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.