There’s little doubt which of the big two comic book companies won the battle of the universe-changing crossovers in 2015. With its long, patient build-up, its glorious hype and its sumptuous artwork, Marvel’s Secret Wars kicked aside DC’s Convergence with an effortlessness bordering on contempt to claim the coveted crown. To be fair, the two events were conceived in very different ways. Convergence only happened to facilitate the company’s move from New York to Burbank and it was never going to have the impact of Secret Wars or, for that matter, the company’s own Crisis On Infinite Earths. For DC, Convergence was an adjustment rather than a straight reboot. Secret Wars, on the other hand, was epic. Not only was the main series compelling in its own right, but the numerous spin-offs and ancillary titles that accompanied it afforded creators the opportunity to indulge their imaginations in some pretty wild ways.
Which is why we’re talking about Weirdworld issue 1.
Weirdworld has its origins in the black and white 70s comic magazine Marvel Super Action and it popped up in various anthology and showcase titles over the years. This iteration of the setting is interesting because it features Arkon, a character who predates Weirdworld by a few years, having first made his appearance in Avengers #75. Arkon is one of those characters who’s appeared as a guest star (or villain) in various comic titles over the years. He’s a barbarian type, a science fantasy hero in the mould of John Carter or Eric John Stark, albeit not one originally from Earth. Here he is still ruler of the world of Polemachus but he is stuck in Weirdworld and has no idea of how to get back to his lost kingdom – despite his crudely drawn (and hilarious) map.
In the first few pages of issue 1, we see Arkon fight off an attack from something that looks like a cross between a shark, an octopus and a packet of liquorice all-sorts. The splash page tells you everything you need to know about a comic that is essentially a head trip through the imagination of both writer and artist. Arkon battles valiantly against a huge squidshark that towers over him, while one of its fellows waits for a piece of the action in the background. The surreal details of the leering monster – particularly its pink crystal teeth – provide ample warning that this is not going to be your average comic book.
And so it proves.
Although Aaron’s opening dialogue gambit (“I will find it.”) indicates that the story is going to be a fairly straightforward quest narrative, the art tells an entirely different tale. There is nothing straightforward about Weirdworld.
And, while Aaron’s script understandably takes something of a back seat to Del Mundo’s astonishing art, it still manages to throw us genuine surprises. Shortly after realising that he’s actually on a floating island, Arkon either attempts to commit suicide or at least genuinely considers it. His despair is, despite the bright colours around him, palpable. Only the sudden arrival of an escaping dragon, dragging its would-be captors behind it, saves him. There then follows an extraordinary sequence in which Arkon attempts to ride the beast while dispatching its ogre handlers (who are, to be fair, just hanging on for dear life at this point) and avoiding anti-aircraft fire from their comrades on the ground. It is an artistic tour de force; Del Mundo’s art is breathtakingly kinetic and, if Arkon’s line “Arkon has come and death flies with him!” is a just a little melodramatic and hackneyed, I’m not particularly prepared to castigate Aaron for getting carried away. It is a genuinely blood-stirring moment.
The moral centre (if that’s the right term) of the book is made starkly clear as Arkon throws his sword through an ogre’s head. “I will not give in to a world of monsters. Even if I must become one.” This may be a quest narrative, but it is not one concerned with the niceties of higher ethics, but rather with the almost primal desire to return to the familiar, where one is safe and reality is both knowable and, to some extent, predictable. It is an Odyssean quest for home and, despite the gorgeous artwork and rich colour palette, it remains a grim one.
Having gained a mount (and a frighteningly impressive one at that!), Arkon lets his guard down to “enjoy the view”. Needless to say, Weirdworld punishes such laxity and his dragon is hooked by a lure shot up from beneath the ocean’s surface in a suitably bonkers inversion of traditional fishing. The book almost ends with both dragon and rider trapped beneath the waves in a huge net, menaced by intelligent apes wearing breathing apparatus. It is a fittingly bizarre and disturbing image. Del Mundo’s art is fantastic here, the out-of-focus net reinforcing the sense of helplessness as the apes move forward menacingly. (And the lead ape has mismatched eyes, too. Which is even creepier.)
This being an ongoing comic book, though, the last word is left to the villain revealed on the final page – none other than Morgan Le Fay, whose brooding, scheming arrogance is portrayed beautifully by Del Mundo. The comic leaves us, then, with a taciturn hero in mortal danger and the main villain finally revealed. It’s effortlessly engaging stuff and leaves this reader, at least, desperate for more. To use a cliché, the art is worth the cover price alone, but, really, the whole package is captivating and compelling both in its single-minded hero and its, well, weirdness. Highly recommended.