When Words Collide

Mon, March 21st, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE DAYS OF BLADES AND MONSTERS

A little less than a year ago, I wrote about my two-day excursion to New York and Boston and my growing sense of the "D&D comics trend," or what I felt was a critical mass of comics about edged weapons and ugly monsters. It's not surprising that comics inspired by "Dungeons & Dragons" kinds of adventuring -- you know, the stories where your heroes carry swords and axes and the bad guys are scaly, gigantic, undead or all of the above -- have gained in prominence over the past year or two. Online games like "World of Warcraft" have over 12 million subscribers, and the generation who grew up on the red box rules from TSR and Willie Aames voicing a Human Ranger on television have ascended to positions of power within the entertainment industry.

You've all seen the February 3 episode of "Community," right?

But besides that lovingly vicious deconstruction of the charms of role-playing games, and the repeated joys of Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" (which is a favorite, maybe the favorite, in my house since last summer), we've seen several impressive comic book versions of the adventurers-and-monsters series debut since I last wrote about the trend.

We've had, for example, Tom Scioli's "American Barbarian" webcomic (owing more to Gerber and Kirby and "Thundarr" than to Dungeons or Dragons, perhaps, and deserves a column all its own someday), a couple of actual "Dungeons and Dragons" series from IDW, the best of which is the one soon completing its opening arc with writing by John Rogers and art by Andrea Di Vito. We've had the first six issue of "Skullkickers" by Jim Zubkavich and (mostly) Edwin Huang. And we'll soon have "Nonplayer" by Nate Simpson, which I've been fortunate enough to read in advance.

It's really "Nonplayer" and its amazing first issue that has prompted my thoughts for his column, but I'll get to the specifics of Nate Simpson's stellar debut in a minute. First, some ponderings!

Sword and sorcery comics are nothing new, of course. Even as a trend.

In that column from last April, I wrote about digging through back issues for Bronze Age comics in that vein, some of which were literally titled "Sword of Sorcery" (and featured Howard Chaykin art). But it strikes me that when sword and sorcery comics were popular in the past, they were based around one of three concepts (or some combination of the three):

CONCEPT #1: The Edgar Rice Burroughs. Obviously, this is where the actual Burroughs adaptations, sequels or spin-offs fall, like "John Carter of Mars" (nicely reproduced in a massive paperback volume thanks to Dark Horse), but it's also where something like "Warlord" comes from. Or even "Starslayer: The Log of the Jolly Roger." Basically, any Mike Grell comic where a dude has a sword.

CONCEPT #2: The Robert E. Howard. "Conan," of course, comes from this, as do the ancillary Conan books or homages or rip-offs. Marvel's "Thongor: Warrior of the Lost Land" or DC's "Claw the Unconquered" would be part of that tradition.

CONCEPT #3: The J. R. R. Tolkien. A gaggle of Barry Blair comics from Aircel fall into this subgenre, but it was most fully emulated by the DC "Dungeons and Dragons" comics of the 1980s and 1990s like "Dragonlance" and "Forgotten Realms."

These have been the three traditional fantasy archetypes, and something like "Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser" by Fritz Leiber is really a lot like Howard plus Tolkein, while Marvel's "Ka-Zar" is Burroughs with some Howard thrown in.

But this new batch of sword and sorcery comics takes the genre in a different direction. It's a consistently different direction, though, and if I were to name this mutated subgenre that we see in the Rogers "Dungeons and Dragons" comics of IDW and the Zubkavich "Skullkickers" and the Simpson "Nonplayer," I wouldn't even refer to them as sword and sorcery comics at all.

I call them gamer comics. Because that's what they are. And I use the label with great fondness.

Gamer comics (which we see also outside the glossy color floppies in books like Joe Daly's "Dungeon Quest" from Fantagraphics and C. F.'s "Powr Mastrs" from PictureBox) don't read like sword and sorcery comics, even though they may share some of the same superficial trappings. You're likely to find monsters and giants and goblin-y creatures for example. And characters with daggers and longbows and pointy ears. And a village. And a forest. And mystery. And evil.

But gamer comics don't do what sword and sorcery comics used to do. Traditional sword and sorcery comics took their fictional worlds very seriously and if there was humor in an issue of "Forgotten Realms" or a "Warlord" comic, it was of the tiny sort of comic relief that you might find in a historical epic. It didn't dare mock its very existence.

Gamer comics don't take themselves seriously (except for "Nonplayer," but, as I said, I'll get to that in a minute), and what they offer instead of a fully-realized fantasy world is a fully-realized fantasy world that mimics the experience of playing in a fully-realized fantasy world.

John Rogers sprinkles meta-narrative jokes throughout his "Dungeons and Dragons" comics, whether its knowing references to gaming stereotypes, allusions to old-school TSR products, clich├ęs like "don't split the party," or elves who talk like the characters who play them at the table. Jim Zubkavich treats his story with a similar irreverence, turning zombie infestations and lycanthropisms and necromancery into the stomping grounds for a comic that reads like it was written by a weekly group of players, downing the carbonated beverage and the salty snacks before tossing out sarcastic comments about their in-game situation.

And let me state for the record that such a tone makes for a pretty damn entertaining comic book series.

"Scott Pilgrim" would probably be the cooler, hipster cousin of the gamer comics genre, by the way, but it's certainly related, even if there's barely a monster or a battleaxe to be found.

Yet while "Scott Pilgrim" embraced the twin influences of alt-comics' slackerism and early Nintendo video games, these recent incarnations of gamer comics seem to have a pretty clear line from Burroughs/Howard/Tolkien filtered into Gary Gygax AD&D filtered into "World of Warcraft" and then filtered through the experience of actually playing in those environments. So it's not that the Burroughs and Howard and Tolkien trinity is ignored, its just that its thrice removed. A distant, generationally-degraded influence. Flavor for the setting, perhaps, but not for the way the protagonists behave. Not for the tone of the series.

Looking at Rogers's "Dungeons and Dragons," Zubkavich's "Skullkickers" and Simpson's "Nonplayer" side-by-side, the differences between them show their individual strengths. Rogers's work is the most conventional of the three -- not surprising, since it comes on a licensed product -- but it is still unusually vibrant for a comic book with "Dungeons and Dragons" in the title. The finale of the first arc comes out this week, I believe, and I'm curious to see how it ends, but my overall reaction is that the series started stronger than it has finished (so far). Rogers had the gamer comics tone under control in the zero issue and in the first issue, but as the series has progressed, it's turned into a more typical sword and sorcery comic.

It's almost as if his characters have forgotten that they are players in a game. Because, of course, they don't know they're players in a game, and Rogers is playing the story straight. Maybe he feels like he's got the cuteness of the meta-references out of his system, but they do still pop up once in a while even in the later issues. Or maybe he just wants to get out of his own way and tell the story.

No matter what, it's a solidly entertaining comic, and of the three it seems to have the strongest plot structure.

"Skullkickers" feels more improvised. It's certainly less dense than the other two. It moves at a rapid pace, and its two unnamed protagonist (affectionately referred to in the back matter as "Shorty" and "Baldy") are likeably blunt and effective in their jobs. They don't have time for the frilly conventions of most fantasy worlds. They smash stuff. Or blow stuff up. Or steal stuff. Or kill lots of monsters. Whatever they're hired (or in the mood) to do. "Skullkickers" is more of a true gamer comic than "Dungeons and Dragons" because of its playful sensibility and the almost complete lack of consequence. Shorty and Baldy may get into trouble, but like real gamers, there's always the feeling that they won't really ever die. They'll just get another saving throw or an extra life.

Yet there's also the sense that Zubkavich might have more planned for these characters than it seems. Their Asmodeus-may-care attitudes may get them into more trouble than they're prepared for one day. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just a romp with plenty of jokes and violence, and that's all right too.

"Nonplayer" is more difficult to judge, only because I've read just the first issue (which hits your local shop -- if they were smart enough to order it -- next month). As I mentioned, "Nonplayer" is the exception in the "doesn't take itself too seriously" lottery. I think Nate Simpson takes his work on this comic very seriously (as do all the writers and artists I've mentioned in this column, I'm sure), but I also think there's more of a serious underpinning to "Nonplayer" than there is in other gamer comics. That doesn't mean it's a heavy, ponderous read. It just means that this is a comic that's about something more than it seems to be about. In other words, there are some actual themes beneath the surface here. But what a beautiful surface it is.

"Nonplayer" is, without question, the best-looking of all the gamer comics. It's also one of the best-looking comics, of any sort, you're likely to read in the next few months. Is it the best-looking comic of the year? Three months in, the answer is: definitely.

Nate Simpson draws with the delicacy of Jamie McKelvie crossed with the attention to detail of Geof Darrow. The first issue tells the story of Dana, a young woman who immerses herself in a fantasy world. Simpson makes both the fantasy and the reality as achingly detailed, and equally beautiful in their own way. Reality for Dana is much harsher, of course, with post-industrial decay and laundry on the floor, but something's wrong in the fantasy world, and she can't quite figure out what.

It's an astounding first issue, full of intricately-designed panels and a real sense of humanity, visible through the layers of games and reality present in the series.

And it's a gamer comic through and through, but it looks to be one that has a chance to be something special. Something more than just a fun romp in a fantasy world. Something substantial and powerful and fresh, even as it draws from what has come before.

I suppose my real point is this: "Dungeons and Dragons" is pretty good. "Skullkickers" is quite good. But "Nonplayer" looks to be great.

And sometimes all you need is a little greatness to make readers pay attention to an entire genre. With 12 million plus gamers out there as potential readers, maybe gamer comics don't need any more attention. But "Nonplayer" deserves it, if anything does.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, nonplayer, skullkickers, dungeons & dragons, jim zubkavich, nate simpson

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