This Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Volume 1 #8
“The Spirit of Myrrth, Part 4 – Die Laughing”
Writer – Dan Mishkin
Penciler – Jan Duursema & Ron Randall
Inker – Gene D’Angelo
Letterer – Albert DeGuzman
Four years ago I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons.
Role playing games haven’t evolved much since their conception. Stats, abilities, modifiers, et al. now calculated by CPUs, have pushed table top games to the periphery, where they still live in the hearts of luddites everywhere. My experience with D&D was mystifying. Like listening to my favorite album on vinyl for the first time, I peered into the inner workings of a closed ended, analogue adventure. That night I communed with the vegetative bog people, and their shamans (known as Dungeon Masters). I climbed to the top of imaginary mountains, attempted to sleep with imaginary women. My ambrosia was Mr. Pibb, and my mutton, Hot-N-Ready Little Caesars. The oracles, D6, D10, and D20 spoke to me, and I encountered the gods, played by Jerry’s mother, who insisted she sit in to make sure we weren’t practicing witchcraft. We had fun. After 40 years, the mechanics of most table RPGs are still rudimentary reconstructions of Gary Gygax’s original project Chainmail, created in 1971. Current gen incarnations of RPGs, now virtual and actuated by game engine A.I., award experience points for creatures killed, randomly drop loot, and devour hours of time from our busy lives. So, when I found Advanced Dungeons & Dragons issue in my grab bag of comics, I was relieved that it would only take 20 minutes to read.
Licensed properties are mysterious enterprises. Who profits more in the transaction is a matter of perspective. When DC began printing AD&D in the late 80s it was a fluff title, an easy, short term investment. DC, like most publishers, has to serve a PnL (Profits and Loss) statement, and research the market viability of creating a new character or revamping an old one. Considering the overhead costs with printing and distributing comics, many pitches won’t see the light of day before getting through a gauntlet of departments: marketing, sales, finance, publicity, etc. According to Kyle Duncan, an industry professional of 28 years in acquisitions publishing and staff editing for a large Christian publishing organization, it costs almost $30,000-50,000 to bring a title to the market. Brick and mortar publishing houses, like DC and Marvel, must buckle down and determine the risk potential of every title they release; otherwise it could mean someone’s job. AD&D’s partnership with DC wasn’t uncommon by any means at the time. It was a business engagement to make short term revenue capital. I wonder myself if Gygax, at the time, owed someone money.
Duncan refers to titles like AD&D as “gimmick publishing,” a work that is easy to digest but not representative of the brand as a whole. Fluff titles, being at odds with the creative direction of the parent company, serve to arouse interest in similar markets as those shared by the primary creative properties produced by the company. Duncan suggests that these titles aren’t good or bad by company standards. There are levels to a brand that companies push on purpose. Fluff pieces make money where other projects can’t. Transformers (the 2007 film) is fluff, but the money made from the film can be put into other authorial productions. Short term gains aside, if too much fluff is produced in too short a window, the brand begins to change.
Sadly, TSR’s collaboration with DC was one of many partnerships that would result in the comic book industry becoming oversaturated with fluff content. The publishing industry, which is struggling to just keep the doors open these days, survives on pragmatism and thorough internal market research. Many titles, even after being vetted by all company departments, still end up as reported losses for the company. Of the 15-20 greenlit titles on market in late September-early October, only two to three titles make any real money, which help cover the losses of the failed projects. The comics industry not only contributed to the inflation of printing runs (collectors often purchased several copies of the same issue for speculation trading at the time of release), but also to the sudden inundation of content attempting to cut out a part of the existing market share. D&D, known for its surviving cult following and niche counter culture, was a huge market of “true fans,” who would buy anything bearing the mark of the beast. Contrary to the work Mishkin did with Blue Devil, AD&D is an opportunistic property that dispassionately grabs its readers as lethargically as a miniature player grabs a handful of Cheetos at 3am, after 7 hours of dungeon crawling.
AD&D #8 is the fourth, and final, part of a story that follows Myrrth, a ghost enlisting the main protagonists to bring rest to his weary soul. The premise is actually quite fascinating, where it not executed with such banal riffs and beats. D&D is a very interactive game, founded on a dynamic narrative determined by the dungeon master. Players undertake the game in character, creating an immersive experience, which is half the fun. Everything in AD&D #8 is tonally deaf, boasting characters made of cardboard. It is typical fluff, which exists because it can and because people will buy it. As I’ve mentioned before, a good comic tends to allow readers to enter into it from any issue. At the end of a four part story arc, I understood most of what was going on, but found the conflicts in the intended climax lacking. I found the clandestine struggles between the Musicians’ Guild and the Jester Guild as ludicrous as the A/V club sabotaging the Band locker room. I’ve never seen lute players so enthralled with organized villainy as I have in this comic.
The denouement of the arc is endemic with all the pacing issues one can imagine. Panels introduce narrative intrigue, but are cut off abruptly by supporting characters, reminding us all that we have to move on to the next scene (otherwise things could get interesting). Likewise, the fight scenes that ensue are tragically anticlimactic. I felt sorry for all the band kids assaulted between these covers. It brought me back to my High School days all over again, watching future mall cops and claims adjusters harass the phytoplankton in between classes. I was surprised by the busty elf making an appearance, whose magic missiles were (apparently) no match for an eldritch wizard communing with a hundred year old skull. She prematurely neutralizes the threat of the skull by just destroying it, and the primary scoundrel responsible for trying to destroy an entire settlement, and perhaps others, responds by letting them go without a fight. He gives up because he no longer has the skull! I wish the mafia were so forgiving after being sabotaged by vigilantes. I can imagine Mishkin tired, hunched over his desk and hungry, casting cursory glances at the Quartz wall clock. “I can’t finish this,” he thinks. “They all go home happy. The end! I’m done…”
That AD&D was intended to make money and not entertain me I respect. I also understand why it existed alongside outstanding works of comic history, like Animal Man and The Sandman. Without works like AD&D, DC wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on because, as much as the fans would hate to admit it, AAA writing and award winning art direction doesn’t sell. Wes Anderson films don’t support 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures. It’s the fluff that 8 year olds shell out their hard earned money for, and that twenty-somethings buy on eBay for ironic laughs, that support the aging publishing giants of the comic book industry. Thankfully, indie projects, fueled by social media and crowd sourcing, are forcing comic companies to up their creative game. Soon works like AD&D will be relics of history (one hopes). Until then, Myrrth’s ghostly caper will continue to amuse discount bin shoppers, but not in the good way.
Roll for Initiative!
A Natural 1 (of 20)
(Better luck next time.)