Warlords – DC Graphic Novel #2

By Steve Skeates & Dave Wenzel (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-04-8

Being nothing but a bunch of banana-fingers with stubby thumbs and utterly immune to the specious allure of computer and video games, I can’t admit to much knowledge of the antecedents of this intriguing fantasy book. Still that means that I can dispassionately comment on the package as a read unswayed by its origins.

In the mid-1980s all the major comics companies were exploring the European concept of albums and graphic novels: enlarged and expanded narratives produced on better paper stock using more expensive printing techniques. Coincidentally, at this time DC had entered into a financial arrangement with video-gaming giant Atari resulting in such superb comics spin-offs as Atari Force (a comic still screaming out for a definitive collection) and Star Raiders.

Another Atari property that made the leap to the printed page was Warlords; at first glance one more Tolkienesque derivative comprised of fairies and elves, wizards and giants, with general blade-based mayhem aplenty. But on closer examination this colourful little epic has hidden charms: for a start it’s written for sly knowing laughs, isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself and even the genre it owes its existence to.

The other big plus is the creative team. The sharp and witty script by the hugely underrated Steve Skeates is illustrated by fantasy master (and honorary Hobbit) David Wenzel and together they produced this impressive and engaging tale of an underachieving troll “Just Plain Dwayne” who reluctantly finds himself holding a magic amulet that everybody wants in the middle of an eternal cold war between the four Warlords who control the world.

Unfortunately now that the scurrilous Dwayne has the mystic bauble that war’s going to heat up pretty quickly…

It’s relatively easy to parody a genre, but to be funny within the internal logic of one is a master’s trick: so when I tell you Dwayne’s little quest is still ripe with climactic battles, fabulous beasts, glorious creatures, hair-raising tension and incredible action you know its something you just have to see.

Trust me, I’m a Scholar…
© 1983 Atari Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You

By Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black (Simon & Shuster UK)
ISBN: 978-1-41690-136-5

One of the most charming and readable children’s stories of recent vintage (the first volume was published in 2003 and I’ll get to them one day…) recounts the adventures of three American kids who stumble into a forgotten and dangerous world of unseen Fairy Magic. The adventures of the Grace children even emerged relatively unscathed from the transition to the big screen in a winning adaptation entitled The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Modern marketing being what it is, a lot of peripheral material has been generated to accompany the books and it’s one of these I want to bring to your attention. Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You is a fabulous confection, purporting to be the actual tome created by an inquisitive naturalist nearly a century ago, listing in magnificent taxonomical detail and gloriously illustrative manner all the unnatural and supernormal creatures that live beyond the range of normal human sight.

Although Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black are deliberately vague as to who does what to craft these tales the former is credited as illustrator, so I’m assuming the Manticore’s share of the superb paintings and drawings in this volume are his and the explanatory notes Ms Black’s – and frankly astonishing it all is.

Divided into Around the House and Yard, In Fields and Forests, In Lakes, Streams and the Sea, In the Hills and Mountains, In the Sky and Outside at Night this beautiful bestiary covers every invisible wonder from Banshees to Will-o’-the Wisps, Dragons to Unicorns and all European ethereals in between.

This is a book to inspire dreaming and creativity in kids of any age, produced with all the tricks and magic of 21st century printing and paper-technology. A true and total delight.
© 2005 Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black. All Rights Reserved.

Divine Melody Volume 3

By I-Huan, translated and adapted by Lobelia Cheng & Sue Yang (DrMaster)
ISBN: 978-1-59796-175-2

Celestial Fox-Demons have almost vanished from the land: only vixens remain and if they wish to advance their status, let alone survive as a race, they must propagate their kind at all costs…

To this end their Shifu (leader/teacher) long ago stole the baby girl deity Cai-Sheng, who with the proper training and refinement would, when grown, be able to transform into a male to father another, superior generation. But this plan was necessarily a very long-ranging one. On the haunted mountain they inhabited the Fox clan grew impatient. Some, like Hui-Niang, renounced their powers in order to marry mortals, whilst bold Yu-Niang began to steal little boys as “offerings”…

Little Cai-Sheng was a bored and very lonely child. One day she escaped from her lessons and met two village children. With the girl Xiao-Que and boy Duo Xi they cavorted and played until a dog attacked the magical child (canines are the mortal enemies of foxes). Brave Duo Xi fought the hound and little Xiao-Que suffered a cruel bite protecting Cai-Sheng. Just in time her guardian Hui-Niang appeared and killed the hound with a well-aimed arrow…

To thank the humans for spilling their blood to defend the chosen child, guardian Hui-Niang marked the boy’s torn forehead and the girl’s bitten hand with mystic marks. No matter how long, nor how many incarnations passed, their sacrifice would be rewarded. Promising to meet again tomorrow, the children parted, but time and duty is different for celestial beings and the humans never saw their new friend again.

Two hundred years passed and Cai-Sheng finished her training. The Chosen One had never forgotten her joyous day with the mortal children, and more importantly, for one glorious afternoon, she learned of freedom from duty and destiny. Centuries later she was reunited with them – or at least their latest reincarnations, beautiful, rich scholar’s daughter Su Ping and apprentice priest/exorcist Han Yun-Shi. To repay them for their kindness Cai-Sheng determined to act as matchmaker for the pair, but Ping had seen Cai-Sheng’s male form Qin Cai-Sheng, and become enamoured with “him”.

Yun-Shi is smitten with Su Ping but can’t understand why the weird girl Cai-Sheng is always hanging around, making herself a nuisance. Moreover, while performing his appointed duties for his disreputable master the apprentice realizes he has a rival in Cai-Sheng’s male form, even if the transforming neo-deity doesn’t…

The debased fox-demon Yu-Niang has haunted Cai-Sheng, grown strong on two centuries of blood taken from boy children. She wants the power tied up in Cai-Sheng’s male form and has begun preying on the humans of the city. Even though Yu-Niang’s cat familiar now (supposedly) serves Cai-Sheng, the wicked fox-demon’s evil schemes are advanced in this third captivating volume as tragedy and death strike, destroying the Chosen One’s oldest friend and protector as well as the only mortal capable of thwarting Yu-Niang’s evil plans…

Cai-Sheng is confused, heartbroken and angry. She wants revenge and justice, but unknown to her the Goddess Lady Peony has informed her celestial envoy Wei Zi-Qiu – who has developed ungodly feelings for Cai-Sheng – that should the Chosen One advance the Fox-Demon cause in any way or harm a human then he must kill her…

This enchanting shōjo tale of legendary China moves into the arena of grand tragedy as events are set in motion that will have disastrous repercussions for all, in Taiwanese creator I-Huan’s flawless blend of mythology and soap-opera. Huan seamlessly blends passion, comedy and action to tell a charming tale of duty versus free-will, and familial expectation battling personal desire. The beautiful, lyrical art perfectly captures the sense of a lost age and the enduring immediacy of three people falling in love in a world spiralling into cataclysm. A lovely series for the fanciful and romantic, this latest volume finally shows the claws beneath the velvety fur…

This book is produced in the traditional Japanese format and should be read from back to front and right to left.

© 2003 I-Huan/Tong Li Publishing Co. Ltd. English translation © 2009 DrMaster Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Dreaming City – Marvel Graphic Novel #2

By Roy Thomas & P Craig Russell (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 0-939766-12-4

Elric is an absolute icon of the Sword and Sorcery genre: the last ruler of a pre-human civilization. The Melnibonéans are a race of cruel, arrogant sorcerers: dissolute creatures in a slow, decadent decline after millennia of dominance over the Earth. An albino, Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of his line, is physically weak and of a brooding, philosophical temperament, caring for nothing save his beautiful cousin Cymoril, even though her brother Prince Yrrkoon openly lusts for his throne.

Elric doesn’t even really want to rule, but it is his duty, and he is the only one of his race to see the newly evolved race of Man as a threat to the Empire. He owns or is possessed by a black sword called Stormbringer: a magical blade that steals the souls of its victims and feeds their life and vitality to the albino.

In this beautifully realized adaptation Elric has been ousted by Yrrkoon, who has cast Cymoril into an enchanted sleep and holds her hostage. The Faustian albino has entered into a devil’s bargain with assorted human rulers and now guides an armada of ships in an all-out attack on the island citadel of Immyr, determined to raze the city and eradicate his entire race if that what’s necessary to rescue his beloved…

The Dreaming City was the first Elric story Michael Moorcock wrote, appearing in the pulp magazine Science Fantasy #47 in June 1961. An instant hit, the last Emperor became the vanguard of a modern revival of the weird fantasy form and an inadvertent foundation stone for the new-born role-playing game market.

This is a stirring, spectacular, entrancing tale of startling power, as are all the Elric adaptations Russell was involved with (see also the eponymous Elric of Melniboné ISBN: 0-936211-01-6 and Sailor on the Seas of Fate ISBN: 0-915419-24-6) and it’s high time somebody collected them and the Epic Illustrated vignette ‘While the Gods Laugh’ into some kind of definitive edition…
© 1981, 1982 Roy Thomas and P Craig Russell. A Star*Reach Production. Adapted from the original story by and © Michael Moorcock 1961.  All Rights Reserved.

Marada the She-Wolf – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Christopher Claremont & John Bolton (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-153-6

Scantily clad hot chicks swinging swords have been a staple of fantasy and comics from their very inception, and probably nobody has done it better – certainly visually – than Claremont and Bolton in this heavily recycled yarn set in the days of Imperial Rome.

Marada the She-Wolf is a wandering mercenary whose grandfather was Julius Caesar. When her parents fell into disfavour she was whisked from the Eternal City to live free and grow wild…

Years later in the deserts of Damascus she is rescued from slavers by the Warrior/Magician Donal MacLlyanllwyr, but the indomitable Marada seems a broken doll, devoid of will and spirit. Transporting her to the mystical citadel of Ashandriar amidst the misty hills of Britain the baffled soldier seeks the aid of the legendary sorceress Rhiannon to diagnose, if not cure her illness.

As she slowly recovers the warrior woman forms a bond with Donal’s daughter Arianrhod; a girl of great magical power. Before long the secret of Marada’s malaise is revealed when a demonic creature invades the mystic keep and abducts Arianrhod. Enraged and desperate Marada is forced to brave Hell itself and slash her way through an army of devils to rescue the girl…

These stories originally ran in Epic Illustrated, Marvel’s response to Heavy Metal magazine, (beginning with #10, February 1982) where they appeared in beautiful monochrome wash-and-line, and although Bolton’s sensitive conversion of the art to painted colour is lush and lovely, I have to say that I would have preferred them to have been left that way for this collection.

Also included is ‘Royal Hunt’ a shorter tale wherein Marada and Arianrhod, lost in Africa after escaping the Infernal Realm, are captured by the barbaric Empress of Meroë and given the dubious distinction of being her prey in a competent if uninspired variation of Richard Connell’s landmark 1924 short story (and equally influential 1932 movie) ‘The Most Dangerous Game’.

That crack about recycling didn’t just refer to the art, superb though it is. The original story started life as a Red Sonja yarn for Bizarre Adventures, but when problems arose Claremont and Bolton reworked the thing, and by inserting the whole kit and caboodle into the “real” world of the Roman Empire, albeit braided with Celtic myth and legend, added a satisfying layer of fantastic authenticity to the mix that still leaves it head-and-shoulders above most other Sword and Sorcery “Bad Girls” as well as most general fantasy fiction.

Yet another classy piece of work to add to the “why is this out of print?” pile then…
© 1982, 1985 Christopher S. Claremont and John Bolton. All Rights Reserved.

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

By Lee Marrs & Bo Hampton (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-001-1 ISBN-13: 978-1-56389-007-9

During the 1950s, when superheroes were in a seemingly inescapable trough, comic book companies looked to different forms of leading men for their action heroes. In 1955 writer/editor Robert Kanigher created a traditional adventure comic entitled The Brave and the Bold that featured historical strips. The Golden Gladiator, illustrated by Russ Heath was set in the declining days of Rome, The Silent Knight fought injustice in post-Norman Britain, courtesy of Irv Novick, and the already-legendary Joe Kubert drew the adventures of a valiant young Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last strip appeared in all but one issue (#6), eventually taking over the entire comic, until the burgeoning superhero boom saw B&B become a try-out title with its twenty-fifth issue. Those fanciful, practically “Hollywoodish” Viking sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time and they’re long overdue for a definitive collection of their own, since the character of Jon has long been a fan favourite, intermittently returning in DC’s war titles and often guest-starring in such varied venues as Sgt. Rock and even Justice League of America.

This beautiful, vital and enchanting tale was released to very little fanfare in 1991, but remains a worthy sequel to those early strips. Scripter Lee Marrs took all the advances in our historical knowledge since the 1950s and blended them with the timeless basics of a Classical Edda to entrancing effect. Amidst a culture vibrantly brought to full life by her words and Bo Hampton’s awesome skill with a brush she has grasped a passionate but reserved old archetype and remade him as a fiery young hero of devastating charm, full of all the boisterous vigour of his mythic race, and confronted him with his worst nightmare.

In 10th century Scandinavia, Jon Rolloson, heir to Jarl Rollo of Gallund, is a perfect Northman’s son; fast, tough, fearless and irresistible to all the maids of the village. But the greatest horror of his sixteen years has finally come for him – an arranged marriage for political advantage. He must leave his home and the Viking life to wed a “Civilised” Princess. His joyous days are all done…

But Princess Asa of Hedeby is a young beauty every inch his match in vigour and vitality, and as composed and smart as he is coarse and oafish. Unfortunately, somebody is stealthily trying to thwart the match, even though Jon’s boorishness is enough to give both fathers cause to reconsider, and only the Viking Prince’s rash vow to recover a lost rune treasure and slay a fearsome dragon preserves the bargain. The wedding will proceed… Now all he has to do is find and kill Ansgar, the vilest of all Fire-Wyrms, and not die…

As well as being a superb writer Marrs is an underground cartoonist, animator and computer artist who has assisted Hal Foster on that other sword-wielding epic Prince Valiant, and her grasp of human character and especially comedy elevates this classic tale of romantic endeavour into a multi-faceted gem of captivating quality. Bo Hampton has created some of the best painted comics in the medium: This book is probably still the very best of them.

One of the most accomplished and enjoyable historical romances ever produced in comic form, Viking Glory deserves to be on every fan’s bookshelf. Let’s hope that it’s on DC’s shortlist for a swift re-release.

© 1991 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Flash Gordon Volume 2

Flash Gordon Volume 2 

By Alex Raymond (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 0-9741-6646-4

The second irresistible collection of the immortal Flash Gordon’s adventures sees Alex Raymond and co-writer Don Moore introduce a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over. In Sunday Comics pages that ran in newspapers from April 21st 1935 until October 11th 1936 (generously sub-divided into ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’, ‘At War with Ming’ and ‘Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ for your ease and delectation) we can experience the sheer beauty and drama that captivated the world, producing not only some of the world’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books and more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series is enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s futurism endlessly accesses and refines the picture perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo, wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all out war with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come – and the volume ends as the heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. True, there is the merest hint of formula in the plots, but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…

© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

Books of Magick: Life During Wartime

Books of Magic: Life During Wartime 

By Si Spencer & Dean Ormston (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-005-0

Neil Gaiman is a big name in comics. He’s one of those guys who’s “made it” in the realer world but hasn’t completely turned his back on comics. He is also one of a small creative elite whose name liberally spread out on a book cover can bring non-comic clientele to a package, which is a long-winded way of saying that no comic title he’s been involved with will long stay in Limbo.

The latest return of The Books of Magick and super magician Tim Hunter features yet another revamp of the young, guileless innocent that Gaiman, John Bolton and a small band of painterly superstars tasked with a journey of self-discovery through all the Mystic Realms of the DC Universe back in the 1990s. Unfortunately a lot of pages have been published since then and the scrofulous young yob starring here is no kin to that waif.

This in itself is no bad thing. The adventures begin in another universe where humanity and demons are at war, a supernatural global conflict that has pushed Man to the brink of extinction. One last bastion lies besieged and Vertigo stalwart John Constantine is their embattled leader, as they await the return of their all-powerful deity, The Hunter.

The echoes of William Hope Hodgeson and C. S. Lewis are interrupted with a segue to a young adult Tim in what looks like our reality, dossing about after graduating university, doing drugs, swilling beer and shagging totty, just like anybody. As the story progresses long-time readers will realise that something is amiss, though. This life is just as out of whack as the demon war-scape and events lead to the inevitable conclusion that a deadly congruence of circumstance will catapult Tim and his coterie of reprobates into an alien Armageddon.

My poncey locution aside, this is quite an enjoyable fantasy ride. Si Spencer brings his television writing (Grange Hill, Eastenders) into the mix of earthly and unreal to great effect – let’s face it, most comics are soap-operas these days – and Dean Ormston manages to be grungy and stylish at the same time. My quibble stems from what I said earlier.

Although a re-interpretation, much of the narrative depends on a more than passing knowledge of the DC Universe (Hellblazer, Zatanna etc.) and especially the characters such as idealised girl friend Molly, from the long previous runs of Books of Magick. If those comics had sold well enough to garner a solid readership, we wouldn’t be discussing this new version at all, and to ask new readers to muddle along knowing there’s a subtext but not getting it seems at best harsh and at worst a recipe for yet another early bath.

For those Gaiman groupies, it might be an actual turn off from an otherwise useful addition to comics’ adult fantasy stable, and even comics in general.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Fables: Homelands

Fables: Homelands

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, David Hahn, Lan Medina & Steve Leialoha

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-124-3

Vertigo’s best title just keeps getting better. As well as the long anticipated revelation of the identity of the Adversary, this volume (collecting issues # 34-41 of the monthly comic) also contains concurrent adventures featuring the fate of the morally ambivalent Jack (the Giant-Killer, and the Bean-stalk, et al) plus a foreboding, foreshadowing tale featuring Mowgli’s (of Kipling’s Jungle Books) return from a mystery mission.

Fables deals with refugee fairytale characters who all fled to mundane Earth from their various mythic realms to escape conquest by a mysterious and unbeatable adversary. Keeping their true nature hidden from humanity they have created enclaves where their immortality, magic and sheer strangeness (all the talking animals are sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York, for example) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters wander the human world, but always under an injunction not to draw attention to themselves.

This volume begins with a revelation that the always ‘difficult’ Jack has gone to Hollywood with stolen Fable funds and created a new studio solely to create a trilogy of fantasy films detailing his own exploits, absolutely counter to Fabletown edicts. His fate (illustrated by David Hahn) serves as a lead in to the true meat of the book: Little Boy Blue’s return to the lands of Fable on a mission of revenge and a search for his lost love. Following this, Jack will be starring in his own spin-off series, of which more at a future date…

In many ways this is the most traditional story – in comic book terms – that this series has ever produced, as the heroic Blue, with the aid of plundered magic weapons taken from the Fabletown Armoury, battles his way to the adversary’s very throne room before he is defeated by the Snow Queen, the tyrant’s number two.

Compounding cliff-hanger with teaser, Willingham then switches the story back to Earth for a glimpse at the lives of the other escaped story-people. Meanwhile drawn by Lan Medina, updates the continuity with a series of vignettes that serves to set up the next major storyline as well as lay the groundwork for the eventual return of the long missing – and popular – Bigby Wolf.

Returning to the Homelands opus Willingham and Buckingham complete their tale with stirring panache, revealing the identity of the arch-foe, delivering a memorable climax, and even then managing to pull a surprise rug out from under the feet of we weary, worldly-wise funnybook veterans.

This series just keeps on improving. A wild and savvy exploration of traditional story-telling leavened with acerbic wit and cynical street-smarts, always beautifully drawn. You must read this series (but only if you’re over eighteen, or nobody in authority is watching).

© 2005 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Boneyard in Color, Volume 2

Boneyard in Color 

By Richard Moore

(NBM)  ISBN 1-56163-487-5

Richard Paris is pretty average. Or at least he was until he inherited that cemetery. You know the one: out by Raven Falls — where that sexy vampire chick and those monsters and ghosts and demons all hang out. Yeah that’s the one. And now that he’s living with all those weirdos, strange stuff just keeps on happening to him. No sooner has he sent Belzebub packing back to the inferno than the Internal Revenue Service has come after him. And they won’t be content with blood, souls or eternal damnation. They want half a million dollars! How can Richard and his peculiar cast of reprobates get out of this crisis?

There’s a great tradition of combining horror and comedy, and Richard Moore has shown that there is still much fun to be had in this vein. Combining traditional cartoon drawing with a wicked sense of slapstick and screwball humour, filtered through a modern lens of cynical modernism, this is an absolute joy of a funnybook.

This edition is printed in colour for all those fools who wouldn’t buy it when it was first released in the original black and white. Still damned funny though.

© 2002 Richard Moore. All Rights Reserved.