Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Extinction of a species

When Paizo Publishing announced the demise of Dragon Magazine and its sister publication Dungeon, I felt a wave of nostalgic regret. Sure, I hadn't read Dragon in maybe 15 years or more, but it had a tremendous impact on my teen years and was a presence of varying familiarity throughout college.

Dragon91


I remember my first issue, bought at a Waldenbooks tucked away in a Victoria, Texas, mall in 1984. I'd been reading fantasy and classic science fiction--courtesy the Science Fiction Book Club--for a number of years, and was just starting to learn about this cool game called Dungeons & Dragons. The whole Basic, Expert and Advanced rules systems were so much Greek to me, but for someone who grew up on a steady diet of Godzilla and Harryhausen films, D&D was a veritable siren song. And, wonder of wonders, there was an entire magazine devoted to it!. Issue 91, pictured above, was the first issue I picked up. The cover art may go a long way toward explaining my obsession with airships in fantasy and SFnal settings--along with my own personal close encounter with Goodyear decades back. I sent in my subscription the next day, and for the next five or so years faithfully read every issue until 143, when my subscription finally lapsed. Along the way, I read some interesting fiction on occasion, saw games such as Gamma World and Boot Hill die, delved briefly into the now-quaint world of Play By Mail and spent quite a bit of money on Kelstar Enterprises' "The Melding" along with others I no longer even remember the names of. I even had a subscription to the PBM industry magazine "Paper Mayhem" for a year. In hindsight, the PBM scene was the direct forerunner of today's overwhelmingly successful massive multiplayer online games, but at the time the concept of playing against other folks across the country via once-a-week mail-in turns was a novel one. Issue 100 had rules for a new game by Gary Gygax, Dragon Chess, a three-level fantasy variant on chess that really caught my fancy. I even built my own tri-level board and painted dozens of miniatures to create my own set. I still have it, somewhat worse for the wear after umpteen moves, but I fully plan to restore it completely in the not-too-distant-future and proudly display it once again (and hopefully play it, too).

My favorite part of every issue, though, wasn't the articles or the fiction or the nifty games. It was the comics section in the back. Specifically, Wormy by David Trampier.

Wormy


I couldn't really appreciate it at the time, but by the time I started reading it, Trampier's writing had improved significantly from the first strips that appeared back in 1977 and contained more subtext and nuance than most gamers I knew ever picked up on. He satirized the gaming culture, sure, but also expanded the boundaries of what was expected with a sword-and-sorcery comic with deft metaphor and confident storytelling. His work on Wormy is not unlike Dave Sim's Cerebus, at least before Sim went off the deep end, and in some of the longer, nearly wordless installments of Wormy near the end of the run hold faint echos of Alan Moore's writing. In addition to the main characters Wormy and Irving the Imp, two of my favorites were Ace and Hambone, a backwoods cyclops and his giant, one-eyed hound. I'd forgotten all about them until researching this post, so imagine my surprise to realize that Ace apparently had more than a slight influence on the creation of Daniel from my 1998 story Cyclops in B Minor. I certainly wasn't thinking about Trampier and Wormy when I wrote it, but looking back now the lineage is obvious and undeniable. I'm just glad I didn't give Daniel a one-eyed dog named "T-Bone."

Like everyone else reading Dragon back then, I saw the ads for Trampier's collected volume of Wormy strips, and made plans to send in my money. But I never quite got around to it. Then, abruptly, in the middle of an ongoing storyline, Wormy vanished from the pages of Dragon, with only editor's terse "We regret to announce that 'Wormy' will no longer be appearing in DRAGON Magazine" statement to answer any lingering questions on the parts of the fans.

All sorts of wild rumors took root over the years. To my best ability to sort it out, it appears that there was a payment dispute of some sort that poisoned the well for ever and always. Trampier was so angry at TSR that he returned some checks for his work on Wormy uncashed. TSR retaliated by sending back several completed but unpublished Wormy installments. And Trampier effectively disappeared until 2002, when he was interviewed by a newspaper in conjunction with his current job as a taxi driver in Carbondale, Ill. Shortly after I took over fiction editor duties at RevolutionSF I got it into my head to try and reprint the Wormy strips. I found that newspaper article, and through the magic of Google, tracked down the then-current address for Trampier. Alas, my letter was returned unopened, and I never could bring myself to intrude with a phone call. Not that it would have mattered, though--apparently Jolly R. Blackburn, Vice President of KenzerCo, followed the same process as I did and actually telephoned Trampier in 2005 to discuss a Wormy compilation. Trampier apparently turned him down flat, saying he wants nothing to do with Wormy or gaming ever again.

Personally, I find it disheartening that such a talent creator is willfully trying to diminish his creation. Unlike trademark law, where a trademark can be abandoned and enter the public domain, copyright law is fairly airtight--the copyright persists for 70 after the death of the creator, entering the public domain before then only if the creator releases said work in writing. So Trampier refuses to create any more Wormy strips, and refuses offers for authorized reprints. There are several unsanctioned sites online that publish Trampier's old strips as well as new creations by fans, and apparently Trampier hasn't bothered to address these one way or the other. That's the creator's right, however, and I'll defend that right even if I disagree with the decision. Wormy is a worthy creation that ended far before its time, and if anything, its legacy will outlast that of the magazine that first spawned it and ultimately spurned it.

1 comment:

John Fiala said...

Back when Wizards released their CD archive of the first 250 issues of Dragon Magazine, I think a fair amount of the sales partially were because of Wormy - for once, you could actually have a full set of Wormy scanned in nicely.