The Middle Ground #27: Maximum Damage On My Preconceptions – Or Something
I am not a Dungeons and Dragons fan. This is, in fact, putting it mildly; fantasy of almost all sorts brings me out in nervous hives – I was that one person complaining that the Lord of The Rings movies were too long and kind of dull! – and so, you can imagine my reaction when I got the first issue of IDW’s new D&D comic in the mail. How, then, did I end up deciding that it was the model for the ideal opener for any debut comic?
Here’s the thing: I really, really shouldn’t have liked this comic. On paper, it was almost entirely a loser for me. Not only am I on the fence-slash-actively against elves, dwarves and magic-doers teaming up for epic quests that may involve swordsplay and/or a greater good, but I’m also not a fan of series artist Andrea Di Vito, whose work has often seemed more like a bland Paul Pelletier than anything else when I’ve run across it. The only glimmer of hope, I thought as I picked the book up to read it, was the presence of writer John Rogers. I liked his Blue Beetle, and I love his Leverage TV show. Maybe he’d make the whole thing a little bit better.
Spoiler: He didn’t. He made it a lot better (I should also defend Di Vito, whose work here may still have some of the tics that I don’t like about his art, but it’s also a lot looser than I’m used to from him, and with much nicer layouts. I wouldn’t call myself a fan just yet, but I’d definitely like to see more development along these lines). And it’s really all down to two things that seem remarkably basic in retrospect: Comedy and familiarity.
Firstly, this is a funny book (Surprisingly so, for a D&D newbie like myself, who was expecting overly florid speeches and Gaiman-esque poetry from the Elves in between Conan-esque “By Crom!”s and skull-crushing). I knew I was enjoying the issue by the second page, where two – admittedly dumb – jokes had me laughing and realizing: These characters are just like regular people. The humor undercut whatever negative expectations I had, but also let me know that this wasn’t something that was taking itself too seriously and – much more importantly – wasn’t something that was unapproachable just because I didn’t know my Dungeons & Dragons lore. That second thing, the sense of not being entirely lost at sea in this new world and franchise, was underlined by the choice of threat for the opener: Instead of going for anything too invested in the D&D world that’d stand in the way of newcomer enjoyment, it’s zombies that’re the immediate threat in the first issue. There’s something weirdly comforting about that, a small piece of information that doesn’t need explanation when everything else (Including the characters, society and even the laws of physics in a world where magic exists beside elves and halflings) still does. Instead of coming across as overused, it’s like equivalent of a security blanket – albeit a dead one that wants to eat your brains – while you’re still getting used to your new surroundings.
What won me over, and made me think that this is a model of a perfect debut issue for a licensed comic, was that this is just a very smart comic that manages to make everything look effortless. The humor is the spoonful of sugar disguising the work that Rogers has put in to ease new readers into a world that’s still true to existing D&D rules (There’re even combat stats for one of the lead characters in the back!), and a tool to say “It’s okay to think some of this is funny, because it is.” But at no point does the humor snark at the franchise or the fans, or write above them. It’s well-considered, inclusive and faithful to where it comes from without being slavishly controlled by its past, and best of all, it’s so fun and fast-paced that none of that seems evident until you’ve finished the issue and want to read the next one already. More comics should be this good.