Dirk Stanley’s 7 of the Best: Childhood Inspirations
Written by Dirk Stanley
The following is smattering of inspiration and influence I have gained over the years from artists, writers, TV, and movies. I lived in the hills of Appalachia as a kid and most of these things come from my childhood there. All of these things have been composted over the years to create a weird body of influence in my own creative life. While I was unaware of how these things shaped me during the time, in retrospect they have all worked as gears in a single machine which culminated in game design and world building. They have been synthesized through my lens of experience, each influencing me on some level.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (MotU) were a bunch of muscle bound dudes in furry panties battling it out on the fantasy/sci-fi world of Eternia. Prince Adam was the alter-ego of He-Man. He was a lavender tights wearing bumbler who, by holding aloft his magical sword and chanting some words, is transformed into He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe. He-Man was the protagonist of the series and his real identity was known to only a few confidants. Although strong, he wasn’t able to do everything on his own and as such he was helped by his friends like Man-At-Arms, Orko, and Teela. Skeletor was the yellow-skulled blue-bodied antagonist of the show who was constantly trying to get the secrets of Castle Grayskull. Just as He-Man was forthright and a complete do-gooder, Skeletor was equally and most hilariously evil, constantly dealing with inept henchmen who he castigated in every line of dialogue.
In my childhood years, MotU was huge for me. It was colorful and weird and the characters were things I had never seen or imagined. Their names told you their stories. Merman. Mossman. Trap Jaw. Man-E-Faces. I was fascinated by these characters and the negative space around them allowed me to fill in and imagine my own stories. I didn’t need character arcs or backstories or anything else. I needed color, action, cool powers, potions and portals. I needed monsters, adventures and journeys. I needed clear lines between good and bad, right and wrong. I would lay in bed at night thinking about that day’s episode. In school I would draw the characters and make up my own. (My characters were always standing in grass or behind rocks because I couldn’t draw feet.) I wrote He-Man fan fiction. All of this bled into my own creations as I began to want to create my own worlds and characters.
The Transformers: The Movie
Various cultures have rites of passage. Trials when a boy or girl goes through an ordeal in which they must look inside, find courage, and step over the threshold to become an adult. Transformers: The Movie, the animated film from 1986 that featured Orson Welles as the planet-devouring Unicron, was my first world privileged rite of passage. I went to see the movie in the theatre with my friend for his birthday and from the very start, I knew it wasn’t the show I was used to. Immediately, the giant planet-of-a-transformer Unicron eats an entire world killing all of the inhabitants. It is a moment of complete and utter hopelessness and total annihilation. Several minutes later, Autobots and Decepticons are battling one another, with members of each side dying in the most heartless of ways. It is cold and bleak, robotic, and we watched as our beloved friends died before our very eyes. Later in the movie, Optimus Prime dies (along with my childhood and the belief that good always prevails.) I cried when Optimus died and I turned my head from my friend so he wouldn’t see.
Transformers: The Movie was the first time I had seen the hero die in a film. It was the death of an infallible hero and it drove a point home; if Optimus Prime wasn’t safe in the world, then no one else was either. Transformers: The Movie said it was okay to kill your darlings. Transformers taught me that heroes die just like everyone else.
Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych
Heironymous Bosch was a 15th/16th century painter who made scenes that look like naked versions of Richard Scarry’s Busy Town on boatloads of acid.
During my childhood years, my dad had this series of hardback books that featured the collections of the major art museums of the world. Among these museums was the Prado in Madrid which has Bosch’s well-known and epic triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The first two panels of this three-panel piece feature a bunch of naked folks sitting around fountains, having fun, birds, weird plants and transparent eggs. The third panel is a depiction of hell and nobody there is having any sort of fun at all. Rather, these folks are suffering some of the most gruesome punishments imaginable. Cities are burning, birds are eating people, instruments are rammed into places they shouldn’t be. It’s awesome now. It was even more awesome then, when I first opened that book and saw it during my childhood years. I didn’t think art could look like that. I thought paintings were just aristocrats, bowls of fruit and landscapes. Bosch blew the doors off of all of this for me and created this imaginary world of paradise and hell with alien landscapes, bizarre creatures, nudity and torment. Bosch was my gateway drug. He was my introduction to artists such as Salvador Dali, H.R. Giger, Max Ernst, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Erol Otus and a bunch of others who were remaking the world with paint.
Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light
Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light was a TV show that ran for a season during the 1980s. The premise was that a planetary alignment brought about the downfall of technology and gave rise to a new order of magic and knights. Feudal kingdoms arose and two dominant groups emerged: Spectral Knights and Darkling Lords. The members of each of these groups were granted animal totems as chest plate holograms which they could transform into. Some had magical staffs and others could operate technology. In order to activate their more powerful staff magic, the knights would recite these badass chants. For example, Cryotek’s staff created this gigantic archer when summoned with the chant, “Three suns aligned, pour forth their light, And fill the archer’s bow with might.” At the center of all this was a wizard named Merklynn who allowed the two groups to refill their magical abilities for a price.
Although the show only ran for one season, it has stayed with me ever since childhood. I was enthralled by the post-apocalyptic setting that was their world of Prysmos. It made me think about my own world and what if technology came crashing down? What if magic was awakened and knights rode across the hills of Appalachia? Although He-Man also had a mashup of sci-fi and fantasy, Visionaries explained the history of the world and created a lore around its people and places. There was a realness to Prysmos and it captured me as no other cartoon had done before. Plus, I really loved those chants.
I had contemplated leaving Star Wars off this list because so many other lists included it. But there was no way I could. Star Wars is the mythos I grew up with. I first saw Empire Strikes Back at my cousins’ house during my childhood years (I believe they had a Betamax player). I don’t know how old I was. This is my first memory of Star Wars. Everything seemed huge. The ships. The characters. The light sabers. Some big worm and a lady in a gold bikini. Yoda. A dude frozen in block of brown stuff. A city in the clouds. It was stimulus overload and my young brain was soaking it in. I couldn’t believe that Han cut open his mount and jammed Luke in. It looked like noodles inside. For a long time as a kid I thought if I was ever lost in the woods and cold, I could just find some animal, cut it open, and crawl inside. Han did it.
I still love Star Wars. It is an integral part of the creative compost pile that is part of my life. I get excited when I see a trailer for the new films. I go see the films. There is a ritual to seeing Star Wars in the theatre. The buying of the ticket. The palpable feeling of a community with the single goal of entering into a fantasy world. The tearing of the ticket. Finding the seats. Star Wars.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal work of fantasy literature that focuses on the War of the Ring and the last days of the elves in Middle Earth. It is a story comprised of three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and the Return of the King. It is the story of technology, transition, selflessness, growth, friendship, and good versus evil. I first read The Fellowship of the Ring in seventh grade, as childhood became adolescence. I got it from my school’s library. They also had a bestiary of Middle Earth in the library which I checked out and read at the same time. Then Two Towers and Return of the King.
The journey, the battles, the characters, the magic, these things were my world. They reflected everything I loved in shows like He-Man and Visionaries. I wanted to be in this world, to spend time with elves and dwarves and hobbits. So I started to write my own stories set in a fantasy world. I used the kids in my class as the characters. My friends were the heroes. Bullies or kids I didn’t like were the villains. I had lots of pages detailing food, walking, camping and battles. Lots of battles. I learned to love writing and the exploration of that art form. It was The Lord of the Rings that cemented my love of reading and writing.
Dungeons and Dragons
My first childhood exposure to Dungeons and Dragons was when I was eight. A kid in my class brought the Basic D&D Red Box to school. I remember the smell, the artwork, the weird dice. I went home that day and tried to make those weird dice from Play-Doh. I let my homemade dice sit out and harden.
They didn’t work.
Eventually, I started playing D&D with friends. There was a lot of death in those days; tournaments, and fighting dragons with underpowered PCs. Lots of my early characters were based on He-Man. During this time, I played with kids who had the books because I didn’t. I remember going to the bookstore in town and looking at the D&D books. I was fascinated. It was esoteric and weird. Parents didn’t understand. I started to write my own rules and make my own D&D clones so that I could play with my brother and other kids when I didn’t have access to the books.
One Christmas I got the Basic D&D Red Box. The books were finally mine. The smell in that box was mine. Those pale blue dice were mine. Those books became the single biggest driving factor in my creative world. They were a blueprint and a point of coalescence for everything I loved: stories, artwork, fantasy, magic, knights, dragons, castles, etc…
Those books showed me how any idea could be made real and I carried them everywhere. They showed me how others could participate in a shared idea. They cultivated my imagination and let me leave the confines of an Appalachian world. I became a cleric, a fighter and a magic-user. I killed kobolds with fireballs and swords. I had a floating castle. My characters littered the margins of my schoolwork; their names unknown to the teachers who saw their faces. Their histories lay entombed in a Trapper Keeper somewhere.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game but it is also a medium which allowed me to focus my love of reading, writing and drawing in a very specific direction. It gave me permission during childhood, to imagine and to be as creative/weird as I wanted to be.