Monday, November 22, 2021

Trampier's Heist - Masterpieces of Fantasy Art

This work of art, painted by Trampier for the cover of an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book is reminiscent of Pulp Magazine covers, using sensationalism to attract attention, such as the skeleton writing something during World War Two in Europe by Hannes Bok. 

 Trampier’s painting outshines them all in this goal however, while also achieving so much more.

Unlike pulp illustrations which promise horror, heroism, and sexually provocative situations Trampier’s painting promises comradery, alliance, and perhaps even friendship. For the terrifying setting, like a heist film, can enhance the depiction of friendship among the pairs of comrades in the painting.

There is a long history of Heist stories and tales of adventurous rogues such as Robinhood being more about skilled friends, working together to obtain some goal, than about obtaining treasure. Robin Hood works with a large band of Merry Men, who constantly exhibit joy in each other’s company, and in the freedom they have found outside of society.

Comradery, adventuring together with each character having different skill sets that are needed for the group to succeed is as important to Dungeons and Dragons as it is to heists, making the display of companionship in this painting as important as the vivid and eerie imagery.

Wright, Weissglass, and Casey performed a psychological experiment in which they had some groups play Dungeons and Dragons and found that “imaginative role-playing games can serve as an enjoyable medium for promoting (and protecting) moral growth. In particular, gaming that involves the encounter of morally relevant situations appears to facilitate a shift away from concern for one’s own personal interests and toward the interests of others.”

As with all great works of art, however, there are more layers to this painting than the surface idea. That of the fostering of camaraderie inherent in Roleplaying and the idea of groups of adventurers

Heists are also stories about rebelling against social limits. Treasure, after all, is something society denies to most of us, that many of us wish to have. Julian Hanich states that heist tales spring from a “desire to extend spatial options, to resist boundaries set by gates and walls, to rebel against artificially imposed limit.” Heist stories aren’t simply about greedy people obtaining treasure, they are about people eluding the repressiveness of society.

From the arch around the statue of the demon god, to the inky blackness of the room, it clearly feels as if this was a place hidden from the figures in the painting, and from the world. A forbidden place that the characters were able to break into.

Yet despite their seeming victory in getting here, none of the companions are celebrating. They seem to feel a sense of trepidation. One of the men trying to pry the ruby from the eye of the statue looks precarious, like they are ready to tumble down at any moment.

In the foreground the companions talking seem uncertain as well, as they pour over a scroll or a map, perhaps trying to figure out their next move. They all seem to know that this isn’t over, that something is about to happen. Yet they, like the viewers of the art don’t seem to know what that is. Perhaps the only one who does is the demon statue, grinning wildly beneath its ruby eyes.

The year before this painting was released Elvis died and the Apple II and Atari were released. It was as if the old world were being swept away by a new one. The world is, after all, filled with change and uncertainty and this perhaps explains the sense of uncertainty and trepidation one feels when looking at this art. And why no one in the painting is fully relaxed.

There is greed on display in this painting too. Such Greed is common in stories of companionship. The goal of friends in many stories is to obtain wealth. Yet, as already stated, heist stories aren’t about greed for the audience. They are about working with others towards a goal, and while it’s nice to have friends, it is even better to be working towards a singular goal with those friends. To have a sense of purpose. The search for treasure with friends is what makes stories like “Goonies” so engaging and emotionally satisfying.

Psychologists have found that Table-Top RPGs help provide psychological gratification in this area. That those who play them feel more fulfilled. Likely because they are more than just friends getting together to passively watch something.

Yet there is also something sinister about this painting, and its not the demon that takes up most of the focus. Rather, further inspection causes one to sense a separation between the characters depicted, making one wonder if they might not be the best of friends. They are isolated into their groups by walls of darkness. For some of these characters at least, the goal may very well be about treasure, about greed.

Psychology today states that; “Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental absence, inconsistency, or neglect. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a substitute for the love and security that he or she so sorely lacked. The pursuit of this substitute distracts from negative feelings, and its accumulation provides much needed comfort and reassurance.”

The trauma that leads to greed can also lead to a longing for friendship and love, showing that the two emotions can be equated. So, the idea of adventuring with friends for treasure makes sense, but perhaps the companions in this painting can never form a fully satisfying relationship.

This separation and tension is perhaps explained by the artist. A few years after completing this masterpiece Trampier left his life and art behind without telling anyone. For a time many thought he might have died, but as it turned out he simply left his old life and began driving a cab. When people found this out years later, he was offered a number of jobs related to art and RPGs but he refused them all. For reasons we will never know he felt disconnected from the others in the fantasy industry, and eventually didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

Yet in the short time he worked Trampier still left us with some of the most evocative works of art, which manage to balance depictions of deep seated human desires and anxieties.

This is the back cover of the book, which shows some characters working together to hall, their treasures from the dungeon while others stand guard. Any problems they had likely resolved, and that is a nice image to leave us with. 

Wright, Jen & Weissglass, Daniel & Casey, Vanessa. (2017). Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 60. 002216781668626. 10.1177/0022167816686263

Hanich, Julian "On Pros and Cons and Bills and Gates: The Heist Film as Pleasure" Film Philosophy Vol 24 Issu 3