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June 15, 2005

Rest in Peace: David C. Sutherland III

One of the most influential artists of the last 30 years passed away a little over a week ago. Unfortunately not many of you may know who he is.

David C. Sutherland III was an artist who joined the company that created Dungeons and Dragons, TSR, at just the right time. He was one of several illustrators who managed to capture the spirit and intentions behind the game: high adventure, heroic deeds, etc., the stuff that young boys have always dreamed of.

Sutherland created countless images for TSR in those early days of the company in the late 70ís. (A search of the internet will deliver galleries of his work.) Two of those images did more for Dungeons & Dragons than anything else: the covers to the Players Handbook and the Dungeons Masters Guide.

Hereís the cover for the Players Handbook. Itís a moment that captures a group of adventurers in the aftermath of fierce battle in a lizardman temple. Two member of the party are consulting a map, a fighter is cleaning his sword while a mage watches on and two thieves in the background are prying a jewel from the eye of some horrid idol. (The dead lizardmen are a nice touch.)

This was the true start of the D&D mechanism: kill monsters, get treasure. Some people within the industry knock that as being too simplistic but itís the mechanism for success that has been proven time and time again since TSR first marketed it. In this one illustration Sutherland captures that mechanic and it's image sent kids across the world into worlds of their own imagination.

This illustration was on the cover for 8 printings over 3+ years. Not bad for an artist without professional training.

The illustration for the Dungeons Masters Guide is a bit cheesy but is a great eyeful: a wizard and a fighter battle a huge efreet that holds a fair damsel in distress. Itís a simple image but imagine being a 10 year old boy and realizing this was a guide to creating your own adventures just like what was on the cover. Who doesnít want to kill the monster and get the girl? Where I came from this was what we would call a "win/win" but that's just me.

Yes it's simplistic but it captures the same spirit that pulp novels and boys magazines of the 1920ís and 30ís. Argosy and others featured similar iconography and images. This was the stuff of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Ironically these were the sort of images that when Sutherland was creating them were out of vogue with art styles of the 70ís at the time. (Iíve always maintained that you donít screw with what works.) Frazetta and Boris may have had more artistic talent but it was David's work that appeared in book and hobby stores on and off the beaten path.

David went on to work for TSR for 25 years. As more talented artists came along he took on a role of Art Director and eventually settled into being a cartographer making maps for various adventures. He was well respected in the industry and widely recognized as being the inspiration for many of the artists whose work he later supervised.

TSR fell on hard times in the late 1990ís. The company, then the property of the daughter of the creator of Buck Rogers, had been mismanaged into the ground. As bankruptcy loomed they were purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the company that created Magic: The Gathering, in 1999.

David Sutherland was one of the TSR employees that didnít survive the transition of ownership. Despite being a 25 year employee and numerous attempts to reach out to the new owners they didnít even bother to return so much as a phone call. My friend the Artist has written a wonderful article on the wretched management at Wizards of the Coast for Slate.com that I highly recommend. Itís now here on his personal website.

Letís be clear: It says something when the CEO of a company grants an interview to the creator of one of the worst games in recorded history but allows a loyal, steadfast and talented 25 year employee to be cast aside like old company letterhead after an office move. For a company that wanted to be known as ďprogressiveĒ in its attitude towards employees their treatment of David was wretched and pathetic.

David suffered in the time that passed after being released by Wizards. Distraught over what had happened his health declined. He worked odd jobs and eventually became ill with liver problems. Last year when it was clear that his illness was terminal several charity auctions were held on his behalf on Ebay that yielded over $22,000 to begin a trust for his teenage daughters.

There is a nice obituary for David here. Itís written by the wonderful man who oversaw the Ebay auctions last year. The local paper here also featured something on him as well on Monday that included a reprinting of one of his more famous black and white illustrations.

Davidís memorial service is next Wednesday at the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel. Visitation with his surviving family starts at 9:00 with the service at 10:00. A full military burial service will begin at 11:30.

I met him once when I used to work for my former employer. He was extremely pleasant and I can remember being struck by his generally good nature and passion. He was comfortable with who he was and what he was doing and thatís more than some people ever have. He was honest, loyal and from all accounts simply a great person.

If youíre inclined to sending cards, condolences or making donations to the trust fund for David's daughters please contact his sister:

Trudy DeKeuster
13911 Castelar Circle
Omaha, NE 68144

If youíve come here through a link or search please feel free to print this page and take it to your local game store. David C. Sutherland III should be honored and not forgotten.

Posted by Jim at June 15, 2005 08:00 AM

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