Mark Zug’s Amazing ‘Dune’ Card Game Art

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Science fiction and fantasy artist Mark Zug was in the early days of his career when he got a dream assignment — painting characters from Frank Herbert’s Dune for a card game based on the sci-fi masterwork. With interest in Dune again high (due to the now-delayed movie version directed by Denis Villeneuve), it’s a good time to get the story behind these fantastic paintings. For more of the artist’s work, visit

When did you personally discover Dune, and what did it mean to you?

I discovered Dune my freshman year of high school, 1973. A couple years earlier, I had discovered Jules Verne (through the Disney movie of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), which led me on a wild-eyed hungry raid of the local library’s science fiction shelves. My discovery of Frank Herbert came after Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. We had a very laissez-faire economics teacher, who would say, “today read pages so-and-so through so-and-so of Samuelson” and leave the room. So I read Dune. It changed my outlook and life. Its emphasis on internal, mental technology in contrast to manufactured devices was unlike any other science fiction. It seemed more related to the the values of the TV series Kung Fu starring David Carradine, which was airing at that time and of which I was a fan. I would go all day through school, breathing in through my mouth and out through my nose, limiting my water intake, deliberately by-passing the water fountains to better feel the Fremen experience. It wasn’t long before I had read the whole six-book cycle.

A budding artist will often warm up to an actual career by working on favorite subjects from film or literature. Had you done much of your own Dune-inspired art before getting a paying job doing it?

Strangely enough, I didn’t do any Dune-specific art of my own. What I did do was worlds and beings heavily influenced and inspired by Dune. It must be said that during high school art was a only pastime, and as serious as was my mentality during the drawing process, I never made a serious study of art until much later.

“Lenny,” one of Mark Zug’s “I, Robot” paintings

Before you got the Dune game, you worked on illustrations for Harlan Ellison’s screenplay version of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot — an interpretation of another sacred text of science fiction. Can you tell us about that project?

I was 32 when I got the I, Robot gig, and it was that project that allowed me to quit my factory job and go full-time. It was also life-changing in a different way, in putting me in direct contact with Harlan Ellison. Certain individuals live on such a vigorous plane of energy that you can’t be around them and go away the same afterward. Harlan was such an individual. He was thoroughly, 100% convinced of the utterly unique and irreplaceable value of the art he performed, and that attitude is catching. I think he sunk an anchor of similar conviction in me, to which I’ve turned again and again through my life. I, Robot was also my first experience receiving professional art direction, my first time dealing with couriers and hard deadlines, of getting acquainted with fax machines, Xerox machines and answering machines as vital tools of the trade. Through both the book and the aborted comic directly afterward, I learned to paint quickly, and on paper instead of boards or stretched canvas. I learned to paint on photocopies of my drawings. I learned which oil colors can be relied on to dry overnight, and which need extra chemical and thermal help. Basically, it finished the education art school had started.

When the game publisher Last Unicorn came to you with the Dune project, you were unfamiliar with collectible card games. Did you play any existing games to see what it was all about?

I played none. I still play none. I view it purely as a client’s need for imagery. What inspired me artistically at the time was the work of Brom and of Phil Hale, whose stars were rising. The guys from Last Unicorn, Owen Seyler and Christian Moore, showed me the art Brom and Phil did for a game called Dark Age, and it took my breath away. So wheels started turning as to what I could do with the Dune art – the darkness, the economy.

There must be quite a difference between art that illustrates a book (scenes conveying narrative) and art that works for a game based on a book (character attributes and capabilities). What considerations did you have in portraying this familiar material in a different medium?

It simplifies it mostly. In a book you have the responsibility of complimenting the text without interfering with it, and that means setting scenery and concretizing characters without spoiling plot points – it’s a more delicate dance. In game cards you have to hit your point with a sledgehammer, if only to get it to show up at the small size. This played into my need to work fast, because Dune paid very modestly. So backgrounds ended up being minimal, and black became a kind of default swallow color. Both valuable exercises I still make use of.

The general visual point of reference for the Dune world — particularly for people who hadn’t read the books — was the 1984 film. How did you deal with that being out there, did it affect your choices as an artist? And generally, what do you think of Lynch’s artistic/visual choices?

I saw the David Lynch movie adaptation in the late 1980’s, when I was on my illustration portfolio path. By the time the Last Unicorn project came around in the late 90’s, Lynch’s visuals dominated my mind, supplanting many of my own. That’s a testament to his poweful style. He made a Baroque, grandiose esthetic work with arcane and futuristic sensibilities, while throwing in so many of of his idiosyncratic Lynchisms that they seem of Dune and not of Lynch. The Mentat mantra “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion” comes not from Herbert. The bald Bene Gesserit are only bald in the movie. There’s a certain starkness to Lynch’s movie-making that is quite well-suited to Dune. That said, Lynch utterly flubbed Frank Herbert’s theme, which is that messiahs are hazardous illusions.

Can you take us through a few characters — as a fan, were there any that you were really chomping at the bit to do?

Mostly I was chomping at the bit to recreate the characters I thought Lynch had gotten perfectly – Paul, the Duke, Lady Jessica, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Guild Navigator. But I definitely preferred my mental imagery for a few others. While visually compelling in the film, one which was wrong in so many ways was Lynch’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. I was eager to do a “Herbertian” Baron, one that paid due attention to his intelligence, his craftiness, his Machiavellian side. He is also a man of untrammeled appetites, which I think I brought out in the style of his dress. I was inspired by Velasquez’s portrait of the young King Philip IV of Spain – purely from a visual standpoint, I know nothing of the man’s reign. There’s something sharp, privileged and unreachable about his face that I thought was perfect, so I did a fattened-up King Philip with red hair and a gonzo gown. Another was the Mentat Thufir Hawat, whom I wanted to see as the wise, hard-nosed senior – I ended up re-expressing the character Alfred Lanning I had drawn in the unpublished I, Robot comic. People also tell me that my Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam looks a lot like my own mother. I think there’s something to that.

Magic: The Gathering works with a lot of different artists, what about Dune — was it your art on every card or were there other artists contributing? Apart from cards did you do any other materials?

There were other artists contributing, Brian Despain for one. I did do a couple of covers for Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium RPG rule books. I thought it was going to lead to a widening world of Dune art for me – it never did.

Dune ultimately led to your getting MtG gigs — where does your Shadowrun and Battletech work fit in?

Doing the Dune work gave me game-relevant pieces for my portfolio, and that led directly to me getting work from FASA, who published many things including Shadowrun and Battletech. In turn I had a few Shadowrun pieces to show Wizards of the Coast, which led to me working on Magic the Gathering.

How many cards have you done for Wizards of the Coast? Can you tell us about fan favorites or your personal favorites?

According to the internet, I’ve done at least 163 cards for Wizards – I’ve definitely lost personal count. Probably the big favorite among Zug cards is “Gaea’s Cradle.” “Chainer, Dementia Master,” “Darigaaz the Igniter” and “Noble Hierarch” also seem popular. I’ve heard that “Suncleanser” from the Ixalan setting suffers a bit from its play characteristics and thus is not so liked. But it’s a painting I’m proud of, and I remember hashing through numerous refinements with my art director Dawn Murin, who must share the credit for its looking as good as it does.

Gaea’s Cradle card from Magic: The Gathering, art by Mark Zug

From your website it appears that following Magic you have worked mostly in book illustration, beginning with the Septimus Heap series. Can you tell us about that and other projects?

The Septimus Heap books by Angie Sage kicked off in 2005 with Magyk, and concluded with Fyre in 2013. It led directly into her Todhunter Moon series, which is set in the same world and features appearances by some aged-up Septimus Heap characters. I illustrated those up through the final Todhunter Moon book Starchaser, published in 2016. All along I’ve kept doing Magic: The Gathering, as well as private commissions and illustrations for other books. One fun project was an Edgar Rice Burroughs bind-up called Mars Trilogy, published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster. It included three of the Burroughs Barsoom novels, black & white interiors by myself, Scott Gustavson and Scott Fischer, and cover art by me. It was published along with Under the Moons of Mars, a multi-author pastiche of Barsoom stories Burroughs never told, for which I also did the cover. You can find both books on eBay. As to what to watch for from me in the future: watch for a comic book. Self-written, self-published.

Do you have any thoughts on the forthcoming Dune movie? Based on what you’ve seen, does it appear faithful, visually interesting, well cast, etc.? Or perhaps none of the above…

I’m salivating like everyone else in the sapient universe. Everything I’ve seen from the visuals to the casting to plans for two parts indicates to me that this will be done right. I saw Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and loved the tone and atmosphere of both movies. I thought unprompted of Dune during the passages of Blade Runner 2049 where we are flying over futuristic LA – something about the massive, soul-crushing, impersonal hugeness of that megalopolis reminded me of perhaps Giedi Prime. Villeneuve’s pacing also seems perfect and unrushed. I’m hoping in the bargain to experience some Lynchian-style hard cuts in ambient audio – another technique I think conveys a certain alienation, appropriate to witnessing a story 10,000 years removed from all our cultural touchstones.

Your Dune card game is out of print, is there any chance of bringing it back? Or do interested readers just have to go to eBay and hope to find it?

Ebay only.

Looks like there is a new Dune card and board game, Dune Imperium, that is tied to the movie. Have you had any involvement with that?

I’ve thus far had no involvement with the new masters of the Dune IP. But hey – you guys know where I am.

“Helium,” part of Mark Zug’s “Noble Gases” series

Can you tell us about Noble Gases? (Hey, noble gases… heavy metal… slicing up the periodic table, is this 9th grade chemistry class all over again?)

Strangely enough, the question people ask at IlluXcon, is, “Are you going to do the Heavy Metals next?” Which I would do, but for time. I did the Noble Gases as, first, a crass desire to cash in on the demand for female-centric imagery and sell some artwork. I’d get a theme going, like the muses or the signs of the Zodiac, and crank them out. A conversation with my wife Janelle convinced me the theme should be the science-centric Noble Gases. Then, it was a labor of love as I got into the characterizations for each piece, their personalities and visual styles. Producing these pieces consumed a lot of time, even to scrapping a whole, finished version of Neon I didn’t like. In the end, I sold two Noble Gases to highly appreciative souls; it never became the hotcakes sell-fest I’d imagined. But deeply satisfying, and I consider it some of my very best work. That said, “Heavy Metals” does seem to suggest itself, doesn’t it? I won’t rule it out.

For people who like this art, what sort of options are there for purchase? Are you selling prints or originals? Do you take commissions?

You can indeed buy prints of my Dune stuff, just see my website. And commissions, I take them. Mainly watch this space and buy my comic when it comes out.

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