Remember 1981? For me it was largely a blur. I was busy licking my wounds after my first couple of less-than-successful relationships (and given what an utter twerp I was and what dumbass decisions I’d made, it wasn’t surprising, and today I have little or no sympathy for myself), I was attending gaming and SF cons regularly, still flirting with the SCA, and (I think) trying to find a happy medium in my gaming after my original D&D group had been taken over by fanatics, and my second had fallen apart due to my own lack of diplomacy. I hadn’t yet met the woman who would be my first wife, we were still cleaning up ash from the Mount St. Helens explosion (in fact we had to drive south across Washington in the immediate aftermath of one of the secondary explosions when the mountain blew during V-Con in Vancouver), Ronald Reagan was telling us that he was SURE Mt. St. Helens put out LOTS more pollution than all the US factories combined (wrong again, Ronnie… But who cares? He’s so NICE!) and in Lake Geneva TSR was busy propelling D&D into its first golden age, while E. Gary Gygax wrote bombastic articles and made snide remarks about other gaming companies.
Dragon Magazine introduces their latest comic strip, Pinsom. I think this cover speaks for itself, don’t you?
Around this time, Dragon Magazine (which they very carefully did not call “THE Dragon”, though I’m not sure why) was putting out some very good articles, many of which are still of enormous use today. There were also reviews of games, of miniatures (in a short-lived column called “Figuratively Speaking” — yuk, yuk), fiction, ready-made dungeons, and all sorts of other fun things. And oh yeah, Dragon also had comics. The classic Finieous Fingers, one of the first ongoing D&D-based humor strips and the surreal, exquisitely rendered Wormy, about a very strange dragon and his friends, drawn by the talented Dave Trampier. There was also a fairly long-running graphic story called Jasmine by Darlene, that qualifies more as a lushly-illustrated work of prose fiction than an actual comic strip.
In Issue 46 however, Dragon chose to introduce a brand new strip, titled Pinsom, by one Steve Swentson. I’ve been unable to uncover any information about Mr. Swentson other than the fact that he was an artist on Chaosium’s classic fantasy wargame White Bear and Red Moon. The creation of Pinsom appears to be Mr. Swentson’s last contact with the outside world and though he appears to be a fine artist, Pinsom itself isn’t exactly the sort of note one wants to go out on.
For some reason, this stupid comic strip has stayed with me for years, possibly because my 20-year-old self was so fucking appalled by it. And now, as I revise steampunk stories and try not to be too impatient while my magnum opus urban fantasy novel makes the rounds of various high-profile literary agents, I figured it might be time to have some nasty fun with this gone, forgotten and thoroughly unsuccessful comic strip.
Page one. Don’t worry, there were only seven pages ever published.
Things kind of go wrong from the start. The strip opens with a nice cosmic zoom, from galaxy level down to our hero’s star system, his home planet, continent, and so on. This world, we are told, is called “Morningswish.” It’s the birthplace of magic and the source of all children’s imaginations. No, really. That’s what it says. So when your kid imagines “Gee, I wonder what it would be like if I set the cat on fire,” you can blame the good folk of Morningswish.
Like I said, there’s serious problems arising even now, in what we’re assured is only the Prolog. Consider the name of the planet. “Morningswish” is probably supposed to be pronounced “Morning’s Wish” as in a wish made first thing in the morning (such as “Oh, god, I wish I didn’t have to go to fucking work today”) but as I’m sure you can see, it’s just as easily pronounced “Morning Swish” which conjures up an entirely different image.
Well, the planet Morning Swish has three continents, the largest of which is Terragarden (and in the very next panel, as an alert reader pointed out, the continent is referred to as Terragolden), ruled by regents who swear allegiance to King Amarian and Queen Evalor, but there are some rebel regions that consider themselves separate countries, including some good places where people have huge jug-ears, ride polka-dotted donkeys and wear overalls, and others that are evil (and look a hell of a lot more fun) where apparently people lounge around all day watching naked women dance.
This is apparently someone’s idea of an elf.
(Ever notice that when you want to show how evil and decadent people are in fantasy and religious movies, they always show them watching women dance the hoochie-koochie? I mean hell, I’m not above hitting up a strip club every now and then — I spent one very fun evening identifying the exact species of all the different sea creatures a woman had tattooed on her once — and I don’t consider myself especially evil. Decadent maybe, but definitely not evil.)
Okay, prolog’s over. It may be that the prolog was going to make some sense or somehow relate to the story somewhere down the line, but unfortunately Pinsom was abruptly cancelled before it could go anywhere. And given what the next few pages hold, that was probably for the best.
Okay now we’re into the real meat of the story, and we’re introduced to our handsome, athletic, and oh-so-charismatic hero.
In the kingdom of Unpronounceable (okay, it’s actually called “Perstamonee” but it’s never really important anyway), two young elven knights, sometimes friends, sometimes rivals, sometimes lovers… No, wait… Ignore those last two words. They’re not lovers. Not at all. Not when anyone’s looking, anyway.
Okay, sorry. They’re elves named Nawdian (the ladies call him Nawdee… tee-hee) and our soon-to-be-cancelled-soon-to-be-hero, Pinsom.
And boy are these elves distinctive. JRR Tolkien elves they are not. Instead, our elvish heroes are tall and spindly to the point of emaciation and their faces…
Oh, god, their faces. Apparently Morningswishian elves (is that right, “Morningswishian”?) are part dog and part bat, for they have enormous, grotesque bat-like ears that rise above their heads like gigantic microwave towers, and spread out from the sides of their faces like hideous fungal growths that threaten to consume their entire bodies. In addition, they have the cutest little doggie noses, all black and wet and wiggling. Attached to otherwise human-seeming faces, these black noses are unbelievably creepy, a strange combination of realism and over cutified Saturday-morning squishie caricature.
And worse still, Nawdian, the secondary character in this epic, is a hell of a lot better looking than Pinsom. Nawdian has long, flowing blonde locks and a manly square jaw to go with his freakish ears and disturbing doggie-nose, while Pinsom has a chubby round face, adorable pink cheeks, a dumb smile and a fuzzy white-guy afro.
Well, Pinsom clearly doesn’t care that he looks kind of like Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter with huge ears and a puppy nose, and tells his buddy that the last one who makes it to the clearing is a “Slug Moth.” Now apparently them’s fightin’ words, for Nawdian takes them very seriously, and on page three decides to take a shortcut, with predictable results.
As his friend lies bleeding and probably dying at the foot of a nearby cliff, Pinsom happily bounds into the clearing, ready for some hot swordplay. No, I really mean that. The caption said that they were going to do some sword practice. No. Really.
Finding that Nawdian is nowhere to be seen, Pinsom is alarmed, for he smells magic (I guess the doggie nose is good for something), draws his sword and prepares to make whatever monstrosity that lurks in the clearing sell its life dearly.
And so ends the thrill-packed first installment of Pinsom. We have learned that Pinsom and the other elephant-eared, dog-nosed elves live on a planet with a weird and easily-mocked name, and that there are evil things on the planet that like to sit and watch women take their clothes off. And that Pinsom’s kind of a jerk who goads his friends into taking absurd risks.
After the exciting and extra-special three page intro, Pinsom switched to its regular format of two pages per issue. Dragon 47 saw the next thrilling installment.
In the first panel (badly scanned in my official Dragon PDF collection on CD I’m afraid), we’re told that Pinsom is “flooded in that rarest of emotions… AWE.” Yes, a weird old Gandalf-wannabe is standing in front of him, waving his hands seductively and putting on some kind of Pink Floyd planetarium laser show for Pinsom.
“Put down your weapon,” he says (and I imagine him sounding like Sir Ian McKellan). “I am your chosen teacher and we have much to do.”
I’m not sure what I’d do if this happened to me. Probably run screaming, or possibly try to run the old nut through with my blade, but Pinsom does neither. His doggie-nose, we’re told “turns dry” as his hand “loosen’s it’s grip” (sic and sic, btw). He gazes up at the mystical old geezer and says “Gulp… Ah, yes sir.”
Now I have to admit that’s pretty sensible. Old guys putting on laser light shows and floating six feet off the ground can get pretty cranky if you don’t do what they say, especially on planets like Morningswish. And they also have a tendency to give incomprehensible speeches.
This old guy is no exception. “Pinsom,” he says, “there are many things you perceive to be that aren’t, and thus there are many things you don’t that are.”
Could you please go over that one again, strange old man?
Oh well, we’re too late. Our brillo-haired hero is pretty much out of the story for good, since now we cut back to his buddy Nawdian, still lying in a broken heap at the foot of a cliff. But wait… His situation is suddenly getting better, cause he’s been rescued by a very sexy-looking elf woman. Well, sexy other than the oversized ears and dog-nose, but to each his own.
“From the blackness of unconsciousness comes a vision of loveliness most real!” declares the caption as our hot elf chick gazes down at Nawdian and says, “You are alright, my handsome one!”
“Aside from a headache as fierce as the red dragon’s flame, I’m doing fine,” Nawdian says.
“I am Leaina of the gypsys (sic),” she says. “If you can walk I know something that will help you forget your pain.”
Oh, yeah, baby! Apparently gypsy elf women are known for picking up strangers at the foot of cliffs and helping them to forget their pain. Yes, indeed!
Okay, one last panel with the mystical old guy, but no Pinsom, saying “Little elf, your innocence and joys are to be tested severely for at this time many are the actions occurring which must change the course of your life’s path and perhaps the destiny of our world!”
My god, he is a wordy old duffer, isn’t he? I’m not entirely sure exactly what that means, but at least he’s through talking for a while.
Okay now the story takes a huge 90 degree turn, as we cut to an ornate hallway, with a horned trolly-demoney guy sneaking down it. This, we’re told, is General Naranzu, and he’s about to take action against his king, months ahead of schedule.
While he sits outside the king’s bedchamber door, Naranzu spends a couple of panels repeating some exposition to himself, that Tafu (who I guess is the king) has given in to decadence too quickly, lost the loyalty of the troops, and deserves everything that he’s about to get.
Okay, I get it. On with the violence. Naranzu kicks in the bedroom door with a WHOK, shouting Tafu’s name. The fat, horned demon guy in the bed sits up with an indignant expression, and Naranzu shouts, “You can be my puppet or you can be dead!”
While this isn’t quite as clear-cut a choice as “cake or death,” you’d think it would be relatively easy. If I was offered the chance to be a puppet while retaining my decadent lifestyle, with women of several species decorating my bed, I’d probably hand Naranzu the strings and say, “Start pullin’, big boy,” but to learn Tafu’s choice we’re going to have to wait another 30 days, for that is the end of this installment of Pinsom.
Now you may have noticed that for a strip called “Pinsom,” Pinsom really isn’t in it that much. Right now he’s in the clearing rapping with Obi Wan Dumbledore, while his injured friend is getting all the hot gypsy girl action. Perhaps this will change in the next ep.
Nope. The next page opens with fat old Tafu calling for his guards while the blonde human woman beside him cringes under the covers. By the way, I’m experiencing some cognitive dissonance with this strip. The opening suggested it would be cute and whimsical (the imagination of children, remember?) but so far it’s been dark and rather violent. Don’t worry, it gets more violent. Not exactly Ichi the Killer violent, but violent nonetheless.
Tafu and Naranzu exchange the usual banter, with Tafu calling for his guards, Naranzu telling him he’s gotten soft and weak, Tafu slapping on his armor and weapons, and Naranzu taunting him while drawing his weapons.
“Tafu,” he says, “you are a shortsighted peasant who has let the seeds of power drop to the wayside for me to pick and plant!”
Okay, this dialog is really starting to drag here. I think that both the old guy in the clearing and General Naranzu both need a good editor before they start monologing.
Now, back to Pinsom… No, I was wrong. Pinsom is still in the clearing, and since this is the last installment of the strip, will be trapped there forever. We cut to the far more interesting story — Nawdian and the oh-so-cute gypsy girl, and what she plans to do to help him forget his pain.
“My beautiful Leaina,” declares a chubby human in a stereotypical gypsy outfit, “gone for but part of an afternoon and to return with such a catch!”
Leaina seems proud of herself, but there’s another guy in the camp, a rather hard-to-discern figure leaning up against a wagon, cradling a whip like a lover cradles his love.
I don’t know, Nawdian thinks. This guy seems to (sic) friendly, and Whipboy over there looks like he’d like to practise (sic) on me.”
“My long-eared friend,” continues the fat guy, “you have good timing, for I’ve just found a very rare healing root and tonight is the dance of the Changing Time! But now, to the wagon and… hee-hee… rest!”
I think he knows what’s about to happen. Apparently Leaina is bringing injured elves back to her wagon and making them forget their pain with some regularity.
Nawdian (and in the first panel I swear his ears have grown even bigger… Maybe it’s just the proximity of the beautiful Leaina. You know how those elves are.) has some misgivings, for as Leaina leads him into her den of sin (aka her wagon), he asks, “Who’s the guy with the whip and the hate?”
“Oh,” says Leiana with a blase expression, “that’s Tarnor. The most jealous of my lovers.”
Aw crap, lady! What the hell kind of game are you playing? I’ve been used to make lovers jealous before, and believe me it ain’t no fun, especially when said lovers come after you with a horsewhip or a castration tool! I’m really not liking Leaina very much, are you?
Okay, both Pinsom and Nawdian are out of the story now, as we get back to the titanic duel between Tafu and Naranzu. Tafu clumsily swings his axe, cleanly missing, and in a very hard-to-comprehend sequence of small panels, Naranzu leaps up and kicks him in the knee, then guts him with his longsword, kung fu kicks him in the face, and moves in to finish his king off with a dagger.
“Damn! Cough!” Tafu says. “I thought you — gasp — faithful!”
“Always,” Naranzu replies, grinning evilly, “stupid.”
And now in the final panel of Pinsom ever published, we see our titular hero standing before silhouette of the creepy old wizard, his baldric snapping and his scabbard falling to the ground (for what reason we’ll never know) while the old guy says, “But enough of this depressing talk.”
The end. Pinsom and the far better Jasmine were both unceremoniously dumped after this issue, only one issue after both had been lampooned by Fineious Fingers in the Dragon’s April Fool’s issue. Will the mystery ever be solved? What the hell did the old freaky guy want? And did Nawdian get laid? And if he did get laid, did the guy with the whip then try to castrate him or something? Or did the overly friendly fat gypsy guy try to sacrifice him to dark gods? And what of the treacherous General Naranzu?
Three decades later, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never know. The story of Pinsom, and the identity of its creator, remain hidden in shadow, a strange riddle wrapped in an enigma that will haunt the gaming world forever.
Or at least until you finish reading this post.
More later. Stay cool.