Middle Earth, revisited

Wizards navigate winding paths, dragons' wings stretch across a smoldering sky, and an odd creature cringes in a dark cavern, coveting the ring in the popular graphic novel "The Hobbit: A Graphic Novel."

Illustrated by Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts professor David T. Wenzel, the graphic novel - which contains nearly all of the text from J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic, "The Hobbit," published in 1937 - is printed in many languages worldwide by the United Kingdom division of Harper Collins.

First published in 1989 in three separate editions, "The Hobbit: A Graphic Novel" remains a fan favorite and is the only graphic treatment of "The Hobbit" authorized by HarperCollins UK. The current book brings together the three earlier editions.

"It has almost the complete story with visuals in it," said Wenzel, who is also the illustrator of other children's books, such as "The Wizard's Tale" and "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer."

Wenzel lives in Durham and has been teaching at Lyme Academy's illustration department since it was established four years ago.

"Tolkien was pretty adroit at giving descriptions. Pretty much anything he described, I drew," said Wenzel, who updated the graphic novel with a new cover, larger format and 32 pages of additional artwork five years ago.

Created with pen and ink and watercolor, the drawings are rich with detail and saturated with jewel tones and bright, clear colors. Wenzel is pleased at the print quality, as well as the dialogue bubbles that have muted the background color so the text is crisper and easier to read.

Although he can't name which character in "The Hobbit" was his favorite to draw, he did acknowledge that his depiction of Gollum was similar to the movie, saying that he drew Gollum based upon Tolkien's description: "a twisted Hobbit with huge, glow-in-the-dark eyes."

When he talks about the characters, Wenzel becomes more animated and eventually relinquishes a fascination with the menacing Orcs.

"The Orcs have malformed armor made in mocking imitation of the elves, Tolkien said. The Orcs are the evil morgarths, his twisted version of the elves. I used twisted teeth, jagged this, jagged that. I wanted them to look evil," said Wenzel.

Two more films yet to be released as part of the second "Hobbit" film trilogy - "The Desolation of Smaug" out this December and "There and Back Again" due to be released in July 2014 - will continue to spur interest in the graphic novel.

Graphic novels, liberally illustrated books, are easy for young readers to enjoy independently. Wenzel's "Hobbit" graphic novel is more accurate in terms of storyline to Tolkien's book than the movies, which take the story out of sequence, Wenzel said.

Created before the first "Lord of the Rings" movie came out in 2001, Wenzel's "Hobbit" interprets the fantasy world woven by Tolkien with historical references - an imaginative interplay that fellow artist Michael DiGiorgio said is a forte of Wenzel's. DiGiorgio, who lives in Madison, is well known for paintings and drawings that have appeared in a variety of nature books and journals.

"When you're an artist, you have to visually show the author's ideas, but you also have to give it your own signature and feeling of life. That's what Dave is good at; he's very knowledgeable of history and settings," said DiGiorgio.

Even though the novel is set in what Tolkien called Middle Earth, one can't help evoking a bit of Europe in the imagery, which includes a blend of fantasy, the English countryside, and other elements, such as the Nordic-inspired dwarves and distinct characteristics of dragon lore that hails from England.

"It's an interesting conglomeration of the Middle Ages," said Wenzel.

His novel blends imagery one would know from the time period, including thatched straw roofs, familiar farm animals and clothing. But then he added fantasy - made more believable because of the historic realism.

"Fantasy has to have a foot firmly planted in historical elements so the fantastic themes seem like they develop out of our history," noted Wenzel.

Illustration requires that the artist accurately honor the writer's intent and also visually invent and enhance the environment in which the story is placed. It's a balance that book illustrators must work within, said Wenzel.

As a teacher, Wenzel is very popular, said Richard Rose, head of Lyme Academy's illustration department. Within the diverse field of illustration, Wenzel stands out for his inventiveness and adeptness of character development, Rose said.

"I do think his characters, his images and the sense of place that he establishes is really something that many people connect with," said Rose.

And such a cornerstone of historical reference, woven with fantasy and the appeal of a little guy who takes on seemingly impenetrably evil forces that could overwhelm him, save for his inherent sterling character, has stoked the flames of new generations of Tolkien fans since the novel was first published.

"He's sort of the entry-level drug for fantasy," joked Wenzel, who said that before the popular role-playing video game "World of Warcraft" and the craze of "Dungeons and Dragons," there was "The Hobbit."

"Where would they be without Tolkien?" asked Wenzel.

David T. Wenzel's "The Hobbit: A Graphic Novel," whose list price is $20, is available through Random House at www.randomhouse.com, through amazon.com, and at area bookstores.


David Wenzel, of Durham, stands next to his original watercolor, 'Break the Dishes, Smash the Plates That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates!' at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme on Feb. 19.
David Wenzel, of Durham, stands next to his original watercolor, "Break the Dishes, Smash the Plates That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates!" at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme on Feb. 19.


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