Monday, 7 August 2017

Where's Wally? (or "Waldo") and the Shadow Fantasy Genre

Readers of this blog are familiar with the fantasy genre and all of its thoroughfares and highways, as well as its dark alleyways and nooks and crannies. You know your way, like everybody, to Tolkien and Martin, Brooks and Goodkind, Donaldson and Jordan. You also know how to get off the beaten track and find Bellairs, Bunch and Dunsany. But are you familiar with what goes on outside the city gates, in the places which don't appear on the maps at all?

I'm not talking about the kind of fantasy literature that exists outside of the fantasy section of the book shop because it isn't marketed that way (Attwood, Calvino, Borges). I'm talking about fantasy works that truly live in the shadows, away from the gaze of the experts, in old children's books, board games, card games and boys' own comics, all of which can be far richer sources of inspiration than what you might find recommended to you on Goodreads. This tends to be because this style of fantasy - what I am going to call the shadow fantasy genre - is not created for fantasy fans or people who are knowledgeable about the genre, meaning the creators have considerable license to let their imaginations run riot. 

I know of no better example than Where's Wally? The Fantastic Journey. In the first couple of Where's Wally? books Wally is just wandering around like a tourist in real-world locations or else appearing at various historical events. But as the series go on things get strange as the creator, Martin Handford, starts to go off piste. In "The Great Ball Game Players" four teams seem locked in an endless competition to throw each other's balls down a bottomless hole. In "The Ferocious Red Dwarfs" a pseudo-Chinese army battles against, well, a load of ferocious red dwarfs. In "The Battling Monks" two orders of holy men representing fire and water wage eternal war against each other. And in "The Knights of the Magic Flag", well, this happens:


These creations do seem to owe something to established fantasy fiction and also to fairy tales (there is an Arabian Nights style scene in this book, as well as one that seems to pastiche D&D, complete with fire-breathing dragons lurking in tunnels being pursued by incompetent "hunters"). But the freedom of creating a picture book for kids, and the lack of any sort of requirement to appeal to hard-bitten fantasy fans, means that Handford can just throw different elements around and see what sticks. "So there is this pseudo-Chinese empire. And it is under attack from red dwarfs," is not interesting enough to be the plot of a fantasy novel, but it doesn't need to be - it's practically just free association, but quite productive as a result. You could make a D&D campaign out of that easily.

Video games can have this quality too, of course - in fact they may be the most obvious location of shadow fantasy works. Just look at Zelda, Mario, or the Final Fantasy series. But more traditional games shouldn't be overlooked. When I was a kid I remember spending a lot of time playing fantasy top trumps with this set - check out the "orc", the "elemental", the "vampire", the "golem" and the "fool"; what's the implied setting, there? It isn't D&D, is it? Those pictures seem self-evidently to have been painted by somebody who knew a little bit about the fantasy genre, but not much, and comes up with something that is in my view not just charming but also really quite intriguing and unique. 


The shadow fantasy genre - keep your eye out for it. It can be found in the strangest of places.

15 comments:

  1. I know Bellairs (Face in the Frost is possibly my favorite book ever) but not Bunch and Dunsany. My local library's website turns up "Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett" and "Chris Bunch" as likely names based on titles. Is that who you are referring to?

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    1. Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett is the usually referenced in regards of fantasy Dunsany

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    2. Lord Dunsany as he is more commonly known as. By Bunch I was referring to David R. Bunch, a writer of surreal far-future post-apocalypse short stories (highly recommended).

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  2. You've done an excellent job of naming and articulating something I'd been vaguely noticing. For example, my son (toddler age) has a kid's book about a girl invited into a hundred-story-below-ground house by a mysterious voice. Each set of ten floors is inhabited by a different kind of animal engaged in various activities (moles mining for gold; cicadas practicing their singing; worms practicing calligraphy) until at the 100th floor below ground she meets a gigantic grandmother turtle and celebrates the turtle-grandmother's birthday. Anyway, the point is that when I read this book I think something along the lines of "I bet you could use this as inspiration for a halfway decent dungeon," and now the feeling has been articulated. Shadow fantasy indeed! 8^)

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    1. Yeah, that sounds exactly right!

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    2. Would you share the name of that book, Confanity? It sounds amazing.

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    3. Hi, Tom! I don't know how much good it'll do you, but it's ちか100かいだてのいえ; Chika hyakkai date no ie i.e. The Hundred-Story Underground House, by 岩井俊雄 (Toshio Iwai). So if you can read Japanese, knock yourself out!

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  3. Anyone remember 'Granny's Garden', both the 80s computer game and the children's book? I'm not sure if they were directly related but I wouldn't be surprised if the book inspired the game.

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    1. Very vaguely. We had it, or a variant of it, on my class computer when I was back in primary school.

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  4. That page in Where's Wally with the magic flags is fascinating to look at. My daughter and I spent about 20 minutes looking at it a few weeks ago. I love that there's a whole meta-world within and between the flags themselves. Could you run a campaign where the characters were magical or legendary heraldic devices out to thwart each other's plans?

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    1. 13th Age Bestiary had Battle Standards as monsters. The posses a unit of soldiers to push their own agenda depending on what Icon they are associated with.

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  5. Shadow Fantasy is heavily represented in the world of album covers, custom van art, and pinball machines.

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    1. Very true. Album art is a good call.

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  6. "somebody who knew a little bit about the fantasy genre, but not much" is quite possibly my favorite genre of fantasy.

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  7. One of places where I hunt for 'shadow worlds' are hidden object games (this is basically a reason why I bother with them; previously I used to go to Newsgrounds and play little games there). All those HO games have throwaway settings and all of those HO games are very, tediously formulaic (both in gameplay and in story) but there are surprising amount of HO games where small but interesting tweaks are added to the world or even to the formula or even to the art that it could be interesting enough to use for something. In very rare occasions the whole setting is fleshed enough (for HO game, anyway) for me to want to use it for something bigger. I thought about writing a mini-setting about those but 'Nightmares Underneath' already did 'anchor item/dissolve weird environment' thing and better than I could.

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