On Friday, which is my now-standard "day off" (even though I frequently don't blog much on Saturday or Sunday either), Dan over at The Dungeoneering Dad wrote to me about his having come across another blog that included artwork scanned from a book he'd never heard of -- Down in the Dungeon -- that included some artwork he thought I might like.
As I told him in my reply, Down in the Dungeon is a book I remember very well from my early days in the hobby. It was published in 1981, two years after I'd started roleplaying, and was written -- I use the term loosely, since there's not much text, as I recall -- by Rob Stern and illustrated by Don Greer. Here's the cover:
My friend's metal head older brother, of whom I've spoken many times before, had a copy of this book in his basement bedroom. Whenever said brother was out of the house, which was often, my friend would sneak into his brother's room and borrow this book for us to look at. We were endlessly fascinated by these illustrations and spun all sorts of stories about them, even incorporating bits and pieces of them into our ongoing campaigns.
Zarakan's Dungeon (which, if I remember rightly, is the ostensible "setting" of Down in the Dungeon) became a fixture of at least one campaign, using maps like this as inspiration for its layout:
Many of the pieces in the book seem to have been cribbed from a heady stew consisting of Frank Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrand, and Ralph McQuarrie. For example, take a look at this illustration of a fantasy tavern and compare it to some Star Wars concept art by McQuarrie for the cantina on Tatooine.
Some will no doubt turn up their nose at this stuff and, on some level, I understand why: the artwork in Dungeon in the Dungeon is highly derivative, to put it charitably. Yet, at the same time, there's a strange vibrancy to it. This is the same kind of crude charm I continue to find in the earliest products of the hobby, back before TSR was employing guys like Elmore and Caldwell to "professionalize" (aka blandify) the look of its books.
Down in the Dungeon is clearly the product of an obsession with fantasy and fantasy roleplaying and an omnivorous one at that. There's no attempt to create a unified look for a "brand" at work here, just the gleeful abandon of mad love, one that unashamedly appropriates whatever's at hand to illustrate a new form of entertainment that doesn't yet have a consistent iconography, let alone a corporate-approved one.
And, ultimately, I think that's what I so love in the early artwork of D&D, raw and amateurish though it is in the eyes of some: it's revolutionary. It's an attempt, however fumbling, to give expression to something genuinely new. We call it "D&D fantasy" today, with a sneer on our lips, but, back then, even in 1981 when this book was published, it couldn't yet be reduced to a formula and a checklist of elements. Though cobbled together from disparate parts, like Frankenstein's monster, it nevertheless managed, somehow, to be more than its origins -- and just what it was hadn't been worked out yet.
It really was a brave new world, a portal to a place no one had ever been before and I consider myself lucky to have been there early enough to have passed through it with my friends (and their older brothers).