Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Weird Maps

I've always been a sucker for maps. Along with non-Roman alphabets, maps occupied an important place in my pre-D&D personal education. My favorites were historical maps and maps of imaginary places. I still recall the first time I laid eyes on the map to L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, consisting of four triangular countries – Gillikin, Munchkin, Quadling, and Winkie – surrounded by four impassable expanses of sand (Baum later added other realms beyond the deserts but I don't believe I saw maps including them until some time later). The map isn't all that impressive in and of itself, as you can see, but it enthralled me nonetheless and I was forever after a devotee of unusual maps.

I bring this up because, recently, I've been reading old fantasy comics produced by Marvel and DC as part of an effort to look into their origins and influence in the vast cultural stew pot out of which Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs sprang (Ken St. Andre, for example, has long called Tinnels & Trolls as "The Lord of the Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974"). There's a lot of good stuff there and I plan to post about many of them in the weeks to come. One of the most immediately interesting of these comics is Matvel's Weirdworld, which premiered as a one-off in 1976 before returning, first in 1977 and then in 1979 (and a couple more times in the '80s). The map (or "chart") below depicts the landmasses and points of interest of Weirdworld.

Looking at the Weirdworld map, I see a lot more in common with the map of Oz than I do with the map of, say, Middle-earth, which is, along with Howard's map of the Hyborian Age, the locus classicus of fantasy maps. The Weirdworld map is utterly fantastical, with few concessions to reality. The large continent to the right looks like a dragon's head, complete with an eye in the form of the floating island of Klarn, while the Land of the Dead literally looks like a skull. The map makes it clear that this is a realm of pure fantasy rather than naturalism, let alone realism.

This is one of the reasons why I find the 1970s such a fascinating time when it comes to the development of fantasy as an artistic genre. At this point, fantasy had not yet been fully solidified (or brandified) into a consistent set of elements immediately understood by everyone who viewed them. Each fantasy setting was unique, springing from the imagination of its creator(s) rather than drawing on stock components. At this point, The Lord of the Rings, though popular, was still just one example of a fantasy, rather than being the template all subsequent fantasies would imitate (or react against). Looking at "A Chart of Weirdworld" thus opens a window on this wild, chaotic time.

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