For a book that's frankly at least as much a cornerstone of actual play as the Players Handbook, you'd think the Monster Manual would have gotten better covers over the years. It hasn't and I find that strange. The 1e cover is, as I already discussed, a cartoonish muddle that doesn't really do its contents justice. The revised 1e cover that replaced it, however, has different problems.
From a technical and compositional standpoint, this cover is pretty good. Like the original 1e cover, this one shows a flying red dragon, but, unlike its predecessor, the dragon doesn't look like a piñata. The other nice thing about the piece is that it depicts an actual scene and one that gives a sense of scale. It's clear from looking at this cover illustration that the dragon is much bigger than the pegasuses. I appreciate that. I also appreciate that the piece doesn't just look like some random monsters thrown together willy-nilly, like a page from a kid's coloring book. There is a suggestion (albeit a thin one) of a story here and I think good old school art should always leave the viewer asking questions about the nature of that story. So, overall, this cover is a definite improvement over the Sutherland 1e one.
With that said, I don't in fact like this cover very much. The reason I don't is that it's too polished and slick. Now, there's nothing wrong with polish or slickness in and of themselves. I'm definitely not someone who loves roughness to the point where I would, as some old schoolers do, praise the scrawls in the OD&D LBBs as good art. My problem here is that I smell the powerful whiff of marketing in this illustration. A red dragon on the cover makes good sense, given the name of the game. But the pegasuses? We're treated to not just one but to a whole flock of these winged, white horses fending off this evil draconic beastie. Now, I have nothing against the pegasus, but, like unicorns, they are often overused and emblematic of the kind of happy-go-lucky high fantasy that D&D birthed in popular media. Some call it "Ren Faire Fantasy," but, for me, it's always been "mass market fantasy," which is to say, pulp fantasy with all the edges pounded down and rough patches smoothed out. Its existence is, to me, the death of D&D.
Yes, yes, I know, hyperbole and you're right, of course. Still, there's something in this piece that bugs me that has nothing to do with the artwork itself, which, as I say, I think is decent (even if it's not necessarily the best possible choice for the cover of the MM). The revised covers were created to give D&D a new look. They're for a world where the game is available in Toys 'R Us and chain bookstores and every kid in America is a potential buyer. In short, they're a mass media production even if their content remains very much a product of a hobbyist culture. I think it's that tension that I detect and the one that irks me so.
Take note: I am not exculpating either TSR or Gary Gygax from their responsibility in having turned D&D into a mass media product. In many ways, the whole purpose of AD&D was to do just that, as Gary stated on numerous occasions. OD&D was a game for hobbyists by hobbyists; it was deemed "a non-game" by Gygax, because of its do-it-yourself ethos. AD&D, on the other hand, was meant to be accessible to a wider range of potential customers, most especially those without the background in wargaming, history, or pulp fantasy that almost all adopters of OD&D were assumed to possess. Given this, is it any wonder that we would eventually see D&D become beholden to mass media conceptions of fantasy that had little or nothing to do with the original inspirations of the game?
And, for me, that's where the real root of the problem lies: D&D became successful and, in so doing, it slowly shed all the things that drew me and many others to it, to the point where, in 2008, "Dungeons & Dragons" means so little even to the company who produces the latest iteration of the game that they felt it necessary to shed more of the game's patrimony in a never ending quest to make it yet more palatable to the mass market. So, if you're looking for the source of my beef with recent vintages of D&D, there it is. If that makes me a grumpy old man, so be it.