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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

From The Stacks: Spelljammer #1

At the height of Dungeons & Dragons' popularity in the late 1980s, TSR - then publishers of the game - made a deal with DC Comics to produce a variety of D&D themed comics.

The main Advanced Dungeons & Dragons title ran for 36 issues (plus an annual), while other titles concentrated on popular settings like The Forgotten Realms (25 issues) and Dragonlance (34 issues).

However, in retrospect, the Spelljammer title was a bit of a strange choice. As a game setting it was always rather controversial, with many players objecting to the mingling of science-fiction elements into their 'straight' fantasy settings and many of the alien races were rather comical (hippopotami in Victorian naval costumes and giant hamsters being the ones using held up for ridicule).

Of course, Dungeons & Dragons has a tradition of mixing sci-fi with fantasy as many of its originators sought their inspiration in the pulpy sword-and-sorcery tales of the '30s and '40s, rather than Tolkien's high fantasy oeuvre (just look at the Blackmoor, Arduin or Tekumel campaigns).

Several smaller companies have produced Dungeons & Dragons comics since the DC era (including Kenzer & Co and Devil's Due).

The latest company is IDW which is bringing out a Dungeons & Dragons title in November (based off of the 4th Edition of the game) and then a Dark Sun title in the new year (set in the popular campaign world of that name).

The company also has plans for a Forgotten Realms comic later in 2011, although I suspect that may depend on sales of the initial brace of titles.

Oh, and there's rumours of the Wizards Of The Coast community forums that Spelljammer is coming back as a game setting for 4e in 2011.

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As part of a cross-blog endeavor to promote lesser known comic book titles (entitled Read This Too), I am beginning my issue-by-issue review of the Spelljammer title today - and will hopefully stick to a weekly schedule to cover all 15 issues of this odd, little title before moving onto other Dungeons & Dragons comics.

Spelljammer (issue 1) - Journey's Song, Kirstig's Tale


Publication: DC Comics, September 1990

Creators: Barbara Kesel (writer), Michael Collins (penciller), Dan Panosian (inker)

Plot & Review: The narrative begins with cleric Kirstig leading a caravan of her tribe across the desert of a nameless world, looking for a new homeland, when they stumble upon a downed Spelljammer ship - which they mistake for an exotic but abandoned building.

In an almost Hitchcockian way writer Barabra Kesel then switches the focus of the story to the inhabitants of the ship - although a sub-plot involving an unpleasant scout trying to emotionally blackmail Kirstig into marriage does return towards the end of the issue. The ship's crew is a miss-matched bunch from several worlds and this provides Kesel with a good opportunity to info dump the nature of "spelljamming" on the reader - and the natives.

This segment also allows for some namechecking of other familiar Dungeons & Dragons worlds and places - such as Krynn and Waterdeep - and some well-known monsters (ie. umber hulks).

The caravan, which has dragged the spaceship along with it, soon reaches water and that's when trouble begins as the moody scout, Thrar, accuses one of the ship crew, Pax, of trying to steal Kirstig away from him. In the ensuing brouhaha, the spaceship takes off with its old crew joined accidentally by Kirstig and a number of other 'stowaways'.

A solid introduction to the series, with slightly too many characters to keep track of and Kesel taking the rather disappointing approach that when magic is cast, all the spellcaster does is say the name of the spell (e.g. "dispel magic", "know alignment" etc), which resulted in a strange panel where three people are just saying the word "tongues".

However, the universe we are introduced to - especially in Pax's pocket guide to cosmology and spelljamming - is wide open for adventure and excitement and if I had been picking this up in 1990 I certainly would have been on the look-out for issue two.

It's going to be fascinating to see how the high fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons are to be merged with the space travel and low-tech sci-fi of Spelljammer over the next 14 issues.

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Other blogs taking part in this drive to promote lesser-read titles, Read This Too, can be found below. Please visit my comic book colleagues and bathe in their wit and wisdom...

15 comments:

  1. Lesser read titles? Your Spelljammer one fits but I'm not sure about some of the rest. Peter David's Hulk? Scott Pilgrim? Thor? And many of the other ones I am aware of.

    Wait, is this supposed to be recommending different comic books that the blogger wouldn't usually feature?

    Anyway, great idea. Always good to see more comic book stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, it's titles that don't normally get coverage in those blogs (some are very focused on individual characters, for instance) as well as comic titles - in general - that the particular author felt didn't get the coverage it was worth in the blogosphere.

    I'm very proud that HeroPress was 'invited' to be a part of this and hopefully in the future there will be more such cross-blog events.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I bought at least one issue of each of DC's AD&D comics, only really sticking with AD&D itself for any length of time. As for the setting itself, I personally enjoy Spelljammer's riff on sword&sorcery/space opera, but the production quality on the products wasn't very high. The art was ugly and the fonts and graphics (aside from the covers) weren't evocative of the setting.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have quite a few of the early AD&D title and the complete runs of Spelljammer and Gammarauders and will (eventually) turn my critical gaze on those.

    To be honest, my favourite part of the AD&D issues, when I first read them, was the text pieces in the back, statting out certain story elements for the game.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Completely agree. I think I did a piece on them around the time Gary Gygax passed.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If I remember rightly - did this title start off in the TSR Worlds Annual?

    Think it visited the other AD&D comics, Forgotten Realms, AD&D and Dragonlance. Might have been some of Joe Quesada's earliest work I believe.

    Looking forward to the reviews...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for that... pretty sure I've got the annual somewhere round here, will have to dig it up.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Nice post! I'm looking forward to the IDW Dungeons and Dragons series too. Also if Marvel pulls off a decent CrossGen relaunch - a whole lot of great fantasy titles could be close by.

    ReplyDelete
  9. In all my glorious geekdom one genre I totally missed is the D&D scene. So these comics are also something totally new for me to see.

    ReplyDelete
  10. From the backblurb of IDW's Dungeons and Dragons issue 0, looks like they'll be reprinting the DC stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yes, I believe they are. It was mentioned in the editorial column of the issue, but I don't recall seeing it anywhere else, so I guess there's no timescale.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hang on.... (checks back of comic) - starting in February 2011

    Now where's the next issue review you promised us? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  13. Er... sorry about that ... got distracted ... will get back on target ASAP!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Very interesting review.

    I've been a big Spelljammer fan for years, but didn't know the comic existed back in the day and it vanished from the stores long before I found out it existed.

    I've heard plenty of people say negative things about the comic, but it is really great to see a review that actually goes into detail about how the comic works. I think that, now I've been forewarned about the weaknesses of the comic, by the masses, I'll be able to overlook them and see what enjoyment I can get from them.

    I look forward to your next From The Stacks review (which will hopefully include Spelljammer number 2 at some point).

    BTW: I have crossposted a link to your review over at the Spelljammer forum at The Piazza (which is the world's most active Spelljammer community):
    http://www.thepiazza.org.uk/bb/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=5472

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you for the kind words - and crossposting on The Piazza, David.

    Now I feel even more guilty because, as the comment above (from October 30) implies I got "distracted", having started From The Stacks with the best of intentions (as part of the cross-blog Read This Too initiative) with the idea of doing a weekly Spelljammer comic write-up.

    Then it slipped to fortnightly, then monthly and eventually got lost in the ether completely and totally forgotten about.

    The true kicker though is, in an attempt to streamline my various collections and recoup some much needed cash, I actually sold my complete run of Spelljammer comics on eBay a couple of weeks ago, so if From The Stacks returns it won't be featuring Spelljammer. :(

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for your interest in HeroPress.

Comment moderation is currently off for fresh posts, but can be flicked back on very quickly if the spammers return. My apologies to genuine commentators for the inconvenience.

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