Thursday, March 10, 2016

Remember, "Bizarro" is a synonym for "awesome": A little on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

The other day Comics Alliance's most prolific writer, Chris Sims, covered the first story arc of DC's 1988-1991 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comic in his regular feature, "Bizarro Back Issues." The piece, like most of Sims' writing, is rather funny. And it is not entirely inaccurate in its description of the plot as a quest to cure "a noble paladin of tiny hands disease." (Say, men with small hands have been in the news a lot lately, huh?)

As the comics Internet's greatest AD&D fan, I do feel compelled to, if not defend that particular story, then at least offer some additional context. The original story arc, comprising the first four issues, was co-plotted by Michael Fleischer and artist Jan Duursema. It did indeed deal with a small band of heroes helping former, fallen paladin Priam Agrivar and his half-elf half sister Cybriani reclaim their kingdom from a demonic mage and fix their messed-up hands.

It's not really all that great, no.

But the next 32 issues are all pretty awesome. With the fifth issue, Dan Mishkin took over as the regular writer, writing all of the remaining arcs save the third one, "Catspaw Quartet," which was written by Jeff Grubb (Duursema drew all of the issues, save for three issues drawn by her husband, Tom Mandrake).

The cast of the book changed fairly immediately upon the conclusion of that first story arc, as well, with Agrivar leaving the title (to star in AD&D's sister book, Forgotten Realms, which featured Rags Morales art; Agrivar and his new campaign party would cross paths with the AD&D cast again in Forgotten Realms Annual #1), and the bland half-elf mage Cybriani bonding with her evil half Kilili to create a new character (with a new hairstyle, that would magically change again later), who took on the combined name Kyriani.

I highly recommend the series, and while you could probably skip the first arc and still follow along okay, that arc is not unreadable or anything. Duursema's art just gets better and better as the series progresses, though.

 Produced in the high-volume years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, finding single issue in back-issue bins isn't that challenging a quest to embark upon, but, IDW, which currently holds the license for Dungeons & Dragons comics, has collected the entire DC series in four volumes, under the title Classic Dungeons & Dragons (The old DC Forgotten Realms, meanwhile, is collected as Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms Classic).


It's interesting to think about this book in 2016, on the other side of years-long online discussions about representation of many groups other than white, straight dudes in mainstream comics, and the depiction of women in comics.

AD&D had a core cast of four characters: Two women females (Vajra Valmeyjar and Kyri) and two men males (Timoth and Onyx). As mentioned, Agrivar leaves after the first four issues, and there's a male thief named Conner who comes and goes, playing various roles, serving as something between a foil for or outright antagonist of Vajra (He's in three of the book's 12 stories). That's a 50% female team!

Of those four, one of them is a person of color (25%!) and, if you want to get cutesy with it, none of the characters are white men, as the male characters consist of a centaur and a dwarf.

Duursema gives each of the female characters a very distinct look and physique, as well. Kyri is the one with a probably typical comic book body, consisting of large breasks, a tiny waist and wide hips. Former gladiator Vajra, meanwhile, is tall and muscular, with an athletic build. Luna, who owns the inn where our heroes hang out, is a bigger, rounder older woman.


I recently read Tim Hanley's new (prose) book, Investigating Lois Lane, and he points out how relatively rare female artists still are on DC's biggest books, noting that it wasn't until Becky Cloonan drew a story in 2012's Batman #12 that woman had ever drawn Batman, and that no woman had drawn the regular Superman books in...well...ever...yet? He was talking about the way Lois was frequently portrayed after she and Clark married, and how she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around their apartment scantily clad, and cited the fact that it was always just a bunch of dudes drawing her that likely contributed.

That seems really weird that Superman and Batman have both been starring in two monthly books apiece that have been around for about 75 years now, and none of those four books have featured a run by a female artist. DC should really get on that.* You know who would be perfect for Action, Superman, Detective or Batman...?

Jan Duursema.

But then, you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

Actually, I was kind of surprised that DC didn't give her and/or John Ostrander Green Lantern after Duursema started doing a little work for DC again (Earth 2: World's End, Convergence: Nightwing/Oracle), particularly since DC seemed to be going in a very Star Wars-esque direction with the book after their "DCYou" initiative, and Duursema (and/or Ostrander) were no longer doing Star Wars comics as they had been doing for years, when Dark Horse held the license.

*Hey, just out of curiosity, has a woman ever drawn Amazing Spider-Man...?


Anonymous said...

Junko Mizuno drew a Spider-Man story for that Strange Tales anthology. And apparently Marie Severin drew some issues of Spectacular Spider-Man, plus the Hulk/Spider-Man toilet paper strip.

Caleb said...

I was thinking specifically as one of the "real" Spider-Man books, like Amazing, but Severin doing Spectacular counts, so thanks. I was having trouble of thinking of what Marvel's equivalent to Superman and Batman and their titles (and Action and 'Tec) are, as Marvel doesn't seem to have flagship books/characters like that, with so many of their big characters starting out in anthology-like books that stopped existing (Like, Tales to Astonish, Journey Into Mystery, etc).

Michael Hoskin said...

There have also been some Spider-Man specials by Colleen Coover and June Brigman drew a Mary Jane back-up in one of the annuals.

But getting back to Superman, what about the women who have written him at various times such as Louise Simonson & Gail Simone? Not that female writers = less cheesecake (as Simone's collaborations with Benes bear witness) but does the author feel they did anything to help Lois' image?

Caleb said...

Yes, Hanley talks quite a bit about Simonson and the other female writers (Well, not so much Simone, at least not as much compared to Simonson or Mindy Newell). There are actually so few female writers and editors to have worked on Lois Lane over the years that there's room in the book to discuss them all. Or at least Hanely covered all the ones I know of...and a couple I didn't (It's not exhaustive, of course; like, every single lady to have ever written Lois isn't mentioned, particularly if they just wrote, like, an eight-page story in an 80-Page Giant in the late 90s or early OOs).

I'll have much, much more on Investigating Lois Lane soon-ish.

David said...

The first arc is definitely by far the weakest – with the plotting, dialogue and art all being pretty terrible. Duursema’s art did improve dramatically, as did the plotting and scripting, with some genuinely good stuff in later storylines (and a surprisingly dark ending). Vajra also made for a great central lead, even though Kyriani was either bland or inscrutable and Timoth and Onyx were too cartoonish. That said, for me the title always a weaker older sibling to Jeff Grubb and Rags Morales’s Forgotten Realms, which I still revisit in floppies periodically to this day (sort of a personal obscure fave of mine, along with stuff like Nth Man and Xombi). Even what I consider the best arc, the Catspaw Quartet, was written by Grubb. Did you ever get around to reading the rest of FR (or even the little brother who got dropped on his head, Spelljammer).