Friday, August 6, 2010

Bronze Age Borderland

(This'll be about D&D, and comics--promise--but I have to ramble first...)


If you are a good person, you, too, hate the following thing:

There's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland or At The Mountains of Madness or some other piece of inspired mania. And then there's some fuck. This fuck is an academic--and the fuck takes it and explains what it is about and that it is not really about shrinking mushrooms or secrets beyond human ken buried in the Antarctic but is actually about sexism, racism, classism, where the author's mom touched him/her, the political situation in the english-speaking world when the thing was written, et cetera.

Now readers of this blog will know I have no problem with a little deconstruction here and there between friends--what I mean here is the wholesale reduction of everything in the work to just a mask for some other and more easily understood drama that sets what one of my teachers used to call the "demon of allegory" loose to drain it all of its enigma and poetry and lunatic majesty.

Easiest example is the Bible. Taken on its own, it's a delicious treasure trove anthology of terrifying primitive psychedelic madness. Taken after Sunday School, it's just a set of mnemonic devices for life lessons any illiterate 5-year could've easily grasped without the fucking book.


The Arcaneness of D&D

Other than reasons which we all spend a lot of time on gameblogs identifying--it's fun to roll dice and smack lizardpeople around and watch your friends pretend to be knights and shit--there has always been--for me--a very difficult-to-put-my-finger-on quality to the early D&D products specifically which I've always found intriguing. Like, on an artistic-aesthetic mood level.

Since I make art for a living, I tend to want to actually put my finger on whatever this thing is so I can distill it and use it when I'm actually making art.

The first word that comes to me is it's a quality of "arcaneness". And what's that? It combines the ideas of:

-something old
-something magical
-something mysterious
-something whose mystery is deep (like how a hieroglyph is a signal of an entire culture you know nothing about)
-something dark
-something alien
-something complex

Of course--aside from maybe "complex"--D&D isn't really any of those things: thanks to all those blogs on the far right column of this page I know--or know that I can find out whenever I want--where every single thing in D&D comes from. Which is: mostly from wargames and old pulp novels as filtered and distilled through the mind of a bearded midwestern insurance adjuster. Far from arcane.


The idea became slightly less confusing when I realized that I got the same feeling off certain old comic books--not all of them, just old superhero comics produced around the same era as the old D&D stuff: Crisis on Infinite Earths, premodern Avengers and Defenders and Legion, the Hulk when he fought things like the Bi-Beast, early Alpha Flight, Super-Villain Team-up. What era? Roughly 1971-1985--what comic people call The Bronze Age.

In my mind, the quintessential bronze age cover features a primary-clad superhero struggling awkwardly with a tornado of bright green or luminous pink tentacles against a background of stars next to a spiky balloon promising Star-Shattering Revelations from Beyond while the eerily placid face of Infinity or The Living Tribunal or some other guy representing a universal concept looks on from just beneath the curved and yellow-piped logo and the comics-code stamp of approval.

I should say here I don't love all these comics--these aren't even my favorite comics--I like slick postmoderns like Bisley and Morrison as much as anybody. The thing is, something about these comics and their characters fascinate me. And it isn't nostalgia.

So I went about trying to put my finger on what that is. If you read that Bronze Age wikipedia article I hyperlinked to up there you'll get a list of all the standard features of the Bronze Age. These features are, basically, the slow emergence, into comics, of all the things that weren't in Silver Age comics but are in Modern Comics, like drugs and black people.

This, per se, isn't quite it. I don't read that and go "Well, of course, that's what's so fascinating!" And it begs the question of why I wouldn't find modern comics even more interesting since they have even more of all that reality and adultness.

This quote gets me a bit closer to the mark...(from Trout in the Milk, courtesy of Jeff:)

Of course it’s not much thought-of these days, but in the Seventies the comics-publishing world came with a lot of funny strictures (and perhaps today we would even consider them quaint), that artists and writers regularly had to work around, if not exactly with. This was a whole other country, then, from the one we live in now. And I’m not talking about the Comics Code Authority. I’m talking about the genre of superhero comics being actually very much more closely identifiable, at that time, with the medium of comics itself. Not that you didn’t have Tintins and Freak Brothers, or even Peanuts and Broom Hildas and Mads — even Heavy Metals — because you did. Don’t get me wrong. And not even that people just mistakenly lumped the idea of “comics” together with the idea of “superheroes”, because they did that too…but the funny difference in those days, as I understand it, is that certain types of serialized comic-book narratives, that we can now easily and comfortably set off from “superheroes” in our minds, were functionally incapable of being separated in the slightest degree from the superhero books and the superhero publishers. All the stuff that you, perhaps, as a young writer, can today see yourself writing for Vertigo and possibly selling to goth girls in college…that stuff would all have had to be crammed into a Spider-Man comic, once upon a time. You would’ve had to make it about Spider-Man, to make it at all. You would have needed four pages of fight. Sure, maybe in the Vertigo story of your imagination, you wouldn’t need to harp on superpowers as such, or costumes as such, or on superpowers or costumes at all, instead being able to drill down immediately to the symbolic stratum hidden underneath the layers of supervillainy and long underwear…

...ok, but why is that interesting? Why is that a good thing? Why is the veiled face more interesting than the raw skin available to the modern reader?

For the answer, you have to look at what ended the Bronze Age, which was--mostly--Watchmen. Watchmen, with its obsessive symmetries and symbols, was arguably many things, but what it definitely was was a very self-conscious superhero comic. It was a superhero comic that knew it was a superhero comic, knew where on the literary chain-of-being that placed it and knew that it wanted to talk about the idea of superheroes. Every page was not just about somebody trying to find out who killed somebody but about what superheroes could possibly mean. To some degree (and I love Alan Moore, don't get me wrong) the academic who analyzed the story was also writing the story.

Simultaneously, you had Crisis on Infinite Earths at DC which was DC Comics making a story that explicitly and openly acknowledged its goal of cleaning up DC continuity for all time and which tried to comprehend, in its scope, all of DC comics history to that point. PLUS both Marvel and DC were publishing encyclopedias of all their characters AND comic series about the histories of their own universes, which was all very self-conscious.

PLUS "Maus" was a best-seller. So it basically sat on the shelf saying: "Hey, if you want to write a comic NOT about superheroes, go ahead. You might not starve."

So what I'm saying is, around 1985 superhero comics became self-conscious about the fact that they were kind of ridiculous, and it was decided that this was ok. Many many writers seemed to act like, if they were writing a superhero comic it had to be because:

1-you were too dumb to do any other kind of comic,
2-you had Something To Say about that superhero as a character or symbol, or
3-you were cynically taking the job to pay the bills.

Now since nobody wants to admit to being Guy #1 or Guy #3, most talented intelligent comic book writers began to take the position that they were Guy #2. Aside from throwback exceptions like Peter David and Keith Giffen, the most talented comics writers began to act like, in every issue, they had to Make Sense of It All--whether in a highbrow, arch way (Neil Gaiman), or a fannish, what-the-Justice-League-means-to-me way (Kurt Busiek) or in a Hey-Know-I-Am-A-Clever-Guy-But-I'm-Also-A-Fanboy-At-Heart-So-This'll-Be-A-Little-From-Column-A-And-A-Little-From-Column-B (Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith).

(It should be said that this self-referentiality was also tied to the comic audience aging--and so it was already present in other media which were aimed at older readers. Jack Vance's heroes and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser always had a sort of smirky self-awareness in their tone.)

Whether or not this quality of self-referentiality is, in itself, good or bad or clever or irritating isn't the point, the point is what other quality you lose when this happens. For, in art, to gain one kind of characteristic is always to lose another. When you're more epic, you're less intimate, when you're more realistic you're less expressionistic, when you're more blue, you're less orange, etc. etc.

So, when you're self-aware, you lose innocence. We know what innocent comics look like: Smack! Bam! I Fought Groob, The Thing That Would Not Die! But the Bronze Age Comics weren't like that--they weren't wide-eyed and quaint. What were they? And what did D&D--produced at the same time--share with them?


They had what Alice's Adventures In Wonderland had. On the sunward surface these things are a kind of fantastic fun for children and the childlike part of adults, but they also have, somewhere on their far side, a shadow cast by the fact that they were created by intelligent and strange grown-ups with intelligent and strange grown-up concerns. And, most importantly--absolutely vitally--there's a twilight middleworld where it was impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins.

The simplest example of this twilight is dreams. After waking up from an episode where we model a hat made of strawberries and fish which is then snatched away by our sister and sold to our mother for an exploitive price, we've all wondered: How much of that meant anything? Where does the part that is that way because it tells us something about how we feel about our family end and where does the part that is just insane because it's a fucking dream and dreams are always insane begin?

In a modern superhero comic, the line's easy to find: the insane part is Superman in his skintight blue costume from the '30s and Lois and Jimmy Olsen and anything else that was there before the writer showed up--and the meaningful part is everything else in the comic. In old Golden or Silver Age comics, the line wasn't there: The insane part was all of it (except in Ditko--weird herald of the Bronze Age).

And The Bronze Age?

Who the hell knows?

Let's have another example:

Here's a quintessential Silver Age creation: The Silver Surfer.

Why is he silver? Why does he surf? No fucking reason. He's an alien from a planet where surfing doesn't even exist. WTF, Silver Age?

He is what he is so that, as a character, he'll work--he looks like he could fly free and fast through space on a board with no need for oxygen and that's all he needs to do.
Now consider an eerily similar Bronze Age creation from the same artist, harbinger of death, The Black Racer:
Why is he black? Why does he race? Well, he is a harbinger of death. That might be why he's black. Really, dude? Wait is he Black because he's like gloomy like death or are you just saying, y'know, he's black. Hard to tell. And skiing? This is somehow a million times weirder and more culturally specific than surfing. He has sticks. And a knight's visor. Why? And skiing is a sport not particularly associated with the african american experience. Is this relevant? Ummm... And he's a paralyzed Vietnam vet. Is that why he's got a visor? Is he like a soldier? Ummmm.... Plus he's a New God. And a god means things, right? Is a guy skiing supposed to be up on an archetypal level with, like, Zeus in his chariot? Let me know when I can stop here, Kirby...

Now let's look at a Modern Age personification of Death:
Oh, look, it's Neil Gaiman's Death. Does anyone not know why she's a goth chick? Do I really have to spell it out? No. It's real clear. Because it's The Modern Age. Comics mean things. Definitely.

Kirby's Silver Surfer is like some crazy wacky fun. Gaiman's Death is an anthropomorphized concept used to make philosophical or poetic points, via the medium of sequential art, about actual death. And the Black Racer is....

...crazy wacky fun, just on skis?
...the kind of throwaway idiocy that a genius is gonna produce as a side effect now and then?
...a combination of drug abuse and deadline pressure? anthropomorphized concept used to make philosophical or poetical points, via the medium of sequential art, about death, only in some crazy Kirby Kode we do not yet have access to?
...the kind of representation of a concept that's more honest about its superhero roots than Gaiman's Death is and is therefore better positioned to explain what the point of having a person representing an idea in a comic book might be than Gaiman's characters who are, despite their protestations, still more like superheroes than characters in any kind of traditional highbrow literature?
...all of the above?

In the Bronze Age, the line was blurry.

From a kid's perspective, the thing was still definitely aimed at you. I could read AD&D, I could read Marvel Two-In-One. I understood the text from beginning to end. Good guy, bad guy, fight, win, end. But there were all these other things going on--like whispers from the adults' end of the table. Or were they?

In one of the first comics I had there was a pink alien with a ray gun saying, to Wonder Woman "The future burns around you, Amazon!". To this day I have no idea what that was all about.

In AD&D the monsters seemed so shadowy in their scratchy black-and-white--scarier, or at least uglier--than the equivalent trolls in fairybooks. The AD&D DMG had those tables with schizophrenia and dipsomania and nymphomania but no clear explanation of why any of these would actually come up in a game. Forms of government, unexplained subtle gradations in classifications of wenches. I kept asking: was this book meant for me?

Deities and Demigods had this quality in spades: was it really true that the only thing I had to know about this ancient Assyrian god was that he had 239 hit points and 16 levels in Bard or was I missing something? Why is Issek of the Jug so creepy? If Elric is a 'hero' why is he Chaotic Evil?

When were the adults trying to tell you something and when were they just making in-jokes between themselves and when were they just being craftsmen--spinning wild tales of wacky drama because they wanted to entertain you. In the Bronze Age you never knew.

Pop psychologists will identify this with the feeling of growing up--slowly being introduced to corrupt things, complexities--adulterations. But I feel like it goes deeper than that.

As a grown up, this quality is still there. Because you still can look at these artifacts and ideas in the game and wonder how they got there, and you can wonder where they're going to go. There's this wonderful ambiguity, because you never know whether a thing will be lightly passed over: ("The Orc has the same tattoo as your sister" "Oh yeah? Woody Woodpecker with a cigar?") or whether it will open a rabbit hole that just keeps going: ("The Orc has the same tattoo as your sister""Holy shit, we'd better bring this body to her and see what she says". "Maybe the Orc IS your sister!") Is it deep, is it shallow? Does it mean something? Is it just crazy? Is it both? Is it always both? The sense of Wonder in Wonderland comes from Wondering.


mordicai said...

I have to browse past this since I'm at work & should be...working, but I am AMPED to come back & give it the attention it deserves. M, mister Google Reader, M INDEED.

Anonymous said...

Right... being complex, with a blurry border that you have to define yourself. I'm not sure if I can find the right words for this, but I think I understand.

Ursca said...

Yeah, I think I see this.

I'm fascinated by folk tales, and probably for the same reason. On the one hand, they are cautionary tales, watch out for jealous step-mothers, etc. But on the other hand they are kind of primitive, surreal stories about wise kings and talking pigs. But there doesn't seem to be any actual line between the two.

On the subject of 'The Arcaneness of D&D', I've always thought that D&D is an incredibly evocative concept. To an outsider, it's a game where the players take on the role of mythical figures who inhabit a world created by the God-like figure of the Dungeon Master, who consults heavy tomes of rules, bestiaries of strange creatures, and rolls bizarre dice in order to divine the players' fate.

I'm sure this contributed to the whole satanic D&D scare - The whole setup does seem like some kind of coven.

Steve Lawson said...

I think one of the things you are hitting at is the uncanny. That which is familiar, yet strange; that which simultaneously make sense and are totally inexplicable. I think I may be revisiting Freud's essay on the topic shortly.

thekelvingreen said...

They've recently redesigned the Black Racer. He's still got the sticks and the skis, but it's done in a way that they look like alien protuberances, and not actual sports equipment. He's also got a Cylon eye instead of a knight's helm.


Anonymous said...

Jack Kirby had said on several occasions that he identified with the Thing, the grumpy orange skinned monster he co-created with Stan Lee in the first issue of the Fantastic Four. The son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, Kirby grew up on the mean streets of New York’s lower east side. The area was teeming with rival street gangs, and as the artist details in his Street Code comic, he fought nearly every day to survive. Just how much anger Kirby carried inside him is difficult to tell, but he certainly channeled it into his vital and energetic artwork.

In 1933, a film appeared that must have exploded like a rush of primordial energy in the impressionable brain of the then sixteen old Kirby. The impact of King Kong is difficult to appreciate today, but suffice it to say that nothing like it had ever been seen before. The cutting edge technology of stop motion animation allowed the filmmakers to create the illusion of a gargantuan creature in a primeval lost world and then see him transported to 20th century New York City.

King Kong has been analyzed extensively, yielding interpretations running the gamut from a metaphor for the subjugation of man’s primitive instincts to that of the enslavement of African Americans. What is certain is that Kong’s treatment at the hands of a callous humanity makes him an extremely sympathetic and tragic figure and it is easy to identify with his plight.

Basically, you are wanting to build your Bride of FrankenMuse, to tap into that divine spark that shall illuminate your art. It's like Yoda answering Luke about what was in the Big Bad Dark Tree in Empire Strikes Back, "Only what you take with you".

You are the sum of your experiences, etc, yadda yadda. If it could be marketed & sold there would already be a bottle & label for it. Heck, even self-help-guru stuff is recycled over and over, generation after generation. Just take a read of Og Mandino and compare it to Tony Robbins. TR's stuff is all in there, just not in a shiny uber-DVD package with the golden bells & whistles.

. . .and so it goes. . .


Colin Theriot said...

Really, really good piece. I've often wondered myself about the arcane appeal of older editions of D&D. I started with 2E, contemporary for my age. But when I discovered those older editions, I was truly hooked.

Even though you're talking about NOT deconstructing, I think in one way the arcane appeal to people who encountered "old" D&D as children has a lot to do with the form fitting the function - the medium IS the message.

It's an arcane spellbook about how to play a game about having arcane spellbooks. It's a complicated book that contains a world that needs exploring to be understood. It's about a game people play in which they are presented with a complicated world that needs exploring to be understood.

I found this whole meta-contextual ouroboros of content to be thoroughly addicting. Much the same way as Watchmen is - it's a work that is both an homage and commentary about it's own subject matter.

Watchmen (I think) did it on purpose. D&D didn't at first, but there's no denying that its very creation is a meta-commentary on the hobby of wargaming in its own particular place in time.

Anyways, lots of good ideas here. Nice work. :)

mordicai said...

I think a lot of it has to do with RULES. Say what you will about stupid arbitrary rules, but they can cause unintentional complexity that they result in a kind of verisimilitude. The X-men are a perfect example of this, with their convoluted continuity-- aliens! Love,! Other dimensions. Time travel. ALTERNATE time travel. Clones. ALTERNATE clones. Body swapping. Secondary mutations. Resurrections.

Say what you will about it, but every so often out of that confusing morass of backhistory, something will develop, something will drag itself out of the muck & stand up & you'll go..."HUH." By trying to follow all the threads-- by trying to make the gritty noir guy fight the alien robot on a war world & have that MAKE SENSE-- you end up stumbling on things that...are, well...Arcane.

Zak Sabbath said...


see, what you did there is list off some classic examples of everything that's NOT interesting to me about the Thing and King Kong--both of whom are interesting.

I'm with Borges when he says the interesting thing about King Kong is not the ape but the dinosaurs. The NOT explicable, glossable, reductible.

I like the way the Thing takes up space in the taxi when John Byrne drew him.

Zak Sabbath said...


I think you have a point. The superficial complexity prevents you from fully absorbing any one facet to the degree where it's "obvious" what's going on. That's definitely a part of the equation.

another part is how some part of that complexity might just be surface detail to its original author but it then is taken as substance by the next, who makes something new out of it.

nextautumn said...

Great post. But I think there's something else at work, too. I guess, for me, it's...the void. Death. Whatever you want to call it. The same instinct that draws the moth to the flame - that insane instinct to know what's back of the beyond. It's also an attempt to understand one's self and, in a larger sense, human nature.

It's what's behind the green devil face. It's Tharizdun, slumbering in his cyst below the earth, just waiting for another Pandora to unleash it upon the world. It's Acererak's final resting place - just the treasure (which seems like such a paltry reward for what you have to go through), a skull, a few almost meaningful arcane symbols on the wall and...dust.

It's like the end of Moby Dick or what hardcore old school arcade gamers call the "kill screen" - where the programming fails and it's all just nonsense, gibberish or black nothing.

Who goes into the dungeon, and why? For riches? That maybe the characters' motivation, but I don't think it's ever the players'. For me, it's like the the narrator in the Divine Comedy, descending into the underworld/afterlife - and the DM is kind of like Virgil: your guide. He wants to KNOW. It's the same with Alice - what's down that dark hole, on the other side, where the laws of this world don't hold sway? She's sooooo curious.

Either that or I'm just weird.

Sorry for the long-winded post.

Zak Sabbath said...


it's weird to have someone apologize to ME for a long-winded post.

Unknown said...

For me it was the complete lack of familiarity that pulled me into D&D. My family spent Easter 1978 at a resort in Lake Geneva WI; after going downtown for ice cream and homemade fudge, we stopped in a little hobby shop called "The Dungeon". In the basement they had a three dimensional cut-away model of a dungeon, maybe five or six levels complete with painted miniatures of delvers and creatures; it was sealed behind clear plexiglass and I could not stop staring at it. Two proto-geeks were talking about fighting an army of skeletons and my 12 year old brain was like "Huh?" I opened the Player's Handbook for the first time and started reading some of the spells; I didn't know anything about the game, I thought this was a real fucking spellbook. I wanted my parents to buy it for me because I had fantasies about casting them on some of the pricks I went to school with, but I was afraid to ask. So, it was real magic to me, and this translated into the game, when I finally found out it was a game. The Monster Manual was like a real encyclopedia of xeno-zoology to me. I've often wondered how to recapture the feeling of those first three months of playing D&D, everyday with my friends for eight hours a day. I now realize that it's not possible because I'm infinitely familiar with the world and the rules. Even so, the ghost of those first furtive steps into B2 keep me and my friends playing.

Unknown said...

Great post! This is why I read your blog. :)

Restitutor Orbis said...

To follow on what mordicai said about rules, I think the "uncanny" elements occur when new "content rules" supplement but don't replace old "content rules", and last only as long as it takes for the new rules to replace the old ones entirely.

For Bronze Age comics, the old rules were the comic code, plus Zak's point that all comics had to be about super heroes, plus mordicai's point that comics had to respect with canon. The new rule was that comics had to be about more than just superhero fights. So you get a wierd period where comics respect their wacky Silver Age canon and are only about superheroes, while also trying to be something deeper. Later, they can ditch the canon, ditch the wackiness, and just be deep or gritty.

For Alice in Wonderland, the old rules were the Victorian social code plus the concept of a children's novel. The new rule was using the concept of an otherworld to play with logic and mathematics and using anthropomorphic animals to present themes otherwise untenable.

For D&D, the old rules were the genre conventions of swords & sorcery. The new rules were the "fantasy mathematics" of gaming simulation. Unlike in fiction, magic can't just be "mysterious" because it has to work in a game, so it has to be defined with rules and numbers. That leads to the trend where gods are defined by their hit points and class level. And that means they can be killed, which means they will be killed, for example. Even if the old rules wouldn't allow it.

The fact that the old rules and the new rules don't work together in a way that makes sense is what creates the sense of the uncanny ("We killed Thor and used his Hammer to kill Vishnu!").

What happened in D&D is that once the mathematics were set, people then started to say "what would the world *really* be like if, e.g., continual light was available? Or gods really could be killed?" And then you start to get Forgotten Realms, where the cities are lit by magic lanterns, and so on. The rules of the game become the logic of the world, and the magic becomes mundane. The old rules are tossed out; and we see this today, as so much of fantasy fiction is obviously inspired by and based on the conventions of fantasy gaming.

We see this in Alice in Wonderland, too, where the idea of an other-world where the rules of logic don't apply is now a set of content rules that you can follow, as in The Matrix or anything by Neil Gaman, while the Victorian sensibilities or children's novel format have been discarded from such works. As a result they feel less uncanny.

Aos said...

Awesome post. I also find the dinosaurs in Kong really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Awesome article, and very timely as I was just sorting the remnants of my old Bronze Age comics collection today so that I could bequeath them to my eight-year-old. They're not bagged/boarded and suffered thorugh some Gulf Coast flood type events so they're not in good shape, but man, there's Alpha Flight #1, Rom #1, Black Lightning #1...

I loved that era of comics the most too (some of that was that I was an avid reader when I was young and living in Holland, and it was one of the only English language things we could get in quantity that was kid-friendly). And yeah, some of the time they were just thrashing around, stealing villains out of random songs (I have Spider-Man vs. Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and the Defenders vs. Foolkiller...)

But yeah, keeping up that unexpectedness is important... Once it's all familiar, that's lame. Does that spider usually spit fire, or what? Once you know "Oh yeah, that's a Hellcaller Spider, it's CR5" then that's gone. You don't want to be so gonzo that people can't believe it, but a certain level of gonzo is important to avoid the loss of wonder.

bliss_infinte said...

Great post and a good read.

I think that there's a sense that, these days, nothing can be left ambiguous; everything has to be laid bare and spelled out leaving no interpretation to the reader/viewer. A sign of the times, no doubt.

The best example that I can think of brings me to Star Wars. Not Episode IV but just Star Wars. When Luke discovers that his aunt and Uncle have been killed he races to the homestead to discover their burning bodies. There's no scream of "NOOOOOO!" There's no brooding sense of vengeance, there is the silent emotion of shock and helplessness enhanced by the swelling music of John Williams. On the flip side of that, in Episode II: Clones you have the death of Anakin's Mother. At the funeral there was too much talking as her husband says, "She was a good wife". Did that really need to be declared? It forced the viewer to see her in a particular light. There was no room for personal interpretation.

In early D&D there was plenty of room for personal interpretation whether you were 10, 15 21 or 30. It is left for your personal experience to fill in the gaps.

Same with Comics of the 70's.

One of the first comics I can remember owning was Kamandi Issue 20. Check out that last panel and see if that just isn't just completely awesome after fighting talking apes and robots!

E.G.Palmer said...

Good one,Zak. I'm also a devotee of "arcaneness". I think this uncertain feeling of the uncanny, the weird, the unknown and the wonder and danger that things we can't get a safe handle on may present us with is the common factor in literature, comics, D&D, movies,etc.. that really draws my attention.

Art that I really gets my attention is the sort that provokes questions. It's the hint, the come-on, that glimmer of something suggested or hidden that brings me back to consider possible meanings again and again.

A sense of ambiguousness that says there could be something awesome,or wonderful, or terrible lurking nearby, or in plain view, but unrecognized.

I went through the deconstruction phase as a kid, when I realized that most of what the adult world presented to me was only bullshit facades meant to obscure the truth of human actions and motivations.
If you deconstruct everything though, you have nothing. I reconstruct things once I understand the truth of them. It is necessary to have structure in thought in order to navigate at all. I'm no post-modern nihilist, I suppose I'm closer to being a natural philosopher. Clean, sharp edged definitions fail me.
So, back around to D&D and "arcaneness". The connection I see in Bronze age comics and OD&D/AD&D sensibilities is that shared feeling of hinted possibility. You are allowed bits and flashes of the great unknown, and "may-be",and "could-be", and possibly the knowledge you gather will be enough for you to win through to victory.
In the comics this comes from the heroes facing the undefined avatars of the cosmic forces they don't quite understand. In The Game Its the same flavor of atmosphere in the writing, plus the famous,"vague precision" of Gygaxian rule smithing.
That, I think, is what allows OD&D/AD&D to convey the pulp literature/bronze age comic themes and feeling of adventure,discovery, exploration, and desperate action that later, more sharply defined and rules tight games just can't get a grip on.

Menace 3 Society said...

I wonder if maybe some of the arcaneness, the dreamlikeness, of D&D comes from the fact that many of the early rules seem to be only partly abstracted or metaphorical. Damage and hit points, for example, are supposed to represent a combination of stamina, concentration, luck, and divine favor in addition to physical resistance of wounds, since how the hell is anybody going to stand up to four or five hits with a two-handed sword? But then lost hit points are recovered at a rate suggestive of actually healing physical injuries. Likewise saving throws, which partly represent the ability of a character to dodge or avoid an effect but don't give bonuses for dexterity, and can still be rolled when a character is asleep or unconscious. And so on.

Much of the original corpus of rules, in my mind, relied on these sorts of incomplete metaphors, where the line between what is simulated concretely and what it abstracted is not only blurry, but in many cases contradictory. If Hathgar, a 6th level fighter, takes 24 damage from goblin archers in a round but continues to fight, is he riddled with arrows? Covered with cuts and nicks where he just barely managed to avoid getting completely skewered? Or gasping for air after batting them all down with his mace? Any one of these would be equally defensible and indefensible from the standpoint of what's written in the rulebooks, such that everyone at the table can have different ways of imagining what the scene actually looks like.

Possibly the closest other thing I can compare it to is Kusturica's film Underground, which never worked for me on its surface or as a metaphor. One simply had to acknowledge that there was a certain amount of metaphor, possibly quite a lot, but one could never what exactly was metaphor and what wasn't.

Nagora said...

Ambiguity feeds misconceptions. Misconceptions lead to new ideas in the reader/viewer's head rather than simply duplicating the ones in the writer's head. That leads to fun/creativity when getting the communication right isn't vitally important. Misreading a sign in a nuclear power plant can be fatal and is a Bad Thing. Not understanding why the Watcher's head is so big and what use a toga is to someone who can travel time and space not dangerous and should probably be left to the imagination. It just is.

Thieves of Badabaskor was the first "module" I ever ran (back in the 70s) and it is full of ambiguity and weirdness. We had a great time and my version of what was going on almost certainly was different from anyone else's. The same vibe ran through much of the original JG material.

The Odinsword was far too big to use, yet there it was in the background of Kirby's Asgard. Why it was so big, indeed "why" anything in Kirby's Asgard, was something that just sort of rattled around in one's head sparking ideas. I have to say that when Roy Thomas answered that particular question I think he did a great job as part of the run up to Thor 300, but generally explanations of these things don't work out.

Once plain-speaking, even plain-metaphorical speaking enters the picture then you can be right or wrong in your interpretation because the writer is making it clear that there is a correct explanation and your objective as reader is to grasp it, or hack through the layers of crossword clues to get it. At that point, the reader has lost something and become more passive.

Running a D&D game, I often see players invent explanations of why something is where it is that are totally different from my reasons for putting it there. I don't change my explanation, but I take care not to rub their noses in it if it doesn't effect events. By and large, everyone's happier that way.

Zak Sabbath said...


I mostly agree with you--but i do think it's important to say that sometimes--even in the original author's head--there's no clear explanation. And i think that's maybe better than creating something where you know the explanation and then leave it ambiguous on purpose.

UWS guy said...

I think James M. Answered your question more succinctly when he said the draw of the early d&d (and comics too now that you mention it) was that they weren't self-referential. It use to be that dungeons and dragons borrowed from h.g. wells, vance, comic books. Now all that it does is reference it's own material (drizzt, elminster) They are snakes feeding on themselves.

Zak Sabbath said...


but the question I was trying to answer was:

a--why is that good or interesting? and

b--why then shouldn't ALL non-self-referential things be equally interesting? i.e. why wouldn't the gold or silver age have the same appeal?

UWS guy said...

Well, I think the answer to "b" is found when answering "a". It's interesting because they were drawing on a source material of greater worth than what they were creating. H.G.Wells, Vance, Carol, are a better source for pulp fiction than that lady who writes the "Twilight" vampire books. So I suppose you could look at the gold and silver age sources and perhaps find authors and auteurs whom you may hold in less esteem.

UWS guy said...

West side story is great because a good composer (Bernstein) borrowed from a great playwrite (shakespere). I'm not sure John Adams could make Harry potter into a good opera. "Cats" is great because of the quality of Carol's poetry via the pen of a good composer.

How good would andrew lloyd webers werewolf musical be?

Zak Sabbath said...


I wasn;t making a brand new argument, I was just explaining why my post is, of necessity, longer than James' and has different stuff in it.

Unknown said...

I think part of the charm, and much of the sense of wonder, is precisely the lack of thematic coherence.

Sort of like you were saying about gods' portfolios: she's the goddess of three-tined forks, pythons, trees, and the color orange.

One of the delightful things about D&D is that you've got the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods and Cthulhu and leprechauns and goblins and orcs and norkers and ki-rin and titans and dinosaurs and rats, giant, of Sumatra all mashed up together.

It's the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-what-the-fuck-I-dig-sinks-too philosophy which fits so well with Bronze Age WTFery. It's like some wonderful middlebrow Borgesian Chinese catalog. On acid. With extra Thought Eaters.

And isn't that, when we get right down to it, way more stupid gonzo fun than color-coordinated moody elves in spiky armor? Thought so.

Adam Thornton said...

Oh dear. My friend Tracy Jo left herself logged in on my machine. That was actually me.

Havard: said...

I enjoyed reading this. Interestingly, I see myself as that modernist guy trying to Make Sense of Blackmoor.... ;)

Roger G-S said...

For me, the touchstone in comics for that "WTF" moment you locate in the Bronze Age is the DC Silver Age Superman, with its toolbox of androids, duplicates, Bizarros, alliterative girlfriends, time travel, and a rainbow of wacky Kryptonite effects.

From these materials any number of improbable plots and post-hoc explanations for shock covers could be rustled up.

But as for the "arcane" in comics it has to be Silver Age Marvel. The DC wackiness was somehow too cozy. The Marvel wackiness touched the infinite.

Grey said...


Zak Sabbath said...