Sunday, May 01, 2011

Some rambling thoughts on IDW's Dungeons & Dragons Classics Vol. 1

I've already written at great length about my affection for DC/TSR's 1988-1991 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series, drawn by Jan Duursema and written by several writers, mainly Dan Mishkin, and noted that it was the first comic book I ever really read, and the one that served as my own personal springboard into the wonderful, terrible world of comics. As I've also mentioned here and there (here being this very blog, there being Blog@Newsarama), IDW has put together a trade collecting the first eight issues of the series, titled Dungeons & Dragons Classics Vol. 1 (Presumably because the "Advanced" part of the title has fallen into disuse over the years; the fine prints notes that the current owners of D&D, Wizards of the Coast, does indeed own the trademark for "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," and that phrase appears on the original covers reprinted within the collection).

Despite the fact that I own all eight of these comics, and spent more than cover price to get them all—I had to buy #1 off the wall of a comic shop that used to exist in my home town, for, I think, seven or ten bucks, many times more than the $1.25 cover price—I went ahead and bought the trade anyway. Maybe not the wisest use of a $20 bill, but it was an investment in not-having-to-dig-through-my-longbox-midden-whenever-I-want-to-look-at-these-books. Aside from the second half of The Sandman, I think this is the only time I've re-purchased comics I already owned in trade format (Well, I owned most of the issues collected in IDW's Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms Classics Vol. 1).

Some thoughts upon rereading a series I first encountered as a preteen in the late eighties as a thirtysomething in 2011, and the package in general...

1.) This book collects the first two, four-issue story arcs of the series. The first is scripted by Michael Fleisher and apparently co-plotted with artitst Duursema (it's also the weakest of the entire series, in large part because the cast is still forming—one of the stars of the story leaves after the fourth issue, another transforms into a new person—and because that cast is still on their way to the setting. The second story arc is entitled "The Spirit of Myrrth," and is written by Dan Mishkin.

Quick synopsis: Interdimensional monster sorcerer Imig Zu wants to free his people from inside a magical gem the moon goddess imprisoned them in and, with them, conquer the world. To do so, he needs to find a prophesied half-elf maiden who can unlock it. That maiden finds allies in traveling adventurers Onyx and Timoth Eysebright, a dwarven thief and centaur fighter, respectively; Luna, an inn keeper; Vajra Valmeyjar, a warrior woman and friend of Luna's; and Priam Agrivar, a once mighty paladin who was cursed and crippled by Imig Zu.

The second story is a lot more complicated, and where the series starts to come into its own. The paladin has moved on (to co-star in the Forgotten Realms comic), and Timoth's off doing...something else. So the elf Kyriani, Onyx and Vajra are the only ones around when they're hired by the ghost of a legendary dead jester named Myrrth to prevent his grave from being robbed. Warring factions within the city's musician's guild are after his bones for different purposes; the jesters want to break away and form their own guild, and want to use his skeleton to create a colossal monster with which to terrorize the city, and a hardcore faction of the musicians want to use the skull to commune with Myrrth and learn the secret of his killing joke—a joke so funny that everyone who heard it laughed themselves to death. Our heroes get some help from an older thief named Conner, who has a mysterious past with Vajra.

2.) It did not occur to me until this reading that "Myrrth" is simply a different spelling of the word "mirth," and is actually a dumb pun. I guess that means that I was a dumb child.

3.) There's no bonus material of any kind in this volume—no introduction, no foreword, no afterword, no creator bios, no context, really. I think that's too bad. I like stuff like that, and would especially like to see it in something like this, which collects a 20 year-old series from talented but not necessarily super-star creators that would seem to have limited broad appeal.

Very little pre-production seems to have been done. All of the original coloring errors—which are fairly copious—are faithfully reprinted here. Other than removing the DC bullet and the UPC symbols from the covers, it doesn't look like anything else was done to the material to prep it for the collection.

I'm pretty sure it has a new cover, though. The above image isn't the cover for any of the series' 36 issues or one annual, and the style more closely resembles that seen in Duursema's current Star Wars work for Dark Horse, rather than what can be seen within the pages. I could be wrong though; maybe this was simply an unusued piece of art from back in the day, re-colored.

At any rate, it's welcome. For the Forgotten Realms trade, the cover was a repurposed, re-colored cover from an issue of the series:

4.) By the time I reached the 32nd issues of this series, I would have been reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sandman and Batman comics from back-issue bins, so "diversity" wasn't really something I noticed in comic books, and I certainly didn't notice a lack of it.

Having read comics for over 20 years now, including more and more super-books as the years passed, and having read the comics blogosphere for the last five or six, diversity, like the depiction and treatment of female characters, is something much more in the forefront of my thought when reading Big Two adventure comics.

AD&D #32 was one of the three Tom Mandrake guest-pencilled issues (he drew two short, funny, Onyx-starring stories), and was the one with the umber hulk on the cover (I just mention that because "umber hulk" is a term I never, ever, ever get to use, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity). There's a letter column in that issue, and here, in part, is one letter to the editor that appeared in it:
I've talked to about twenty AD&D players regarding this series, and they are not satisfied for several reasons. Almost all AD&D players know about this comic and have judged it by now. It seems that the main objection is to the choice of demi-humans as the main need characters that exemplify the heroic spirit role-players are after. AD&D players are highly intelligent and creative people who usually depict heroes after their own image...Just looking at the cover of AD&D #1 most people thought, "What a bunch of wimps—how could they survive in the real AD&D game, let alone any dungeon."...Either AD&D players don't buy comic books or they have some objections to the format of freaks as heroes...Real heroes need to look the part—they should probably be at least 50% human in a group.

I won't mention the letter writer's name (I sure as hell wouldn't want some a-hole blogger quoting something I wrote a DC editor 20 years ago), and I grabbed the portions out of the letter that objected to the cast as being wimps and freaks.

I think it's well worth noting that the core adventuring party that make up the cast are a black woman, a caucasian (if we can apply that term to made-up fantasy races?) half-elf woman, a caucasian dwarf and a dark-skinned centaur (whose culture resembles that of the Native Americans; as did the elf's hometown of Shadowdale, come to think of it). AD&D was devoid of white male characters, at least as members of the permanent cast—Agrivar lasted four issues, Conner was in about three story arcs, and was as much an antagonist as an ally in some of them.

That's...kind of unusual, isn't it? I can't think of a DC or Marvel team/ensemble book without any white dudes in at the moment.

Is it worth noting that the black lady is the comic's undisputed alpha dog when it comes to beating people up? She doesn't come to blows with everyone in the cast during the book's run, but it's pretty clear she can kick all of their asses if she had too. The stats and experience levels and such that run in the back of the issues bear that out, too.

I think it's also worth noting that what the letter-writer was complaining about, that the book didn't consist of characters or settings or adventures that mirrored those of typical D&D gaming sessions closely enough, was actually one of the things I liked most about it. I've heard good things about the new IDW Dungeons & Dragons series, but have only read the first issue so far—and I was disappointed by how generic that seemed, like a comics artist was functioning like an artist in a courtroom during a game or osmething.

5.) Duursema was anything but lazy in her character designs and renderings for the characters in this series. There are three female characters in the main cast—Luna, Vajra and Kyriani—and four, I suppose, if you count Kyriani's original identity (This is kind of complicated and not really worth getting into, but when we first meet her she is an all-good version of herself, having had an evil exorcised from her as a baby, an evil which formed into her evil twin and, at the end of the first arc, the two selves are reunited into a new, complete self. The good self is fair of skin and blond, with a slim, girlish figure; the bad self is black-skinned, black-haired and has red eyes; the combined self has a white complexion, and brown hair and eyes, although she will re-combine later in the series and get a new hairstyle and purple eyes. Fantasy comics can be just as convoluted as superhero comics, if they put their mind to it).

Here are some panels from the collection featuring the female characters: None of them really have the stereotypical superheroine physique. Kyri comes closest, with an hourglass figure, and yet she still looks human, and like someone you might see in real life, compared to, say, one of those strange Ed Benes female creatures. The most superheroic of them, Vajra, towers above the other two, and has broad shoulders and cut, well-muscled arms.

6.) The centaur Timoth's design is fucking crazy. I don't know how easy it is to see from these pictures......but he apparently wears some sort of Dazzler/Lady Gaga glam make-up over his eyes all the time. He also wears a crazy ermine stole-vest most of the time, although he does wear less crazy clothes in other story arcs, like this sensible blouse.

7.) Onyx has the default personality of every dwarf ever. At least, all the dwarves I've read about or seen in movies. You know, surly, grouchy, stubborn, sensitive about their height and not terribly fond of humans or elves. Mishkin gives him a few wrinkles here and there—In "The Spirit of Myrrth" he reveals his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian, for example, and he eventually develops a bit of a crush on Kyri—but there doesn't seem to be a lot of range in dwarf personalities in fantasy fiction, does there?

Or maybe I just haven't read any of the right books. Can anyone recommend anything with a dwarf in it that's plays against dwarf-type? Anything that's not terrible and not over 400 pages, preferably...?

8.) That said, Timoth is pretty un-centaur-like, at least based on what I know of centaurs (Basically, just what I've read in Greek myth, The Inferno and C.S. Lewis' Narnia books). He's naive, trusting and almost comically sensitive (he's shown crying over the sadness of the elf girl's story twice in the first story arc), although his, um, whaddyacallit, Role? Class? Occupation? Vocation? I haven't played D&D in one million years—is that of a "Fighter."

9.)It also didn't occur to me until this reading that "Conner" is a bit of a pun to, as the character is a thief and a con-man.

10.) "Vajra" probably isn't the best name for a female warrior character, is it? When I read it as a kid, I pronounced her name as "Vajara" in my head, but now I see I was just mentally adding a syllable in there. It's actually just "Vajra," which I assume has to be pronounced "Vaj-Rah," which is a little too close to "vagina" for adult Caleb's tastes. To think I was once so innocent and, um, more mature than I am now that I could hear the syllable "vaj" over and over and not think about vaginas.

11.) Has anyone ever named a comic book character Penistro, pronounced like the name of the Green Lantern villain? Because I think that is a cool name.

12.) As I said of their Forgotten Realms collection, I do hope IDW plans to collect this whole series. I think they can do it with another four volumes. The next two story arcs are also four-parters, which would make the next volume perfectly symmetrical with the first.

After that, the stories vary in length more. There's a two-issue story featuring Kyri, a four-issue one featuring Luna and the whole cast, a one-issue Onyx story, a three-issue Vajra and Timoth story, a four-issue one featuring Kyri, a two-issue Onyx story, and then the four-issue finale. I figure they can do #9-16 in Vol. 2, #17-23 and maybe an annual in or something in Vol. 3 (There was a single AD&D annual, but the Forgotten Realms annual was an AD&D crossover, and then there's a short story from TSR Worlds), #24-30 in Vol. 4, and #31-#36 in a Vol. 5.

13). Looking through the old single issues, and marveling at how old they were (There are ads for the first Batman movie, Dead Calm, Both Bill and Ted movies, The Rookie and Child's Play on the backcovers; also, they apparently used to advertise movies in comic books), I see that the collection left out some of the back-matter that appeared in the backs of the original comics. Don't be stingy, IDW!


Akilles said...

They still advertise movies in comic books. At least in Finland.

Johanna said...

Linda Medley has non-traditional dwarves (called hammerlings, because the dwarf name is a slur in her world) in Castle Waiting V2.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Boy, I must have been so averse to licensed product that I never glanced at these-- because Dan Mishkin is certainly high on my list, on the strength of Blue Devil; Mandrake is awesome; and I love D&D. Yet I have no memory of this at all.

Madcat said...

Sorry if this is a double post, but the google account was being funny (I also prefer this comment to my original)

I read Vajra as being Indian (well, the fantasyland equivalent) rather than black due to her name. To quote from wikipedia:

In Sanskrit (a) word meaning both thunderbolt and diamond.[1]. As a material device, the vajra is a ritual object, a short metal weapon - originally a kind of fist-iron like Japanese yawara - that has the symbolic nature of a diamond (it can cut any substance but not be cut itself) and that of the thunderbolt (irresistible force).

Other than that I agree with you about her being an unusual and interesting character design wise in comicbook land - a female warrior who's physically belivable in the role and dresses to suit.