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posted September 21, 2011
Susan Van Camp (comic), Mark Harmon (game scenario)
Gatekeeper Publishing, comic book, 40 pages, 1987, $2.50
A few things about comics culture in general spring to mind whenever I see a fantasy role-playing game comic like this prime specimen from the bust period of the black and white boom and bust of 1984-1987. The first is that these comics were probably the purest expression of the continuity on which many fans read comics at the time, as an extension of an overall interest in fantasy and/or science fiction. The second is that when I see an effort like this one emanating from Flint, Michigan, it reminds me that a lot of that late 1970s to early 1980s interest in fantasy material had fairly Midwestern roots: the game-makers were from states like Wisconsin and Indiana, the games/comics shop was a dominant model in a lot of those markets right through the Image era, and my hunch without really knowing for certain has always been that gaming of all varieties but especially the classic fantasy kind plays a more significant role for geeks in smaller towns than it does in larger ones. In other words, Gatekeeper
#1 is sort of an interesting cultural object, and its combination of black and white fantasy comic and full-blown role-playing game scenario that touches on people and places mentioned in the main story is fun to consume if only because this particular team-up is presented as the most natural thing in the world.
#1 proves fairly high-end according to my memory of similar comics of that time. This is admittedly a rough memory, as they still made the comics I liked more than black and white fantasy comics, and as a teenager I didn't have the extra income necessary to take in a bunch of new works. It looks like the cartoonist, Susan Van Camp, has since enjoyed a career as an artist and designer for the gaming industry. That makes sense. There are basics of anatomy and design and even page construction and narrative on display in Gatekeeper
that while modest achievements outstrip a lot of small-press comics published even now. The comics display an admirable sense of rhythm on the page, jumping back and forth between page layouts according to how much story its creator wants to tell -- the only jarring moments are some out-of-place instances of introspection and rumination that come across as voice-overs added in post-production. The fantasy presented is fairly standard and a little bit dull: a returned, dire threat in diminished times, told through the eyes of a young hero with the out-sized, "people love me" personality one sees mostly when a longtime character actor on a hit TV show is given his own sitcom. The most noteworthy design aspect seems to be that our crusading illusionist hero is bald, like Bozo the Clown bald. Beyond that, the story is a string of cliches familiar to those with the barest knowledge of the Joy Chant/Nancy Springer/Terry Brooks school of erzatz Tolkien: it even starts with our hero in a tavern. Frank Santoro sent this along to me and said he laughed several times while reading it. I think I get what he was saying. There's something innocent and appealing about comics' fussy rebirth in the 1980s that I'm not sure has a direct correlation to the development of any other art form, an embrace of certain grassroots expressions from which most other art forms quickly scramble away, never to return.