05 April 2005

Retro: Forgotten Realms #1-4

As an unashamed, born again player of Dungeons & Dungeons, I was excited by last month's official announcement that Devil's Due was on the verge of "acquir[ing] the license to the entire D&D® library." While I've enjoyed some of the D&D-based novels TSR/Wizards of the Coast has published over the years, too many of them have been bland, formulaic marketing promotions for their latest gaming supplements or campaign setting, and I hadn't picked up a comic book version in...well, ever, actually.

My return to D&D two years ago coincided with my return to comic books, and it was at my first convention that I came across several issues of DC's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms comics from the late 80s. I bought every one they had, and via eBay and Mile High Comics, have since put together the full 25-issue run of the latter, and am working on the former's 36-issue run.

Back in 1989 when Forgotten Realms launched as the first comic book based in the Forgotten Realms setting, which itself had premiered only two years earlier, I was two years removed from high school and had stopped collecting comics and playing D&D long before. Had it come out a few years earlier, though, I would have likely been a regular reader, not so much because it was good - because it wasn't, really; in that same way many of the superhero comics we all remember so fondly actually weren't all that good - but because it existed at all, and $1.50/month was a more affordable fix than the D&D supplements I used to shoplift from my local hobby shop. I've always enjoyed reading about the worlds of D&D more than I have playing in them, and that remains true to this day.

Sixteen years later, Forgotten Realms is most notable for the fact that it was also the regular series debut of artist R.A. Morales, aka Rags Morales, of Identity Crisis fame. Oddly enough, unlike many artists who survived the Image epidemic of the 90s, his style has changed only subtly over the years. He's definitely a better storyteller now and is more detailed overall, but not in any overwhelmingly evolved kind of way.

Which is really just to say that, aesthetically speaking, his solid, blue collar artwork is the best thing about Forgotten Realms' initial story arc, "The Hand of Vaprak!"

Written by Jeff Grubb, co-founder of the campaign setting and still one of D&D's lead game designers, the arc reads like an adventure run by an earnest DM who's as into role-playing as he is roll-playing, but who doesn't quite have the chops to pull off a seamless game. His primary characters include the prerequisite archetypes (Wizard, Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief; Human, Elf, Halfling) along with an Iron Golem of indeterminate class, and he makes some nice attempts at characterization - like Priam Agrivar, the Paladin going through a crisis of faith with his divine powers on the wane as a result - but the scripts have a forced feel to them, almost like Grubb had some friends over to play a session and transcribed much of the gameplay into his script. His clumsy handling of magic - where magic users actually say the names of the spells they're casting - is a particularly distracting shortcut every time it comes up, which is pretty often since magic in the Realms is like cell phone service today.

Nevertheless, there is a certain innocent, geeky pleasure in seeing the complex rules of D&D distilled into four-color entertainment and, on that account, the arc delivers the goods. Comic book geeks will marvel at the full stories told in each issue, page after page filled with dialogue and exposition, awkward at times though it may be! Hardcore Realms fans will love the appearances of places like the Sword Coast and Baldur's Gate, along with the Wizard Elminster himself. They even go so far as to provide stats for one of the story's characters, the Wizard Captain Dwalimor Omen, on the letters page of the second issue. His THACO was 16. Remember THACO? If you do, screw aesthetics, this comic is just for you!

Forgotten Realms #1-4, (DC Comics, 1989; $1.50/ea); Written by Jeff Grubb, Pencils by Rags Morales, Inks by Dave Simons, Colors by Gene D'Angelo, Lettering by Tim Harkins.

1 comment:

Jeff_Grubb said...

Wow, its amazing what you come up with when you ego-scan for your own name on Technorati. Thanks for the review. All I can say about my "earnest" writing style of the books was that this was in the days when all the disparate fandoms (comics, games, SF) were just starting to fuse into the great, white-hot World Mind, and yes, we felt we needed to establish basics of how D&D worked (And it was easier to speak the spell's name than to write "Look! He's casting a Lightning Bolt! He must be at least 5th level!")

I'm particularly happy that, after a couple decades of hard work, Rags is finally an overnight success. He was and remains a brilliant artist, capable of handling both epic and nuance in his art.

Jeff Grubb