… my alma-mater AND one of the colleges I currently teach at.
When I returned to the UW to schedule my classes, I met with a great advisor in the art department, Julie Ganser. Julie shoe-horned me into an already full class with the amazing Lynda Barry.
Along with being a great teacher, Lynda is a MacArthur Genius Fellow, and the 2019 National Cartoonist Society Cartoonist of the Year. Her “Making Comics” class was an incredible experience and opened many new creative channels in my brain. We hit it off and I immediately saw how Lynda was inspiring incredible work from students who had minimal drawing experience.
I’ve always been interested in this in my own teaching, and she was so open and freely shared her approach and concepts! The following year, she planned to take a 12-month sabbatical and surprisingly, asked me to teach her popular classes at the UW while she was away. It worked out so well, I’ve been teaching there for four years now.
JQ: Congratulations again - has anyone ever told you that you’re sort of lucky?! By the way, I didn’t know that about Back to School, but that’s really neat.
Jeff, what are you most proud to have created in your life?
JB: I’m very proud of my family and my career.
JQ: Well said. If you had to choose one character trait as the most foundational to a successful artist’s/creator’s life, what would you choose?
JB: It’s so hard to choose just one trait. Developing your foundational skills is vital. I see a lot of students who can copy styles of other artists using Procreate on an iPad. But many of those same students can’t draw very well with pencil and paper.
It’s not exactly a character trait, is it? But developing those basic skills is so important to creating a strong foundations and setting yourself apart from the pack.
As far as character traits, I would say, confidence and persistence go hand-in-hand as cornerstones to success in the visual arts. It’s so competitive. You must be confident in your abilities and persistent about how you want to apply them. Of course, a little luck is always nice, too!
JQ: Thank you for that insightful advice, Jeff! I am so amazed at both the volume and quality of the work you’ve created over the years.
Beyond the ones I already loved, I’m so happy to have discovered so many of your other amazing illustrations that are new to me. I could probably do 5 interviews with you and still not cover everything! It was so fun getting to know you better and learn about your interesting & incredible experiences - as well as your luck-filled success.
You know, on second thought, Jeff, considering your talent, your hard work, your hard-won skill, and as you shared with us, your persistence - I’m pretty sure luck’s got nothing to do with it. Thank you again for this interview!
JB: Oh, it’s been my pleasure! Thanks so much, Jim!
You can find out more about Jeff Butler and see some of his professional portfolio at his website, https://jeff-butler.com/
Demian’s gamebook website also maintains a list of Jeff’s gamebook-related illustrations here: https://gamebooks.org/Person/533/Show
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Like old school fantasy art? Check out my recent interview with another old school fantasy artist great, Clyde Caldwell!