Friday, March 23, 2012

Baatezu: What do you think?

This post is aimed primarily at the only people I know who might have an inkling of how to begin approaching this - Scrap Princess, Mordicai and Richard of the Dystopian Pokeverse - although thoughts and comments from anyone are most welcome.

I will be spending the majority of this year working on creating 100 illustrations for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but that project will be demanding and at times bleak due to the nature of the text. In order to prevent myself from being consumed by a sense of stasis, futility and fatalism, I will also be working on the Gygax's Inferno Devil illustrations I mentioned some time ago that so many of you were kind enough to assist me with in terms of background material. As I've been thinking about both projects, I've started to conceptualize how I want to approach each one. Oddly enough, it is the Devil project that is most challenging right now. Let me explain.

When I first mentioned this project I said that, as one who played D & D only very briefly in the earliest days of the game, I favored the term "Devil" over the newer term "Baatezu." However, as I've started thinking about these illustrations, I've come to agree with a comment that Scrap Princess made which was that Baatezu is actually a better term since it removes the human, Christian-based conceptual framework from them. So consider me converted to Baatezu.

(As an aside, how, exactly, is Baatezu pronounced? I have a friend who is familiar in passing with some of the TSR PC games and he calls them what sounds like "BAY - tuh -zoo" and it sounds kind of funny if that's it. Like it should be spelled beta-zoo or something.)

As I think about these Baatezu, please keep in mind that my thoughts are oriented toward a visual aesthetic only. I've spent a bit of time poking around on some of the RPG blogs and I am astounded as to just how much of that kind of game and playability oriented thinking is completely foreign to me. It's just been much too long since I played AD & D for me to even begin grasping some of those concepts. What I'm working on with this art is not so much an attempt to create illustrations for playable monsters as it is an attempt to make powerful, unique and iconic art. Hopefully they will have some kind of playability, but that's not the goal. So let's focus on what the Baatezu look like, and how to represent them.

First, a brief survey of what the Baatezu / Devils used to look like. I first encountered them in the original Monster Manual when I was young. Here are a few of those original illustrations of the Archfiends of Hell from the late 1970s, starting with Asmodeus...

Here is Dispater...

Here is Baalzebul...

And here is Geryon...

I liked these pieces quite a bit as a child, and while they have a great deal of nostalgic appeal for me, they're not quite as dazzling as they once were. However, to my mind at least, things would get a whole lot worse with later editions of AD & D books. The new depictions were positively atrocious. Dull, unimaginative, saddled with a relentlessly boring "house style." Here is Asmodeus...

Here is Dispater...

Here is Baalzebul, a mild improvement at least over Asmodeus and Dispater but still nothing to get too thrilled about...

And finally, the new and horribly not improved Geryon...

Starting from my dissatisfaction with these earlier images, and the opportunity to create something new and very different, I began thinking about how so often in visual narratives, a being's form is a mirror of its nature. That may seem oversimplified and too reductive, but it's a good starting point. The Baatezu are denizens of the Nine Hells, although not native to that plane. They are evil, or more specifically, lawful evil. What does lawful evil think like? Look like? What is the ultimate endgame for a bloc of immensely powerful extraplanar lawful evil beings?

I've been reading Scrap Princess' excellent "Scrawling Over the Classics" posts and she is doing some brilliantly creative writing re-imagining and re-contextualizing the different planes in completely unexpected but still marvelously logical and consistent ways. I'm trying to apply some of her thinking here (and I keep hoping she'll do a "Scrawling Over the Classics" for the Nine Hells) but I worry that my lack of familiarity with RPGs and current AD & D rules and content are getting in the way.

See, as I continue to work over these ideas for Baatezu in my mind, I find myself looking further afield at what some other artists have done in exploring their own visions of the infernal realms. Wayne Barlowe has been pursuing this for some time in his various paintings of Hell, all of which are remarkable. Here are a few below, copyright to Wayne Barlowe. First, the demon Sargatanas...

Second, another demon...

Finally, Barlowe gives us Moloch...

I am amazed by Barlowe's art. It is terrifying, brilliant, and deeply personal. And I am nowhere near the artist Wayne Barlowe is, so I won't even be comparing my works to his. Interestingly enough, even though, as far as I know, Barlowe's paintings are completely unconnected to AD & D or any RPG, he has done quite a bit of worldbuilding behind the scenes. There is a story to every painting, and a variety of rules and systems which organize Barlowe's Hell and its history. It's fascinating.

What leaves me a bit cold about his Hell though is that it just doesn't seem like a place governed by a code of law to me. It is random, messy, crude, and chaotic. If anything, it edges closer to what I imagine the 666 Layers of the Abyss might resemble much more so than the Nine Hells. In that image of Sargatanas above, for example, the shifting and morphing nature of his head hints at chaos, transformation, endless mutability and lawlessness. Not the rigid society depicted by the world of AD & D. So, as much as I love Barlowe's vision, in terms of this project it is not quite what I am reaching for.

Instead, what came to mind immediately for me were the visionary paintings of the artist Ernst Fuchs, particularly his bizarre, rigid images of Cherubs seen here. First, Cherub With an Amethyst...

Next, Cherub of the Shin...

Finally, Cherub with Orange-colored Horns of Flame...

These, to me, seem much more like what I would imagine the lawful evil Baatezu, especially the Dukes of Hell, to resemble. There is almost a kind of sacred geometry about them. An abstraction that seems to hint at a higher awareness, a rigid kind of order, a lawfulness that is a direct retort to the howling chaos of the lower universe that is so inelegant. I imagine that these Archfiends and Dukes of Hell, with their strict adherence to a code of conduct and their incredibly byzantine vendettas and campaigns against one another and the higher planes, would be so sophisticated, so brilliantly intelligent, that even their forms would approach a sort of physical perfection and abstraction. A symmetry of form governed by strict patterns, lines, shapes, and layers.

Some of French comic artist Philippe Druillet's work came to mind to, like the following...

Those images, and Fuchs', seem like the Archfiends of the Nine Hells to me. Colossal beings whose true forms would be vast, abstract, unfettered by any limiting connection to physics or reality, and living symbols of pure organization, law and malice. I imagine there to be a mechanical element to them as well, since the precision and functionality of machines and computers seems to hew very close to what I perceive a lawful alignment to embody. Gone is that messy, human (or independent sentient being, I suppose) element of free will and choice. Even slaves can rebel, but machine hybrids cannot.

So what are your thoughts? How is a lawful alignment reflected in the form a being? What are the ultimate aims of the Baatezu? How would their "victory" be defined? What do you think of that blending of sentient being and machine? I'm very curious as to what you gamers might thing.


  1. First-- Barlowe has a novel set in his Hell. I would recommend checking it out, if you want to re-contextualize his images; I wasn't an unreserved fan of his writing, but you could see the law in it a little more. That is almost what the narrative struggle is ABOUT. Lemme see if I can dig up my old blog post about it:

  2. On to the matter at hand-- in a nutshell, your question seems to be: what has primacy? Evil, or Law? That is the rub, there, isn't it? Are these primordial creatures of Law, fallen from Good to Evil? Are they the ultimate creatures of Evil, using Law to further their own ends & distinguishing them from Demons?

    I'd propose that those questions are TEXTUAL ones. That is, a matter left up to the individual works & characters in question. Does Asmodeus think that abandoning Good & embracing Evil is just the better way to serve the cause of Law? Does Baalzebub just LOVE Evil & use Law as a backbiting tool to screw people with? Bam, there is the subject of those pieces.

    Also I say-- embrace as many non-canonical DnD sources as possible. Scrape stuff from the Lesser Key of Solomon, from metal albums, from whatever personal demons afflict you-- like you did with the Slaadi, yeah? Though I hardly have to mention it.

  3. I'm gonna let the comments build up for a bit before I weigh in with my thoughts, but I did want to post yours right away and thank you. You did manage to strip away some of the mental detritus and cut right to the heart of the matter, which was brilliant and very valuable to me. Much to ponder, but please, all who read this, let's continue this discussion.

    Now, off to read your blog post about Barlowe's novel. Which I had no idea existed. I'm basing all of my impressions on Barlowe's Hell from his art books and portfolios and the bits of text therein, so this sounds fascinating.

  4. I'm with Mordicai. D&D was never meant to be 'use these books as canon'; rather, the books were guidelines to help players into a framework where they could add or remove elements as they see fit.


    I like that picture of Asmodeus heaps.
    I'm about to crash out, and will return to be more wordwordgoodsmart about it later.
    Also if you go to my blog and look at the top right there is a page that has all the creatures made so far, and then has links to the posts they are from. There's some thoughts about Dispater, Asmodeus , Beezelbul and Geryon , and little cloth dudes of them.

    It's really interesting your take on lawful evil, like this deep unsettling cosmic symmetry , like sacred geometry gone rancid. If Nazi's loved math as much as fancy uniforms.
    This is a great new spin on it, and I'm not sure what else I can add. I think you should ignore what anyone else is saying and run with your idea.
    I think that most significant creative advances have been done by a little amount of information isolated separated from the main stream of ideas and thus let to grow bizarre and strange.

    My take on Lawful Evil and the Baatezu is more Kafka, and scheming Vizers and the like.
    So yeah , run with your idea, I'll add some ideas later if I have something that I think might help.

  6. Asmodeus is definitely Tim Curry in Legend!

    No, I don't D and D but there's a lot here that makes me think of Satan's musings in Paradise Lost - particularly the opening of Book IV and then the argument with Gabriel at the end.

    I liked the hell in Sandman - in book form they're in Season of Mists

    And Lawful Evil also conjures the richness and robes of The Spanish Inquistion, and perhaps most particularly the tailoring and black/grey/slash of red colour palette of the SS, and then the films of Leni Riefenstahl - most obviously Triumph des Willens. Symmetry, order, scale and repetition very big there. 'A symmetry of form governed by strict patterns, lines, shapes, and layers.' - exactly! Whole thing's on youtube, and it's worth 2 hours of your life if you haven't seen it. And then Olympia, which is astonishing.

    Goya's Black Paintings too. Think that came from the Inquisition.

  7. There's lots of great stuff here, and I don't think I can add anything but confusion. I have problems with both the concepts of evil and of fantasy-Moorcockian Law-as-a-cosmic-principle, and what they might represent beyond kind of artistic abstractions.

    My way in might be this: religions provide laws because both are methods of encoding social controls, so the idea of evil law is a deliberate paradox, or maybe a dark twin - the necessary flipside to whatever coin you hope will make life better. Faustian pacts revolve around a perversion of the intent of law - you let the devil in and he works like a lawyer, trying to find ways to catch the worm in the intent of the law's framing, to grow that seed of harm in your good intentions.

    Gygax/Moorcock go further than the Faustian drama - they posit that Law has its own complete structure, and in this case evil law will control its own society. Does that mean its unintended consequences are necessarily good, or merely that it's always (being evil) defeating its own intentions: that its laws entangle and expand to take up all the room for independent action (while the laws we know are supposed to help permitted actions to thrive)?

    Alas, I don't think any coherent answers are to be found in the works of D&D: alignment was always the least coherent part of the game.

  8. Thank you a million times for all of the comments. There is much here to consider, and while I had hoped to generate a rousing dialogue in the comments thread, it seems that I have a great deal more thinking to do before I can offer succinct and coherent responses. Each of you, in your own way and through your own experiences, shed light on some of the more complex issues of this challenge and that has helped enormously. I've inched ever close toward some conclusions I don't think I could have reached without your insights, particularly in terms of the nature of alignment (which, as Richard indicated, does indeed seem to be the least coherent aspect of Dungeons & Dragons) and I have solidified some of my thinking in other areas (free will, order, and so on). Expect more posts as this project (slowly) evolves over the summer and, eventually, a great deal of art. But I think...I think I finally know where this is headed.


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