In today’s episode of this series, we’re going to take a look at how the meteoric rise of Dungeons and Dragons in popular culture from the 80’s to today is reflected in the comics and cartoons that sprung up around it – firstly, in the works commissioned by the game’s creators and producers, and then by the fans creating zines, fanfiction and yes, webcomics. So. Many. Webcomics.
(I should note at the top of this article that I’m aware there are plenty of webcomics with D&D themes that have been created over the years – and then fallen away, as webcomics tend to do. Given the late 90’s early 2000’s are basically the Palaeozoic of the internet era, finding reliable information and stable links to these proved pretty darn difficult – those early webcomics are just gone – so this article and the next are going to focus on the webcomics/creators that were more enduring.)
Although as previously mentioned, the first treatment I could find of Dungeons and Dragons in comic form was not a particularly flattering one, the characters and settings of the game were already being used to create numerous works of tie-in fiction. The first of these, a novel called Quag Keep by Andre (Alice) Norton, was published in 1978 – only four years after the game’s debut. The novel followed the adventures of a group of gamers, magically transported into the world they were playing. This concept would be used time and again by various other media, becoming a staple trope of the roleplaying fiction genre. The success of the game led to more and more novels being released, and the creation of fiction series such as “Dragonlance” and the “Forgotten Realms” novels. These novels had a profound impact on numerous authors, creating or inspiring careers such as R. A. Salvatore who created the (in)famous Drizzt Do’Urden in 1988 and spawned the ‘Drow anti-hero’ fiction trope (in fact, researching this article I came across one of the first fantasy novels I ever read, which helped inspire me to become a writer myself; so I guess we have D&D to thank for this article in more ways than one). The popularity of Drizzt and the embedding of the heroic Drow into the culture of D&D ultimately went on to inspire one of the first forays of Dungeons and Dragons into the true webcomic arena: ‘Kern’ Gagné’s Drowtales, which premiered online in 2001.
Drowtales is, like the name suggests, a comic series focused on the Drow, a race from the Dungeons and Dragons mythos. Although the series initially focused on chronicling the adventures the creator(s) had with their Forgotten Realms tabletop characters, the comic quickly took on a life of its own and, after a soft reboot/retcon in 2005, severed its plot from the initial campaign that had inspired it. Between 2007 and 2009, the early strips were rewritten/redrawn to account for the new direction of the story (which is probably great for the storytelling, but terrible for columnists trying to link to examples in their articles!).
Drowtales was one of the first to bring fan works to the internet, but it was by no means the last. Shortly after, Rich Burlew joined the digital fray with his first instalment of The Order of the Stick, in 2003. Steve and Jason did a whole Book Club series on Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick in 2011/12 (just wait for the Book Club Bookmark on that one, coming soon), so I’m not going to recap it too much again here: suffice to say that the irreverent but loving treatment of the D&D rules, setting, tropes and players made The Order of the Stick a webcomics success story, and spawned its own slew of imitators.
However, the majority of the influence that Dungeons and Dragons has had over the webcomic world strikes a balance between the extremes of Drowtales and The Order of the Stick. Webcomic creators tend to be, well, a little bit nerdy and as such, it’s common for them to play D&D when they’re not sat in front of the drawing board/cintiq. In our final episode of the series, we’ll look at some of the creators of webcomics who also play D&D, and what they’ve said about the influence the game has had on their art.
What makes you a fan of the Dungeons and Dragons mythos? Do you like particular elements in webcomics or fiction – rule systems, settings, magic, or characters? Let us know any great examples in the comments below or on Twitter and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!