Sunday, October 24, 2010

Down in the Dungeon

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).

19 comments:

  1. That strange vibrancy is the same reason I look back at a past I was too young to experience at the time- there's a passion and genius there, unfiltered by what fantasy art "ought" to look like, or what fantasy is and is not.

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  2. I think some of that inspiration may have flowed the other way; is that an owlbear I see drinking at the cantina? ;)

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  3. Wow, this is really...really COOL! I LOVE learning about this kind of obscure fantasy lore! I'd never heard of this, but it's just plain awesome! Thanks!

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  4. Those are wonderful pictures.The three-quarters map is a treat.

    I'd take exception a bit to what you said about Clyde Caldwell. His covers for Dragons numbered 53, 58, 65, 76 and 80 are powerful. It's after that his style started to melt into a kind of TSR-standard-look. In his sketchbook "Savage Hearts 2" he says that when "The Coral Kingdom" came out, which was ten years later:

    "At TSR, we artists were often required to tone down the sexuality of our female characters so as not to be offensive.I was proud of myself when, on the wraparound cover of The Coral Kingdom, I was able to slip past a carved figurehead on the bow of a ship with a bare exposed breast!!."

    I think that's an admission of artistic debasement. But in the beginning Clyde Caldwell was fantastic. Right around the time of these pictures.

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  5. Funny thing, this was a pretty unique product by Squadron Signal Publications, which otherwise pretty exclusively focused on books detailing military aircraft, armored fighting vehicles, and so forth, mostly geared for the plastic military modeling hobby (I used to do that and still have a bunch of their booklets in my library).

    I do remember seeing this book back in the day and while I thought it was kind of cool it didn't really compel me to buy it, either. To different from my expectations as had developed in my mind from D&D.

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  6. I'd put this up against the D&D Coloring book anyday. And that's high praise, since I love the D&D coloring book.

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  7. Brasspen,

    That was actually my point in mentioning Elmore and Caldwell. I think they're both very talented artists whose work got worse under TSR's art direction, which favored the bland and the uninspiring over the kinds of powerful illustrations that got these men noticed in the first place.

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  8. I see you're right. I guess I read it over too quickly. My apologies.

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  9. Oh wow, what a flashback. A big comic shop near where I went to school in the early 90's had a stack of "Down in the Dungeon," placed not-quite in the RPG section but neither quite in art book section, as if they weren't sure what to sell it as. My reaction was similarly confused; I couldn't parse what seemed to be a D&D module lacking its game stats. Still, I flipped through a copy nearly ever time I went into the store, because the groovy-weird art was something so different and more ambient than the official D&D look of the day. Years later, thanks to blogs like this, I'd find out that groovy-weird aesthetic was truer to the games origins.

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  10. I think I need to find a copy of this book.

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  11. If I was to picture a typical D&D adventure in my mind's eye, it would look like this. The art style is crude and simple, yet really stylish and lavish. It plays on a lot of different fantasy themes and tropes, as well as art styles, yet still feels vary cleaver and somewhat kinky. The background art reminds me of what you'll see in an old Hanna-Barbera Cartoon, and some older children's books.

    When I saw the orcs dragging off helpless young women to be enslaved, and get piss drunk until they pass-out on the floor, they remind me of the uninhabited bastards I portray them as at my table. Hell, that's the way I portray adventures!

    If you're limited to only one source to perfectly describe a typical D&D adventure, use that gallery!

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  12. Thumbs-up. I really like that.

    In the dungeon pictures at the end, I really like how the outside tunnels "disappear" into the surrounding, textured rock. Really nice effect.

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  13. I got a copy of this book from eBay recently. Well worth it!

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  14. wow, this post has really made the rounds quickly. At the time this came out the art is quite "mediocre" but now it is wonderfully retro.

    Regarding the TSR staff artists, you can criticize their work all you want, but they were really breaking new ground with the type of fantasy art they did. And they inspired a generation of artists.

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  15. I have a book of Caldwell's art; the earlier '70s stuff certainly seems much more vibrant and imaginative to my eye.

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  16. Wow, I LOVED it. Thanks for sharing J.!

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  17. Was pointed to this blog by a friend -- fantastic stuff! I'm packing for World Fantasy Convention so have to resist the temptation to waste hours reading your previous posts.

    I will say that I feel compelled to defend the Elmore, et al aesthetic. I love Otis, Dee, etc, I also love the first Elmore covers for MMI, DMG, PH, etc. Garage rock is great but no all hyper prodcued rock has sucked :)

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  18. Believe it or not im the grandson of don greer please reply trust me i am.

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