Monday, March 28, 2011

Some rather rambling thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms Classics Vol. 1

Comic books and role-playing games have long been hobbies that are closely linked to one another. I always assumed that the reasons for this were simply that a) they’re both kind of nerdy or geeky (whichever adjective you prefer) pursuits, and thus there was a natural overlap between the nerds or geeks who liked one or the other, creating a group that liked both, and b) since neither a shop devoted solely to the sale of comic books nor a shop devoted to the sale of role-playing games materials was ever the easiest small business to keep afloat, particularly in smaller towns, hybrid shops selling both became commonplace.

Thinking about role-playing games and comics lately, as reading IDW’s trade collection of the old DC/TSR 1989-1991 Forgotten Realms comic series has got me doing, I realized there’s another commonality between certain types of comics and certain types of RPGs: The concept of an elaborate, shared, fictional universe setting that is more-or-less always under construction.

Those certain types of comics are, of course, superhero comics, with their DC and Marvel Universes, and the newer, smaller, similar universes that other publishers have launched over the years. And those certain types of RPGs are basically any of a certain size or longevity.

In both cases, settings, characters, histories and rules of some sort are shared between the units of the stories set in those settings, and a place that can be visited by users is created.

One such “universe” is, of course, Forgotten Realms, which was originally created by Ed Greenwood when he was a childe, and which he gradually developed and fleshed out and introduced to Dungeons & Dragons players through Greenwood’s magazine articles.

Over the decades, the Realms setting has appeared in scores of official RPG supplements and what must be well over a hundred prose novels at this point.

The Forgotten Realms comic was set in that world, giving writer Jeff Grubb—who had himself wrote plenty of those prose novels—a pre-made world to send his cast of a half-dozen or so adventurers journeying through.

Of those, one of them was previously introduced in a Michael Fleisher written arc of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the first of DC/TSR’s line of comics, while the others were original to the Forgotten Realms comic. They all fell into easily identifiable types to anyone with even a passing familiarity with fantasy role-playing.

There were a couple of humans, an elf, a Halfling and a dwarf (sort of), and of these there was a magic user, a paladin, a cleric, a fighter, a thief and so on. The premise was that this group of characters, from all over the Realms, were the crew of a magical ship called The Realms Master. It would teleport from body of water to body of water, while its wizard captain sought out dangerous and powerful magical artifacts to dispose of (or make use of), before they fell into the wrong hands.

In other words, each story arc was a different quest, and Grubb had built in a few plot elements to keep a rapid-fire succession of quests plausible and easy to write about (None of the hundreds of pages of walking that one might find in The Lord of The Rings, then).

In addition to the monsters and magic and setting and culture of the Forgotten Realms “universe,” Grubb also made use of characters from the games and novels, who would basically have guest-appearances in the comic.

In the first two story arcs, “The Hand of Vaprak” and “The Dragonreach Saga,” which account for the contents of the IDW collection, Greenwood’s Merlin/Gandalf-like Elminster the Mage appears as a mostly behind-the-scenes, manipulator of events interested in the outcome of the events (in both of these arcs, our heroes are involved in quests that, if they fail, would mean the destruction of the Realms). Elminster’s ally Lord Mourngrym puts in a few appearances in those stories.

In the first arc, Alias and Dragonbait from the Grubb-co-written novel Azure Bonds team-up with our heroes. I only read a couple of the Forgotten Realms novels as a teenager, and Azure Bonds wasn’t one of them, but I remember the cover quite vividly for, um, some reason:In the late eighties, early nineties, I didn’t read the Forgotten Realms comics regularly; I read the annual, a crossover with the cast of the AD&D comic I did read regularly, and over the years tried finding all the back-issues. I own and have read about five or so of the eight issues collected in this volume, but I bought it anyway because I’d much rather have the whole series in trade then continue to assemble it in back-issues, which are inaccessibly buried in my miserable comics midden.

Some thoughts, in no particular order…

1.) I hope IDW’s committed to collecting the whole shebang. The whole series is only 25 issues long, plus an annual and a bit of material from a TSR Worlds annual, so I imagine they could probably finish the series off with two more collections, depending on where they want to include the annual material (IDW’s also collecting Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).

2.) I love the names of the characters Grubb comes up with: Priam Agrivar, Foxilon Cardluck, Dwalimar Omen, Ishi Barasume, Vartan Hai Sylvar. You could probably offer pretty good guesses about the character’s races and roles based merely on their names.

There are a few duds, though.

The aforementioned dwarf on the crew doesn’t look dwarven or female at all—her soul is trapped in the body of an iron golem, so she’s essentially a big iron dude with a lame name, Minder. (She presumably had a more dwarven name at some point; I never read the issue that explained what her whole deal is, although I believe that would appear in a second volume of a series of collections).

A woman with wings, whose race I don’t recall, is introduced later in the series. She’s simply named Jasmine.

3.) Dwalimar Omen has one of the coolest haircuts in the history of comics. Here are some scans of it from various angles:As you can hopefully see from those images, the top, back and sides are a sort of perfect orb afro, with the front cut away a bit to reveal his face. It is basically a completely insane haircut, one that I would imagine would take daily visits to a hairstylists to keep up using today’s modern haircutting technology, and yet the electric hair clippers had yet to be invented in this world.

So how does Omen get his hair did? Magic obviously, since he is a wizard. A wizard with a magical hairstyle, that he maintains magically.

4.) Beyond my affection and nostalgia for the setting and the RPGs that inspired it, the main reason I like this series so much is Rags Morales’ art. Morales has been a favorite of mine, and this book is an excellent showcase for his work, although as you can probably tell just form looking at a few of the images above that this is rather early work for him, and his style would evolve and sharpen quite a bit over the course of the 20 years to follow.

Rereading these stories though, it’s abundantly clear that Morales had already mastered “acting” through his characters in his art, and was quite adept at action and fleshing out fully-realized panels. The degree of background detail work in here puts that of most superhero comics of the 21st century to shame. Few things about the state of mainstream comics depress me more than seeing something from 20 or 30 years ago and realize that what used to be the norm in level of skill or quality has now become rare exceptions—one likes to think mainstream, direct market comics are getting better and better as the writing, the audience and the technology becomes more sophisticated, but that sadly isn’t always the case.

5.) Check out this crazy splash page Morales drew; I remember being confused by it when I first read it, and it took me a few seconds to figure it out again this time as well:That’s Priam Agrivar’s point-of-view as he looks up at some allies who have gathered around him to see if he was okay, having briefly lost consciousness. Apparently, he opened his right eye first, and Morales chose to draw the scene as if we were looking out from deep inside Agrivar’s skull.

I don’t know how successful the image is, but it’s certainly a strange one.

6.) It also occurred to me how rare art like this is these days. Morales is still drawing, and he’s gotten better and better ever since, but one never sees new art presented like this, with no special effects like lens flares and light-boxed or Photoshopped settings, no painted-by-computers gradations of colors, hell, even white gutters and borders between panels are something of a rarity these days.

It was…refreshing to read a comic assembled in the old-fashioned, pre-Computers-Doing-Everything fashion, even if it meant the colors were occasionally garish or unsubtle. Too many comics today, wrote Old Man Caleb, seem way too overproduced, which only draws attention to any deficiencies they might have in their story or the quality of the design and rendering at the heart of the artwork, underneath all the coloring effects.

I don’t necessarily want to say this looks cheap, but it doesn’t look overproduced at all, either.

7.)The collection includes the covers, which were naturally originally branded with publisher DC's logo, as well as that of then-Forgotten Realms and D&D owner TSR. IDW basically just whited 'em out. Here's what they look like:

8.) The only complaint I have about the collection was the lack of any sort of introduction or afterword. As I've said before, I really, really, really like those in a collection.

In this case, I would have liked to see something from Grubb or Morales about the experience and maybe how it fit into their careers, or maybe someone of some sort of authority sort of of explaining the reason why these older, minor comics are considered worthy of being collected and represented. Other than than their collection of the old Marvel G.I. Joe comics, I haven't yet read very many of IDW's "rescue" collections, but the publisher certainly seems quite devoted to finding older comic books from the '80s and '90s and re-presenting them for the modern graphic novel audience. I would have liked a little context for this collection's existence, I guess.

But then, I just like that little something extra in a collection format.

9.) If you're at all interested in fantasy or sword and sorcery comics, I'd recommend this as an especially fun, lighthearted example of the genre, with pretty great art. Plus, the more of you who buy it, the more likely it is IDW will collect the rest of the series, and maybe even Dragonlance and Spelljammer, the other two DC/TSR books, neither of which I've read any of before.


A Hero said...

I love the old Forgotten Realms comic, as a tour of my blog will quickly show.

I doubt you will get a foreword by Jeff Grubb or Rags Morales on the next volume though. On his own blog, Jeff Grubb describes how the transferring of rights basically is screwing him (and presumably Rags) out of getting any payment for the reprinting of his work. Jeff is just about as classy as you could expect him to be in this situation, but he is obviously not happy about it either.

Kid Kyoto said...

Thanks for this, I have some fond memories of these books though they dropped in quality after a year or so when Rags left and they had to do the equivlent of a Crisis on Infinite Earths plot to explain why the changes from going to 1st edition to 2nd edition AD&D.

Because I was REALLY wondering why Phantasmal Force is now a 2nd level spell.

But yeah, good stuff.

mordicai said...

Dwalimar Omen is clearly a Shi'ar! The question is, did he spelljam his way to the Flaeness, or did he planeshift there?

googum said...

There's a later issue where you see Dwalimar's people, and their hair is pretty rockin', but not as much so as his. A great series; I still have the issues, so I won't be getting the trade, but I'm glad it's out there. Now if they could just get paid for it...

David said...

Reading Grubb's comment on the comic mostly reminded me of how much I loved the Gammarauders comic. The Gammarauders setting was insane but the characters actually lived in it and treated it seriously, whereas today it'd probably get the Deadpool treatment.

Also, Kid Kyoto's comment made me wonder how odd a sequel comic in the 4E version of Forgotten Realms would be.