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Home » Fandoms » J.R.R. Tolkien » From Mutants to Middle-earth: An Interview with Illustrator David T. Wenzel

From Mutants to Middle-earth: An Interview with Illustrator David T. Wenzel

Many may remember David T Wenzel’s work on Marvel comic’s, “The Avengers”, but he is also known for his work in the highly successful “The Hobbit” illustrated graphic novel.

You can also see his work in children’s books such as the Little Bear series, A Wizard’s Tale, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Most recently you can find his work in the Robb Walsh book, Kingdom of the Dwarves, published by Centaur Books. His art can also be found in an array of media such as puzzles, greeting cards, and collectible figurines.



The Avengers #175
The Avengers #175

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the industry?

David: I’ve been a professional illustrator since I graduated from art school in the mid 1970’s. I began my career developing artwork for Marvel and D.C. comics and children’s publishing. In the comics field, I worked on some notable series, including a stint on the Avengers and several Robert E Howard characters. During my last year at art school, I was introduced to Tolkien’s books and their images and characters really sparked my imagination. Most of my senior art show was based on creating illustrations for his books and other illustrations that were of a fantastic nature. These illustrations became the basis for my first full color book, entitled “Middle Earth the World of Tolkien Illustrated”, published by Centaur books. At that time, I was very influenced by the wonderful English illustrators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth illustrators, like Rackham and Dulac. I developed a style that combined pen and brown ink and watercolor. My next big fantasy project was the development of a book entitled Kingdom of The Dwarves, which was an account of a fictional archeological dig in Durham England that uncovered a lost civilization of Dwarves that influenced many aspects of our history and explained many folk tales and legends. Centaur Books also published that book. After that, I diversified my subject areas between history and children’s books, but I always would return to fantasy themes and found I enjoyed creating visuals for that genre the most.

What specific aspects of your approach to depicting the story of “The Hobbit”, make you unique and set you apart from other artists who have used Tolkien’s work as their inspiration?

David: The very nature of a graphic novel format creates its own unique set of parameters that would make the artwork I created for The Hobbit different. The publisher’s and my own expectations were to portray Tolkien’s descriptions and text, as accurately as possible, which meant I had to visualize nearly every scene and event in the book. Up until that time, I believe this was the only project to attempt that. Now, with the movies, Peter Jackson’s artists have had to answer the same challenges and then some. Stylistically we were talking about publishing The Hobbit and a possible transition to Lord of the Rings afterwards. I wanted there to be differences in my approach to both projects and it was my decision to keep The Hobbit lighter. I wanted to use my pen ink and watercolor technique on The Hobbit and my more traditional watercolor technique for Lord of the Rings. When the Lord of the Rings project was shelved, I eventually used that approach when I painted the graphic novel, The Wizard’s Tale, by Kurt Busiek.

When working on a project such as The Hobbit illustrated novel, for inspiration do you read the books and create based on your personal interpretation, or do you get direction from the author/publishing company?

David: When I began to develop the visual look for The Hobbit graphic novel, I was in a position to combine my personal interpretation with research from history and other reference material. I had created a number of sketches when I first read The Hobbit, albeit they were crude, they still contained the essence of how Tolkien’s text had first inspired me. I was able to draw on that raw material and add to it with additional layers from historical resources and a more concise reading of the text. The publishers were already aware that I was familiar with the Tolkien material and sequential storytelling, so they gave me a free hand in how I was going to approach it.

In your career your illustrated works have included such mediums as comic art, fantasy lore and children’s books. Is it difficult as an artist to create from one genre to the next?

David: Over my career I have created a lot of illustrations. The pieces that I am the most comfortable with usually involve an amalgam of history, fantasy, and whimsy. As long as the assignment includes some of these elements, I’m usually right at home and the work just flows better. I also enjoy adding a bit of comedy if an assignment calls for it. That allows me to be flexible in a number of areas. Probably the artworks that cause me the most stress are serious, modern subjects. I have done a lot of those, but because fashions and technologies are changing so frequently, I find that this work can look more dated then an illustration based on the eighteenth century. There was one project that had a modern bent to it that I was right at home with. I did get a lot of enjoyment out of painting the Wizard’s Tale. Kurt Busiek wrote the story about a fantasy world, and the plot had a great crossover into more modern times. What I liked about it was, he made the character’s time and dimension travel, which landed them in the 1970’s, and so I could look at it more as a modern historical piece. In one of the New York City street scenes, I added John Lennon, because he was living there at the time, and I really enjoy The Beatles.

Alchemite Explosion - "Wizard's Tale"
Alchemite Explosion – “Wizard’s Tale”

What genre of illustration is your favorite? Do you have a favorite character, landscape or scene?

David: When I’ve had total free reign, I tend to create artwork that centers on storytelling. The artwork generally has a fantastic theme and can have historical overtones. I have a couple of projects that I would like to bring to fruition. One involves a science fiction theme and the other involved elves. I do have a number of book ideas scattered in my sketchbooks, and like all creative types, it’s always my intent to return to them and flesh them out. I am an illustrator at heart, and I enjoy getting interesting new assignments from publishers, which I can embrace and make my own.

What specifically attracted you to created works based on the fantasy and Tolkien lore?

David: That is a good question. I’m really not sure what sparked my interest in fantasy. I was not particularly interested in reading it when I was growing up. I actually liked history. I did enjoy reading comic books and watching movies with fantasy themes. Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Peter Pan, Godzilla, and King Kong were some of my favorites. I think what attracted me instantly to Tolkien was that his books combined quasi-historical material with fantasy, thereby creating a hi-bred that inspired my artistic vision. He was the gateway that led me to writers like Lovecraft, Howard, Burroughs, and Dunsany and artists like Rackham, Dulac, and Pyle.

If Tolkien had not written “The Lord of the Rings”, what do you feel the impact on 20th century literature would have been?

David: I’m not sure I understand your question. If Tolkien had not written LOTR then literature would have found another way to inspire the populace’s imaginations. Tolkien is wonderful and very satisfying, but his vision only fills a small wedge of mankind’s passion for escaping into their imaginations. His work is derivative of many imaginative sources, like all fantasy writers.

"Medieval Riders Return"
“Medieval Riders Return”

Do you feel that Peter Jackson’s films truly capture the spirit of Tolkien’s work?

David: I have enjoyed Peter Jackson’s movies. There have been a number of people who have wanted to make Tolkien’s works into movies over the years, and I think that Peter Jackson was ready at the right time with the right vision. CGI, along with traditional model-making, enabled his studio to craft a visual solidity that would have been very difficult for a director to create even twenty years ago. He also had the insight to surround himself with artists, whose visions were consistent with Tolkien’s vision. Alan Lee and John Howe were fan favorites for a very good reason. They had a track record of artwork that felt right to Tolkien fans. Added to this were the great cast of actors, the movies assembled, and Peter Jackson’s ability to direct. I’m sure that many fans of Tolkien, like myself, wanted to see a bit of this and less of that, but that always applies to any book that is made into a movie. I will be interested in seeing how they apply the Appendices to the storyline of The Hobbit.




What advice would you give to new artists trying to break into the industry?

David: Work hard at your craft, don’t set yourself up in just one genre, read, study as much about everything thing as you can, knowledge is power, don’t be hyper critical and keep an open mind, network, network, network, keep up on technology, generate enthusiasm. I could go on, but that is a good start.

To see more of David’s work, visit his official website.



About reuben

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.


  1. Love his art!! Absolutely gorgeous 🙂

  2. Please tell me there’s a contest Riff! 😉

  3. Wonderful article, beautiful artwork!

  4. Remember to share with your friends on Facebook and Twitter 😉

  5. Another great interview. You sir have got the mojo!

  6. Fantastic interview and amazing artwork.

  7. Thank You for putting up the print of Gandalf in front of Bilbo’s hobbit hole for a Hobbit Day 2012 prize. I WON it in a trivia contest on Warriors of the Westfold and it is GORGEOUS.