Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Legends of RPG Art: David C Sutherland III

Whenever the subject of old school D&D art is mentioned, certain names will inevitably pop up: such as Erol Otus, Dave Trampier, Jeff Dee, and Larry Elmore  - some of the greater and most celebrated early artists of the TSR stable. But among the greater number of artists, including those no less recognisable, but for whom the ages haven't preserved in as high regard, there are other names which are perhaps less celebrated. And today I'm thinking of the late, great Dave C Sutherland III, who died this day in 2005.

You've seen Sutherland's art if you've seen anything from the early days of RPGs, including Holmes Basic D&D and its companion 1st Edition AD&D - hell, Sutherland's art to me is 1st Edition AD&D, good and bad.


It's unfair that Sutherland's work suffers the lot it has, while those of his immediate peers have over time accrued comparatively greater glory; and yet maybe it's because Sutherlands work sits so readily alongside the likes of Dave Trampier's and Erol Otus, that comparison damns him. Sutherland's art has been called a lot of things;  naive, 'aspirational', amateurish, goofy, and just ugly. The website Something Awful in its one-time series WTFDnD? lumped his work in the Monster Manual alongside other, earlier D&D Holmes era art, "Outsider art" - a deeply unflattering term. Sutherland's art is what it is - varied and variable, but I would say that when on form he truly held his head high. Just as Trampier had the Players Manual cover with its demonic stone idol and adventurers, and Otus Deities and Demigods, Sutherland produced the Dungeon Master's Guide and, for his sins, the Monster Manual. Though the latter has aquired a sort of kitsch following with its busy, garish and literal layout, there's nothing wrong with the cover of the DMG; the efreet depicted on it looks appropriately saturnine and dramatic, and his interior full page piece 'A Paladin in Hell' is a recognisable classic. Sutherland's box art for Holmes edition Basic D&D presents a shortform imagining of a D&D game conclusion, featuring a Fighter, a Wizard, a Dragon and its hoard. Sutherland was a literalist, if nothing else.

But then DCS was a player as well, and what I like most about Sutherland's art is that it is player's art. He played the game, sculpted his figures, and he mapped his adventures. In fact, among Grognards of the early years Sutherland's creative reputation exceeds his graphic works  - not only was he a valued a cartographer for some very highly regarded modules, but he created the Wemic and was co-creator of Queen of the Demonweb Pits. He's one of a breed of early TSR employees for whom their work was also their play, one of those special few around whom the game evolved. So then Sutherland's art is a touchstone from a time when D&D had left its wargaming Chainmail incarnation behind - but in a highly organic evolution; hence his Fighters wear chivalric chain and helms, or have swords-and-sandals well-proportioned arms and kite shields; his Magic Users are bearded, pointy-hatted conjurors, and his demi-humans scatter about their feet like children.Often these chracters are caught mid-combat, or in the base of the Holmes set and AD&D rulebooks actually exploring caverns and ruins, drawn from the days when adventuring was likely fifty per cent traipsing down corridors with a ten-foot pole. I like that Sutherland's art speaks to the foundations of the game and the less sanitised, cookie cutter heroic art of the recent present. And yes, at times it resembles the distracted, slightly scribbled marginalia of a player's Character Sheet, but that's authentic, too.

Alongside the illuminated style of DAT, Sutherland's 'DCS' (the C often styled to reseble an 'I', hence DIS and DAT) work in tandem, two sides of the same coin. Sadly, Sutherland's future with TSR post-Wizards of the Coast buy-out was lessthan triumphant, and feeling rejected by the industry he'd loved, his income and health suffered, and it was only in his last year, through the attention and efforts of fandom that his work was recognised and given real value. 

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