Thursday, March 03, 2011

Forgotten Realms Comics (Part I)

The crew of the Realms Master

So this week sees the publication of a collected edition of the Forgotten Realms comics from back in ’89, where the first eight issues of the book (written by yours truly and penciled by the extremely talented Rags Morales) are rescued from the dollar bins and put together in a softbound format under the Dungeons & Dragons logo.  The books were originally published by DC through a license with TSR. So it is a good time to peek behind the scenes on how we ended up doing these books and what happened next:

1) I was not present for the original creation of this deal – I can’t tell you if DC came to us with the idea or TSR approached DC. I can say that games like Marvel Super Heroes expanded our presence in the direct sale comic shops, making a comics line a good fit. PLUS we had already done graphics novels for Dragonlance and Agent 13 and marketed them through our regular distribution channels.

2) In any event, Mike Gold was the guy that was behind the arrangements with DC, and they came out to TSR in Lake Geneva. It was “Hat Day” – where we were all wearing hats (Don’t ask).  It was about the time that the Todd McFarlane Spider-man #1 came out, since that was a subject for discussion (The DC guys were unsurprisingly unimpressed).

3) Despite meeting everyone on “Hat Day”, they decided to proceed. The first set of comics was an AD&D book, a Dragonlance book, and a Gammarauders book.

4) Gammarauders? That was a very weird little game set in a Gamma Worldish post-apocalypse, where you had massive kaiju (giant monsters) who duked it out. Sort of Pokemon overdosing on Charlie Sheen.

5) The AD&D comic was set in the Forgotten Realms, so as traffic cop of the Realms, I got involved with the approval process. The original team was creative team Michael Fleisher and Jan Duursema, with Barb Kesel editing. They put together a cast of characters set in Waterdeep – dwarf, paladin, fighter, half-elf wizard, and … centaur. OK, a centaur is part of D&D lore, but never really a PC race. Sounded like a cool idea, and heck, I wouldn’t have to write it, so, OK.

6) Michael Fleisher left after the first four issues. Dan Mishkin steps in as the writer for the next four. By that time we’re up and operating with the line, and they ask me if I would like to write a four-issue stint myself (we were doing in the four-issue bunches with an eye to later reprints). Issues 9-12 were mine. Jan Duursema did the pencils.

7) I wrote a story primarily for Onyx the dwarf and Timoth the Centaur, guest starring Mirt the Moneylender (Ed’s favorite persona in Waterdeep) and Khelbun Arunsun (later expanded by Steven Schend) and Tertius Wands (who was real similar to another character, Giogi Wyvernspur, and both were hewn of the same cloth as Bertie Wooster (and if you haven’t read any PG Wodehouse, go do so now. One or two stories will do)). And mind flayers, drow and beholders (oh my).

8) On the strength of that audition, I got the nod to launch a new book – the Forgotten Realms. DC thought it was a great idea for me to work on the books – mainly because the scripts would already be “pre-approved” by TSR when they got them (No, I did not approve my own scripts – Jim Ward and others took over for that). We got the deal approved up at our end to the Vice Presidential level (that part of the story comes back to haunt us later).

9) I was teamed up with a young, enthusiastic artist named Ralph Anthony (Rags) Morales, who was a graduate of the Kubert school. First time writer, first time artist, what could go wrong?  Actually, surprisingly little. Rags’ style of art meshed well with the big tent style of the Realms, and his ability to draw emotion out of his characters was fantastic.  I always considered my panel directions (“Six Panels on this page – 2-3-1”) default suggestions, and if he had a better way to tell the story, have at! Needless to say, he did a great job.

10) My bunch of adventurers were Agrivar (human paladin from the AD&D book), Ishi (OA-style Bushi warrior), Vartan (elven cleric), Omen (human wizard), Foxy (halfling thief) and Minder (iron golem). Iron golem? Hey, if you can do centaurs, you can do golems. Actually, Minder was a living spirit put into the golem body, thought we did not reveal it fully until later.

11) I also got to cover a lot of ground over the course of the book  – Waterdeep, Shadowdale, Elminster, Lheao, Alias, Dragonbait, Mourngrym, Anauroch, Halruuan flying ships, liches, ogre mages, cliff-diving bears, elven gods and the Time of Troubles.  A lot packed into a mere 25 issues.

12) I saw the group as two intersecting triangles – the Realms Master crew (Omen, Foxy, and Minder) and the Agrivar-Ishi-Vartan relationship.   Everybody had their own problems – Minder was a living spirit in an iron body, Omen was affected by his own mortality, Agrivar and Foxy both had to deal with addiction, and Vartan was a jerk (most of the time).  

13) My favorite issue, by the way, was #10 – Head Cheeeese. The concept for addictive halfling cheese came out of my home campaign. Jim Ward liked the story so much that when the lettered pencils came in, he posted it on the wall outside his office.

14) My second favorite was #24 – Everybody Wants to Run the Realms (sing it to Tears for Fears). This was a fill-in done with Rags late in the run and was filled with in-jokes and cameos from most of the team. It actually deserves its own blog entry to explain all the references.

15) A great bonus from that age – being able to collect my artists. I have this framed art hanging in my house from this era –
  • Forgotten Realms, Page 1, Issue 1 (Agrivar cliffdiving, by Rags)
  • Forgotten Realms, Pages 6 and 7, Issue 9 (Agrivar and Ishi swordfighting, by Rags)
  • Forgotten Realms, Page 13, Issue 17 (Pencils, by Tom Raney,  Agrivar and Foxy fight plant-men)
  • Forgotten Realms, Page 21, Issue22, (Minder, in her new body cutting loose; by Chas Truog)
  • Plus a full page ink sketch of Minder in new armor,
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Page 24, Issue 10 (Beholder, mindflayer, drow, by Jan Duursema)
  • Forgotten Realms, Partially inked cover sketch,  Issue 24 (Vartan in a straw boater, by Rags).

16) While working for DC, I got on the mailing list for their comics, which fed my comic book addiction nicely. Also, the first year for Christmas we got Batmobile phones. The next year we got DC Clocks. The last year we all got personal calendars. Think they were telling us something?

17) I got to work with some really good editors while I was there – Barbara Kesel, Eliot S! Maggin, and the late Kim Yale. They were good teachers on the craft, and supportive throughout.  Rags went on to other things (the Black Condor, among other things), and Tom Raney and Chas Truog stepped up to carry the art forward.

18) The books sold well – according to the Cap City lists, at the same level as Wonder Woman, Captain America, Aquaman and other stalwarts of that age. This was a time when the top ten slots consisted of X-men books and then Teen Titans. We did one more series on a D&D line, Spelljammer, with a character we spun off out of the FR book, then the license was up and we were done.

19) So what happened? Here’s the short form: TSR chose to launch their OWN comic line, determining that if they put game material in it, they could call them “comic modules” and it would not violate the license. DC disagreed with this definition, and chose not to renew the license.  That simple.

19A) And before everyone rushes to their keyboards to say that this is proof that that particular management group were truly evil (what, too late?), I have to point out that going into competition with our own licensees was a bit of a tradition at TSR. At one point (different guys in charge), we had a license with LJN for action figures, then decided to launch our OWN line, but not break the license because we didn’t put any movable joints in them. Yeah, 0-points of articulation. We called them inaction figures.  But I digress.

20) About this time, the highest level of the company found out that I had been writing comics for DC, and went to my Vice President and asked why an employee was doing outside work for another company that they didn’t like anymore. Said VP (who approved me doing this back up in point #8) said this was the first time he had heard about any of this and would make sure it would be stopped at once. And by “stopped at once” he meant he would take enough time that I managed to contract the rest of the run, and letting the comic come to a final issue.

21) Big thing about the AD&D and FR comics – these were fantasy books about characters that knew they lived in a fantastic universe. They were aware and capable of handling their situation. This wasn’t part of a “points of light” where sinister stuff lurked over the next hill. It wasn't a dark fantasy world. Those are cool, but the Realms ran off the assumption that its heroes were smart enough to know about their world.

Anyway, if you get a chance, the collection of the first eight issues came out this week, and if you don’t feel like pawing through the dollar bins, this is a good chance to track it down. Even if I don’t get any payment for this reprint of my work.

What’s that? You’re not getting paid for any of this? 

Ah, that’s the tale for part II.

More later,