IDW’s ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ Will Make You Save Versus Awesome
Considering how much their target markets overlap, you'd think that comics based on Dungeons & Dragons would go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but historically, they've gone together more like... well, whatever two things you'd have to combine to get generic fantasy stories that were often more concerned with depicting rules and campaign settings than telling a solid story. Despite being based on a property that's designed entirely around imagination, things just haven't clicked for the comics, which is why it was so surprising that the current D&D series from IDW is seriously great.Really though, it shouldn't be all that surprising considering the people behind it. The series -- which has its first hardcover solicited this month and kicks off its second story arc this week -- is written by John Rogers, the creator of TV's Leverage who's probably best known to comics readers for his work on the fan-favorite Blue Beetle, with art by Andrea Di Vito, who's turned in great work at Marvel in books like The Thing and Thor. But even taking that into account, they've gone above and beyond with their story. This isn't just a good Dungeons & Dragons comic, or even just a good comic: It's one of the best comics on the stands today.
Admittedly, I fall squarely into the target audience for this book. I was a subscriber to both Dungeon and Dragon Magazines; I own more published D&D adventures than I'll ever be able to actually play just because I like reading through them, and I've read my share of novels about lavender-eyed dark elves with magic scimitars and astral panthers. And, now that I think of it, probably several other people's shares as well. But with very few exceptions, the D&D comics we've gotten before now just haven't done much for me, probably because they lack the crucial element that sets D&D apart from any other story about elves and swords.
Despite the original Tolkien-esque pretensions of High Epic Fantasy that it was founded with, D&D is often less about what's actually going on in the game and more about the fact that you're playing a game with a bunch of friends, creating characters that are extensions of yourself and then hanging out and talking about how they beat people up and get treasure. The best stories that you take away from the gaming table aren't about the adventure your characters went on, but about the ideas and actions the players came up with along the way. It's the interaction that makes it great, and when you strip that out of it, you're left with just the bare-bones basic fantasy story of kill orcs, take stuff, which gets old pretty quick.
What makes the Dungeons & Dragons comic so great is that Rogers seems to understand this completely, and so he's devoted the book not just to a great fantasy storyline -- which I'll get to shortly -- but some of the strongest and most engaging character work I've seen in a while.
In the Dungeons & Dragons comic. Seriously.
Rogers doesn't just give the characters unique voices that are instantly recognizable, he does it in such a way that they often work equally well as the characters talking to each other down in a trap-filled dungeon and as a group of friends sitting around a table rolling dice with each other. For a lot of writers, "high fantasy" equals stilted, olde-timey dialogue of Tolkien -- or for a more action-oriented story, Robert E. Howard -- but Rogers doesn't just go with a contemporary style, he adds in a healthy amount of meta like the eye-rolling when their unseen DungeonMaster throws yet another pit trap or wave of orcs at them.
In fact, I'd say it's even better than the actual dialogue of D&D players, if only because nobody's quoting Monty Python ad infinitum.
The amazing thing is that Adric Fell and his crew are actually good characters in their own right, while still being completely believable as being the inhabitants of a world build entirely on the rigid, arcane rules that govern a roleplaying game. It's unbelievably tricky to pull both of those off at once, but Rogers does it, even throwing in scenes where Bree -- the party's resident rogue -- works her way through a deathtrap that could be read as either a character using her own knowledge to tackle a challenge or as a "player" meta-gaming her way through a typical dungeon obstacle:
The characters never go anywhere near as far as actually acknowledging that they're in a game -- that ground being covered already by Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick, still the reigning champ of comics inspired by D&D -- but Rogers captures the feeling of it, and that makes the book incredibly fun.
It also allows him to make the book really funny.
Again, that shouldn't be a surprise if you're familiar with his work on Blue Beetle, which once featured a story called "Total Eclipso: The Heart" where it was revealed that Jaime Reyes' dark secret was that he wanted to become a dentist. Even so, it's a constant thread of the book, as Rogers plays with the comedy inherent in everything from the slapstick of a bunch of armed mercenaries wandering through hallways lined with pit traps to having characters critiquing each others' contributions to the party...
...evaluating their surroundings...
...and exploring the most common goal of all adventuring parties:
Along those lines, the book doesn't shy away from playing with the standard stereotypes that show up in the archetypical D&D group. There's the gruff fighter who leads his party into danger because he's Lawful Good and it's The Right Thing To Do, the sassy rogue who's Chaotic Greedy, the elf and the dwarf who like to quip at each other in the middle of battle, and the magic-user with the dark past that's subtly hinted at by the fact that she has devil horns and a tail. It's all stuff that fans of D&D (and the fantasy literature it draws inspiration from) are all familiar with, but the way they interact with each other makes it feel fresh and fun, and it's perfectly complimented by Di Vito's expressive art:
That all points to another thing that I really love about this comic. It's fair to say that on some level, we all realize that a comic's protagonists aren't really in any danger, but in a world based on D&D, where all you have to do to bring someone back from the dead is hit 7th level and have a bag of diamond dust handy, the "threat" of a battle is even lower. So rather than trying to craft battles with a false sense of importance, Rogers and Di Vito focus instead on making them interesting and memorable, and they definitely succed.
Again, it's a fact of life in the world of D&D that people are walking around with magic swords and the ability to shoot fire out of their hands, so instead of creating a series of increasingly big punch-ups, Rogers takes the traditional tropes of the games -- the caravan rescue, the slavers of the Underdark, the abandoned dungeon full of traps -- and twists them in clever ways that require the characters to not to just bash their way through on brute strength, but think their way through problems that have suddenly gained an additional layer and require the unexpected. The results are always exciting, and frequently hilarious.
This, for instance, is the very first page of #1:
That is how this comic begins: A tavern -- because where else is a proper D&D story going to start? -- besieged by a pack of zombie orphans. That's an adventure I want to play.
And I actually can, too. Rogers' grand, action-packed set pieces fit the sword-swinging style of the game so perfectly that the first three issues shipped with variants that included a playable version of the adventure after the actual story, complete with character sheets detailing each member of the party over the course of the first five issues -- which I sincerely hope will be included in the hardcover.
It's packed with comedy, over-the-top-action and a tongue-in-cheek recreation of how the game is actually played, but even with all that, it still manages to be a well-done and genuinely exciting fantasy adventure story. Again, the themes are familiar -- the fate of the world, a forgotten mystical artifact and a band of unlikely heroes thrown into it -- but it's put together with an incredible skill that makes it worth reading on every level. It's fun, but just like D&D, it can take itself seriously when the situation requires it -- and it's because it's so much fun that the serious parts play out with as much strength as they do.
In short, it's the story of the best D&D campaign ever, as played by the group I wish I was a part of. With the exception of a few of my favorite classic monsters, it's everything I want out of a comic book with the words Dungeons & Dragons on the cover, and we're only five issues in. There's still plenty of time for the creature so dangerous it's an owl and a bear.
Preview of Dungeons and Dragons: