If you are a nerd in modern society, you owe Gary Gygax so much more than you probably know. He wasn’t just the father of Dungeons and Dragons, and by extension all tabletop RPGs, but those influences led directly to Final Fantasy, Game of Thrones, and even Legend of Zelda. His reach spans far and wide, so much so that the man himself is easy to forget. Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D: Rise of the Dungeon Master, is a graphic novel that hopes out to tell this giant’s story, functioning as a dual biography of him and his greatest creation. Set in a first person perspective, its goal is to mirror the feeling of D&D while putting you directly in the shoes of the participants in its creation.
Both subjects of this book have long and complex lives to look back on. There were creative disputes over the original game and disagreements about who was really behind its most long-lived aspects. Gygax went through many conflicts of personality, as well as devastating divorces from both his wife and the company he built from the ground up. Both of these stories are fraught with years of ups and downs that would make for an epic story that I am sorry to say Rise of the Dungeon Master has neither the space nor the style to tell.
As you can imagine, telling the tale of of a man’s life and his greatest creation, over the span of decades, is a massive undertaking. Rise of the Dungeon Master comes in at 136 pages, which in graphic novel terms does not translate to a lot of space. Years go by in the span of panels. In the context of a biography, especially one intended to depict a specific piece of someone’s work, you don’t need to focus time on the years spent idly. Sadly, nothing gets any real focus, whether it be crucial to the story or purely ancillary. There is no weight to the events because there isn’t time to build any.
The most important years of Gygax and D&D both whizz by in the space of seconds. All we get for Gygax’s marriage, the birth of his children, major formative moments of D&D, major setbacks, and events that have been the subject of historical debate and analysis for decades are a scant few panels before the book has to run off to other topics. So many of these ideas, whether I knew about them or not, sparked profound fascination in me that I had to ignore. The disappointment grew into a roaring flame the further I got into the book. What were the arguments with him and Arneson really about? Why did he divorce his wife? What was it like to explode into fame and battle the Satanic Panic? These are only a fraction of the questions I am left with.
Not only is there a dearth of space in Rise of the Dungeon Master, but the style of writing is functional above all else. Not moving. Not evocative. Functional. It conveys information but cannot go much further. Reading this book is like looking over a Wikipedia page. I got a collection of facts from the book, but none of the humanity or emotion that would give those facts any semblance of life. If you can imagine the difference between a historical text on the life of Abraham Lincoln and watching the Spielberg film, you understand the concept.
Of course, a reasonable counterpoint would be that one is more accurate and more comprehensive than the other is, and that holds water when it comes to Rise of the Dungeon Master. Much of the content of this book is based off of direct interviews with the many people involved, and many of their quotes make it into the book proper. It is a sign of respect and diligence that should be applauded that the author went to such lengths to make sure the story he did tell was based purely on fact, and fact pulled from primary sources as well. During the book they manage to touch on aspects of Gygax’s life that I never knew about, however briefly. It is clear that David Kushner did extensive research before setting pen to page, and the historian in me values this attention to detail highly.
As to other successes by the creative team, the artist also deserves praise, both for accuracy and panache. The grayscale work evokes the kind of nostalgic yet distant feeling of the past which works wonders for a biographical work. I felt like I was looking back on moments in history, and that atmosphere was bolstered by the accuracy of the work. Koren Shadmi managed to capture not only people’s faces but works of art and locations in surprising detail. I can’t count the number of small references to original sources that came up, and those were only the ones that I could recognize by sight.
The first person perspective was wise, if inconsistent. The present tense helps make each moment feel more real, although there did not seem to be any difference depending on whose eyes we were looking through. The choice also hearkens back to D&D’s roots, which is nice, although it is strange that sometimes we are living as a distinct person in the story and sometimes not.
Ultimately though, these are small points of light from a work that promised definitive illumination. I am left with a sense of longing for more information on so many aspects of this book’s subject matter. After reading a book based on Gary Gygax, I find that I truly don’t know who the man was. Oh, I have ideas. I have data points and suggestions, but what I don’t have are the moments that tell me who the man was, and where he got his vision. I also, and this may be more important, do not know his weaknesses or strengths. Great people are known by their faults as well as their qualities, and as for Gary Gygax I am not confident I know either
Rise of the Dungeon Master
Written by: David Kushner
Illustrated by: Koren Shadmi
Published by: Nation Books