Friday, August 8, 2008

Further Dissent

The Monster Manual was the first AD&D book I ever bought. Given that I started playing D&D with the Holmes boxed set at Christmas 1979, I surmise I must have bought the Monster Manual in early 1980, probably January. I ordered it through the Sears catalog and it was delivered straight to my front door, which was a novelty to me in those days, as I rarely ever got packages in the mail. I think it cost $12, although it's possible it was slightly cheaper than that. In any case, the price was a fairly significant amount of money to me, representing many weeks' allowance. Fortunately, Christmas had just passed and I'd gotten some cash from relative who had no clue what to buy me, given how "unusual" my interests were. Thank goodness for them!

The Monster Manual really was a revelation to me. Whereas the Holmes rules have only a few dozen monsters, most of which weren't even illustrated, the MM had over 350 monsters, most of which had art either by Dave Trampier or Dave Sutherland. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I pored over the pages of the 1e Monster Manual for longer than any RPG book before or since (and I don't just mean the one containing the illustration of the succubus). The pages of this book are pure gold and fired my imagination in ways too numerous to count. No other monster book has ever come close to matching the genius of the original Monster Manual (though there are some excellent contenders) and it remains one of my most cherished gaming possessions.

It's a pity that the cover of the thing is so terrible:

Perhaps "terrible" is too strong a word, but I find the word "cartoonish" leaps to mind when I look at this cover. Maybe it's the garish colors that make it look worse than it is; I don't know. Yet, something doesn't sit well with me about this cover, which is just an arbitrary mishmash of unconnected monsters in "unrealistic" environment.

The red dragon in the top center is, in my opinion, the worst of the loot. He looks stiff and unnatural and, while his pose is meant to convey the notion that he's swooping down, claws outstretched like some reptilian bird of prey, I find it laughable, especially given the expression on his face. To me, it appears as if he's been gripped by a seizure mid-flight and is about to fall from the sky like a rock. In any event, neither the unicorn -- which still retains a more medieval cast to it than the white-pony-with-a-horn look beloved by schoolgirls everywhere -- nor the centaur seem much threatened by this evil creature's presence.

I like the troll, I'll admit, but then I've always been a big fan of the look of D&D's trolls. I mourn their loss in the latest edition more than I mourn the loss of many other things from earlier editions. I've never been a huge fan of the owlbear as a monster, although there's no arguing that it isn't an iconic D&D beastie. Same goes for the roper. These latter two look especially poorly drawn to me and the roper's illustration on the cover doesn't match its appearance inside.

Like both the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Masters Guide, this cover is a wrap-around one. The back cover illustrates several more monsters above and below the ground. Interestingly, these monsters, though just as cartoony as the ones on the front, at least look to be doing something rather than just arbitrarily posing for the artist. That's a plus, although only a small one.

David Sutherland is an old school artist of whom I am very fond. He's done a number of illustration that I think epitomize what I find compelling in older RPG art. Many people, though, dislike him or argue that he was not in the same league as Dave Trampier. Looking at the cover of the Monster Manual, it's very hard to disagree. This piece looks amateurish and rough. It does what it needs to do, I suppose -- show off some D&D monsters -- but it doesn't do it particularly well. As I say, some of the fault may lie in the coloring of the illustration. That's not all of it, since I think the underlying composition is poor, particularly the front cover. It's a shame, because I think Sutherland has a number of truly excellent interior pieces. He wasn't entirely without skill. What he lacked, though, was consistency and his ability to put together larger pieces is very hit-or-miss. He seems to have been better at smaller, more focused illustrations and you can see that if you look inside the MM.

I still retain a great fondness for the 1e Monster Manual. It's an absolutely fantastic book on almost every level, but the cover art is not one of them.

19 comments:

  1. I largely agree. I think that the MM could be improved by a factor of 10 simply by replacing the red dragon. It looks comically shocked to be there. It's a shame because all of the dragon interior art is far superior.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can’t recall who or where, but it seems like one of the old TSR folks related that Sutherland—serving as art-director as well as artist for this book—had felt rushed (in both roles) and never felt satisfied with the results.

    I’ll try to do some searching for those comments this weekend.

    (None of which is meant as a criticism of the review. Just some related information.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was going to comment that who on earth would write up an art order describing the scene we're left with for the MM cover - but that makes a lot more sense. Perhaps DSCIII didn't even get an art order, and had to go it completely solo direction-wise.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not fond of the Owlbear!? Now I can truly say that you have erred!

    Otherwise, I agree. This is not a cover I particularly like. I might perhaps only dislike the mid nineties revised covers less, and it would be a close call.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think the thing that makes it look amateurish is the strange "schematic" approach; that's the kind of composition you'd expect from a child, not a professional artist.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "I was going to comment that who on earth would write up an art order describing the scene we're left with for the MM cover - but that makes a lot more sense. Perhaps DSCIII didn't even get an art order, and had to go it completely solo direction-wise."

    I had the opposite impression. I saw this and imagined an artist reading the art order and going "you have GOT to be kidding. Well... here goes..."

    ReplyDelete
  7. It looks comically shocked to be there. It's a shame because all of the dragon interior art is far superior.

    Agreed. DCS has some really nice pieces of interior art in the MM. It's just a pity the cover is so poor.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I can’t recall who or where, but it seems like one of the old TSR folks related that Sutherland—serving as art-director as well as artist for this book—had felt rushed (in both roles) and never felt satisfied with the results.

    I recall reading that as well. I can certainly believe it. As I said, I actually like Sutherland's art, far more than a lot of old schoolers do. It's fashionable to knock his stuff as being technically inferior to Tramp's (which is true), but there's something about Sutherland's people that I like. There's a humanity to them that I really like and help ground them in reality, even when the subject matter is otherwise fantastic.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Not fond of the Owlbear!? Now I can truly say that you have erred!

    I don't hate the owlbear, but I'll admit it's not one of my great loves. For goofy D&D-specific monsters, give me the carrion crawler or rust monster any day.

    ReplyDelete
  10. that's the kind of composition you'd expect from a child, not a professional artist.

    It does have that quality, I'll agree. It reminds me of drawings my sister used to do as a child. She'd draw a scene of a house and people and the sun up in the sky -- and beneath it all there were these caves with a little red devil in the them, with a pitchfork and forked tail.

    She's feeling much better now ...

    ReplyDelete
  11. I don't hate the owlbear, but I'll admit it's not one of my great loves. For goofy D&D-specific monsters, give me the carrion crawler or rust monster any day.

    Goofy? Now I know you're crazy. Owlbears are horrific party killing machines. ;D

    ReplyDelete
  12. James,

    I have just found your blog, and I find your analysis of the D&D covers to be very insightful. Your commentary on the MM is spot on. This was also the first book that I bought, and I think I have read every entry 100x each at least! On a side note,at GenCon 40, I was able to get Gary to sign it, which was very special. While the interior is very solid, the cover is terrible. The Red Dragon truly looks like it is going to crash. As was stated earlier, this is very disappointing, as some of the interior dragons are very good. I think the Black Dragon pic is one of my favorites in the book. On a final note, the owlbear has never done anything for me, but I realize that since it was featured in "Keep on the Borderlands" is continues to get a lot of love.

    Cheers!
    Bret

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love the Roper.

    I was always puzzled by the Unicorn's armpit hair.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I was always puzzled by the poor red dragon, myself. I finally concluded it was a pinata.

    ReplyDelete
  15. When I first seen this cover, I was a kid, so I did not mind the cover to much - in fact, it reminded me of the 80s cartoons I like to watch.

    But as an artist, I think I could have been done better. The art is just as it is in the book, but in color. The monsters have a fairly good blend of colors, but the background was vary lazy. The cavern for example, was painted across with brown, then extra color was added to the rocky surfaces, but the background was largely ignored. The soft-brown background made the cavern look too bright and small. If it was painted black or with a darker color, then the cavern would evoke the feeling of an endless darkness that shrouds a strange and sinister underworld.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I was always puzzled by the poor red dragon, myself. I finally concluded it was a pinata.

    Aha! That explains everything - they're all here for a birthday party! Since nobody has any cake yet, I suggest they're waiting to surprise the Quasit, whose entry has been posted as a joke - nobody ever said monsters had a good sense of humor. Why the unicorn and the centaur got invited I don't know, but I think most big parties include one or two people who just don't fit in with the rest of the crowd.

    With that mystery resolved, we can appreciate this for what it is - a bit cartoonish in execution perhaps, a composition that is somewhat lacking, but a scene with a purpose, a story, and a dragon pinata.

    And, in the best tradition of old-school art, it illustrates the moments before the birthday boy arrives and gets his surprise.

    I think we've blown this cover review wide open.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love the Roper.

    I do too, but the cover version doesn't match up to the interior version (the number of eyes, for example). That's a minor point, perhaps, but it irks me.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I think we've blown this cover review wide open.

    Brilliant!

    ReplyDelete
  19. A birthday party! Perfect! And the troll is styaing underground to keep clear of the candles on the cake.

    I find the horrible MM red dragon picture surprising as the one on the D&D cover is one I really like.

    Honestly, I don't think I caught on that that was a red dragon and thought it was some other monster. Maybe a fiendish red dragon that had traveled back in time for 3.x

    My favourite illo in the this book is the blue dragon. It started a lifelong fandom for me for the blues. Then the 3.x art made them look brutish and unintelligent.

    Gotta scan that pic to make an avatar out of it...

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.