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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

When the TSR imprint had it's own line of comics at DC


Super-Blog Team-Up explores franchises with rich histories and fascinating expanded universes in various media from movies, to toys, television, novels, animation, and of course comic books just to name a few. These universes further a character, storyline, or a whole universe adding texture and new history to a property unleashing worlds of new ideas a concept’s. With some properties these universes advance the franchise forward giving their legions of fans fun new concepts to digest while others sink once bright ideas to mere corporate shells of themselves. Super-Blog Team Up is BACK to explore some uncharted territory as we open up the Universal gateway to expansion. God save us all...

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If you were purchasing comics in the late 80s/early 90s, you may remember these titles gracing the shelves at your local comic book shop:




If you were a teenager or college student in the eighties, then you'd probably immediately recognize the TSR logo under the DC bullet at the top-left corner of the cover. If nothing else, you at least recognize 'Dungeons & Dragons'... I mean, it's pretty much universally acclaimed as THE fantasy tabletop role-playing game system. You tell people you're meeting some friends to play "Pathfinder", and they'll give you a puzzled look. You tell them you're playing "Dungeons & Dragons" and they'll know EXACTLY what you mean.

So what is this? Well, in short, this was TSR's attempt at cashing in on the comic book market with their own imprint of comics. As per TSR logic: If you played Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, then you probably read comics, right? So why not reach out to the comic-reading crowd and interest them in our role-playing games? It was a really smart attempt at marketing to your target customer base, while picking up a little money on the side by licensing your properties.

TSR (short for "Tactical Studies Rules") had already cornered the tabletop gaming market since the mid-seventies and were looking to expand. They had managed to successfully license out the Dungeons & Dragons to Marvel Productions to create an animated series that ran as a Saturday morning cartoon on CBS from 1983 to 1985:

Coincidentally, Mark Evanier, Paul Dini and Steve Gerber wrote a few episodes for this animated series. 

Not only were 27 episodes produced, but Dungeons & Dragons also had it's own action figure toyline (which was produced by LJN one year before the cartoon aired) and you can take a look at the toy collection here.

However, you can forget all of that before you read these comics, since DC's TSR imprint had nothing to do with the cartoon.

DRAGONLANCE SAGA (1987 - 1991)


The Dragonlance Saga was the first TSR property to get the 'comic book adaptation' treatment in 1987. It was a graphic novel adaptation of the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles: Dragons of the Autumn Twilight. At 81 pages, this was no mere comic book and steered towards being a graphic novel.



Subsequent issues (aka: Books Two to Five) finished adapting the rest of the volumes in the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy and were released on an annual basis, with the last book being published in 1991. Thomas Yeates (Warlord, Saga of the Swamp Thing) illustrated the first two books, Tony DeZuniga (Jonah Hex, Arak) illustrated the second two books, and Ron Randall (WarlordArak) illustrated the last one. They were all written by Roy Thomas. To be honest, these should be considered in a league of their own -- they look like they should've been included in the DC Graphic Novel collection.


DRAGONLANCE ongoing series (1988 - 1991)




Released in late 1988, Dragonlance was the first ongoing series from the TSR imprint to hit shelves.

Written by Dan Mishkin (Blue Devil, Amethyst, Wonder Woman) and illustrated by Ron Randall, the Dragonlance ongoing series starts with Sturm Brightblade (who appears in Dragonlance Chronicles) helping out a young woman fight off some hobgoblins and then wandering off into the sunset. The story continues with the young woman (Riva Silvercrown) and her further adventures in Krynn. Every few issues the focus would shift to a different set of characters, but Riva always seems to come back into the story -- especially since she appeared to be specifically designed for this ongoing series. The series continues on for another thirty-three issues in a very Lord of the Rings-esque adventure.

A typical issue summary reads something like "Trapped in the city of Istar, Tanis and Horak need to use their wits to defeat Maquesta and Koraf in the Arena of Blood. Meanwhile, Loralon and a sea-elf manage to use the power of the Starstones to crack the dome as Ohrgil and the Highlord watch".

Dan Mishkin co-created and co-wrote Amethyst (which also ran on a fantasy/fictional world of it's own), so this series was in good hands as far as storytelling for that genre was concerned. He wrote most of the first twenty-eight issues, and then several different writers (including Paul Kupperberg) wrote the final issues.

Mike Kaluta contributed some very nice covers towards the end of the run.

Three months after Dragonlance #1, two more titles were released: Gammarauders and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.


GAMMARAUDERS ongoing series (1989 - 1989)



Gammarauders, written by Peter Gillis (Marvel's Strikeforce: Morituri, DC's Tailgunner Jo), was an ongoing series based on TSR's post-apocalyptic role playing game of the same name -- it was cancelled after 10 issues due to poor sales. I once briefly chatted with Mr. Gillis online and he told me that "Gammarauders was both a lot of fun and my last comics work for twenty years".

ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS ongoing series (1988 - 1991)




Advanced Dungeons & Dragons outlasted 'em all and ran for thirty-six issues and an annual. Written by Michael Fleisher (Warlord, numerous Conan titles for Marvel) this title probably had the greatest 'star appeal' since readers buying this comic knew exactly what to expect with a series called 'Dungeons & Dragons': several characters of varied backgrounds and skill-sets getting together to go on an adventure -- and that's exactly what the reader got.

Fleisher left the book after the fourth issue, Dan Mishkin took over writing duties the following issue and would write most of the remaining issues until the series ended at issue thirty-six (Jeff Grubb wrote four fill-in issues).

Something notable about the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comics -- every few issues contained stats (and a history) so you can add the characters you read about to your own D&D campaigns. Readers loved these and often submitted stat requests for specific one-off characters found in the stories:
From Advanced Dungeons & Dragons #11

In the second issue of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, TSR game designer and author Jim Ward wrote the obligatory 'welcome to the TSR worlds imprint, hope you enjoy these comics' letter column as well as a quick overview of TSR and it's humble beginnings. As Ward describes future plans for TSR's new products for 1989 and 1990, he curiously mentions a new Buck Rogers comic book collaboration between TSR and DC in the works (meant to coincide with TSR's new Buck Rogers adventure board game being launched) -- slated to be published May 1989. This comic series never happened. The Buck Rogers TSR game, released in 1988, received a lackluster response -- which most likely influenced the cancellation of this comic book series.

comic book ad for TSR Buck Rogers Boardgame. Circa 1989.

Writer Dan Mishkin gave us a few quick anecdotes about his time working on the Dragonlance and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books. We kicked off the interview by asking if he had played D&D prior to taking that writing assignment:

"I CAN say that I was aware of D&D but had never played, and I had not read the DragonLance novels...but when I did I was impressed. One of the impressive things was that the story brought together a disparate group of people and made the fate of that world depend on them in a more organic and believable way than, in my opinion, Star Wars did. "

"Also — frustrating at the time, amusing now — I don’t think most of the people I had to check in with at TSR understood that I was writing a comic book and not running a D&D campaign in my basement (Jeff Grubb being a very big exception)."

"Ron Randall called me one time to basically tell me my script wasn’t working in one spot and did it in the sweetest possible way, saying something like, 'I spend more time with each of these pages than you do, Dan, so I’m more likely to see problems that you might miss.' I loved working with Ron on DragonLance and with Jan Duursema on AD&D (and with Jan’s husband, Tom Mandrake on a couple of fill-ins; the first story Tom and I every worked on together was one that I still love, a funny tale of what happens when the Lords of Waterdeep inadvisably sign a contract with the Lawyer’s Guild to let them start practicing in the city). [The lawyers story was in AD&D #23, I think.]"



FORGOTTEN REALMS ongoing series (1989 - 1991)


About a year after Dragonlance ongoing series launched, the Forgotten Realms (1989) ongoing series joined the imprint.




Forgotten Realms (not to be confused with DC's Lords of the Ultra-Realm published in 1986) was based on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting that turned into a life of it's own and spun-off into various novels and video games. If Pool of Radiance or Baldur's Gate mean anything to you -- they were set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy world setting. Unlike Dragonlance, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms books shared a few characters -- most notably Priam Agrivar, a paladin who first appeared in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons #1 (1988).

TSR author/game-designer Jeff Grub wrote all twenty-five issues of the Forgotten Realms ongoing series. It's worth noting that Forgotten Realms #1 (1989) was Rags Morales' first work for DC comics. Rags would provide the art for the twenty-four of the twenty-five issue series.


TSR WORLDS annual (1990)

In 1990, a TSR Worlds Annual brought the three remaining TSR titles together and introduced a new fourth series: Spelljammer.




SPELLJAMMER ongoing series (1990 - 1991)





Spelljammer would be TSR's last ongoing comic book series. Spelljammer was a new D&D expansion TSR had introduced in 1989, and this ongoing series was one of the tie-in products introduced. In contrast to Dragonlance, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer had a more 'sci-fi feel' to it and allowed magic and spells in an outer space environment.

This first eight issues of this series were written by Barbara Kessel (who was the editor for the TSR title in 1989), and the last seven issues rotated between Don Karr, Adam Blaustein, Jeff Grubb and Barabara Kessel. This series also had a rotating assortment of artists: Michael T. Collins, Chris Wozniak, Don Heck, Kevin J West and Joe Quesada. Spelljammer #8 would be Quesada's FIRST work for DC comics. (Quesada would go on to become editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics in 2000.)

House ad for TSR Spelljammer and Dragonlance novels:



AVATAR limited series (1991)


1991's Avatar was a three-issue limited series adaptation of the Avatar Trilogy that was originally published in 1989 by TSR as novels. This series was also written by Barbara Kesel, but illustrated by Dameon Willich.



So...what happened?

According to the Comichron, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dragonlance were both within the top 100 books pre-ordered by North American comic book shops in June 1989 for both Diamond and Capital City comic distributors -- they hovered around the mid-bottom-half of the top hundred. Gammarauders did not make the top 100.

By October 1989, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance were near the very bottom of the top 100 books pre-ordered by North American comic book shops (as per Diamond Comic Distributors).

By August 1991, no TSR titles had made it into the list of top 100 books pre-ordered by North American comic book shops. What changed?

The early nineties are best known for the glut of new comic book publishers that saturated the market. A quick snapshot of a January 1990 shelf at a comic book shop shows me nearly 170 comics to choose from. It's quite possible that the TSR titles got lost in the sea of titles.

Another, equally plausible, theory is that the sword & sorcery genre had become passé by the early 90s (which would explain why the Spelljammer ongoing series was a sci-fi concept more so than a traditional 'lost world' type of setting).

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons series editor Kim Yale offered this explanation to readers on why the series was being cancelled: "Licensed properties sooner or later come to an end, which is the case here (as with all the TSR titles)."

The Forgotten Realms ongoing series was cancelled prematurely, and two dangling storylines were completed in Wizards of the Coasts' Dragon #247 (1998) and Dragon #260 (1999):



Interestingly enough, the Dragonlance comics are still considered cannon, so there's a demand among Dragonlance fans to read them. IDW collected the first eight issues of the Dragonlance ongoing series and reprinted them in a Dragonlance Classics TPB. IDW has also collected all of the Forgotten Realms and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comics and reprinted them is a series of TPBs named Dungeons & Dragons: Forgotten Realms Classics and Dungeons & Dragons Classics (respectively). Nothing about a collected Spelljammer TPB, however.

Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms are still going strong -- Devil's Due and (most recently) IDW are still cranking out new issues -- so there's obviously still a fanbase here.

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I vaguely remember seeing these at my local comic book shop, but I would've glazed over them while searching for the latest issue of Spider-Man and Justice League. I was a very narrow-minded kid; at that particular moment in my life I was mainly into superheroes and maybe Robocop and G.I. Joe comics. I wasn't into 'fantasy' comics at the time, and if the mood every struck me, I had tons of Warlord and Conan comics sitting around at home anyways. The fact that the TSR imprint was a universe of it's own -- separate from the DCU -- made me less inclined to 'jump in'. At least with Warlord, Skartaris was sometimes given a nod by the other DCU titles (Travis Morgan even met with the New Gods at some point).

The main issue, however, was that I didn't grow up playing Dungeons & Dragons or reading the Dragonlance novels, so the lore meant nothing to me... and I didn't have the inclination to invest all sorts of time learning about the new characters and worlds and etc.

This, of course, is my opinion and opinions are subjective. I'd like to hear from anyone out there who IS a fan of the Dragonlance/Advanced Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms/Spelljammer novels. How did these hold up? Solid writing? Entertaining characters? Did you actually use these characters in your campaigns? Leave a comment if you feel like sharing some memories.


-Justin

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