For my eleventh birthday, in 1985, my parents bought me a home computer.
What I wanted was an Amstrad CPC464 (because it was black and green and had a built-in cassette deck for loading games). What I got was a Commodore 64. Within minutes of booting it up, all thoughts of the Amstrad were forgotten. Although they also bought me a few games to get started (Daley Tompson’s Decathlon and Gribbly’s Day Out) they made it quite clear that it wasn’t just to be used for gaming. It could be used to help me learn programming; or help with my homework.
Yeah, sure, of course.
The C64 was the greatest games machine of the 1980s. But the magazines which serviced it – Commodore User and Your 64 – were full of very dull articles about the industry, or had pages of code (some of which I diligently typed in, and was occasionally rewarded with a basic game but more likely a host of bugs I couldn’t be arsed finding and fixing), and seemed aimed at people much older and more boring: adults.
Then, in the Perth branch of Wm. Low (now the Edinburgh Road Tesco), casually browsing the magazine aisle, my eye was caught by this:
Wow! A magazine devoted entirely to Commodore 64 games! And what a magazine. Written by and for kids (sort of – staff writers (and enthusiastic gamers) Julian Rignall and Gary Penn were not long out of school), there was no question I could ever want to buy any other C64 magazine. And (with the odd exception) for the next 3 years, until I grew out of gaming, I didn’t. Zzap!64 had everything: humour, colour, slang, irreverence, competitions, and lots and lots of lovely screenshots of games.
But more than just the screenshots were those covers, which in the days of 8-bit sprites gave an idea of what a game felt like. The covers, and much of the interior artwork – filling random spaces or adorning the margins with the cute character Rockford – were all done by one of the founders of Zzap‘s publishers Newsfield, Swiss-born artist Oliver Frey, who died on August 21st, aged 74.
Frey’s distinctive energetic, airbrushed style permeated the whole magazine, and that of all Newfield’s other publications: Crash, Amtix, The Games Machine and LM. Frey’s workload must have been incredible. Not only that, but there were posters, and he also drew the revamped Dan Dare for the mid-80s resurrection of the Eagle.
I didn’t know until years later that Frey also drew homoerotic comics under the pseudonym Zack. But for me – although I occasionally flick through an old issue of Zzap! for amusement – the work of Frey’s which has stayed with me longest is his 1985-6 comic strip collaboration with 2000AD writer Kelvin Gosnell, The Terminal Man.
Originally appearing in monthly instalments in Zzap! and Crash, it was finally published in a collected edition about 10 years ago, and I’ve re-read my copy many times since. It tells the story of the survivors of an interplanetary liner who crash land on a hostile planet, and must find a way back to their own galaxy. They’re aided in this by Cross, a fusion of the ship’s computer with the mortal remains of one of the officers. Cross – clearly inspired by Arnie in The Terminator – is a creature of logic, with no understanding of human emotions, or chance and risk. He’s aided in his mission – becoming ever-so-slightly more human in the process – by the feisty Jin Kinas and laconic gambler Josef P Mandrell. Fast-paced, exciting and beautifully imagined, it’s a great read.
Our heroes must outwit corrupt political leaders, brave some truly weird environments (a gigantic ravine populated by people who use gliders to navigate their vertical world; post-atomic wasteland; futuristic travelator), and battle a seemingly immortal assassin, in order to get the rest of the survivors to safety.
Frey began a sequel, of which the first few episodes appeared in Zzap! In it, years have passed since the action of the first story, and Cross is reactivated when innocent – naive – locals are being enslaved and sacrificed by cynical and greedy (and more technologically advanced) off-worlders. This story had real potential, and promised a deeper, more allegorical element to the storytelling. However, the increased workload caused by producing extra magazines for Newsfield took its toll, and the story was never finished. I always held out a hope that somehow Frey would find the time or inclination to finish it.
I may have lost interest in computer games, but Frey’s art would still cast a spell later in my teens. In the summer of 1988 Newsfield launched FEAR magazine to capitalise on the 1980s ‘horror boom’ (which I’ve talked about elsewhere). Again, the covers and internal illustrations were done by Frey. What 14-year-old horror fan could resist something like this?
FEAR was a superb magazine. It was packed with interviews, reviews, editorials and short fiction (from the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Shaun Hutson and Mark Morris). It struck a perfect balance between film and fiction coverage. Today the likes of SFX carry book reviews but are essentially movie magazines: FEAR gave equal weight to both, and had impassioned opinion pieces too. It knew its audience, it knew its subject, and existed for a few brief years at the peak of the horror boom. It (and, later, Skeleton Crew) was our key source of info on what was coming from the likes of Clive Barker and James Herbert. And those Oliver Frey covers were better than most special effects of the time: they implied and suggested what films all too rarely managed to show.
The warmth of the tributes paid in the last few weeks show that Frey’s art inspired and enthralled many others. FusionRetro books are to be commended for keeping The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey in print so that others can re-live the witty, violent, sexy, clever and above all exciting work of this unique artist.