Or at least I would be for a few more months.
At the time I just glazed over the (unbelievably well-painted) Simon Bisley Doom Patrol covers the way a kid would glaze over dozens of other comics whose logos he or she didn't recognize. Then I'd stop, look back for a second at the Bisley cover, accept some small part of its deep weirdness into my brain, then decide (almost unconsciously) this was some kind of esoterica for other, older people, and keep moving.
I was experiencing what I'm gonna call the Dense & Difficult reaction.
If you're me, you read these two words a lot when you go around looking up reviews of things you like, in all cultural registers...Gravity's Rainbow, Neurosis' Souls At Zero, Eyehategod's Take As Needed For Pain, Giffen's Legion Of Super Heroes Vol 4, Werner Herzog movies, Ulysses.
The phrases usually don't refer to some absolute difficulty scale but just relative to what the audiences expect. Legion Vol 4 is not Ulysses by a long shot, but relative to its audiences' expectations of what's gonna be in a comic book called Legion of Super Heroes it is.
Dense and Difficult usually comes up like "Most audiences found the piece too Dense and Difficult and it failed and the author died miserably with only a pile of ugly dog carcasses to mark his miserable grave". (This is pretty much what happened to Herman Melville after he wrote the great Dense and Difficult novel of American literature but before he was rediscovered.)
For a long time I didn't get the Dense & Difficult reaction. I never had it to anything. The first time I picked up Naked Lunch I liked it, the first time I heard Pink Floyd's Final Cut I liked it and was surprised, years later, to find out how many millions of people didn't.
Bisley's Doom Patrol covers, though, gave me the reaction. I avoided those comics. Which is odd because twelve months later I'd have a subscription and I'd know Simon Bisley was the best artist in the whole comic book world.
I stopped having my Dense & Difficult reaction and here's how...
I had a copy of DC Comics Who's Who--a guide to all the shiny friendly things I wanted to know all about. From Aquaman to Zzzzazzala. With shiny friendly happy pictures.
Here was DP interior artist Richard Case's Who's Who illustration of Doom Patrol villains The Brotherhood of Dada :
|Richard Case Drew This|
The name was weird, the costumes were weird, their goals were obscure, their powers unfathomable but, really, that's 90% of comics. They were bad guys who fought good guys in a lurid landscape and that was nothing I wasn't into. I went to buy the back issue they were in and was surprised to see it was this one...
|Simon Bisley Drew This|
...with the Dense and Difficult cover. And I opened it up and I read it and it was wonderful and life has never been the same. Because Motherfucking Grant Morrison Doom Patrol (Especially When Steve Yeowell Drew It).
Bisley was Dense (the longer you look at that picture, the more you'll see) and it was Difficult (at least it had obviously been for me) and it was so worth it.
Something they never tell you about Dense & Difficult art is that, in lacking the standardized polish we expect from the usual commercial product (ably represented above by Case) it is, for all its difficulty, a lot easier to see how it was made. And, therefore, it communicates the message "You, too, could do this" in a way a more processed image does not.
For all the Difficulty of Crass, Amebix or Big Black, it is clearly just a certain number of voices and instruments making a certain number of organized noises, for all the difficulty of a Godard film, it shows you clearly that movies are just cameras pointed at people talking, for all the difficulty of Bisley's cover, his technique makes it obvious how a jagged line turns into the shape of an arm and paint strokes organized in a certain way make a boot. Regular comics hide behind the sheen the process provides: Richard Case's opaque ink shapes look like they were born that way and that background color looks like no earthly force a kid with a pen, a pencil and a set of markers has access to. Try to get a piece of paper to do that.
That is, the Dense and the Difficult are often intimately tied to the DIY.
Traditional commercial art is like a magic show: easy and accessible for any audience, but made that way by Phil Spectorish layers of sleight of hand designed to tell you This Is Unlike Anything In Your Normal Life, This Is An Exceptional Experience Worth Paying For TM Just Sit Back And Leave It To The Professionals.
There's a reason a good magician never reveals his tricks: then he'd have to leave the comfort and old armor of Presentation behind and skate by (like Penn and Teller) on only what is new in the show they're putting on.
Now to get back to what the fuck my blog is supposed to be about, RPGs have always been Dense & Difficult--as games go. And there are people who love RPGs but just hate that.
The first D&D things I got were the original Red Box--widely considered the most accessible version of D&D ever written, and Unearthed Arcana--a second-rate accessory to the most inexplicable version of D&D ever written.
The Red Box did a great, shiny, commercial job of teaching me how to play the game.
But Unearthed Arcana is what convinced me the game was worth playing. It was Dense it was Difficult, it was almost incomprehensible, it had Sword, Broad "Final Word" Type, it had a picture of a Bec De Corbin. It had nine kinds of gnomes, it explained that the Sword, Khopesh was an Ideal Druidical Instrument and did not have stats for a druid. It had sigils and secrets and Evard's Black Tentacles. It looked more like a spellbook than anything I'd ever seen.
The Red Box said "Hey, it's your world, do whatever".
Arcana said "There is a world behind the world and this is the tip of that iceberg".
And when I finally got the DMG? Seldom is the name of Vecna spoken, except in a hushed voice, and never within the hearing of strangers. How could you not play that game until you died?
The pre 2e Dungeons and Dragons art and writing are not always good but they are sui generis--there is no other media that looks like it in its combination of grimoire-ish linework and Oh My God It Has To Look Exactly Like This semiprofessional enthusiasm. Much of the later D&D art is great but looks like stuff you might see elsewhere like in a Tolkien calendar or a video game concept art. The early D&D art looks like....early D&D art and that's it.
When it is bad, it's bad in the way only something genuinely experimental could be--you tried something new and failed. Which is a good thing to do.
Point is...we need both.
Yes, there needs to be the comfortable accessible new thing but we also need the convoluted nightmare of esoterica.
A lot of independent versions of D&D seem to privilege accessibility uber alles--open shapes and colors, familiar lines, homespun language, an intentionally pop sensibility, the standard graphic designer bag of tricks, friendliness, hand-holding, no experiments--and that is needed. But it is not the only thing needed, because, in the end, you make the thing comfortable by making it like stuff you already know, you make it fun by making it unlike stuff you already know.