“Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk and some are leather”
With the triumph of nerd culture, it’s not surprising that someone would eventually write a biography of Gary Gygax, and David Kushner has stepped up to the plate with Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D & D from Nation Books. Koren Shadmi, whose art was the primary reason I bought this, drew it, and it costs $16.99. Let’s check it out!
I have a confession to make: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons, nor have I played any role-playing games in my life. It’s just never been a thing for me, and I have no interest whatsoever in them, whether on a board on on-line. So I didn’t get this for any particular interest in D & D, but because Shadmi is a very good artist and just the idea of Gygax as the “patron saint” of nerd culture was fascinating to me. Kushner based the book on interviews he did with Gygax and David Arneson (the other co-creator of the game) before they died (in 2008 and 2009, respectively), so it’s interesting getting different perspectives on the way the game evolved, as Arneson was treated less than optimally by Gygax and while the book is more of an encomium to Gygax, Kushner does manage to get in Arneson’s viewpoints a bit so that Gygax isn’t completely saintly. So that’s nice.
My aversion to biographies/autobiographies, which I’ve written about before (hey, I just did it a few days ago!) is part of why I don’t love this book. Unlike Imagine Wanting Only This, which is an autobiography with an unusual hook (and still leans a bit too much into the autobiography part), Rise of the Dungeon Master is much more straight-forward about Gygax and his creation of D & D, to the detriment of everything else in his life. He has children, one of whom gives the stamp of approval to the name of the game, but we learn almost nothing about them (we learn more about them than Gygax’s wife, who appears in one panel – the wedding – and is never named). He struggles very little to get the game off the ground, but we never get a sense that the success of it was anything other than pre-ordained. He gets rejected by one game company, so he decides to form his own company (without Arneson, who doesn’t seem too perturbed by it even though he came up with the “dungeon” aspect of the game and even, one could argue, the “dungeon master” concept), and while Kushner hints at some financial difficulties, it feels like the game takes off very quickly. This book isn’t necessarily about the way Gygax got D & D financially secure, but it’s definitely not an overnight success, and Kushner skims over the formative years in the mid-1970s very quickly, which seems odd. The book is only 136 pages long, and a few pages more for the anxiety Gygax must have felt, having to support two teenagers in an economically weak decade while trying to start his own business seems like it would add needed depth to the book.
The lack of depth is something that is most bothersome. With biographies/autobiographies of living people or recently dead people, you get the problem of eliding certain things in their lives because you don’t want to offend them or those close to them who are still living, or you don’t want to make yourself look worse (if it’s an autobiography). Gygax and Arneson are dead, but I imagine plenty of their relatives are still alive, and perhaps Kushner himself thinks highly of Gygax, so we don’t really get a sense of either person beyond the surface. Kushner, again, wants to look at the creation of D & D and not necessarily the entire life of Gygax (and to a lesser extent, Arneson), but it still feels like we never really get to see the real person, who probably was far more human – and therefore flawed – than the book purports. Kushner’s ultimate point is that Gygax was able to bring nerds together to do something they loved, and that love eventually triumphed over the pearl-clutching of the conservatives who believed D & D was actually priming kids to become witches (Kushner goes into the Dallas Egbert case of 1979 in pretty decent detail, and Tom Hanks has a cameo in the book when Kushner briefly mentions Mazes and Monsters, the movie based very loosely on Egbert), which is a perfectly fine point. The actual creation of the game and the ways Gugax was inspired by his childhood, as his father made up fantasy bedtime stories and his mother read him adventure novels and Gygax himself ditched school to explore his surroundings, are nicely done, and Kushner gets into the genesis and evolution of role-playing games from H.G. Wells basically inventing them in 1913 with the publication of Little Wars (which has the excellent subtitle “A game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books”), in which Wells and his friends Will Farrell his son’s toy soldiers and started playing with them because they were, I don’t know, tired of whoring? Gygax turns war games into fantasy games and invents the 20-sided die, and Kushner does a nice job showing how all these threads came together into Dungeons and Dragons. He also does a good job showing the evolution of the game and the way others adapted it for the computer (which Gygax, it seems, never quite appreciated because it ruined the communal aspect of unshowered teenagers hanging out in a basement drinking Jolt cola, but whatever) and how other games slowly pushed it aside, and he hits the highlights of how Gygax was eventually forced out of his own company (TSR, which stood for “Tactical Studies Rules”) and how D & D made a bit of a comeback. So if you’re looking for a very straight-forward history of the game, you’ll get it. But you won’t really get much about Gygax himself, as Kushner, either because he wants to or because Gygax himself was never forthcoming, doesn’t go that way. Gygax mentions that he didn’t like school because he loved to explore and how he wasn’t a popular insurance underwriter because he liked taking risks too much, which are tiny nuggets of his personality but also might be a man looking back on his life and making himself sound better. So while the evolution of the game is interesting, the personalities behind it are less so. Even when Kushner diverts to Egbert’s case, we don’t get much more than the surface, both with Egbert (who seemed to suffer from pretty severe depression and killed himself a year after his celebrated disappearance was “solved”), with William Dear, the private investigator who linked his disappearance to D & D (although it doesn’t seem, from this account, that he “blamed” the game, as it seems others think he did), or with the people who condemned the game after the details of Egbert’s case were revealed (Dear wrote a book a few years after Egbert’s death). So again, we get the “what happened” version of events, which is perfectly fine, but we don’t get much of the “why it happened” or “what anyone really felt about it,” which is always far more interesting than simply “what happened.” I do like that Kushner writes the book as a D & D game, with second-person narration and occasional “choices” about what to do – it adds some tonal levity to the book and keeps us in the mindset of a D & D gamer, which is not a bad way to tell the story. The way he writes the book is interesting, and the surface of the book is interesting, but it feels shallow, which is too bad.
Shadmi is reined in a bit by the subject matter, but he still does a fine job with the art. Shadmi’s fluid, rolling line work fits a lot of his own work, which is often infused with a disturbing sexual undertone. In his work that he draws for others, he doesn’t get to let his freak flag fly as much, but he still is a fine choice for this book, as he’s good at likenesses without making them too close to reality, so the characters are part of the narrative rather than standing out as “real” people. He’s always been inventive, so his shifts from the reality of the book to the fantasy aspects of the game are smoothly done, with his attention to detail bringing verisimilitude to the “real” world and grounding the fantastical elements just enough. One of the reasons why I never got into D & D is because it sounds phenomenally boring, and while this book doesn’t convince me otherwise, Shadmi’s visions of wizards and monsters and animated skeletons and dragons and other monsters tap into what people love about the game, and they do it well. Very rarely, the fantasy bleeds slightly into the “real” world, and I would have liked to see a bit more of that (Shadmi does occasionally show the characters in game-appropriate attire, but it’s clear that those are “unreal” panels – I’m talking about the “real” world with tiny fantasy elements present in the corners and backgrounds), as it shows the blurring of the lines between the real and the fantastical that always seem to be part of the game, whether Gygax wants to admit it or not (I don’t buy the argument that playing the game turns people into witches, of course, because I’m not insane, but I think that a lot of people who played the game were happier in a fantasy world than the real one, which Kushner never gets into at all). Shadmi doesn’t get to experiment with the structure of the narrative at all, but he keeps the art frisky with the switches back and forth between reality and fantasy, and he gets to draw some silly stuff occasionally, as well. It’s not his most inventive work, but it’s more experimental than the narrative, which is not a bad thing.
I know I have written a bit too much about what’s missing from the book, which I try no to do, but like so many biographies/autobiographies, this seems like such a missed opportunity. In trying to give us a standard account of someone’s life, Kushner sucks most of the nuance out of it, and while Gygax himself is a fairly interesting person simply because he invented a popular and almost new kind of game, the lack of insight into his personality makes the book feel shallow, with the plot carrying us through and the art teasing us with the possibilities of what might have been. Rise of the Dungeon Master isn’t a bad comic, but it feels like it could have been more.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
(If you are interested in getting this, please click on the link below. I get a tiny kickback if you use the link, even if you don’t buy this and get something else on Amazon. You like getting stuff from Amazon, right?)