Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Legacy of DC's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

I used to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons quite a bit.  With that in mind, back in the late 1980s when I heard DC was doing a comic based on the role playing game, I immediately put it on my pull list.  How could I not?  How could any player who was also into comics not want to read this title?  There was a genuine air of excitement around it, and the wait for the first issue to arrive was a bit maddening.  In the days before the Internet made it commonplace to ruin any surprises, the speculation of what the comic would be like was the topic of many conversations.  And then it arrived.

The cover of that initial issue looked promising.  It was a group shot of the comic’s cast of characters with a hint of the evil they would face, and anyone who played the game and saw it on the rack would be intrigued by it.  The story, however, was fairly standard fantasy stuff … which was all it really needed to be.  Granted, it was cool to see some of the spells and monsters from the game brought to “life,” but the setting could have been any fantasy realm as most are fairly interchangeable.  Fantasy comics at that time were limited, as well, so genre fans grabbed whatever they could get their pale, trembling hands on, and this series was no exception.  It had a built-in audience from the start, a fact I’m sure wasn’t lost on DC.  It was guaranteed sales (at least for a while) regardless of quality, and the comic franchise did something no other work of entertainment has done since.  More on that in a bit.

I bought all the issues in the DC series, and several of the other associated titles, all of which varied in content.  (Spelljammer was not a favorite of mine, though I had friends swear by its superiority to any other title on the market at the time.)  Once the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series folded thirtysome issues later, there was a lull before other publishers brought the franchise back to life in the comic world … all with mixed results.  Few of the titles managed to spark fan’s excitement like that first DC series, though.  Many of those companies should have never tried, either, as that initial series was never really all that special anyway.  As a matter of fact, I can’t remember a single character or storyline from it.  I actually remember some of the Hardy Boys stories I read as a boy far better than those issues.  Memorable?  It’s the exact opposite, and nothing since that DC run has really caught fire, either.

I haven’t revisited the title since I read that last issue, but every once in a while I think about breaking it out to see if I could get anything new from it.  I fear, however, with tastes that have changed over the years, the flaws I casually overlooked before would become glaring nightmares this time around and ruin even my sparse nostalgic memories of the title.  I’ll go back to it eventually, though, if only to satisfy my curiosity.  After all, waiting 12 years between thereadings of Origin changed my view ofthat series for the better, though I doubt re-reading this one will give mesimilar results.  What that means for the game that inspired it, however, is something totally different.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons really only failed as a comic book series because the game was impossible to live up to.  Anyone who has played the game knows that you are only really limited by your imagination.  Readers of the comics were limited by the creators’ imagination, and sometimes that imagination wasn’t all that strong.  While the concept of a comic based on the game seemed promising at first, it didn’t take long to see that everything which made the game special could in no way be transferred to a static comic book series because it lacked one simple thing: the players.

There is not a single one of those series that could stand as a testament to the game from which they sprang.  They do, however, prove that unlike other games, it isn’t the mechanics that makes it stand out, it’s the players.  I can’t think of another instance in any crossover media where such a thing has happened.  Sure, sometimes a movie adapted from a book makes moviegoers say the book was more in-depth and therefore better, but when else has an audience been credited with making the work special?  Never, and that’s what makes these various series such an anomaly in the realm of entertainment.  Their mediocrity proves the superiority of its source inspiration, and that is something players should be proud of.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


In 2001 I was working as the manager of a comic book store in Eureka, California.  One of the biggest events of the year was the release of Origin, a six-issue limited series written by Paul Jenkins, Joe Quesada, and Bill Jemas; and with art by Andy Kubert.  It was an event simply because the series was going to tell the story of how one of the most popular comic book characters, Wolverine, came to be.  To say most of the customers were talking about it is an understatement.

There had been hints of Wolverine’s past in previous stories.  Often times these were red herrings or contradicted one another.  Each dropped clue kept the mystery and speculation alive, however, and they kept fans talking and guessing.  With that in mind, I wondered why Marvel, the publisher of this series, was even bothering to tell the story, as it was a tale that didn’t really need to be told.

Wolverine sold titles.  His solo title sold, and any book he was in sold.  Wolverine fans would buy his books no matter what, so to do a series that would put an end to some of the mystery seemed almost counterproductive.  In that sense, like the Star Wars prequels, it could only fail in its attempts.

My first reading of the series left me disappointed.  It had gothic sensibilities and horrific moments, sometimes actually feeling like a Hammer horror film back in the 1960s and 1970s.  Far from the anti-hero of Chris Claremont’s heyday on the Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, the boy, was a pathetic, tragic figure who slowly transformed into the hybrid beast of a man readers knew and loved.  It made dramatic sense, however, and it also made his rise to the samurai-inspired, bloodthirsty savage even more poignant, but something about the story felt decidedly lackluster.  As it transpired in those six issues, Wolverine’s rise to power was more situational than anything else.  He was an accidental hero, though those heroics were barely seen in the series.

Then a funny thing happened.  I decided to revisit the story recently, and was actually most pleased by what I read.

When Origin is left to simmer away from the hype of telling the Wolverine origin story, it actually gains strength.  It is no longer the let-down it had originally been simply because it is removed from anticipation.  Many die-hard Wolverine fans complained to me that the character didn’t start out kicking butt, but instead was sickly and quick to cry.  It was a blasphemy, and it didn’t jibe with what they knew.  That wasn’t the problem I had reading the series for the first time, however.  Instead, I found the story to be far too boring.  Sometimes it took too long to make its point, and at other times it was too heavy-handed.  Time changed that, though.  Removing the story from the constant hype and checkout counter criticism has shown that despite its flaws (those very obvious references to the character’s future that have all the subtlety of being hit in the face with a mallet), it was a rather well-crafted bit of characterization that worked.  What seemed lackluster on the first reading, now feels like a masterful stroke of storytelling.

There are some outstanding Wolverine stories out there.  Comic book legends like Frank Miller (Sin City) and Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) have contributed tales that are above and beyond Jenkins and company’s work, but that doesn’t mean Origin should be dismissed for what it attempted.  To answer my earlier question of why it was even written in the first place, the tale was created because Marvel feared that if it didn’t tell the story of how Wolverine came to be, Hollywood would do so, and once that cat was out of the bag Marvel would have a hard time reclaiming the character if purely on an ideological level.  No amount of great talent could save that story if Hollywood, with all its entertainment-by-demographics, got its hands on it first.  The creators Marvel assigned to do it had to know they were playing with fire, and were going to most likely disappoint people artistically, all while realizing sales would be through the roof regardless.  It was, by and large, a bold move of them to create the story they did, and they did it far better than Hollywood would have done if given the chance.  Marvel set the standard, and then Hollywood tried to tell its own version in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which borrowed from the comic series and added its own bit of misery to it.  Marvel, which has only been helped by the silver screen as of late, beat the beast at its own game.

Ironically, Marvel, in a fairly standard Hollywood-like move, has its own sequel to the comic due out soon.  Will lightning strike twice?  I seriously doubt it, but I’d love to be surprised … again.

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