Monday, July 4, 2011

Goddammit Baxa: An Appraisal of Dark Sun Art

In addition to my character sheet mania, my other unreasonable gaming-related fetish would have to do with game art. I know I've harped on this point here before, but it really does baffle me when I read some gamer claiming that art matters not a whit to them. How can it not? There's little to compare against the power and inspiration of well-rendered game art.

Of course, it's a double-edged sword. Bad art can completely put me off an otherwise deserving product. This has actually been my biggest beef with self-published OSR products - many feature a hodge-podge grab bag of public domain clip art that, to me, cheapens the product and makes it look even more amateurish than if it had simply been put out without art at all. It's possible to use clip art well, but it's very difficult (I know I wouldn't attempt it); I've yet to see an OSR publication that attempted it and succeeded.

But at least those otherwise (largely) outstanding efforts can claim amateur, small-press origins. There's really no excuse for the travesty of art direction that befell the original Dark Sun line.

Despite my nostalgic trip down memory lane with the Forgotten Realms Gray Box, my true AD&D game world loyalties will always lie with Dark Sun. This is because the original Dark Sun boxed set was the first game world I ever owned (Christmas '91, baby!). The setting rocked my world and remains, in my mind, the premiere 2e-era game world (barely nudging out Planescape and Al-Qadim, for those of you keeping score at home).

Around the same time I picked up a copy of the Gray Box on eBay last winter I also ordered a copy of the original Dark Sun set (that came complete with three supplements - gotta love those eBay bargains!). Unlike the Realms, I'd happily run a Dark Sun campaign right out of the box. I've even spent a lazy Sunday or two poring over Athasian material strictly for the joy of doing it.

Last night I pulled out the three supplements (Slave Tribes, The Veiled Alliance, and Dune Trader) that came with my boxed set to page through and graze from. Unfortunately, I didn't read word one because I just couldn't get past the goddamn artwork.

Dark Sun's initial run was plagued by perhaps the most schitzophrenic art direction I've ever seen in a game line. You had nearly every product sporting a jaw-droppingly amazing full-color Brom masterpiece...and every other piece the work of Tom Baxa. Now, I try not to take artists to task in a public forum if I can help it, but Jesus Christ his shit was awful. The irony is that I've seen bits of Baxa's later work and liked it. I have a feeling he was being asked to do too much for the Dark Sun line and his quality slipped.

But I also dislike Baxa's Dark Sun work based on his aesthetic choices. His costume design is reminiscent of bad 70s Marvel comics. His weapons look simultaneously cartoonishly innefectual and ludicrously unrealistic. Rather than catching that "Mad Max meets D&D" vibe that Brom so effortlessly encapsulates in his art, I actually get de-inspired looking at Baxa's work.

I mean, seriously? The head gear...oh god, the head gear... Stuff like this seriously sucks the life out of my enjoyment of an otherwise kick-ass setting. (I seriously wonder if Planescape often gets the nod over Dark Sun in the conventional wisdom for "most inventive setting" due in part to DiTerlizzi's work versus Baxa's?)

The original boxed set at least had the mitigating factor of Brom B&W pieces balancing out the Baxa.

I think one of the reasons I never bought many of the later avalanche of Dark Sun supplements was the fact that Brom stopped doing interior illustrations. Nothing but wall-to-wall Baxa in the later stuff. So I'd see a steaming cup of fried gold like this:

Only to flip through the book and see a bunch of illustrations of the same turd drawn from different angles. I'm seriously contemplating using post-it notes or slips of paper to cover the Baxa illustrations in my Dark Sun books because otherwise I don't know how I can manage to read through them.

On a related note, I'm only vaguely aware of the 4e reboot of Dark Sun, but I have to say I really like Wayne Reynolds' work for this line. Normally I'm not a huge fan of Reynolds and his dungeonpunk aesthetics, but they fit perfectly in the world of Athas, coming across like some kind of bizarre Mad Max-D&D-Lady Gaga mashup.

I especially like his inclusion of the eponymous "dark sun" of the setting. I may have to print out some Reynolds stuff and slip them in my boxed set to use as visual inspiration. Although I have to say, as much as I worship at the feet of Brom's and Reynolds' Dark Sun work, they must think that Athasian chemists have developed some damn powerful sunblock. I can't really otherwise explain how the subjects of the above pieces manage to keep their skin so white and silky smooth!

At any rate, I'd just like re-iterate that I quite admire Baxa's latter-day output. It's just a shame that he was obviously overworked and (in my opinion) not keyed in to the soul of the setting, because the awfulness of the Dark Sun line's art direction continues to reverberate lo these twenty years later. And I'd really like to read the books sitting on my shelf.

Now where are my post-it notes...
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