"I grew up in the 1980s, and despite what Stranger Things would have you believe, in those days, Dungeons & Dragons wasn't cool. In fact, mentioning it at all opened you up to various forms of societally accepted ridicule and potential physical altercations," writes actor Joe Manganiello in his foreword to Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, a 400-plus-page "volume of information and imagery for lovers of Dungeons & Dragons, including art, advertising, ephemera, and more."
On page two of his foreword, Manganiello poses with a framed painting of his D&D character, dragonborn paladin/barbarian Arkhan the Cruel. Here is Joe Manganiello posing in a different way!
God bless Magic Mike XXL, and god/gods bless Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana. Even more so than relatively recent D&D books like Empire of Imagination and Of Dice and Men, Art & Arcana is a simultaneous history and celebration of D&D—and all the bizarre, hallucinogenic imagery that it's spawned.
"The relationship between Dungeons & Dragons and its artwork goes beyond symbiosis, but to outright reliance—one simply couldn't exist without the other," write Art & Arcana authors Micheal Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer in their introduction. "The art informed the game, and the game informed the art."
On Tuesday October 23, Newman and Peterson will be hitting Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing to talk about the book and its creation. Below, some thoughts on the book—and a few glimpses at some of the art it contains.
Art & Arcana could have just been a coffee-table book of D&D art and nerds would have bought it—but thankfully, it's more. The book's authors spend a whole lot of time digging into the history of the game and the brand, starting with co-creator Gary Gygax's fascination with tabletop wargames and his integration of medieval and fantasy elements with Chainmail, which he created with Jeff Perren (and which was, it should be noted, ah, strongly inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien). But it wasn't until Dave Arneson entered the picture that D&D really began to take shape, with early versions featuring art from the likes of Arneson and Greg Bell (some of which was, it should be noted, ah, strongly inspired by the works of Jim Steranko for Marvel Comics). In the years to come, Gygax, then a "thirtysomething Midwestern insurance underwriter and fanatical warmer," would oversee a D&D empire that included video games, cartoons, spinoffs, novels, and more.
Gygax's story has been told before, as has the history of D&D—but seeing it alongside art, rulebooks, maps, and more from the periods in question is what's really fun about Art & Arcana.
The weird, unexpected bits of random D&D stuff are neat, from the impressively uncool ad above to records and View-Master wheels—
—but I found myself most drawn to the lush, trippy visions that graced everything from calendars to paperbacks to rulebooks.
And it's a blast to see the evolution of the game's aesthetic and tone. Looking back, it's remarkable how amateurish the early art for D&D was, especially compared to its current look—probably because back then, it was being created by amateurs, who weren't only making up fantasy creatures but an entire game system as they went along.
While other media that's paid homage to D&D—Community, Freaks and Geeks, The Onion—gets highlighted, Art & Arcana tiptoes around stuff that reflects less well on the brand and its current owner, the Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast. Art & Arcana's authors have collected a huge amount of Wizards of the Coast-approved art and imagery, but as an "official licensed product" of Wizards of the Coast, this is hardly a complete history: Pathfinder, a game that's offered a stiff challenge to D&D by sticking to an older ruleset and learning from some of Wizards' mistakes, gets only a brief mention, and 2000's very very very bad Dungeons & Dragons movie—
—gets a half-page of text, albeit one that acknowledges the film and its cheap sequels did "more harm than good to the brand's reputation" and left "many to muse that the property was cursed when it came to the big screen." (It might be. But it certainly isn't cursed when it comes to podcasts and comics.)
On the other hand, an unexpected upside of Art & Arcana is getting to watch D&D evolve—not only aesthetically and technically, but with a welcome and increasing focus on representation and inclusion when it comes to gender, race, and sexual orientation. The game has made big strides, though there's more to be done.
At least for me, a lot of the fun of D&D is browsing through its giant rulebooks—not necessarily for planning a session or building a character, but just to scroll through the goofy, geeky creatures and worlds that have come into existence in this goofy, geeky game. The books for the newest, fifth edition of the game have some truly fantastic and imaginative art, but Art & Arcana is so focused on D&D's past that it runs out of space to talk much about its present.
Whether by design or not, that makes the book something more than a fun read—it's also a great companion to the fifth edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. Once you've leafed through Art & Arcana, it's impossible not to appreciate just how far D&D—and all its associated art—has come.