You may have noticed that I dwell on the 1980s a lot — I guess it’s because that’s when I came of age, when I got married, got divorced, ran SF conventions, hung out with the SCA and dressed in cargo pants, an Ike jacket, a checkerboard shirt and a skinny red silk tie with bombers on it. It’s also when I did a lot of experimentation in the roleplaying world and actually started getting published as a game designer. Hell, there was a lot of stuff going down. Mind you the 90s and the 00s had their good points, and the teens are going pretty well too, but the 80s, well… They had their own special flavor.
It was during the 1980s that Dungeons and Dragons really caught on as a national pastime. It had been growing in popularity and sophistication through the 70s of course, but by now it had competition, and the genre of tabletop roleplaying games had finally come of age. Others like Chaosium, Flying Buffalo and GDW had their own products, but D&D remained the undisputed king of the roleplaying hill.
Unfortunately all was not well in the house of TSR. The Blume Brothers, Brian and Kevin had squeezed Gary Gygax out of power and proceeded to run the company into the ground, purchasing automobiles, furniture and needlepoint companies (no, really!), hiring far more people than the company needed, overprinting products and generally throwing spanner after spanner into the works. Gygax was briefly able to wrest control of his company back, but in a struggle of almost Shakespearean dimensions he was eventually forced out for good in 1985, after which TSR had a series of up- and downswings that eventually ended with the heavily indebted company sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
All that was in the future however — in 1981, TSR was riding high and they were determined to go beyond the limitations of being a simple little game company from Lake Geneva. In the early ’80s they changed their logo to a bearded Greco-Roman profile emblazoned “TSR: The Game Wizards” on all their products. Though some were innovative (and others, unfortunately, were horrific), D&D remained TSR’s flagship product, and they were determined to expand their customer base.
So besides games, what do gamers love? If you say “Mountain Dew and Cheetos” you’d be right, but that’s not what I was thinking of. Besides games, gamers love comics, so a series of ads aimed at comic book readers was just what the doctor ordered.
In mid-1981, full-page ads began appearing in comics across the country, depicting the four-color adventures of the bold adventuring band that consisted of Valerius the fighter, Grimslade the magic user (why the hell didn’t TSR just call ’em “wizards” anyway? More of Gygax’s obfuscation and complications, I guess) and cute l’il Indel the elf. Not Indel the thief, or Indel the rogue. Elf was a character class back then, gods only know why.
The first strip was, well, kind of special in the way that a cute but slightly brain-damaged puppy is “special.” It’s crudely-drawn, and the adventure portrayed was about as interesting as watching bread rise.
In the opening panel, we’re told that our bold adventurers have found a secret door in the ruins of Zenofus Castle, which as we all know is a pretty unpleasant place. Valerius, clad in a grey smock, with a grey chamberpot on his head, approaches the door while Grimslade plays the better part of valor card and hangs back. In the rear rank Indel kind of prances and flits merrily, clad in a yellow tunic with red hose and hat. He really doesn’t look much like an elf to me — he really looks more like a malnourished hobbit, and by the scale of these pictures is about three feet tall.
Well, tiny and flitty though he may be, Indel uses infravision (remember infravision? That was before just saying “okay, okay… They can see in the dark…”). The passage, we’re told is empty, but Indel bravely volunteers to go on ahead. “It may be a booby trap,” he says.
What, the whole corridor? Wouldn’t “It might be trapped” be better? And it would also avoid using the embarrassing term “booby.” There are, regrettably no boobies in this strip, seeing as how our little dungoneering trio is a boys-only club. But wait! This will change, and will also allow me to post a few NSFW pictures later on in the article.
The adventurers proceed cautiously through narrow, twisting corridors, the caption tells us. This is portrayed by having Valerius crouch down slightly, holding his sword and puny little shield in such a way that he looks as if he doesn’t have arms, while Indel walks about a foot ahead of him, torch in one hand, creeping along in his little elf-boots.
They hear sloshing noises, smell rotted vegetation; they see a shambling mound. Now I may not be the best grammarian in the world, but damn that’s a crappy sentence. Just because you’re producing a cheapo, crudely-illustrated pseudo-adventure strip to sell your damned roleplaying game.
This is all kind of clumsily presented, for in the first panel we see the shambling mound striding forward while Indel shouts, “LOOK! ASHADOW!” (that’s how it’s written, anyway). In the next panel, Indel is leaping up as if he’s on springs, his face even with Grimslade’s bearded visage, while Valerius hovers in featureless orange space nearby.
Grimslade, who apparently missed the elf’s original exclamation, says “What do you see, Indel?” while the mysteriously weightless Valerius shouts “QUICK! ATORCH!” (This adventure evidently took place before spacebars were invented.)
In the next panel, the three adventurers are standing calmly in the middle of the orange corridor while the mound’s shadow approaches. Valerius’ sword projects from his side and the shield appears stuck to his chest — again, he seems to be utterly armless, which is bad news if you’re a fighter. Beside him, Grimslade looks pissed-off, as if someone in the kitchens burned his omelet, and says “Maybe a hold-monster charm will save us!” to which Valerius replies, “We need a charm, quickly!” At least this is how the conversation appears to go due to the placement of the word balloons.
Next panel, Grimslade raises his arms and chants a bunch of squiggles inside a hexagonal word balloon, while Valerius, now mysteriously shrunk to the size of a pixie, stands rigidly at attention, his sword upright and his shield still epoxied to his chest. Jagged orange lightning leaps from Grimslade’s fingers, hitting the shambling mound with a “ZAP!” sound effect.
In the final panel, the mound is shambling off away from our heroes, but their troubles are far from over, for the walls are now green and dripping oozily.
“Look out! It’s dripping!” Indel cries. You can’t slip anything past that elf, let me tell you.
“Green slime!” shouts Valerius, now grown back to full size, with a real right arm clutching his broadsword.
“Don’t touch it!” Grimslade warns, reaching out a finger as if he’s about to touch it. “It is certain death!”
Boy, I’m worried for our heroes now. Are they ever going to get out of this bind? Well, we’ll just have to wait until the next episode, since that’s the end of part one. Instead of a final panel, we have one of those little dotted-line clip-and-send-in coupons that no one ever clips and sends in. This one says Explore exciting worlds of fun, fantasy and adventure with Dungeons & Dragons (R) and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (TM) adventure games. Send in the coupon today for your free color catalog of games and accessories. At the bottom is the ubiquitous TSR “The Game Wizards” logo, along with seriously inadequate space for the eager new gamer’s name, address and zip code.
Well, we didn’t have to wait too long to find out what happened to our heroes, for a couple of months later the second installment hit comics. And damn, was it an improvement. The art was head and shoulders above part one, and the lettering and coloring were better as well. No longer did our heroes float in an orange void — now the dungeon actually had walls and doors. And Indel doesn’t look like a red-and-yellow clad pixie anymore.
But things looked grim for our boys, for the green slime nails Indel squarely, eliciting an AGGH! from the unfortunate elf. Though his friend is about to perish, Valerius knows that elf rogues are a dime a dozen and is more concerned for his equipment. “It’s eating my sword!” he exclaims.
Grimslade is sensible. “Forget the sword, Valerius,” he says. “We’ve got to save Indel!” So Valerius rolls his eyes and evacs Indel while Grimslade casts a fireball to take out the green slime.
Now our story takes a jarring left turn, for the caption tells us that Suddenly, a figure steps out from the shadows. And what a figure it is, too — a strapping blonde in a skin-tight tunic with her luscious thighs visible for all to see. And oh, yeah, she has a mace, so she must be a cleric.
Valerius knows this vision of clerical loveliness. “Saren!” he cries.
“No questions now,” she shoots back. “How’s Indel?”
Okay, so where was the cleric all this time? Or did they just forget that the party needed one when they threw part one together? And did it also occur to TSR that they should throw at least tiny bone to female D&D players and admit that not EVERY character is a strapping all-Hyborian male? Anyway, Saren is with the party now, and she’s a definite improvement.
Within the space of a panel, Saren’s powers restore Indel and the party loots the room. “A magic sword!” Valerius exclaims. “It’ll replace my ruined one!” Again with the sword, Valerius! Don’t you know that there are more important things than swords? Like hot, blonde clerics with impractical armor?
Grimslade is having none of this. He orders Indel to look for secret doors, and the poor elf’s luck deserts him yet again — not only does he fail to detect secret doors, he falls into one and vanishes.
Saren now shows that she’s just as good at stating the obvious as any man. “He’s gone!” she says, and the now-bald and -white-bearded Grimslade replies, “That means we’ll have to go even deeper into the dungeon, to rescue him!” And so, with yet another free catalog coupon, we end the second installment of Dungeons and Dragons comic ad cartoons.
So who’s the new artist, anyway? He sure makes a difference, and he seems to really like drawing women. Well, I’ll tell you — it’s none other than Bill Willingham, writer, artist and all-around talented guy, who got his start illustrating early TSR D&D modules like White Plume Mountain, Isle of Dread, Against the Giants and a bunch of other stuff. These days he’s known as one of of the comic industry’s leading writers, with such diverse books as Fables, the Elementals and Justice Society under his belt. His early work here added a touch of class to a rather unexciting advertising campaign, and still lives on in D&D nostalgia websites and blogs like this one.
(Note added 8/21/15 after a little bit of reconsideration: You know, come to think of it, the second strip doesn’t look like Bill Willingham’s work to me. It’s still great, but I may have been a bit hasty in my judgement. Reviewing the strip today I realize that the artist might well have been the great Jeff Dee, which might explain why Willingham’s signature doesn’t appear until the fourth strip. The third one looks more like Willingham though, and by the next one he actually adds a signature, making our job much easier. I dropped Mr. Dee a note asking if that’s the case, so if I get a definitive response I’ll update this entry, as I would feel really stupid if I said Dee’s work was Willingham’s.)
Now, I’m the last person on earth to pander. You know that I hate the very notion of using such tawdry concepts as nudity, sexual titillation and innuendo to make my blog more interesting. So when I include a couple of panels from Bill Willingham’s erotic comic series Ironwood here I do so in the interest of historical scholarship only. And when I recommend that anyone who reads this blog and likes hot comic art with handsome guys getting it on with curvaceous women, and curvaceous women getting it on with each other, go out and find a copy or two of Ironwood from Fantagraphics, I’m doing it only so that the fine art and writing of Bill Willingham will gain greater and more widespread appreciation.
And I can’t mention Willingham and Ironwood without noting that my own Wulf the Freelance series (available right here on my Smashwords page in a variety of electronic formats, at a price that is so cheap I’m practically giving it away) drew huge inspiration from Ironwood, both in terms of appearance and concept, to the point that I’m not sure that it would have existed had it not been for Willingham’s work. My hat’s off to ya, Bill. Keep up the good work!
Anyway, back to our thrilling D&D adventure and the vaguely interesting exploits of Valerius, Indel, Grimslade and (yum!) Saren.
Soooo, we’re to Episode Three at last, in which the now much-better-drawn Valerius, Grimslade and “the mysterious Saren” (as the caption informs us) now search the dungeon for their lost companion, Indel. How do they do this, you ask? Well, by wandering around the dungeon, shouting Indel’s name.
Clearly our heroes aren’t terribly experienced with dungeoneering, since everyone knows that this is a pretty dumb thing to do. Sure enough, a band of evil goblins jumps from the shadows!! shouting “Get them!” and “Take their treasure!” as goblins are wont to do. Maybe next time they won’t go stomping about, making noise and bellowing at the top of their lungs.
Grimslade, all resplendent in his new white, wizardly beard, doesn’t bat an eye. He declares “Stand back! I’ll take care of them,” and sure enough in the next panel the goblins are all snoozing quietly. “A simple sleep spell stopped them!” Grimslade cries, while Valerius urges “Come…! We must find Indel!”
(Notice how everyone shouts in this strip, since every single piece of dialog ends in an exclamation point. They still haven’t learned that you need to keep quiet in a dungeon…)
Well, since Valerius mentioned Indel, we cut to the luckless (and somewhat clumsy) elf, who has tumbled down a shaft, shouting “Oh, my head!”, once more alerting any monsters that happen to be nearby, and this time it’s nothing so mundane as a bunch of goblins.
Indel (who is now blonde, even though last episode he had brown hair) mutters “A light from around that corner. Perhaps it’s a way out!” and blunders right toward it.
No such luck for Indel. After almost getting killed by green slime, then failing to find the secret trap door, he is now confronted by a glowering, green-eyed red dragon who, in typical draconic fashion, rumbles “Greetings, mortal worm!” to which Indel gulps “Oh my! I think I’m in trouble!”
That, Indel, is the understatement of the age, and just happens to be a pretty good cliffhanger to end our epic seven-panel strip on.
The next installment is the first one which Bill Willingham actually signed and opens with a recap of poor Indel (now once more a brunette) and his monstrous encounter. Indel should not despair however, for elsewhere the “mysterious” Saren tells her companions that “My powers tell me he’s behind this door,” while leaning forward against a door and displaying her rather curvaceous assets.
Valerius is all business however, and shouts “Then we must get through!” Clearly this dungeon was built by the low bidder for in the very next panel we’re told A mighty blow from the fighter’s shoulder opens the door with a crash, revealing Indel and his new scaly, firebreathing friend, who doesn’t look at all happy to see the intruders.
Well in the words of AC/DC, if you want blood, you got it, and as Valerius unsheathes his new magic sword and says “Now it’s your turn, dragon!” we’re primed and ready for some heavy-duty combat, with magical steel and courage pitted against dragonfire and magic. Wow, what a showdown it’s going to be… We’ve been waiting months for this and now…
Now, the dragon looks at the glowing yellow sword and his face takes on the expression of a disappointed puppy. “The great sword Naril!” he whines. “Stay your hand, warrior! You and your friends may leave in peace!”
Aw, crap! After all that buildup the great worm caves like a house of cards and lets our heroes escape unscathed. It’s kind of like Sauron’s army issuing from the Black Gate, only to have the big guy say, “Hey, Aragorn! Only kidding! You can be king and I’ll just leave, okay?”
So in the last panel, everyone’s smiling as if they’ve actually done more than just put some gobbos to sleep and bully a defenseless dragon. “What a day!” Indel says (laugh it up, buster… You’re the one who couldn’t find the stupid trap door). “Come!” replies the mysterious Sarel. “Gavin’s Inn has a warm fire to relax by.”
And so ends the first incredibly lame installment of Dungeons and Dragons comic book ads. The caption urges us to Watch for Indel and his friends in upcoming Dungeons and Dragons adventures! but it just doesn’t seem worth it at this point.
What I’m seeing here is evidence of TSR’s great 1980s wimpout. As D&D grew more ubiquitous and widely known, that whole stupid “D&D makes kids worship demons and kill themselves” trope grew with it. TSR was determined to become a wholesome family game company, and if they showed what really went on in D&D games (and in the pages of a comic book read by children yet!) they’d probably end up adding fuel to the fire. So as they removed references to demons and devils from 2E they also produced the infamous Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon show (which featured a band of dumbass kids transformed into obscure D&D player classes such as acrobat, cavalier and barbarian, then set loose in D&D land along with the bleating horror known as Uni the Unicorn), and pap like these comic ads in which goblins are gently put to sleep and dragons are intimidated into letting the heroes escape.
Kill goblins? No sirree, not in our wholesome family game! We overcome monsters non-violently. After all, Valerius’ sword really doesn’t serve any purpose other than scaring off big lizards… If we actually had him stick it in something, that might be construed as violence, a thing that TSR and D&D would never, ever advocate!
Sorry, I wandered. We’re not done with the adventures of Valerius and company, since the strip ran for another four installments, longer than that other classic comic strip, the wretched Pinsom, which I blogged about a few months ago.
Willingham’s art has evolved once more, growing more distinctive and detailed. There are a few slightly more “cartoony” elements to it (such as Saren’s surprised face in panel five), but overall it’s obvious that his artistic technique is improving by leaps and bounds.
Saren opens the strip by saying “That was a close call, eh Valerius?” (which it really wasn’t… the dragon was a complete and total pushover). Valerius — now with his helmet off, revealing a chisel-jaw and a full head of rich raven locks — replies, “Not nearly as close as our first adventure, Saren!”
Rolling his eyes upward Grimslade (now looking a little less angry mage-like and more peaceful and grandfatherly) reminisces, “It seems like only yesterday when we were introduced by my mentor, Grindal…”
And now of course we cut to a flashback, while Wayne and Garth wiggle their fingers and say “Doodle-oo, doodle-oo, doodle-oo,” and the wizened and balding Grindal (who looks an awful lot like Grimslade does now) encompasses the group with a wave of his hand, saying “…A healer, an elf and a fighter. They will be your companions on this quest, Grimslade.”
So your mentor gets to pick your companions for you? That seems kind of harsh, and I’d probably have issues with being given dungeoneering partners in that fashion, but Grimslade (younger now, with a ginger beard and a full head of hair) doesn’t seem to mind. The others all look pretty much the same, and the partnership turns out to be a match made in the seven heavens, for Grimslade then says that “We had to overcome many perils to find the fabulous Heart of Mekron!”
Now here they do show Saren and Valerius fighting a black dragon, but all the curvaceous Saren is doing is casting a defensive spell while bold Valerius just holds up his sword. Not exactly a rip-roaring blood-and-thunder melee, but I guess it’s better than just scaring the dragon off.
Grindal approves, since they don’t bother to sell the Heart of Mekron off for half book price, but instead bring it to him. He says, “You have all done well! You will make a fine wizard one day, Grimslade!”
All this reminiscing is strangely prescient, for now we cut back to the present, where a ghostly figure has appeared in the inn, wailing “HELLLP MEEE!”, causing Indel (who really is the Snails of the group) to fall backwards out of his chair.
The apparition wastes no time in introducing himself. “It is I…” he begins, but Saren cuts him off, crying “Grindal!” Grimslade (who looks as if he’s had one too many) stares and says “GASP!!”
To be continued, kids. Where did the strange figure come from, what does he want, and what does fate have in store for our adventurers? Well, the fact is that we never do find out, any more than we learn that clod Pinsom’s destiny, but we’ve at least got a couple more strips to go before our heroes are consigned to limbo.
So with that I think I’ll bring this installment to a close, but stay tuned, for more descriptions of our brave adventurers’ brave adventures lie ahead. Personally I think they’re a pretty inept bunch of bunglers, but hey — at least they have their own comic strip, which is more than I ever had. See you all soon.
And oh yeah — Merry Christmas! Or Happy Solstice, Hanukkah, Festivus, Kwanza or whatever you’re celebrating. If we all wrote more gaming supplements, erotic swords and sorcery novels and blogged about trivialities, this would be a much happier world. Peace out.