Tagged: fantasy

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Royal City, Vol. 3: We All Float On by Jeff Lemire

Somehow I’m over two years late on this Jeff Lemire comic, despite reading the first two (see my posts on volumes one and two ) right when they came out and liking the series a lot. What can I say? There are too many good books in the world, and keeping up with them all can sometimes be challenging. But I made it to the end eventually.

Royal City is a family story, and Vol. 3: We All Float On  is where it all comes together. The first volume brought brother Patrick back to town, to join his siblings Richie and Tara and parents Patti and Peter — and, most importantly, brother Tommy, who died in 1993 but has been haunting the entire family, in very different ways, ever since. The second volume went back to ’93 to show the week of Tommy’s death, and now the conclusion brings in a new, unexpected family member and brings everything to the final crisis.

(No, not the usual comics kind of Final Crisis. The real people living in a real world — well, mostly real, since they’re all seeing Dead Tommy all the time — kind of crisis, where all of the problems peak at once.)

This is an ending, so I don’t want to talk much about the plot — but I will say that it does all end, and it does end well. Lemire is, as always, good at stories about people, especially damaged people, and the Pike family are all damaged in different ways. It does all center on Tommy, as it must, even though he has been dead for over twenty years.

I see that Royal City is now available as a single spiffy hardcover, and that’s probably the best way to read this going forward — it is a single story that happened to be published as individual comics issues and then three trade paperbacks for market reasons, but it would work best as a single book, since it tells a single story.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Shade the Changing Girl, Vol. 2 by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone & others

First, about that “others” in the post title: Marguerite Sauvage drew one of the six issues collected here, Ande Parks inked the pages set on Meta, Kelly Fitzpatrick colored all of it, and several other artists contributed to the back-up stories. Including all of them would make it look like a law firm.

But Cecil Castellucci wrote all of it and Marley Zarcone drew all but the first issue in Shade the Changing Girl, Vol. 2: Little Runaway , so it’s reasonably fair to attribute it to the two of them. And it is, as you might guess, the immediate sequel to Vol. 1: Earth Girl Made Easy , by the same team, and concludes the initial arc of this comic. (It dove into a Young Animal crossover that had something to do with milk immediately afterward, and then reappeared, briefly, as Shade the Changing Woman.)

I thought this Shade was going to be focused on the alien-in-high-school thing, but I was wrong: the first issue here blows that up to send Loma Shade (current possessor of the M-vest, traverser of the strange interdimensional Madness between her planet Meta and Earth, minor criminal, college dropout, refugee and all-around flighty person) off on her own journey across America, in the mode of the Milligan/Bachalo Changing Man series of the ’90s.

Loma intends her journeys will go farther than that — she has a bucket list covering the whole Earth, including several things either mythological or eons-gone (like meeting dinosaurs) — but her journey turns into a quick stop in Gotham City (here entirely a stand-in for NYC, with no notable Gotham characters even appearing) and another in Los Alamos (somewhat muted; I seem to remember Milligan/Bachalo did something more pointed in their run, but I may be misremembering) on the way to Hollywood. Loma is an obsessive, and all of her love for Earth has been filtered through the ’50s TV show Life With Honey, which was a minor fad on Meta when its TV signals arrived, fifty years after it was broadcast on earth and about ten years before this story takes place.

(As a sidebar, Castellucci slyly makes it clear that Life with Honey was never a big deal for anyone but Loma. The marketing copy for the Shade books tends to take Loma’s point of view — this is the biggest hit in the galaxy! — but that very much seems not to be actually true. Loma is not a reliable narrator of anything.)

So the arc of Changing Girl turns out to be entirely about Loma chasing down the heroine of an old TV show, for her own obsessive reasons, and ending with a character reset — not unlike the multiple times that happened in the Milligan/Bachalo run, but maybe a bit more quickly. (Milligan/Bachalo ran seventy issues, with about three resets during that time.) I’m not complaining: I like seeing supposedly superhero comics focusing on obsessive, damaged people who never do anything remotely heroic or even punch anyone. I’d have liked to see Loma’s journeys have more time and space, but everything in comics these days needs to wrap up in a couple of arcs for the TPs and to make room for the next crossover, so this is probably all we ever were going to get.

Oh, and the “villains” on the Meta end do chase Loma, in a way that seems like it will be the usual mad-scientist thing, trying to Conquer The World! or something like that. It goes an entirely different way, which is amusing and welcome, but that all ends slightly rushed and uneventfully.

The art is still excellent: Sauvage’s issue in particular is a delight, in a much more comics-realistic style than Zarcone and making me think she would be awesome for a new Millie the Model or some other high-fashion book, centering on attractive women wearing attractive clothes and doing something interesting. Zarcone still works in what looks to me like a modern version of Bachalo’s Shade look from the ’90s, a nice bit of visual continuity. And Fitzpatrick’s colors are still vibrant and eye-catching, essential in a book all about “the Madness” and what it does to people.

This didn’t go as far as I hoped it would, but it has a great tone and style, and a central concern unusual in Big Two comics: about people and their connections, and (without being obvious about it) something of that what-is-the-right-thing-to-do idea that’s always so central to superhero comics.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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By Night, Vols. 2 & 3 by John Allison, Christine Larsen, and Sarah Stern

This is the remaining two-thirds of John Allison’s attempt to see if he could reconfigure the essential Britishness of his writing and port Tackleford wholesale to its American equivalent: Spectrum, South Dakota.

(No, I don’t quite see it, either. I’m thinking some old mill town in western Massachusetts would be better, or somewhere in coastal Maine, but I am an East Coaster to begin with.)

In case that’s confusing: John Allison writes sprightly, fun stories with various levels of fantasy elements, set mostly in the English Midlands, often centering around the quirky town of Tackleford, first as a series of webcomics (Bobbins , Scarygoround , Bad Machinery , and see these posts of mine) and increasingly as floppy comics that people actually pay money for (most famously Giant Days ). A couple of years ago, he launched a series called By Night, with many Tacklefordian flourishes, set in, as I said, the distant town of Spectrum. The comic was drawn by Christine Larsen and colored by Sarah Stern, who also provided variant covers.

I covered the first collection here back in May, and now I have the rest of the story: Vol. 2  and Vol. 3  collect the rest of this twelve-issue series. So far, it doesn’t seem to have spawned a sequel.

And I still find it basically the same kind of thing as the first volume: fun, but subtly off and not quite as enjoyable as Allison’s stories set in a greener and more pleasant land. The dialogue often falls somewhere between Allisonly snappy and actually colloquial American, as if he were trying to stretch to speak in a foreign tongue and not consistently succeeding. Nothing is actually wrong here: it’s a fine adventure comic, with snappy dialogue, quirky characters, and a plot that bounces around and makes things happen. It just feels like someone trying to “do John Allison in the USA” and subtly missing the point.

So: former friends Jane and Heather have discovered a portal into a fantasy world, and of course intend to monetize that…by making a documentary film about it. (Allison is always quirky, even when he’s trying to be American about it.) This is slightly hampered, first, by their being driven out of the fantasy world by the authorities there, and, secondarily, by the increasingly heavy-handed tactics from authorities here related to the corporation that built the portal and then went bankrupt, pauperizing the town.

These two volumes feature a lot of running about, and an array of colorful characters, from drug dealers to a small green troll-like fantasy-world person, from aged (and possibly insane) scientists to salt-of-the-earth vermin-extermination working men. There are nefarious plots from both ends of the portal, surprising revelations, applied mad science, semi-random murder, and pulse-pounding board meetings.

All of the ingredients are fine, and By Night could seem really awesome to someone not familiar with Allison’s other work. (Or to someone violently allergic to anything non-American, I suppose: goodness know we do have those.) It’s not one of his best works, but that is a very minor quibble on my part — this is a better run of comics than nearly anything cover-featuring a person wearing a mask and published in the last eighty years.

I still think most readers would be better served as an introduction to Allison by diving into Bad Machinery or Giant Days (depending on their preferences), but what do I know?

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden

This book makes we want to get Hegelian, but I have to immediately insist that it’s not the book’s fault — I’ll overanalyze anything given half a chance, and this just happened to wander into my sights.

So, with that caveatAre You Listening?  feels like a synthesis. Tillie Walden started her comics career with shorter books and stories — which I still haven’t seen, and which may, for those who know them well, utterly shatter this idea I have — and then moved on into big books with first Spinning , then On a Sunbeam , and then Listening.

Spinning is the thesis: a memoir about Walden’s own life, growing up mostly in Texas, a girl realizing she’s queer, beginning to think about what she wants and doesn’t want in her life, focused through the lens of her decade-plus as a competitive skater.

On a Sunbeam is the antithesis: a SFnal story, set in an entirely imagined universe (one with no male gender at all, as far as the story showed, though there was, oddly, one “non-binary” person), with strange and quirky rules, and a story of first love thwarted by the universe and (more prosaically) by the fact that first loves tend to end anyway.

Last year Walden came back with Are You Listening?, a graphic novel set in real-world Texas but featuring fictional characters, about two young queer women who are not going to have any quote-unquote “relationship” with each other, a road trip on a smaller scale than Sunbeam but featuring eruptions of fantasy unlike Spinning. So: synthesis.

Walden is already an interesting and subtle graphic novelist, even this early in her career, so I don’t want to try to pigeonhole her, but I think this could be a signpost. What I hope to see from her over the next years or decades is more books like Listening: based in a realistic world but with fantasy elements, about young women (probably getting older as Walden does herself) navigating things other than just first love and coming out, who are more and more at home in their own lives as time goes on.

(We’ll see if that’s the case: Walden is clearly smart and talented enough to go an entirely different way, somewhere along the line.)

So Listening is the story of these two women and this one trip. Bea is in her late teens, and is clearly running away from her small-town home, for reasons we won’t learn for a while but are clearly powerful. Lou is almost a decade older, a small-town mechanic making a trip to visit family — but it also quickly becomes clear that she’s also running away, in the quieter way of a more settled, slightly older person who has gotten deeply unhappy with some of the major things in her life.

Along the way, they find a cat, and try to take it back to its home. Lou teaches Bea how to drive. They open up to each other, at least somewhat. And they are pursued by the mysterious, unexplained Office of Road Inquiry as they drive further and further into West Texas.

As far as I can see, that Office has nothing to do with Bea’s secrets or Lou’s restlessness. They do have an interest in the cat, though: maybe it’s the cat that ties everything together. Listening is not a story in which everything is tied up in a bow at the end — it’s the story of a few days in Bea’s and Lou’s lives. Important days, transformational days. Days where they change each other and move on in their own directions with more purpose, but just a few days.

Like Walden’s previous books, Listening is about people and their relationships. There are other things going on in her books, but the people are central and their emotions are the drivers of her books. Listening feels like it has a tighter focus than Spinning, which covered whole years and all of young Walden’s concerns, or Sunbeam, with its larger, complex cast and richly imagined universe. Walden here is bouncing two characters off each other — both of them feel like getting out, of different things for different reasons, and then throwing other complications at them to see how they react and what kind of people they are when they come out the other end.

It’s a surprisingly quiet book for a road-trip story about two women pursued by potentially-supernatural and definitely threatening entities, but surprising is par for the course for Walden so far. And surprising is a wonderful and amazing thing for any creator — even more so for someone who can put out lovely, deep books like these this often.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

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The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon by Aaron Renier

My first reaction to this book is idiosyncratic and petty; it may also come off as a minor spoiler. So flee now if you need to.

If you call your organization the “Knights” of something, it implies certain things: people chosen for specific qualities, organizational structure, a martial bent. Calling the family that survived a cataclysm “the Knights of the Waxing Moon” does not check any of those boxes, or any of the other boxes that people think of when they think of knightly orders. The family can be the equivalent of a secret society, they can keep ancient mysteries and protect the treasures of the ancients — but they are in no way knights.

But here we are, in Aaron Renier’s graphic novel The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon . It continues the story of the original Unsinkable , picking up almost immediately after the events of that book and continuing to add more complications and dangers for young Walker and his friends.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I think I liked the first one: maybe I was in the wrong mood, maybe I didn’t remember the details well enough ten years later. This time out, I kept thinking too much of Knights was vague and unfocused: the shipwrecked pirates are divided into factions, sort of, but don’t have clear leaders and also don’t seem to be jockeying to create leaders. Their goals are equally vague or unclear: getting off the island they’re shipwrecked on feels like it should be a bigger deal than it is, or there should be a “we want to settle here” faction. The aforementioned Knights are mostly just living where they live and occasionally repelling people who wander in, without any larger plans. There’s a creepy family that clearly has some goals — riches and power, most clearly — but also already has a lot of unexplained power and abilities, no clear leaders, and underpants-gnomes-levels of fiendish plots. (Send more family members to the place where our family always dies…something something…we get the secret metal that controls the world!)

All in all, Knights felt like a book with a lot of people running around in circles for a couple of hundred pages. Sure, they found some Neat Stuff, and battled over that, but why they were doing any of it was always muddy. It looks great, and the characters are interesting and specific — but the ways they interacted didn’t quite click for me. To be brutally honest, it’s like a combination of me not paying enough attention this time and forgetting what I read in the first book. This is likely what we call a Me Problem, so check out the first book if you haven’t already (and which I loved at the time), and then maybe move on to this one if you like Walker’s first adventure.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

By Night, Vol. 1 by Allison, Larsen, and Stern

I am unabashedly a John Allison fan; I’ll say that up front. I may not have been quite as much of a long-term Allison fan as some — I discovered him around the time Scarygoround begat Bad Machinery, if I remember correctly — but I’ve been reading his stuff for a decade or two and writing about it here for nearly as long.

So if I say that his new-ish series By Night , whose first volume I just read, is slightly disappointing, I want to be clear that I mean that I am not gushing about it in the manner I usually do for Allison projects. It’s fun and zippy and quirky and interesting; it’s a good comic. It’s just not as Allisonian (at least to me) as I hoped.

So, now that I’ve just deflated the whole thing before I even started, what is this By Night comic, anyway?

Well, it’s written by Allison, as I implied. Art is by Christine Larsen (probably best known for a stint on the Adventure Time comic; possessor of an awesome website with lots of excellent art) with colors by Sarah Stern (whose website is only very slightly less awesome). It began in mid-2018 and seems to have ended with issue #12.

It’s about two young women, former friends from school who meet again in their dead-end town in their mid-twenties and go on a quirky supernatural adventure together, eventually pulling in a larger cast of oddballs from that town. So far, it sounds very Allisonian.

But the town in question in By Night is Spectrum, South Dakota, and Allison is exceptionally British. (One might even say quintessentially so.) There are other parts of By Night that made my editor’s red-pen hand twitch, but the core of my uneasiness is that Allison’s dialogue and phrasing here is often not quite American, while also not quite being as sprightly and clever as his usual. He is definitely aiming to write Americans, and it was a grand experiment…I just think that it doesn’t play to his strengths.

Anyway, Jane Langstaff is the studious, serious one and Heather Meadows is the free-wheeling wild child (as we have seen often before in Allison’s work). They meet up again in this dying town, and Heather convinces Jane to go along on her mad scheme to investigate the newly-unprotected Charleswood Estate, which was once the commercial heart of the town, back before its founder and driving force disappeared mysteriously. They go there, and discover a portal to an alternate world populated with fantasy creatures and various dangers, wandering in and out a couple of times, guided by a goofball local, and…well, that’s about it in these four issues.

I assume there’s a larger story about that mysterious founder, and probably Deep Secrets about the fantasy world, and these issues have plenty of plot, but it doesn’t end up going in ways that makes much of a story. Things happen, then other things happen, and a few more people learn about the portal — but what, if anything, any of that means isn’t clear at this point.We also don’t see much of the fantasy world; the story tends to cut away from it to go back to our world — either because Allison is more interested in the real-world end, because he’s setting up for a bigger reveal later, or just because, I can’t say.

There’s one more collection available, of the next four issues, and I expect a third will be forthcoming to finish it up. (Well, maybe I hope it will be forthcoming; from the publication schedule, I would have expected it last fall.) I plan to see where this goes; it’s not a long story, and the creators are all doing good work. So I reserve the right to later say that I’ve changed my mind, and this is just as awesome as other Allison works. That would be a nice outcome, actually: I want to love things.

If you’re less of an Allison fan than I am, I wouldn’t pick this as your entry point. Giant Days or his webcomics (which have the advantage of being free) are much better for that. But if you want to see how he handles Americans: here you go.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Mage: The Hero Denied Vol. 2 and/or 6 by Matt Wagner

So this is the end, huh? After thirty-some years and around twelve hundred pages of comics, Matt Wagner’s comics fantasy autobiography is done.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the earlier pieces are the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Discovered  from the mid-80s, the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Defined  from the late ’90s, and the prior collection of this 2017 series.)

Almost anything I could say here would be spoilers of one sort or another, so I will try to be vague without being totally pointless. Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 6  has a confusing volume number — it’s the second half of Hero Denied, and only number six of the overall series — and should encompass the lowest point of hero Kevin Matchstick and then his triumphant conclusion.

It does that, reasonably well, and gives space for the rest of Kevin’s fictional family to shine: wife Magda, son Hugo and daughter Miranda. They’re not allowed to be heroic in the same way Kevin is, perhaps because they are not comics-makers in the real world, and so can’t actually fight nasties in the metaphor the way he can. But they’re active, and useful, and not just people who Kevin needs to save — which is nice. He’s the one who has to do the important stuff, since he’s the one who looks like Wagner.

The metaphor is still very vague: I don’t think each series is meant to be about a specific comics project or time in Wagner’s life; just a transmutation of “sitting at a table writing words and drawing lines” into “wacking evil with a baseball bat just like the characters he draws.” And the Big Evil of all three series is the same: the middle book was slightly different, in a generational way, but Denied goes back to the original Big Bad. And the Big Bad doesn’t relate to the real-world end of the metaphor at all: there’s no force or entity conspiring to stop comics creators, unless it’s something universal like Death or Entropy or Watching Cat Videos Instead.

Also, at the end of this story Kevin Matchstick is explicitly done with heroing. I want to leave it vague exactly as to why, but that’s another way the metaphor diverges strongly from Wagner’s own life — his own kids are old enough to collaborate with him on comics (his son Brennan colors this book), and he’s clearly still working.

In the end, Mage is much more superhero comic than it is transmuted autobiography. It’s the story of a guy who looks like Matt Wagner but does comic-book stuff instead of creating comic-book stuff. And Wagner is not the kind of creator, it appears, that cares about digging into the wellsprings of creation to tell stories about that act: his shtick, like most of modern commercial comics, is making pretty pictures of people hitting each other until the world is saved.

So, after three stories and more than a thousand pages, Mage ends up as just decent superhero comics with a vague mythological shell and a this-is-me conceit that doesn’t go much deeper than the surface. It might still be too weird for a lot of superhero-comics fans, because they are stunted and blinkered individuals, but sucks to their assmar.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #368: Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Balance Lost, Vol. 1 by Roberson, Biagini, and Downer

I looked at a Michael Moorcock “Eternal Champion” comic — primarily by other hands — a couple of months ago, and noted that Moorcock made several attempts overt the years to end that series. Well, I’m back with another EC book, from 2011. And that era is, as far as I can tell, well after the point when Moorcock realized the EC would outlive him, and that he only needed to give it as much attention as he felt like at any moment.

What I mean is: he seems to have given up on closing out the series, which is all to the good. What sense does it make to have an ending for the Eternal Champion?

This series is titled for the most popular (and first) incarnation of the EC, Elric, but he’s joined by several others — Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum of the Silver Hand, and a guy from what I probably shouldn’t call Earth-Prime named Eric Beck — to make this another multi-EC story like Sailor on the Seas of Fate and several others. Writer Chris Roberson is clearly a serious Moorcock fan, so he knows these characters and does them all well.

But what I have here is just the beginning. As I understand it, Elric: The Balance Lost  ran for twelve issues, and this Vol. 1  just reprints the first four issues (plus the prologue from a Free Comic Book Day giveaway). So the very last pages here see those four heroes, each holding a big pointy sword, probably about to meet through some interdimensional hoo-ha of the kind the Moorcock Multiverse is so full of.

But it hasn’t happened quite yet.

So this first volume is all set-up: Elric is wandering between worlds, somewhere in the middle of his career [1], and Hawkmoon is suspicious that his insect-helmeted enemies are resurgent somewhere, and Corum saves his old companion Jhary-a-Conel, and Eric gets caught up in the street thuggery of the Law Party. All are told by a companion that the Balance — the comic force that keeps either Law and Chaos from completely taking over — has been endangered, and may be capital-L Lost.

We see that some worlds are overrun by Chaos, and those are full of bizarre monsters and about to collapse into nothingness. Others are overrun by Law, filled with fascists like the ones we learn are led by Eric’s evil twin Garrison Bow. And both of those things are Bad, so our four heroes will eventually need to band together to hit things with swords to make the universe better.

For now, though, they’re each out on their own, in different worlds, hitting things with swords individually, under the care and tutelage of various mentors, friends, and mysterious personages.  Some of them are hitting Law-things, some of them are hitting Chaos-things, but it’s all part of the same problem, and eventually — around the end of Volume 3, I expect — they’ll manage to find one big thing they can all hit with their swords at the same time and save the balance.

Eternal Champion stories do get pretty formulaic: that’s just the way they are. It’s fantasy adventure of a particular kind, and generally quite entertaining. Roberson clearly has a deep knowledge and affection for the Moorcock Multiverse, and throws in a lot of little bits from other stories to show that this is one of the big stories that effects everything. Artist Francesco Biagini does the script justice, though I do think he has the standard problem of making Elric look too strong and powerful — Elric can barely stand up without his sword, and only survives because of it.

So Elric: The Balance Lost is a good EC story, with lots of Easter Eggs for long-time Moorcock fans — or, lat least, this first third is. Let me see if I can find the other pieces to find out how it comes out in the end….

[1] Elric’s timeline is a little muddled because Moorcock wrote his death first and has been filling in middle ever since. There probably is someone — maybe even Roberson — who knows how all of the Elric stories are related in time, but that person is not me.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #331: The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell by Michael Moorcock & Howard Chaykin

Michael Moorcock has “ended” his Eternal Champion cycle many times over the past decades — I think he did it for the first time back in the late ’60s, when it was still almost entirely Elric and just a bit of those other guys. But none of those endings have taken; he’s come back time and time again for more stories of Elric in particular and other incarnations as well.

One of the earlier endings was in the mid-70s, after two “John Daker” novels, about an incarnation of the EC that remembered all of the other incarnations. Those felt like summings-up, and were a little heftier than some of the EC novels (Dorian Hawkmoon, I am looking at you). But of course a working writer will work, and he’ll come up with more ideas — particularly for the central project of his career.

So, in 1979, Moorcock, in whatever way and for whatever reason, wrote a treatment for a third Daker story, which he gave to Howard Chaykin, then very early in his career, to adapt and illustrate and turn into a graphic novel. (I don’t think that term existed yet, or at least wasn’t in wide use, but this was one of the first created-as-a-book comics in that first burst in the late ’70s.) It was published as The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell , missed its market almost entirely, and has been a sought-after collector’s item for Moorcock completists since then, but little-remembered otherwise.

But Titan is doing a big series of all of the Moorcock EC comics, in more-or-less uniform editions, so earlier this year they reissued Swords of Heaven into a market where it actually could find the intersection of Moorcock and Chaykin fans.

The best Eternal Champion stories have quirkier, less obviously heroic plotlines — particularly the Elric stories. But a whole lot of them from the ’60s and ’70s take that essential sword-and-sorcery plot — evil forces are threatening {insert place}, which is generally where {hero}’s love {hot girlfriend} lives, and often where he’s from, too, and so he must battle their {fiendish weapon} against overwhelming odds and win out in the end despite great losses to his forces and/or allies. Better versions of that story turn up the woe and bleakness; what made Moorcock’s epic fantasy stories distinctive was the attitude of his stories and protagonists — they’re depressive and tormented and unlucky and nearly incapable of happiness.

Doing the same story in comics form means less of the woe-is-me narration, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view. But it does tend to make Swords of Heaven a little flatter and less distinctive than an equivalent Moorcock novel. By this point in his career, Moorcock’s language was stronger, and often more of a draw, than his epic adventure plots. (His plots outside of epic adventure had gotten substantially better — this book came out only a year after one of his best novels, the World Fantasy-winning Gloriana, and just before a burst of interesting early-’80s novels including the Von Bek books.)

In this case, the transform table goes thus:

  • {insert place} = The Dream Marshes, a lush and rich land about to be invaded by the barbarians of the desert realm Hell on their way to invade an even richer land called Heaven, ruled by aristocratic assholes
  • {hero} = Urlik Skarsol, bodily dropped into the body of Lord Clen of the Dream Marches
  • {hot girlfriend} = Ermizhad, the wife of Erekose, which was our hero’s name three or four books ago, and who he’s trying to get back to in the sense that he pines for her and has no way to actually control his travels
  • {fiendish weapon} = mostly human-wave attacks, though they’re also the usual mix of inventively bloodthirsty and maniacal

So Swords of Heaven does have a faint whiff of the generic to me — not as much as the first Hawkmoon series, luckily, but less distinctive than the first two Daker novels The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian. The names in particular are a bit on the nose, aside from the odd “Lord Clen.” Clen does not have a sword that steals souls, does not massacre his entire race, and does not lose his homeland or One True Love. He’s a smartish guy who wins a brutal war against an overwhelming enemy, though only after his side takes horrific losses. So, not entirely devoid of woe.

Chaykin is working in fully painted pages here, without a lot of black lines. The characters look like Chakyin people, but the overall look aims for more of a classic-illustration look, vaguely in the Howard Pyle vein. And that’s very appropriate for a very traditional adventure story like this one. It’s difficult to tell what of the writing is his and what is Moorcock’s, but it’s all plausible and sturdy, with no major problems.

This is not a great lost Eternal Champion story. It’s a pretty good late-70s EC story, that links Phoenix in Obsidian to 1986’s The Dragon in the Sword. That’s fine for me; it might be fine for you.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #285: High Society by Dave Sim

I don’t have an accurate record of when Dave Sim first said Cerebus would run for 300 issues. But my guess is that his plans became real during this storyline.

The first volume of Cerebus, which I covered last month , saw Sim moving rapidly from an amusing Thomas/Smith Conan parody with an oddly funny-animal main character to something more detailed and particular, and those twenty-five issues moved from standalone stories to trilogies and ongoing continuous plotlines.

No one expected Sim would then embark on a new story that would be as long as all of Cerebus to date. My guess is that not even Sim knew, when he was writing and drawing issue #26, “High Society,” that that would be the title for a much longer story. Somewhere in those first few High Society  issues, though, it clicked: he wasn’t just making a somewhat longer story: his narrative would stick around the city-state of Iest for more than two years of serial comics, over five hundred pages, and more political machinations than anyone had ever seen on the comics page.

So it became High Society. And a storyline many times longer than the previous ones posed a problem to Sim in the mid-80s. He was already a pioneer in reprinting his comics in permanent book editions, with the Swords of Cerebus series. But the sixth volume of that was already longer than the previous ones, reprinting five issues instead of four. Swords of Cerebus Seven would either be five times as long as the previous book or would break in the middle of the story.

Obviously it didn’t. Instead, Sim invented the “phone book” format — one little-used by other creators since, mostly because very few comics-makers have series with multiple five-hundred-page long plotlines to begin with. (He also annoyed the comics distribution network by going entirely direct-to-consumer for the High Society first printing, an innovation that made him money immediately but caused hassles for a while afterward.)

We tend to forget all of the business things Sim pioneered in independent comics, but there’s no Image without Sim, without that model of doing your comics your way, and then collecting them permanently. And this is the era when Sim was still exciting and vital and fizzy and Zeitgest-y, telling his own story and making sarcastic comments on the current comics scene at the same time.

High Society is probably the single highest point of Cerebus: a graphic novel that can stand alone and that a new reader can come into cold. Cerebus is this guy arriving in a new city, and then stuff happens to him: you don’t need to know more than that, and the first page tells you that much.

“Stuff happens” gets very baroque very quickly: Cerebus is caught up in other people’s schemes, as had been more and more central as the comic Cerebus went on the early ’80s, and the ultimate mover of those schemes was Sim’s brilliant re-imagining of Groucho Marx as Lord Julius, ruler of Palnu. [1]

High Society is a story about money and power, and particularly the power of money. Palnu is the only fiscally sound city-state in the entire Feldwar valley; every other country is running massive deficits and getting further and further in debt to Julius. Cerebus is the perfect counterweight to Palnu’s soft power, since he’s instinctively a creature of hard power: he knows armies and mercenaries and war tactics deeply, and his first instinct in any situation is to find and army and conquer something.

(This is not a good impulse in a modern world, obviously. But that raises the question of how modern Cerebus‘s world is. Is it modern enough that wars of conquest primarily smash economic activity and leave everyone poorer, or is it still medieval enough that conquest can be lasting and profitable?)

So Cerebus is first the Ranking Diplomatic Representative of Palnu to Iest, named as such without his knowledge. And then there’s a confusing plot where he’s running to keep that title, even though it’s pretty obviously a role that is going to always be in the direct remit of the ruler of the sending country. (How could it be otherwise?)

But that campaign ends up being the warm-up for the real one: Cerebus runs for Prime Minister of Iest, a job that has first slowly and then suddenly transformed from being a minor adjunct to a theocracy to being the center of secular power in the city-state. And that “suddenly” is because of Cerebus personally, in the sideways complicated manner common to Cerebus plots.

Like the best Cerebus plots, High Society is a one-damn-thing-after-another story. Cerebus is always his own worst enemy; he’s never satisfied with what he has and is the epitome of the guy who hits on sixteen every damn time. And Sim was notably never on Cerebus’s side, which is rare for a creator so closely identified with a single character. Cerebus is a horrible person in a whole host of ways, and was like that right from the beginning: Sim made him that way, and kept putting him in plots that exploited his flaws and worst tendencies. For about the first half of his adventures, Cerebus is the greatest anti-hero in comics.

Alongside all of the politics and plotting is Sim’s characteristic humor: he was the most consistently funny comics humorist of the early ’80s, and this volume has a string of his greatest hits. Sure, a lot of that humor was odd adaptations of other people’s characters — every funny character in Cerebus is based on a comedian or outside source — but Sim turned it all into comics, made it all work in his specific invented world, and gave all of those characters new, setting-appropriate jokes to tell. It’s hugely idiosyncratic, but it works amazingly well.

If you’ve never read Cerebus, and you’re willing to give Dave Sim one shot, this is the shot to take. Some parts of it are more meaningful, or funnier, if you’ve read the stories in the first collection, but I don’t think anything will be incomprehensible or particularly obscure. This is a great story about a grumpy, self-destructive guy who falls into politics in the worst way, in a vaguely late-medieval world where parts are rapidly modernizing, and has a masterful mix of humor and seriousness. If any of that sounds appealing, give it a try.

[1] Julius would make an interesting contrast to Terry Pratchett’s Patrician: both rule completely and capriciously, and both are shown to be master manipulators who always come out on top. But the Patrician works by extreme clarity and veiled threats, while Julius is his world’s master obfuscator and equivocator and either is the most Machiavellian planner of all time or just extremely good at thinking on his feet.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.