“A comic quest for wealth, power, and all that other good stuff.”
In sixth grade, I had an arts teacher named Mrs. Bateson. She gave us an assignment where we had to research a famous artist and deliver a monologue from their perspective. We had to print out pictures of their work for the class, and also dress like them.
The artist I chose: Larry Elmore.
This would have been in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was nascent and there was not a lot of info on a still-living, still-working artist. Nevertheless, a lady who worked with my father hopped on this thing called Yahoo, found what must have been the world’s only Larry Elmore fansite at the time, and provided me with a pretty comprehensive biography of TSR’s most famous artist. This included info on the commercial work he’d done up until falling in with those crazy RPG guys.
How do you dress like Elmore? Well, he’s from Kentucky, so I wore denim. What examples did I bring of his work? I already had plenty. I brought along six or seven Dragonlance novels, along with a copy of a strangely titled graphic novel called Snarfquest. I’m pretty sure I got an A on the assignment.
Karen Russell wrote a nice essay for The New Yorker‘s sci-fi issue about how she was a Shannara kid. Maybe I should have read past the Scions of Shannara series, as that was obviously what the Pulitzer nominees were reading. With no disrespect to Terry Brooks, I was a Dragonlance kid, through and through.
I’ve long stood by the novels, specifically the ones written by Weis and Hickman. I make a point to reread the Chronicles trilogy every few years. People dismiss them as derivative and juvenile, and in certain aspects that is true. But that doesn’t preclude them from being good. Beyond the D&D elements that form the basis of the world, they have a lot to say about religion, love, and morality; they also feature some damn good ensemble storytelling.
I was the kid in sixth grade who filled up our class bookshelf with the Chronicles series, Tales, The Companions, the Meetings Sextet. I was the master on all things Krynn until my friend Matt came along. He blasted through the books I provided, then read the Legends trilogy, then Second Generation. I was, frankly, intimidated to read Legends because they were about Raistlin, who was such a horrible jerk, yet still a hero somehow, and I couldn’t process it. By the Christmas of 1995, when we both got our eager little hands on Dragons of Summer Flame, I had to acknowledge Matt’s higher skill level. My goal was to grow up and become one of the writers in the Dragons of _____ anthologies. You know what? I’d still like to do that.
How’d I get into Dragonlance? This is how.
The terrifying armor of the dragon highlord. The porcelain beauty of the fire-haired elf-maid. The, um, strangeness of the short guy with the weird staff. Most beautiful of all is the dragon. Few illustrators do the beast justice like Elmore does.
His covers are fantasy worlds unto themselves. Packed border to border with enthralling vistas, shining swords, intricate armor, gorgeous women. The visuals alone draw you in. His DL covers typically featured portraits as opposed to action scenes (“Um, guys, there’s a dragon behind you!”), which was cool, as he was selling you strictly on the characters.
I remember the fantasy section in B. Dalton, that whole shelf filled top to bottom with dragons, dark elves, and vampires. I saw this cover facing out, with unabashed fantasy characters promising me a fantasy world. Thus, I purchased Weis & Hickman’s masterpiece, Dragons of Winter Night, and was in and out of Krynn up until the discontinuation of the series.
One thing I like about the Chronicles is that it was a collaborative project that became a New York Times bestseller. You had Weis & Hickman’s writing, but you also had Michael Williams’s poetry, Elmore’s covers, and Dennis Beauvais’s interiors. They all combined their skills like… well, a D&D party, and I think they found the treasure they were looking for.
Lo and behold, Elmore turned out to be a pretty good writer himself, as well as illustrator. He came to fame doing the original Dragonlance, but he’d already been working at TSR for years, doing covers and interiors for adventure modules, Endless Quest choose-your-own books, pretty much whatever the company asked of him. I have always said that illustrators are the modern-day bards. They are the ones who take copyrighted work and tell it in a new way. As such, Elmore is a master storyteller. In 1983, TSR gave him the chance to publish his own tale in the pages of Dragon magazine.
Snarfquest is what made me realize the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons. It was my dad who bought me the 1987 graphic novel edition. He saw it while perusing a comic store, and I guess he figured anything with “quest” in the title was right up my alley. This book was without a doubt a TSR product: it has a chart of character stats in the back, for when you run your own Snarfquest campaigns. I stayed up all night reading it.
The premise is wonderfully simple: Snarfenja De’Gottavo is a zeetvah, a race of snouted, long-eared humanoids living in the town of Zeetville. The king has just died. A challenge is made: whichever brave warrior can achieve the most fame and fortune in a year’s time will be the new king. Snarfenja, or Snarf for short, accepts this challenge.
The world needs more adventure stories. No high-falutin’ quests to save the world, just good ol’ sword-and-sorcery treasure hunting. Snarf is in the mold of adventure heroes like Conan. Maybe not a reaver or slayer, but a thief; a back-fighter; a selfish, greedy social climber. He’s brave, but not that brave. Clever, but not too bright. Easily befuddled by gold and beautiful women.
Still, he’s an overall decent sort. Think Phony Bone in the Bone comic. I can see the influence of Sergio Aragones’s Groo in the way Elmore parodies fantasy conventions, as well as the over-the-top slapstick. Dave Sim started publishing Cerebus in 1977 and I’m sure Elmore took a little influence from the snouted, big-eared hero of that popular comic. However, while Cerebus goes to some dark places, Snarfquest is derring-do from start to finish.
So Snarf is on his quest, achieving fame through a mix of bravery, duplicity, and sheer dumb luck. Fortunes are won and lost. Some abrupt shifts in narrative make it clear that Elmore is making this up as he goes along, which is something I like about the book. It’s pure serial and I’m along for the ride.
There is a point where Snarf pulls out a map to help plan his journey. And I’m thinking, “Ooh, a map! When do I get to see the exotic nomad tribes? What about the Beast Mountains? Or the Elven kingdom of Cragengal?” Snarfquest is a precursor to geek comics like Penny Arcade and Knights of the Dinner Table. In fact, I’m curious as to whether it was the first parody to be inspired by RPG games and marketed toward that very audience. It is to Elmore’s credit that he succeeds both in sending up D&D elements while at the same time crafting a well-made adventure.
The book is divided into four discernible story arcs. The Suthaze’s tower dungeon crawl; the quest to Perpetual Pit; the Gathgor’s Keep dungeon crawl; and the return home. Very D&D. Snarf literally can’t go three pages without running into some ogre or dark knight or bandit or mercenary. The pace never slows, with installments ending on literal cliffhangers.
Along the way, Snarf meets allies and enemies. There is Raffendorf, a prince under a spell that turned him into a giant rat. There is Suthaze, the time-jumping evil wizard who makes his entrance on a Harley. His Muppet-looking apprentice Geezel. Etheah, good witch of the woods. Willie, an evil dragon who is under a spell to think he is a friendly duck. The Gagglezoomer, a giant, dumb beast of burden that will take off at high speed the moment something touches its back. The Gaggaleech, the thing they put on its back, who provides Garfield-style thought bubble sarcasm to the goings-on. At some point, the gaggaleech, which is actually a poisonous predator, gets the ability to talk to anything. This proves problematic when he can understand his victims’ pleas for mercy.
Then there’s his hapless companion, the “Whazzat” lizard, a bipedal lizard who will eat anything, including Snarf’s jewels. Telerie Windyarm, a classic Elmore babe, with a sword that cuts the wind and poofy Pat Benatar hair.
Needless to say, this is a pretty motley crew for a dungeon crawl. Because of the fast-paced nature of the strip, the cast is continually changing, with new companions literally coming out the walls. If I had a complaint, its that the pace leaves little room for character development. Characters are gone as soon as we meet them.
The most consistent of the side characters is a VR-X9 4 M2 Galactic Probe Government Issue Robot, who Snarf dubs Aveeare for short. They meet after the robot’s spaceship crashlands. Snarf, who thinks Aveeare is an armored wizard, convinces him that he is a great hero and Aveeare should come along to record his deeds. As sidekicks go, Aveeare is delightful. Being a robot, he is a logical sort and is constantly trying to make sense from the insanity going on around him. He becomes the rational voice for the impulsive Snarf. Much humor is gleaned from the fact that nobody has the slightest idea what a robot is. There is a scene later on when someone from Aveeare’s time comes to rescue him and the resulting chaos when he spins Aveeare’s head completely around is a gut-buster.
Also hilarious is the part where the two companions liberate a town taken over by Suthaze. The local princess, who is portrayed as an 80’s Valley Girl, has to marry one of the heroes and sets her sights on Aveeare. She tries to kiss him even though he has no lips. Hijinks ensue. Aveeare quickly finds out that Snarf is not the great hero he claims to be…but sticks by him and sees his potential.
Snarfquest is funny. Damn funny. It’s filled with slapstick scenes that crackle with energy. Elmore knows how to construct an action scene that feels kinetic. There’s references to everything from Monty Python to Conan, and plenty of black humor. Characters die in pretty horrific ways (not like Snarf takes much time to mourn). It also helps that the characters speak in dialect (Snarf’s seems vaguely Brooklynish), with fun little asterix-exclamation point-planet Saturn-pound sign combos for the many times they use profanity. I can see why some would have doubts about whether Elmore, a quintessential pose artist, could do comics. Other than some perspective issues, his style translates to the new medium. The backgrounds are just as beautiful as any painting he ever did. The interiors are stuffed with scrolls and skulls and other RPG ephemera. The characters have a Carl Barks-style cartoon dynamism. It’s a shame he didn’t do more comic work.
And the Snarfquest world is just a cool world, where zeetvahs, humans, elves, ogres, and all sorts of humanoids occupy the same villages and marketplaces, interacting without a second thought. It has a bevy of Henson-style critters, all of whom are anthromorphized. Every little bug gets dialogue. This endeared me to the characters. I even felt for the evil dragon who Snarf faces in the end, a female who was just out looking for a boyfriend when she gets involved in the story.
The normalizing of interspecies relations is most evident in the relationship between Snarf and Telerie. It is to Elmore’s credit that their attraction to each other never feels gross. Then again, what does interspecies even mean in a world like this? To assume that Telerie is a human in the sense that we know it ignores this being a fantasy world and I love Elmore’s “who cares” approach to interspecies romance. B.B. Bird, a humanoid blues-singing avian, hooks up with a space age elf. And I won’t even spoil the entirely random and weird pairing in the final story arc, between a robot and a… well, I guess you’ll just have to read it. So why not Snarf and Telerie? They love each other because they each realize the finer qualities in the other person. So cool.
Another joy is watching how Elmore’s world-building evolves over the course of the story. His vague fantasy land keeps acquiring city-states and towns. The quest to be “leader” of Zeetville turns into a quest for the throne. The invasion of Gathgor’s Keep is a well-choreographed set of action scenes blending magic, sci fi, gunplay, and lizard fu. In the continuation of Snarfquest (which was not in the 1987 edition, but collected in a later print) the heroes travel to other planets and get involved in some outer space action.
The sci fi continuation does not have the same energy as the original fantasy storyline. It meanders a bit, with subplots that don’t go much of anywhere. Some beats from the original arc are repeated, such as Snarf dangling off the edge of a pit and characters getting multiple personalities after getting clonked on the head. There’s still some pretty funny Looney Tunes antics, mostly revolving around the Augie Doggy, Doggy Daddy-style pair of kangeroo-dog-whatevers the Snarf gang meets while gold prospecting, who then try and kill Snarf’s pickup truck. And Elmore has fun with his sci fi-Western-1950’s setting (the gang becomes a blues band!).
But Elmore’s clearly losing steam. Guest artists step in to do inks and backgrounds. There’s no clear direction and just as things are set up for a final conflict, it’s over. It reminded me of when L. Frank Baum would use every Oz book as an opportunity to close the series, so that each had the feel of a wrap-up. I’m pretty sure Elmore was this close to just killing off the whole cast. Instead, he closes his comic epic with an appropriately “that’s all folks!” climax that I’m sure had some groaning back in 1989.
There’s a bittersweet quality to these later stories, and not just because of the obvious strain on Elmore. He draws some friends of his into the tale as tribute to one of them who died. He provides a happy ending for several side characters and there’s a strong theme of camaraderie in these pages. Snarf’s willingness to help even those who irritate him, like the little creatures who pummel him with rocks, shows his growth as a person. It’s really too bad that Elmore never got future storylines off the ground. There have been attempts to revive Snarfquest and some excellent one-shots here and there, but it seems “The Quest for the Crown” is the definitive story. Still a hell of a legacy for Snarf and crew.
In reading Snarfquest, I could see why people liked D&D. You see, Dungeons & Dragons is all about the gear. Elmore’s characters have all sorts of cool gizmos and tools and armor and magic items. There’s frequent wardrobe changes that add to the feel of going on a journey. Elmore is an illustrator, first and foremost, and knows what visual details to employ.
And D&D is about the journey. It’s crazy to think that readers of Dragon magazine had to wait years for the story’s resolution. It would take you an afternoon to read the Snarfquest graphic novel. And do set aside an afternoon, because once you’ve started, you’re in it. You’re traveling alongside these characters who seek adventure for adventure’s sake. Those were the stories that resonated with me as a kid and still do. I think that’s what D&D players get a sense of every time they roll the dice.
Ten years ago, I was walking around the Pittsburgh Comic-Con, an event I’d been attending since I was seven or eight years old. I chanced to look over and there was this Kenny Rogers-looking guy with a sign that said “Larry Elmore.” Sitting right there, doodling. I didn’t even know he was going to be there. I had to stand in line behind some dude who’d brought every book Elmore ever illustrated and, yes, Elmore signed them. The first thing I said to Mr. Elmore was that he was my “famous artist” in sixth grade. Then I told him how much I loved Dragonlance and Snarfquest and he showed me a DL commission he was working on. Meeting him is still a squee-worthy moment for me.
Elmore’s entering his golden years and appears to working on some personal projects now. But if Gaiman can go back to Sandman, maybe there’s one more quest left for the zeetvahs, rats, leeches, lizards, and the whole motley crew. We shall see.