From its humble introduction as a single standalone “Dungeons & Dragons” adventure, Ravenloft has always had a strong lure. Tracy and Laura Hickman’s adventure spawned a sequel, then an entire world full of multiple realms of horror. With the latest Dungeons & Dragons campaign having just released a new version of that classic adventure, it makes perfect sense for Jim Zub and Nelson Daniel to poke around in this classic setting. In order to do so, though, “Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire” #1 needs to take its cast out of the Forgotten Realms, and — in doing so — it’s off to a slow start.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire” #1 is a sequel to the “Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate” miniseries from last year, although the text piece in the back promises you don’t need to have read the previous series to enjoy this one. As someone in that boat, I think that’s mostly true; at no point does Zub seem to expect everyone to have read the earlier story, and he structures the plot so that the main characters introduce themselves to their new client. That said, most of the characters come across as non-entities; the majority of them don’t have much in the way of personality. The notable exception to that is Minsc, who is best defined by his ridiculously cheerful attitude and his close attention to Boo the miniature giant space hamster. Minsc manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and effective, and his continual safeguarding of Boo’s interests (even down to negotiating additional payment for Boo) is fairly amusing.
The plot itself feels very standard, as werewolves attack the group’s new client to try and retrieve an artifact before “the Master” finds them. The capture is followed up by a rescue attempt and a fight with the werewolves, which is then interrupted by mysterious mists that whisk all of them away to a new realm, a trope familiar to anyone who’s experienced a story set in Ravenloft before. The problem is that there’s nothing that really stands out as exciting or different so far. Though Zub is presumably setting up a contrast between the Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft in order to show readers just how nightmarish the latter world is, we aren’t seeing that yet, and the allure of Ravenloft as a story setting is completely absent. This is sword and sorcery by the numbers.
Daniel’s art is a little uneven. Daniel is at his best when it comes to the fantastical; for example, the half-transformed werewolf yelling at one of his comrades is jolting because of how Daniel manages to make him look both bestial and human, but in the worst possible combination. Smaller moments also work well too, like how Nerys’ eyes glow when she activates her spell to determine what is and isn’t magical. It’s a very basic visual, but it feels otherworldly in that Daniel makes her eyes vanish entirely under the cover of the eldritch fire that blazes in their place.
On the other hand, there are some times where the anatomy seems a little too fantastical; when one of the werewolves knocks Krydle across the room, his arm seems so long you’d think it was Venom from “Amazing Spider-Man.” Backgrounds also drop out of the panels a little too often for my taste. Overall, though, Daniel gets the job done in a satisfactory manner.
Zub and Nelson’s “Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire” #1 feels like it’s heading somewhere; I’ll definitely give the second issue a try to see if things pick up now that the setting has finally switched over to Ravenloft. Both the original adventure and the campaign world of Ravenloft were favorites of mine back when I used to play Dungeons & Dragons, and it makes me hope that “Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of the Vampire” #2 gives us a bit more of that strong, atmospheric world. There’s a lot of potential in this series, but — right out of the gate — it’s left untapped.