The Rider-Waite-Smith. A classic, obviously. Legible, broad-minded, and not unfunny, especially in the drawings of smug rich people. We don’t talk much about the avant-garde ugliness of this deck’s colors: thick blues, reds, and yellows, solid as housepaint and clashingly applied. One of those situations (see also the works of J.R.R. Tolkien) where the originator of a genre has produced more subversive work than most of the people who have tried to subvert it. Do you know how dead the person in the Ten of Swords is? Deader than Holbein’s Dead Christ.
The Santa Muerte Tarot. Splashy (but appropriative!), intricate (but appropriative!) and Gothic (appropriatively so!). I bought this early in my tarot collecting, when I was just excited to see a deck executed with both technical skill and a certain lack of gauziness. It feels concrete, hard; even its draperies look internally solid. I like a deck with good boundaries, that knows what it is and what it isn’t. I just don’t like what it is anymore (super appropriative!).
The Pride Tarot. A queer collaborative deck by a large group of artists. Vibe is earnest Kickstarter, actual origin is U.S. Games. Some of these cards are playful and expressive, with powerful execution or intriguing historical references. Others are shallow and hacky — here I grant particular upside-down trophies to virtually all representations of trans figures, which make it impossible to take the deck seriously.
This needed better editing and pickier curating. I guarantee that there are 78 competent queer artists in the world, rather than what we see here, which is about 10 terrific queer artists, 20 decent ones, and 10 towards whom the best attitude is an indifference like that of God.
The Fountain Tarot. A gorgeous, severe aesthetic, all bars of light and prisms and brutalist forms. The Fountain has an elegant air of queer masculinity — the faint thirst with which it regards its men counterbalances the satiny liquidity of the rest. Jonathan Saiz, the artist, is an inspired designer, which is rare in the tarot world, and an exquisite draftsman, which is rarer.
The Prisma Visions Tarot. This is my hot new go-to. It’s inventive, graphic-novelistic, and warm, even if the vibe is “Van Gogh if he’d had access to a Cintiq and the complete works of Van Gogh.” Every suit has its own season, and every suit tells a single panoramic story! It’s intricate but never fussy, and connected to the natural world without romanticizing nature. A blazing fire of a deck, easy to read but not simple. A deck to point out the fact that you’re evading the obvious.
The Spolia Tarot. This is my hot old go-to, and my ongoing one. It’s a prickly deck, whose collaged images retain the sharp edges from the original cuts. Some decks have the vibe of just one suit, and just as the Prisma Visions is a Pentacle deck, the Spolia — like the Fountain — is a Sword. I’ve got two (2) prints of Spolia cards in my bedroom, and it’s important for you to know that I only own three pictures total. Fussy, hard to read from, and with some cards that simply refuse to give the viewer a place to rest, this deck is nonetheless worth courting. It contains multitudes, and has compound eyes.
After Tarot. A joke deck in which each card is the immediate sequel to a Rider-Waite card. The same people also make a Before Tarot and a zombie one, which sounds about right. Good pastiche of Smith’s art. Please stop me from buying any more joke decks.
The Carnival at the End of the World. Bold, magicianly, and damned near illegible. Its elaborate, courtly world and climate-change theme make it one of the few Tarots I’ve seen that feels truly adult and mature, that has a realized vision and a light capable of shining into its own corners. Most decks seem to rely, at least a little, on a lack of artistic self-awareness to be the fog machine that generates the required air of mystery. Still, with its obscured faces and determined evasion of the reader, it goes a step beyond Spolia — it doesn’t just want to be read on its own terms; it doesn’t want to be read at all. After a certain point, I obeyed.
The Tarot of Pagan Cats. It’s a tarot of pagan cats! Again, please stop me from buying any more joke decks.
Spirit Within Tarot. Cowabunga silhouettes. Early purchase. A friend of mine once stifled a laugh at this one, and I’ve never been able to look at it the same way since.