Sequential Sunday: Mark A. Nelson

Published on March 27th, 2011

“There are few artists working in the realm of popular entertainment who deserve to be called Renaissance Men. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Mark Nelson“. These words, written by Mark (Xenozoic Tales) Schultz, begin the introduction to the jaw-dropping book From Pencils To Inks: The Art of Mark A. Nelson.

In observing the astounding pen and brush work in this volume, it is clear why the multi-talented Nelson embodies the term “Renaissance Man” so well: he consistently and seemingly effortlessly creates fantasy drenched visions across multiple artistic arenas.  From comics to conceptual designs to fine art, Nelson’s career as both as both a highly respected artist and educator spans well over 25 years.

But to have a full understanding of the scope and reach of Nelson’s work one needs to go back to to where it all began: the independent comics boom of the 1980’s. Nelson contributed to many indie titles and publishers of the era including Nexus and Badger for First Comics, and Alien Encounters & Airboy for Eclipse.

In 1987 Nelson would begin producing short stories for fledgling publisher Dark Horse for their anthology Dark Horse Presents. Issue 12 of the title would feature the story The Portheus Principal, a remarkably drawn tale of a time traveling scientist which puts an early spotlight on Nelson’s ability to portray great looking dinosaurs and his knack for depicting lush, naturalistic settings. The pages of DHP would also feature the one page strips Dinosaur Tales, giving Nelson the chance to work in a humorous vein while still featuring a subject that is obviously very close to his heart. Despite this great early work, it would be in 1988 with the appearance of the original Aliens six issue comic series from Dark Horse that would cement Nelson as one of the hottest comic artists on the scene.

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Working from an exceptional script by Mark Vehedrien, Nelson’s highly detailed art is a perfect match for the worn technology and shadow-filled Aliens universe. Set ten years after the events of the James Cameron film Aliens, and continuing the story of Ripley and Newt, this series is so good that it was assumed at the time by many Aliens fans (myself included) that it would be the basis for the next movie in the franchise. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass.

The success of Verheiden’s and Nelson’s series not only gave a boost to the still young publisher Dark Horse, but also set a new standard for what movie related comics were capable of. Usually the domain of hastily put together adaptations made for a quick profit while a film is still fresh in the public consciousness, movie comics were now a viable way to take an established universe and expand upon it in innumerable ways. Books like these have become a cornerstone of Dark Horse’s publishing world as evidenced by the success of their many Aliens, Predator, and Star Wars (amongst others) titles through the years.

The praise for Nelson’s Aliens work earned him a name as a top horror artist in the field, and it is within this genre that he produced a sizable amount of work over the next several years. Nelson contributed great work to Marvel’s late, lamented Epic line of comics based on the Clive Barker properties Hellraiser and Nightbreed. His Hellraiser entry also gave Nelson the chance to write as well as draw his own work and the result is one of the best stories in the entire run of the series. The two Nightbreed issues Nelson illustrated (from scripts by D.G. Chichester) are especially interesting as it gave him the chance to work Peruvian-styled imagery into the jungle ruins set story. Symbols from various world cultures would figure prominently in Nelson’s later personal work.

1990’s hardcore-horror comics company Northstar published several Nelson tales, both in the Rex Miller title Chaingang as well as their anthology title Splatter. The real-world violence found in these books stand in stark contrast to the more fantastical nightmares seen in many horror comics from this period.

1993 saw the release of the mini-series Feud, co-created with writer Mark Baron. The ability to create the very believable warring alien races of the story was an indication of the astoundingly original creature designs of Nelson’s conceptual work which was yet to come.

The surreal horror of Joe R. Lansdale proved a perfect match for Nelson’s brushwork in the four-issue prestige format series Blood and Shadows. This would be but one of a number of great collaborations between the two as Nelson also created numerous book covers and spot illustrations for Lansdale’s Texas flavored literary terrors.

Naturally, the richness of Nelson’s work has brought him the opportunity to contribute numerous pieces of art to fantasy role playing games and related magazines for publisher’s such as Wizards of the Coast, TSR, FASA Corporation, and White Wolf.

Aside from numerous illustrations for the literary adaptation series Graphics Classics, Nelson’s work within the comics field since the late 90’s has been mostly in the area of inking as well as occasional cover art for various series both mainstream and independent.

This has given Nelson more time to explore his personal work, which have become the pinnacle pieces of a careerr already overflowing with imagination rich visuals. Superb examples of these are found in the aforementioned From Pencils To Inks: The Art of Mark A. Nelson as well as the remarkable 2010 release Visual Dialogues.

The high level of realism in Nelson’s personal work, and the exacting detail lavished upon each component within his imagery, creates vivid fantasias far beyond our waking world, yet still seem completely real and believable. Every subject presented be they human or monster, animate or inanimate, carry the weight of reality and embody a vivid life of their own.

Emphasising the reality of these pieces is the injection of perfectly rendered wildlife and symbolic imagery from various world cultures. Aztec, Mayan, Neolithic, Toltec and Celtic art (to name just a few) are presented alongside various creatures of the land, air and water to create a highly beleviable reality that is both universally familiar and mysteriously exotic. Of course I’d be highly remiss to not mention the beautiful and perfectly realized women that are the focal points of these works. Strong in both physical and spiritual terms, these embodiments of feminine beauty are truly real women and not the overly idealized representation of such found in most contemporary fantastic art today.

From Pencils To Inks: The Art of Mark A. Nelson and Visual Dialogues are two superb books represent a peak period of creativity for one of the very finest illustrators of his generation. There is a genre-shattering appeal of these works and these collections belong on the bookshelf of every art aficionado, no matter if they are fans of comic books, illustration, fine art, or just purely have a keen eye for appreciating imagery that simutaneously soothes the soul while blowing the mind completely wide open.

John Mueller

john@comicimpact.com