I ended up doing a bit of unintentional research on Dungeons and Dragons this weekend as I visited with a friend who is currently trying to perfect a competition chili recipe. While he was tinkering in the kitchen he let me look through some of the older (1983) D&D game books, in particular the Monster Manuel, and I started taking some notes on creatures that I remembered popping up in the cartoon series.  So sometime soon I’m going to have to put together an addendum post talking about these creatures, in particular the Griffon/Sphinx/Manticore from a few episodes ago, which has finally been identified.

This week’s commentary covers episode #9 of the D&D cartoon, titled Quest of the Skeleton Warrior. It originally aired on November 12th, 1983, and was written by veteran comic book and animation writer Buzz Dixon who has worked on everything from Thundarr the Barbarian and G.I. Joe to My Little Pony and Jem. I believe he began his career at Filmation, and then ended up working with Steve Gerber (who remember, wrote episode #7 of the D&D cartoon) and Jack Kirby on Gerber’s Destroyer Duck, before going on to write or story edit for a lot of the more popular cartoons of the 80s. Currently Dixon is spearheading a Christian manga comics company called Realbuzz Studios with partner Marlon Schulman. Quest is the only episode Dixon wrote for the D&D cartoon, but it’s an arguable fan favorite as Buzz ended up pushing the comfort boundaries a little by introducing more magic, as well as a frightful character, Dekion, who takes the form of a skeleton warrior.

This episode, like the last one, opens not on the children, but instead on a meeting between Dekion and Venger atop a mountain overlooking what we will soon find out is the Lost Tower of the Celestial Knights. Dekion informs Venger that he’s located the Circle of Power (the first of many possible Lord of the Rings references in this episode), which will (like the children’s weapons) no doubt give Venger the edge he needs to finally have complete control over the realm. The mysterious skeleton warrior cannot enter the tower though, so Venger sets him on a quest to meet up with the gang, tricking them into fetching the Circle for him.

We meet up with the gang crossing a perilous chasm on a rickety rope bridge in a scene where the animation appears to be very ‘off model’. In particular, Uni is drawn with huge flaring nostrils and an oddly almost forked tongue. Bobby also has a very anime influenced appearance with huge eyes and a very unrealistic oval for a mouth. The animation is also very different for Dungeon Master, who appears to actually look like Yoda, even more so than usual. In addition to being off model, the art is also very loose and almost sloppy at times.

On the flip side, as the children run into Dekion for the first time there is a very effective sequence which, when slowed down reveals the anatomy of a cartoon lightning strike in a very drastic way…

In particular I love that third cel, the one that looks like a piece of Frank Miller artwork. This is the cel that makes the whole lightning strike dramatic and amazingly effective. Man, I love being able to freeze these cartoon and look at them cel by cel, it’s really one of the great advantages of DVD.

In the next sequence we have another full on attack made by Hank, who sends an energy bolt directly at Dekion, who manages to snatch it out of the air and destroy it in his fist. I’m not sure if this is a strength of the character, or a weird reinforcement of the ineffectiveness of Hank’s energy bow in general. It seems like it’s only destructive in certain circumstances, and most of the time end up being pretty harmless.

Another aspect of the show that I’ve begun to notice as I’ve re-watched the series is the apparent lack of swords. Only a handful of characters have them, and those that do don’t really wield them (well, Warduke freezes both a tree and Dungeon Master in the 5th episode, and a few of the orcs have them in the 7th episode, though they are very quickly dispatched.) This episode is no exception as Dekion, instead of drawing his sword against the gang, removes it from its scabbard and throws it at Bobby with the apparent force of his own will. It comes off as odd when you think about it, I mean, practically, you could just pull it out and swing, but then that’s where I believe the dreaded Standards and Practices department comes swooping in with notes about ‘imitatable actions’. For the most part, the kids all have items that really don’t fall into this category, but even the ones that do aren’t showcased in a manner that would be harmful if imitated (like Bobby slamming his club on the ground; and as for Hank’s energy bow, most kids would probably remove the string if they could and pretend to fire it, since that’s what Hank is basically doing.)

In this same sequence, there is a slight animation error. After Dekion shoots his sword at Bobby, Sheila grabs it to face off with him, and you can clearly see that there is another sword drawn into the Dekion animation. In the next close-up shot it’s gone again.

As the quintessential example of odd art (not to mention being off model) for this episode, I present you with Eric, he of the amazing rubberneck family (cousins to Stretch Armstrong)…

There’s also a very distinct difference in style between the middle two cels and the fourth one, which you can really in both the level of detail, thickness of the line art, and the shape of the eyes. This entire episode flips between styles like this, so much so that I’m wondering if maybe more than one production studio did the animation. Maybe there was an issue with the original artwork and some scenes had to be quickly redone or something, I’m not sure. Either way, that’s one heck of a neck, even for a cartoon. It’s practically as long as his head is tall.

After Dekion tricks the kids into going into the Lost Tower for him, we get a chance to see a lot of new creatures which haven’t been featured on the show before, the first of which is a quick bit involving gargoyles. I’m not sure if these were added with the knowledge of the creatures existing in the D&D game folklore, but I’m betting it’s a possibility seeing as how many other more specific creatures from D&D were worked into the show.

Before I began watching this series again for the first time in 20 odd years, I pretty much had only one vivid memory from the show, which involved a sequence with Hank running up a set of stairs that were crumbling and vanishing behind him as he went, revealing nothing but the empty void of starry space. I was so excited to see that sequence in this episode as it both brought on a flood of nostalgia and reassured me that I did remember the show and hadn’t suffered from the odd effect of years gone by (where people tend to miss remember things, combining memories and such.)

Basically, the Tower functions as a sort of playground for fear, and end up acting a lot like the holodeck in Star Trek the Next Generation, where the gang is split up and seem to be in their own frightening world. Dixon wrote some of these sequences better than others (in particular Sheila’s fear of abandonment; she ends up in a huge flat expanse by herself), though all of them ended up pretty interesting in a visual sense.

Presto and Eric end up together, seemingly teleported outside of the tower into a nearby forest, where in a very weird turn of events a white sheet floating by covers Eric for a second and when it’s removed he all of a sudden has taken on the appearance of a donkey. This certainly seems to be a theme, at least in the first season, I assume to focus on Eric’s apparent vanity (much like in the Beauty and the Bogbeast episode.)

Also, and not to beat the weird animated sexuality into the ground with this series (I do believe the last of this is in this episode), but Eric’s transformation seems to also have been a, shall we say phallic one. Look at that schnoz?!? I probably wouldn’t have felt that it was as phallic as it appears if it weren’t for that odd indented ridge running underneath it. Hey, maybe it’s just me…

Just after Eric’s donkey make-over, we get a chance to see yet another set of creatures from the D&D universe, though I’m not sure whether they’re Vampires or Wraiths. On the one hand, they’re humanoid (as D&D wraiths are not) so they might be vampires, yet they also sort of have no legs and appear to float about like a wraith. Heck they might even be spectres, who knows. Either way they’re pretty cool.

In addition to the above creatures, we also get another odd beast that might in fact be either more zombies or possibly something new (as they walk through mirrors and stuff.) Maybe these are wraiths. Wraiths or Zombies, you be the judge!

In the last bit (I think) of odd sexuality in the D&D cartoon series we have a weird scene with Bobby and Diana looking into a funhouse mirror where the reflection shows the two characters aged in two very drastic manners (Bobby getting much younger, whereas Diana is very old; a scene that is also very much a reflection of a similar sequence in the 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, though probably note a direct reference as the animation must have been in production at the same time the movie was being made.) In the mirror image of Diana we get to see what looks very much like her exposed breast, though I believe it’s not really the case, just a little bit of drooping detail that could very easily be taken as a nipple. I don’t know, I can see it as plain as I’ve seen Jesus in the wood grain of doors or the Virgin Mary in the texture of a pancake, but this is also a tendency that humans tend to have, projecting their own thoughts onto an image making them think they’re seeing what they probably aren’t, but again, you be the judge…

I do have to mention that Diana, in her extremely aged form, bears a striking resemblance to what I believe a combination of the two main creatures from the Dark Crystal would look like combined (the Skeksis and the Mystics), though I do realize that the two are actually halves, being split when the dark crystal shard was removed (they were known as urSkeks which look more like the gelflings than Diana above, but oh well.)

In the next scene we get our first honest to goodness Lord of the Rings reference in the D&D cartoon series in the form of a Palantir (or seeing stone), which Hank finds at the (I assume) top of the tower (along with the Circle of Power, which could be a reference to the One Ring, but it’s a stretch.) It’s even covered with a sheet, much like the ones that are revealed in the LOTRs books.

It’s at this point that Hank realizes that the Tower is putting the kids through tests of fear (this entire sequence also reminds me a lot of the scene in the Empire Strikes Back on Dagobah when Luke enters the marsh cavern to face off with his minds eye of Darth Vader) and he begins calling out to the gang through the Palantir, letting them know not to be afraid. In the sequence with Presto and Eric there is an animation error as the two realize they don’t need to be afraid anymore. As they two come to this realization they are transported to where Hank is, and just as they begin to teleport there is a cel (which has painted teleportation effects on it) flipped so that it looks like the kids switch places for a second before ending up with Hank…

The final showdown between Dekion, Venger and the kids takes place on a flat hilltop that has a very familiar set of ruins on it (Stonehenge anyone?)

Also, as the kids are about to hand over the Circle of Power to Dekion, Dungeon Master interferes, acting out of character, yet strangely like an actual D&D Dungeon Master might as he warns them not to just hand it over. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always odd when DM steps in and changes things like this (or mysteriously blasts Venger from the sky for instance.)

During the ensuing battle with Venger, there is a very short bit of animation (taking advantage of the DVD format again here) in which he begins to transform Hank into a skeletal creature much like Dekion. The change is very slight (you can barely see it, even in the screen shots) but it’s a very disturbing image that I’m sure frightened younger viewers back in the 80s. This was a very common sequence in media entertainment in the early 80s, what with the end sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the bathroom sequence in Poltergeist, and the water fountain sequence in Gremlins. Hey, wait a minute, they were all either produced or directed by Steven Spielberg!?! Holy crap, so he’s responsible for this onslaught of face melting in the 80s. Weird.

Again, the kids sacrifice a chance to get home for another character as they destroy the ring of…I mean the Circle of Power to free Dekion from Venger’s spell. There certainly a lot of transformation sequences in this cartoon series, at least six in these first nine episodes alone. I wonder is that’s a tendency in writing fantastical fiction or just a coincidence in this series?

After Venger is sucked through a tornado like portal, the now human Dekion summons his steed, a giant eagle (which could quite possibly be another LOTR reference considering there were possibly two others already in this episode.) Dekion makes a promise to return to the kids if and when he can find a way for them to get home, considering their last ticket was destroyed to ensure his return to human form.

All in all, Buzz Dixon, much like Steve Gerber, gave us a really memorable episode of D&D, one that was (or at least seemed) much more of the game’s world than we’d been seeing yet. I’m not sure if it was all of the side stories, but this episode just seemed a little more dynamic than the rest. Dixon also didn’t stoop to the obligatory dragon, and neither did the storyboard artists or animators, as there is nary a flying lizard in sight.

Next time on Cartoon Commentary!, episode #10, the Garden of Zinn, in which one of the characters actually gets hurt. Crazy!