Friday, July 25, 2008

My Favorite D&D Illustration of All Time


I think it's fair to say that this illustration, by Dave Sutherland, from the AD&D Players Handbook is my favorite one of all time. Entitled, "A Paladin in Hell," I can't begin to tell you how inspired I was by this as a younger person. I have no doubt that my lifelong love affair with paladins, and holy warriors generally, probably began on page 23 of the PHB.

There's a lot to like here. Firstly, there's the paladin himself, decked out out in what looks to be historically accurate late medieval/early modern full plate. There are no spikes or outlandish accouterments here. Remove the devils he's battling and you could drop him into the late 15th century with no problem. (As an aside, it's worth noting that, before his death, Gary Gygax mentioned on several occasions how he had come to see the early Renaissance period as more appropriate to his conception of D&D than the Middle Ages proper) You'll also notice that the paladin is wearing a couple of bags. I love that. I've commented before that I think proper D&D art should show the characters loaded down with gear and it's great to see that even this heroic paladin is carrying supplies with him as he ventures into the Pit to face evil on its home turf. Secondly, look at the paladin's position -- backed up against a precipice and still boldly facing the diabolic horde. That's what a paladin has always been in my view: someone willing to die in defense of Law and Good. And you can see that the paladin is a bad ass. He's already dispatched an ice devil -- no mean feat -- and he's about to do in a barbed devil as we speak. Those devils are the final reason I love this picture. Esthetically, D&D's devils are the perfect amalgamation of medieval conceptions of fallen angels with more outlandish ideas drawn from pop culture. I can't help but like them.

I won't say that "A Paladin in Hell" is the best D&D illustration ever, because it's not. However, it remains my favorite, because it exercised a huge influence over my imagination. Even now, after nearly 30 years, I find it inspiring in a way that few other illustrations are. I'll grant that there are problems with piece, both technically (Sutherland was nowhere near the artist Trampier was) and esthetically, but I don't much care. In terms of raw power, few illustrations have ever held a candle to this one. I am sure I am not alone in this regard.

8 comments:

  1. This should come as no surprise to you, but this is my favorite picture as well.

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  2. I think Metzger's Basic D&D gave the time period as the 15th century. That's what I've sort of thought it was ever since.

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  3. It feels like a great Last Stand piece. I can even imagine an order of paladins based on this idea.

    When a paladin reaches a certain age, he dons his armor and weapon and to a great deal of his order's pomp and ceremony, he is ported into Hell, never to return. It is done to show evil how mighty their order is, and how dedicated they are to their ideals. It's like sending out elders on an ice floe, only more badass.

    In other words, that is a great piece of game art.

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  4. Hmmm. It's interesting that you assume the Paladin is there on some sort of quest. When I looked the picture and read the caption, my first thought was that this guy failed to live up to his Paladinic (if that's a word) ideals and then croaked. Hence the trip downstairs.

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  5. I think Metzger's Basic D&D gave the time period as the 15th century.

    Really? That's interesting. Mentzer's rules are a blank spot in my knowledge, much like 2e, so I did not know this.

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  6. When I looked the picture and read the caption, my first thought was that this guy failed to live up to his Paladinic (if that's a word) ideals and then croaked. Hence the trip downstairs.

    Ha! It's certainly possible. I, for one, love the fact that you got such a divergent view of the piece.

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  7. I've always loved this piece as well, and it inspired my play for many years. Heck, it still inspires me... it takes the mundane/real (the gothic plate, the shield, the sword) and puts it into the fantastic (all the devils), which is part of D&D for me.

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  8. This has always been one of my top favorites as well. . . very compelling.

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