Tagged: fantasy

Eternal Empire #1

Eternal Empire coverMy experience of the Luna brothers’ work has to date been limited to Alex + Ada and a couple of issues of Girls. Eternal Empire, the latest collaboration between Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, is a very different beast altogether, although it does share some thematic concerns, the challenges for women in oppressive societies being one of them. Set on a world which orbits three suns, this first issue primarily deals with the escape of an unnamed girl from a work camp and, along the way, gives us enough hints about the world in which the story takes place to make giving the next issue a look an attractive proposition.

 
With comics being such a visual medium, whether readers enjoy a story or not depends a great deal on their reaction to the art. I mention this, because Luna’s art style is one about which I am a little ambivalent. It is clear, clean and crisp – almost to the point of crudeness. At times, his characters appear to display an almost mechanical stiffness. His storytelling, however, is exemplary. There are moments in this issue that possess an almost filmic quality. The fight between our protagonist and a pair of burly male guards is told in an absorbing, almost uncomfortably unhurried way that reinforces the sheer physical effort of her struggle to escape. The subsequent journey through the snow-swept night is also impressive storytelling (the page is divided up into a regular 4×5 grid and the story is moved as much by the slow lightening of colour as it is by the minimalist dialogue), as are the images of the girl supporting walking through fields of livestock and catching fish in a river. Luna’s art may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does involve the reader in the story. And the story is very interesting indeed.

 

Eternal Empire map

A map on the title page means that we’re in serious second world fantasy territory. The essay about the three suns is interesting, too.

The issue opens with a ceremony in which a young woman divests herself of her robes and stands naked before a dragon-like creature and asks it to ‘join with her’ to create a new ‘one’, which seems to refer to ‘synnians’. The text is unclear on this point, but the ‘synnians’ appear to be a hybrid race who are currently rampaging through the continent and threatening Karabon, the nation where the ceremony is taking place. The woman, then, appears to be proposing that the dragon-creature help resist this invasion by creating a new hybrid to counter the old. This prologue is appropriately mysterious and just a little disturbing. The woman’s nakedness suggests the union will be a physical one; the dragon-creature’s chains suggest that it will not be entirely consensual. Throughout the scene, the three-sun motif is present – not just in the position of the suns in the sky (they are aligned in an inverted triangle pattern, equidistant from one another), but also in the cowls that the young woman and her fellow celebrants are wearing on the first page, as well as the fact that each line of the ceremony is spoken three times. All of which helps communicate the sense that this world has a culture and history that is at least in part influenced by its unusual relationship to its suns.

 

Eternal Empire 4

Farming is hard in the world of Eternal Empire.

We then jump forward 141 years to a work camp in which ‘haam’ are forced to work the soil, pulling up root vegetables from the frozen ground with their bare hands and living on subsistence rations as they do so. We see orderly rows of plants and wooden walls and guard posts that suggest the sort of institutionalised farming more associated with 20th century totalitarian regimes than your stereotypical fantasy setting. The work is hard as is made clear by Luna’s art and the fact that we see a worker being beaten for stealing food. During this section, it is revealed that the work camp is run by the Eternal Empire which rose “to save the Eastern Three from the synnians of old”. This is a reference to the prologue. It would seem that the dream of liberation and survival has turned into something altogether more acquisitive and imperial. Hmmm. This announcement is made in the shadow of a large statue presumably meant to represent the Empress – a bronze-skinned woman with angelic wings and a neutral expression with arms by her sides palms outward in a gesture that is, perhaps, welcoming.

 
We are told that the Empress is immortal and that her armies have just conquered Kadei and will march on Nifaal to unite the continent (or perhaps the world) under her rule. All of this is interesting to the reader, but not especially helpful to our protagonist who keeps on getting visionary flashes of warmth and light that impinge upon her drab, gruelling and frozen existence and offer her a tantalising hope of something better – or at least different. When the opportunity to escape comes, she does – although it is a close-run thing – and ends the issue with a surprise meeting with a mysterious bronze-skinned man who, it seems, can shoot flames from his hands.

 
As introductory issues go, this is both intriguing and enjoyable. Much of the enjoyment comes from the undeniable sense that we are reading a story set in a world with a coherent history whose details have yet to be fully revealed to us. The main character is suffering, brave and resourceful – all of which are appealing, although she is presented to us with very little in the way of background or indication of any pre-existing family ties. She is, however, an immediately sympathetic character and an effective focus and vehicle for the issue’s main story. Her suffering is a key aspect of her appeal and Vaughn and Luna emphasise this through a number of encounters with authority. Her determination to escape through the blizzard is admirable, too.

 
I said at the start of this review that, in terms of setting, this was a departure from Alex + Ada, but there are thematic similarities nonetheless. Like Ada, our protagonist here deals with imprisonment and escape. More than that, she is determined to explore the wider world and to take risks in order to do so. The differences between this story and Vaughn and Luna’s previous outing, however, are, if anything, more interesting. Eternal Empire’s setting – with its three suns and clearly defined geography (the issue has a map on the title page – I do love me a good map on a title page), its history and religion – are, at the moment, as intriguing and involving as the story of its protagonist. In introducing both, this issue is a clear success and one that, if dystopian fantasies are your bag, I heartily recommend.

 

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

Brief Encounter – American Gods: Shadows #3

American Gods 3 coverNot having read the novel on which it’s based, I can’t say for certain just how close to the book this comic adaptation of American Gods is, but I suspect it’s pretty faithful. The first two issues were something of a slow burn and, while this continues in this issue, at least what is smouldering slowly is interesting. This issue, while we still don’t know exactly what the enigmatic Mister Wednesday is up to, we do begin to get a clearer idea of the world in which our eponymous character, Shadow, has found himself. And it is pretty weird. And just a little bit scary.
This issue starts off exactly where the last issue left us. Shadow makes his way back to the motel, bumps into Mister Wednesday and tells him about his encounter with the strange fat kid in the limo. Wednesday says that he knows who the kid is and that “they don’t have a fucking clue”. I got the impression here that, at this point, Wednesday sees the fat kid as more of an irritant than a threat, but the narrative doesn’t give us time to dwell on that, as we see Shadow go back to his room and try to get to sleep and not think about his dead wife.
So, of course, she turns up. But not before Shadow has a satisfyingly weird, but oddly informative, dream. This is where Hampton’s understated art comes into its own. So realistic and grounded is his art normally that, when the narrative enters, as here, a dreamscape, the art feels just as ‘real’ despite its clearly fantastical subject matter – and it’s all the more disturbing for that. Shadow finds himself in a hall of statues, each statue representing a god who has been “forgotten” and “might as well be dead”. Then, he is shown a much larger collection of statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, too. These gods, presumably, have passed from the “might as well be dead” category into the “are actually dead” category. This is a useful – and memorable – bit of background provision. Gods can die. They have died in the past. Their deaths are connected with the process of being forgotten.

 

American Gods 3 pic 1

Hampton does uncannily weird and twisted very well indeed, it turns out.

This section raises a slight issue with the way the adapters have chosen to tell this story. Anyone who’s read enough of my reviews will know that I have an irrational nostalgia (all nostalgia is irrational, arguably) for the heady days of melodramatic third person narration. The third person narration here is more understated than that found in your average pre-90s comic; it does, nevertheless, remind the reader of both the good and bad aspects of the form. It is, for example, useful to know that Shadow is being spoken to in his dream by a “precise voice” that is “fussy” and “exact”. That kind of detail is difficult to hint at through relying on dialogue alone and I get the feeling it’s important detail, too. That said, being told that “there was something profoundly disturbing” about the statue in front of which Shadow finds himself is a piece of commentary we don’t really need. If you think there’s not something profoundly disturbing about a huge three-breasted, snake-headed statue with a massive vulva carved in the front of it, you might want to seek professional help.
Shadow wakes up from his vision in something of a state and goes to the loo. When he comes back, he finds his dead wife sitting on his bed. This section is astonishingly well-written and incredibly disturbing, mostly because of the jarring juxtaposition of the dead Laura’s matter-of-fact honesty and the fact that, well, she’s dead, something that, again, the third person narration helps communicate very effectively. That third person narration lets the reader down a little, though, by telling rather than showing us that Shadow cries himself to sleep. Given Shadow’s taciturnity up to now, that display of emotion might have been a useful way to cement the character’s relationship with the reader. A minor gripe? Probably. It’s more or less forgotten as the narrative is interrupted by a rather nice vignette with art by Walt Simonson and Laura Martin.
Given that this 4-page section deals with the establishing of the Nordic pantheon in the New World, the choice of Simonson as artist is a bit of a no-brainer. After all, if you want anyone to portray this story’s version of Odin, Thor and Tyr, who better than the writer/artist of probably the best non-Kirby run on Marvel’s Thor title as well as his own criminally ignored (seriously, am I the only person reading it?) take on Norse mythology, Ragnarok? This, however, is Simonson in much more restrained mood, which is appropriate given that this is not a tale of heroism, but of, to use a timeworn phrase, a clash of cultures, faith and, ultimately, betrayal. It’s grim stuff and makes the point fairly eloquently that most religions are rooted in blood, violence and self-interest.

American Gods 3 pic 2

The dead wife comes to call. A touch awkward, that.

The rest of the issue deals with Shadow and Wednesday’s trip to Chicago where they meet up with some odd characters who, my trusty googling tells me, are Slavic gods. The issue ends with Shadow sitting down to play a game of checkers with Czernobog, whose name literally means ‘black god’. Gaiman, Russell and Hampton portray these Slavic gods as old, decrepit and down on their luck. They are, perhaps, only one or two steps removed from those unmoving statues that Shadow encountered in his dream. What the significance of the checkers game might be is, at this point, unclear. As has been the case with the last two chapters, this issue ends on an anti-climactic, somewhat uncertain note. I don’t necessarily mind that, though. American Gods is perhaps a series to encourage reflection in the reader rather than the desire to read on straight away.

In conclusion, this issue delivers much more fantasy than the previous two and is all the better for it. As Shadow gets more and more entangled in Wednesday’s plans, the richness of Gaiman’s world is becoming clearer. Hampton’s art works well here and Simonson’s interlude is rather classy. This is entertaining, thought-provoking and, at times, disturbing storytelling. If you don’t mind the slow burn, it’s well worth your time.

(This review originally appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

Update – Things You Might Like To Read IV

We’re deep into close of academic year territory at present, a bramble and thicket-infested jungle of time which lays snares for the unwary teacher who can find him or herself prematurely relaxing only to be reminded that they have 75 reports to write. And they were due in last Friday. For that reason, I’ve been a bit lax when it comes to this blog and I can only apologize. I am reading things, honest. It’s just I haven’t had much time to write about them. Even my output for the ever-wonderful Weird Science DC Comics site has slowed down a bit. The summer beckons, though, and with it there will be time. Time to read, time to write, time to do jobs around the house… Ah. Ah, well…

Well, never mind, eh?

What I have been reading recently includes…

3144871-dial+h

Bolland covers are generally awesome.

Dial H Vol 1: Into You. Comprising the first six issues and 0 issue of China Mieville’s New 52 run on one of the weirdest superhero comics you’ve ever (or, more likely, never) read, Into You chronicles the adventures of overweight schlub Nelson Jent as he encounters a mysterious telephone dial that unexpectedly turns him into a superhero. I’d read this before and I’ll probably do so again. Mateus Santolouco’s artwork takes a little getting used to (among other things, he’s heavy on inking and shading, giving the whole thing a dirty gritty feel – to be fair, this is entirely appropriate for the story), but the fecund imagination of Mieville is on full display and it is a wonderful, glorious thing.

Jent is a remarkably sympathetic protagonist, as is the other dial-wielder, Manteau, who wears a mask and cloak in an attempt to hold on to some semblance of her self-identity in defiance of the dizzying range of super-powered characters the dial turns her into. This first trade finds Nelson and Manteau trying to cope with being hunted by villains who know much more about the dials than Nelson does and are trying to summon an extra-dimensional entity to Earth. (And, coolly enough, the Abyss is an old Dial H for Hero villain from Adventure Comics.)

What’s truly impressive about this book is just how many heroes Mieville conjures up and how well thought-out and grounded their characters and power sets are. Each one has a quirky, quotidian quality (oh, I do love me some alliteration) to their abilities and identities. One of the best panels of the book is the moment Nelson ‘remembers’ his biggest ever fight against the Rake Dragon alongside Team House, a superhero combo whose members’ identities and powers are all based on architectural features: The Door-Pilot, Open-Window Man, Spiralstair and an unnamed character who appears to be an animated wash basin. As weird as it sounds, it just… works.

I could wax lyrical about Mieville’s playfulness, his exploration of themes of identity and heroism (the moment in which a de-powered Nelson rescues Manteau is just marvelous), his convincing mythologizing – but I wouldn’t be doing the book justice. You really do have to check it out for yourself.

Royals

Busy. Colourful. If that’s your thing, this is a comic for you…

I’ve also checked out the first couple of issues of Royals, a series which should probably just be called ‘Inhumans In Space’. Writer Al Ewing is someone I quite like and, although Jonboy Meyers is a pretty decent artist if you like a slightly angular, cartoony style, the whole thing feels just a little lightweight to me. Ewing does some pretty decent things with the characters he’s got. Medusa dying is an interesting touch and it’s always good to see Noh-Varr get some panel time, too. I’ll stick with it for now, but it probably needs to pick up soonish.

In terms of non-comics stuff, I’ve got some interesting books on the go. Houllebecq’s Submission probably needs a blog entry all of its own. I’ve almost finished it and it’s one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve read for a long, long time. I’m getting close to finishing Time of Contempt and it is just phenomenal. I can’t recommend Sapkowski enough and this is tremendously impressive stuff. Highly recommended if you like your fantasy middle-European-influenced instead of anglo-centric.

Anyway, that’s me done for now. Hopefully, I’ll be back to posting regularly soon. 🙂

American Gods: Shadows Issue 1 (Dark Horse)

pdf0First published in 2001, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is long overdue for a comic adaptation. Presumably spurred by the imminent appearance of a TV adaptation, Dark Horse has decided to release an adaptation across 27 issues constituting 3 distinct story arcs with veteran comics creator P Craig Russell as adapter and co-writer and with Scott Hampton (and, briefly, Lovern Kindzierski) on art. So, does the first issue of American Gods: Shadows succeed in hooking this comics reader (who hasn’t read the novel!)? Let’s find out…

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

American Gods: Shadows issue 1 comes, as might be expected, with a variety of covers. The standard one is a rather tasty bit of Glenn Fabry art featuring a minotaur character who only briefly appears in the comic. My favourite, though, is the David Mack cover which is more impressionistic and more accurately reflects the slow, thoughtful, atmospheric narrative. (If you’re hankering for something more Sandman-esque and disturbing, though, the Dave McKean cover is probably going to be your bag.)

The story itself introduces the character of Shadow (if you’re writing a tale that is rooted in mythic notions of gods, worship and the supernatural, you might as well go the whole hog and give your main character a name positively brimming over with portentous ambiguity), who, when the story starts, is serving time in a decidedly British-looking prison for, we find out later, aggravated robbery. He is presented as a thoughtful – almost philosophical – man who attempts to stay removed from the kind of violence and pettiness popularized in countless low-budget prison movies over the last few decades. Instead, he works out, practices coin tricks and occasionally has interesting conversations with the improbably-named Low Key Lyesmith, a bearded chap who looks like he should be running the House of Secrets rather than serving time. Despite the fact that Shadow is nearing release and an idyllic reunion with his wife and best friend (I have my suspicions about them, incidentally), he can’t shake the feeling that something is going to go wrong.

And, of course, it duly does. A couple of days before his release date he is informed that his wife and best friend have died in a car accident and he’ll be released early as a result. An understandably numb Shadow endures a circuitous journey back home, but he gets off the plane early largely to get away from the dapperly-dressed but strangely knowledgeable Mr Wednesday with whom he’s been sharing the plane flight. Mr Wednesday has, during the course of their conversation, offered him a job, the details of which are worryingly vague. On leaving the airport, Shadow heads to the nearest diner only to again encounter Mr Wednesday (who should still be on the plane flying north at this point) in the rest room and, again, Mr Wednesday offers him the job. And there we leave Shadow, although the comic continues for another four pages, more of which in a moment.

At this point, the comic is… pretty good. Scott Hampton’s art, the occasional slightly off facial expression notwithstanding, is generally great, although it’s worth pointing out that both it and P Craig Russell’s layouts may appear exceptionally conservative if you’re more used to the action-orientated art of your average big two superhero book. The narrative pace is decidedly slow and deliberate. This comic is in no particular hurry to tell its story and, while that doesn’t necessarily have to be a drawback, here it presents some difficulties. Shadow is too taciturn and self-contained a character to be someone with whom the reader can instantly identify. He’s interesting up to a point, but hardly charismatic. That the other characters around him during the prison sequences never really rise above the level of foil or caricature only adds to the sense of remoteness. Some of the dialogue between Shadow and Lyresmith is witty, for example, but that doesn’t particularly translate into warmth. Shadow’s reaction to the news of his wife’s death is so muted as to be almost non-existent, which makes it even more difficult to feel sympathy for him. It’s noticeable that it’s only when Mr Wednesday appears, that Shadow comes alive. Gaiman and Russell do build up a real sense of intrigue about Wednesday and his reappearance in the rest room of the diner is foreshadowed beautifully and handled well.

Whether there’s enough here to hook the reader thoroughly remains to be seen. We get plenty of hints throughout the issue of a wider supernatural plot, not least the character of Wednesday himself, but the focus is squarely on providing the reader with Shadow’s backstory. At this point, I’m not sure that’s enough. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve got those last four pages.

The four-page ‘Somewhere In America’ section (I can only assume we’re going to get more of these as the series progresses) features a quite frankly bizarre encounter between a young man and a buxom, dark-skinned woman who turns out to be considerably more than she appears. This sequence works on so many levels it’s breath-taking. Both lyrical and mundane, it balances pretty much perfectly on the dividing line between beauty and horror, sex and death, and deals with the kind of fundamental questions about love, sexuality and divinity that would have any student of Freud or Jung squealing with delight. Lovern Kindzierski’s artwork appears to be fairly straightforward but has a fluidity and creativity that is very appealing. In these four pages, the comic offers the Gaiman-esque weirdness that the rest of the issue has only hinted at and delivers a considerably greater impact in only a fraction of the space.

This isn’t to say that the main story is terrible. It certainly isn’t. It is, however, an incredibly slow burn. The inclusion of the last four pages serves as a reassurance that, yes, the world that Shadow is in the process of entering really is as disturbing and compelling as the Gaiman name on the cover suggests. Taken as a whole, then, this issue (just about) manages to do its job in introducing our main character and giving us a tantalizing look at the wider world in which the story takes place. On that basis, I think it’s worth a look.

NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Thanks to the guys for the permission to post it here as well.

“They Took My Dragon” – Travels and Travails in ‘Weirdworld’ issue 2

Underwater apes, an insane crystalline warrior and a whole load of dragon puke feature in this highly enjoyable and stunningly gorgeous story.

weirdworld-2015-002-000After an absurdly entertaining (and entertainingly absurd) issue which ended with Arkon, our straight-man hero, being captured by the underwater-dwelling monkey-men of Apelantis, you might expect issue 2 to feature escape attempts and/or some Planet of the Apes-style social commentary and/or the reuniting of Arkon with the rather impressive dragon he encountered in issue 1. And you would be partly right.

There is indeed an escape attempt.

First, though, I think we need to revel in some inner monologuing of a kind that balances adroitly on the dividing line between homage and parody. “They took my dragon. They took my sword and battle-bolts. They took my map. But they did not take my life. The fools. I am Arkon, lord of the warlords. And so begins my destruction of the kingdom of the Water-Apes.” That Arkon is uttering this over a gorgeous double page spread that emphasises just how large and impressive Apelantis is, to the side of which is set a much smaller panel in which a bound Arkon is being led in chains to a dungeon, highlights both his determination and, perhaps, just how out of touch with reality our ‘lord of the warlords’ is. Aaron is a damned good writer and I’m inclined to think that at least part of the attraction of writing a book like Weirdword and a character like Arkon must lie in the opportunity presented to send up, albeit lovingly, the kind of rugged, individualistic hero that Arkon is meant to be. That would certainly seem to be the case here.

weirdworld-2015-002-002

Arkon is not getting out of there in a hurry.

After attempting to break out of his stone-walled prison by literally banging his head against a wall, Arkon is interrupted by a voice from the next cell who suggests they escape together and turns out to be Warbow, hero of the Crystellium and character from the short-lived Crystar comic of the 1980s, an appearance that might well give my comic-buying school friend from that decade a jolt of excitement were he still buying comics. But I digress. Aaron handles this exchange remarkably well. Warbow for most of this section is an eye seen through a gap in the wall, an urbane and civilized voice speaking to an Arkon who, despite his wanderings around Weirdworld, persists in believing that Warbow is weaker than he is. He is disproved in dramatic and amusing style as Warbow punches through the wall (he’s escaped numerous times, but needs someone to help him get through the city’s upper levels). Arkon agrees to help him and the story moves into the kind of carnage that, in the hands of Mike Del Mundo, becomes a thing of beauty.

“The water swirls with blood and gore and animal screams. But all I see around me are the streets of Polemachus.”

weirdworld-2015-002-008

Del Mundo shows us what pornography for sharks might look like.

Del Mundo’s Arkon is an avatar of focused brutality, the centre of a double page spread that presents underwater combat as a strange ballet of grace and desperate violence. Around our barbarian hero swirl the bodies of defeated apemen; directly in front of him is another apeman, its face contorted into a grimace, its hands brandishing a wicked looking harpoon. In the background, Warbow is fighting his own battle. The artwork is busy, but also astonishingly pretty to look at. It’s more than just the air bubbles that indicate the action takes place underwater. The positioning of the dead or wounded apemen, and the clouds of blood dispersing through the ocean do too. It is impressive stuff.

In the following page, Arkon is depicted wrestling a final apeman, but while the action is bloody and visceral, the accompanying inner monologue simply reiterates Arkon’s almost monomaniacal determination to find his home. Arguably, it is this obsession that makes the character worth reading about. Certainly, he is not a laugh-a-minute wisecracking superhero in the vein of Spider-Man, nor is he an especially complex figure. Instead, Aaron is using him as a straight man, a muscle-bound foil for Weirdworld’s craziness. His determination to find his home, however, means that Arkon never quite descends into the realm of Conan-parody, although he does skirt it perilously at times. We never stop feeling some sort of sympathy for him, though. His anguish at losing his map of Weirdworld is compelling and leads to the next step of his tortuous journey; Warbow promises to give Arkon his own map, provided he helps the crystalline warrior rescue his prince from the prison that holds him. Arkon doesn’t have much of a choice at this point.

weirdworld-2015-002-011

Stable duty proved to be a bit more wearing than usual.

Before we see him embark on this new side-quest, we have a couple of pages with Morgan LeFay, ruler of Weirdworld and current ‘owner’ of Arkon’s erstwhile mount. Again, del Mundo’s art is phenomenal. The power and ferocity of the dragon is shown clearly as it tosses its ogre handlers around and, in at least one unlucky case, biting them cleanly in two. LeFay is made of sterner stuff, however, staring the dragon down, not flinching at its phlegm, slobber and body part-filled bellow. We don’t get to see Morgan tame the beast, but that’s not really the point. In facing down the dragon, she proves herself every bit as determined as Arkon and the following panel’s depiction of her riding the creature, soaring through a blood red sky, only reinforces the impression that she will be a formidable antagonist for our surly warrior king.

weirdworld-2015-002-012

She’s a sorceress; she can sort her hair out later.

Her leaving on that maiden flight is handy for Arkon and Warbow because it gives them an opportunity to infiltrate Le Fay’s stronghold and find Warbow’s prince who is being held within it. This builds up to a sequence that is both funny and disturbing. Arkon assumes that the prince will be held in the prisons, but Warbow tells us that he’s held in the vault, the significance of which becomes all too apparent once they fight their way to the vault and find out that Warbow’s ‘friend’ and prince is now a bag of collected gemstones. Del Mundo does a great job of depicting Warbow’s insane delight on discovering his friend and there’s a nice sense of the disturbingly absurd when he lifts up the bag and introduces Arkon to his friend. Arguably the narration is just a little heavy-handed here, but having a partner whose sanity Arkon doubts raises the stakes just that little bit more and reminds us that Weirdworld really is a place that can’t be trusted.

weirdworld-2015-002-017

The game of pass the parcel took an unexpected turn…

Issue 2 of Weirdworld, then, ends as it began – in adversity and solitude for our main character and in a gobsmacking reminder that Weirdworld is a dangerous, unpredictable place. But, it is entertaining too and the sense of Aaron and Del Mundo having a lot of fun with both the character and the setting is very clear and, to be fair, deeply infectious. The art is, at times, breath-taking and the dialogue is never less than snappy and engaging. In short, this is a great comic.

Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson – A Review

Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…

Memories_of_IceReviewing a Steven Erikson novel is, I’d imagine, a bit like trying to sum up climbing an exceptionally high mountain.  On some level, the experience has been arduous, but nothing can quite beat that sense of achievement and, oh, the memories, the moments of heart-pounding excitement and unexpected beauty…  And that view!

Memories of Ice is third in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, but comparing it to either of its two predecessors is a futile task. Despite the fact that they’re all huge slabs of second world fantasy and there are some tonal and thematic similarities, they are all very much their own gigantic, quivering beasts.  Memories of Ice takes place more or less directly after the events of the first novel Gardens of the Moon, in which the Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm is tasked with capturing the city of Darujhistan, the culmination of a long and bloody campaign on the continent of Genebackis. At the start of the third novel, Dujek has apparently gone rogue, forging an alliance with former enemies Kallor, Caladan Brood and Anamander Rake, the enigmatic ancient ruler of Moon’s Spawn.  The alliance is necessary because a new power has appeared in the south of the continent, a fanatic cult led by a powerful Seer, who is himself a front for an older, malevolent power. In the face of this evil, old enmities must be set aside and a desperate race to relieve the siege of Capustan, an independent city halfway between Darujhistan and the Seer’s capital city of Coral, forms much of the matter of the first third of the novel.  It’s absorbing and entertaining stuff.  A novel of this size has plenty of scope for sub-plots and diversions and Erikson is in no great hurry to present us with the novel’s first big action set piece.  It’s a good job that his world building and characterisation is so exceptionally good, then.

The appearance of recurring characters like Rake, Dujek and his cadre of elite engineers, the Bridgeburners, led by the nobleborn, god-touched Captain Paran and the taciturn but eminently likeable Whiskeyjack is reassuring, but Erikson has plenty of new characters to throw into the mix, too.  The caravan guard, Gruntle, and his comrades Stonny and Buke; the very creepy Broach and Bauchelain, along with their longsuffering manservant Emancipor Reese; the officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company; Lady Envy and her enigmatic Seguleh companions; the Mhybe and Silverfox, tribal messiah-girl and the reincarnation of four separate spirits: all of these have significant roles to play in the narrative and, through Erikson’s remarkable ear for believable dialogue, they live vividly in the reader’s imagination as the story unfolds.

Erikson’s training in archaeology accounts at least in part for his detailed, layered world-building. History matters in the Malazan books; it influences the actions of the characters and binds them to specific places in often uncomfortable ways.  This then lends the events of the novel considerable weight. When certain places are destroyed or changed, when certain characters emerge in answer to ancient needs or manipulations, the descriptions are replete with meaning. The world of the novels is being changed by the actions of the characters within them; this is not a heroic preservation of the status quo, but rather a brave attempt by our viewpoint characters to mitigate the effects of the changes taking place around them. This measured, layered approach – this making real a world of pure fantasy – is one of the most impressive achievements of the series and this novel in particular.

It is, I’m afraid, far outside the scope of this review to summarise the story in its entirety. Suffice to say that there are two major (and by ‘major’, I mean ‘massive and jaw-droppingly good’) military actions in the novel and Erikson is adept at not only describing the tactics and strategy involved but also conveying with an almost visceral intensity those moments when the allies’ plans encounter the enemy and are shredded into an incoherent full-blooded mess.  Erikson adds another layer of mystery and intrigue, however, with the revelation that at least some of the participants in the combat have attracted the attention of this world’s gods and, indeed, he frequently reminds us that there is a partially hidden conflict taking place whose roots are ancient and sunk deep into a rich earth of malice and vengeance.

All of which sounds pretty dark.  And it is. The Seer delights in torture and feeds his growing army with the bodies of his enemies; what happens to the Mhybe is heartbreaking, and there are some moments of genuine horror. That said, Erikson’s tone is nowhere near as nihilistic as, say, George R R Martin’s in Game of Thrones. In fact, in some senses, Erikson is the ‘anti-Martin’.  His world is as layered and politically complex (although in a different way; Erikson’s gods are much more proactive than Martin’s seem to be[1]) as Westeros, but his characters are not quite as self-serving or venal. Betrayal happens in the Malazan books, but so does heroism, although that heroism almost always carries a (sometimes unforeseen) cost.  It’s here, I feel, that Erikson particularly excels.  No one quite writes heroic moments like him.  And I’m not talking cheesy cartoony heroics either.  I’m talking… well, I’m talking about Itkovian, mostly.

Itkovian starts Memories of Ice as one of the commanding officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company who have agreed to help defend the city of Capustan.  It’s a tough contract, not only because the city is facing a vastly superior force of cannibalistic religious fanatics, but also because it’s ruled by a council of squabbling priests.  The Grey Swords are sworn to the service of Fener, the Boar of War, whose power is waning (and whom the reader has already encountered in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates). There is a sense of noble futility to all the Grey Swords; their religious vows mean they will see out their contract despite the seeming impossibility of the task. Itkovian, however, is the Shield Anvil, granted the power to bear the grief, sorrow and pain of the mortals around him. This gift is extended to his enemies as well as his allies and the siege of Capustan provides one of the most powerful moments in the series so far when Itkovian offers to take the pain of Anaster, First Seed, leader of the Tenescowri, the peasant army that has successfully assaulted the city. It is an understated moment of raw compassion that it is quite hard to imagine appearing in A Song of Ice and Fire; as powerful as it is, however, it is also a foreshadowing of a much more significant moment later on in the book.

It is characters like Itkovian that, just as much as the stunning action set pieces, make this novel so memorable and, yes, moving.  I’ve said elsewhere that I’m a romantic, despite my occasional attempts to present a cynical front to the world. That said, I don’t want fairy tale endings or tired cliché; I appreciate moral complexity, characters finding their heroism in difficult circumstances, characters stumbling and falling. But, I also want to see redemption; I want to see the possibility of compassion triumphing over selfishness. I want, in short, for my fantasy stories to have at least some measure of hope. This is what Erikson provides here. In the middle of the devastation and loss (and at least a couple of important characters won’t be reappearing after this book – except in flashback!), in a setting that is rich in history and the tragedy that has shaped it, there remains a glimmer of hope. Characters change; characters learn. It is for this reason, along with the excellent world-building and exciting writing, that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it.

[1] Okay. Confession time. I’ve only managed to make it through one and a half novels of Martin’s admittedly impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series, for reasons that I might go into in a later post. I am not at all questioning Martin’s considerable skills as a writer.

Arak: Son of Thunder, issue 2

We like comics in our house. I am, of course, entirely to blame for this.  My obsession with comics, particularly those of the American variety, began in the early 80s and has continued on-and-off into my adult life.  My younger son seems to have inherited my comic geekery.  He’s just turned 18 and celebrated by spending a sizeable amount of money on some very nice comic collections from the ‘big two’. I’m kind of jealous, actually. He has way more disposable income than I do and two very sturdy sets of shelves in his room stocked liberally with trade paperbacks, original graphic novels and, most impressive of all, a smattering of those over-sized omnibus editions that look so beautiful it almost makes you want to weep.

What he doesn’t have, though, is a copy of Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2.  First published by DC in 1981 and written by Roy and Dann Thomas, Arak: Son of Thunder was a sword and sorcery series set in the Dark Ages. Its titular hero is a Native American who, as a boy, finds himself marooned in the middle of the Atlantic where he is discovered by Vikings one of whom ends up adopting him.  While Arak has some superficial similarity to a certain dark-haired Cimmerian whose adventures Thomas had been chronicling for much of the preceding decade at Marvel, the comic’s nominally real world setting, its growing band of recurring characters and, perhaps most importantly, the more reflective character of Arak himself meant that the title was never going to be a straightforward Conan clone.

That's a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it'd be... perfect.

That’s a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it’d be… perfect.

That said, issue 2 gives us a tale that could, with just a little tweaking, have appeared during Thomas’ run on Conan the Barbarian.  The issue starts with Arak, having set off from the Northumbrian monastery that was the setting for much of the first issue, running aground on rocks off the coast of France. It’s a moody, dramatic opening which successfully establishes the tone of the story while giving away nothing whatsoever as regards its main plot.  It does, however, serve as a useful reminder of the storytelling skills of both Thomas and co-creator Ernie Colon (who would go on to create the Amethyst comic for DC), whose artwork, embellished with some generally very impressive inking from Tony DeZuniga, is, as we’ll see, one of the highlights of the early Arak run. (DeZuniga would later take on the art duties all by himself; artists such as Ron Randall and Adrian Gonzales also had stints on the title.)  The opening page’s narration (remember those heady days when narration in comics was still a thing?) takes the form of a fairly simple Native American fable. Along with the art, though, it’s not only an economical piece of storytelling but it also reminds the reader of Arak’s Native American heritage while also reinforcing how integral the symbolism of the storm is to his character. It’s clever and relatively subtle.

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

On page 2, Thomas’ narration settles into a more familiar tenor. It’s present tense, slightly overbearing and somewhat melodramatic, although there are nice flashes of more poetic description that remind us that Thomas is actually a very fine comics writer. “Beneath the breakers, jagged rocks lurk, like the furtive daggers of assassins” is particularly good and the “dawn-flecked boot” that prods him awake at the bottom of the page possesses an unexpected gentleness that, it turns out, is entirely appropriate, given that the aforementioned boot belongs to a beautiful young woman who just happens to be out walking the beach with her silent armour-suited guards.

The mysterious beauty in question is, we find out, Corinna (I do love fantasy names. Whether she ever goes a-maying is, sadly, never divulged) the daughter of Lord Hessa, owner of the large castle near the shoreline that Arak initially mistakes as belonging to Charlemagne, the focus of his current quest. The conversation between them establishes her as being somewhat haughty with a hint of flirtatiousness and Arak as being naïve, direct and, at the bottom of the page when he grabs Corinna’s cloak in order to emphasise his point, socially inept bordering on the point of rudeness. (Well, he is a Viking – sort of. And he has just been shipwrecked.) Needless to say, Corinna looks on this with some disapproval and one of her silent guards intervenes. And then we have our first fight.

I’m not sure who it was who pioneered the technique of figures ‘breaking out’ of the panel borders during action sequences (I’m tempted to say it was Kirby, but don’t take my word for it), but Colon uses it effectively here. While the guards are lumbering iron brutes, Colon draws Arak fighting with speed and ferocity. He takes down two of the guards but is knocked unconscious by the third and taken to the castle. So far so straightforward.  That said, the final piece of narration on page 5 (“All in all, it’s been a most unusual morning for everyone.”) is jarringly whimsical after such an energetic and violent scene.

There's some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of... spare, aren't they?

There’s some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of… spare, aren’t they?

The story then sags a bit, although there’s some very nice artwork to lift things. Arak is questioned by Lord Hessa, an interrogation that continues at the prompting of his daughter. (Note, incidentally, that on page 7, her throne is drawn as being just a little higher than his. Significant, that.) Arak gives a truncated account of his origin before the narrator gives the reader a much fuller account via an internal monologue-flashback that is mostly unnecessary given all of this only happened one issue ago. Hessa is unimpressed with Arak’s tales (his comment that Arak “weave[s] tales like tapestries” seems odd given that he hasn’t heard the more outlandish aspects of Arak’s story like we have) and orders him thrown into his castle’s donjon, because he thinks our hero’s a spy for Carolus Magnus. Needless to say, Arak’s not particularly taken with that idea and a scuffle breaks out which unintentionally reveals one of our first big clues as to what’s really going on. Hessa, who has been wearing some very nice white gloves (a la Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) throughout the interrogation, actually has (also like Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) a very hairy hand (the left one, naturally). A monstrously hairy, wickedly clawed hand, in fact. Goodness me. What on earth is going on here?

Hessa is all for killing Arak outright – or, as he puts it, raking his monstrous hand “lovingly” across Arak’s unusually red skin – when his daughter stops him. This is the second time Corinna’s intervened in this scene. Hmmm.  Our attention is nicely directed away from the issue of who’s really in charge in the castle, however, when it’s revealed that those big suits of armour don’t have anyone in them. They appear to be animated by some malign magical force. Hey, this is getting pretty good.

When Arak is thrown into the castle’s dungeon, he (and we) meet the next significant character – Malagigi, a wizard from the court of Carolus Magnus who can make fire appear in his hand, but, whenever he gets close to revealing what’s really going on, breaks into a fit of coughing. Either he’s suffering from the most convenient case of consumption in all of fiction or… something weird is going on. In any event, Arak reveals a bit more about his background via his story-telling belt. And then things get interesting. Corinna shows up to help Arak escape because, well, I’m sure you can work it out for yourself.  “Did you really doubt I would come for you, wayfarer? I took you for one who could read a woman’s eyes.” along with “Do you know what it means, Arak, to  grow from maidenhood to womanhood without ever truly knowing a man till tonight?” are the salient pieces of dialogue, the latter being a great example of a question that is both leading and utterly rhetorical.

But this is a sword and sorcery comic. It’s not going to be this… ahem…easy for Arak, is it? No. Even Arak’s noticed that Corinna’s not exactly been acting like a lovesick girl and, indeed, the come-on above is far too studied to be delivered by an innocent. And in any case, we need some answers to questions like ‘What’s going on with those magical soldiers?’ and ‘Why does your dad have a weird hand?’ So, Corinna gives us the kind of answers that make you wish you hadn’t asked the questions in the first place. It’s a tale of a woman, her grandmother, who, tired of being the sexual plaything of ugly men of power, decided to get some power herself by entering into a pact with a devil which is sealed in a carnal union that resulted in Lord Hessa. That, however, is only the half the story. We get the rest of it after a fight between Arak, Hessa and his magically animated armour-guards in which a defeated Hessa refers to Corinna as… ‘mother’. The ‘grandmother’ in the story is actually Corinna. The devil has granted her immortality in return for her not being able to leave the area around the castle. Ah, this all makes sense now. There is no Lady Hessa because Hessa is Corinna’s son. This also explains why Hessa was always so ready to defer to Corrina earlier on in the story. And it also explains why Corinna’s attempts to play the innocent lovestruck girl were so rubbish. She’s been out of practice. Like fifty years out of practice. Now, devilish pacts are meat and drink for comics like Arak, but this one is unusually focused on the physical nature of the transaction. In that sense, it reminds me very much of the Warren comic magazines of the late 60s and 70s and not just because Colon did a lot of work for titles like Vampirella and Creepy. There’s a prurient tinge to the storytelling here that feels a bit out of place in a DC title. I’ll return to this later.

Hmmm. There's something really weird going on with this girl's arm..

Hmmm. There’s something really weird going on with this girl’s arm…

In any case, Corinna’s setting foot outside the area prescribed by the terms of her agreement with the devil Belial has some interesting consequences. Firstly, in his cell Malagigi stops coughing and, suddenly finding himself free of whatever spell-retarding force Corinna’s been employing against him, begins to use some serious magic. This results in the ground opening up half way through the battle between Arak and Hessa. This is not just any old fissure in the ground, though. Oh no. This, as Thomas and Colon delight in showing us on page 22, is a portal to Hell. (Or at least some weird timeshare satellite of it.) That’s impressive enough, but, for Corinna, there’s more bad news. She starts to age. Her leaving the plateau on which the castle has been built releases her from the enchantment that had conferred eternal youth onto her and she becomes a withered parody of her formerly beautiful self.

So far so predictable, but there’s a final – and let’s be honest, really unsettling – twist in the tale. Belial, the demon who had made the original bargain with Corinna all those years ago, having just toasted his son, appears to offer Corinna a second deal. He’ll restore her youth if she’ll consent to go with him back to Hell and set up house with him there. And she says… yes. There is to be no redemption, or sense that she’s learned anything from her original bargain. Just more naked ambition and vanity. Which is very human, actually, but, I think, unexpectedly dark for a fantasy story published by one of the big two at the start of the 80s. Malagigi shows up to explain everything (as plot expositors go, I’ve seen worse, but I’ve definitely seen better, too) and Arak – and perhaps the reader – is left wondering what the hell that was all about.

"I'll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you."

“I’ll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you.”

Arak: Son of Thunder #2, then, is an interesting comic mostly because it is a narrative produced by a number of not always complementary imperatives and influences. At the end of this issue, alongside a handy map of Europe and the Middle East in the time of Arak, there is a page long essay by Thomas in which he explains what his thinking was when making decisions like setting the series in a pseudo-historical rather than purely fantastical milieu. A couple of sentences jump out:

“[The Sword and Sorcery genre presented] limited roles for both men and women, especially the latter, who seemed all to be either luscious maidens, beauteous warriors, or astonishingly lovely witches.

“Eventually, as I got into the genre, I began to realize that this could all be fun in its way – and that, besides, its limits could be stretched, played with, even expanded here and there.”

In one sense, it could be argued that here Thomas has expanded on the clichéd role of women in fantasy fiction. While Corinna is superficially ‘lovely’, Belial (and, by extension, Thomas) gives her a choice of fates. Not much of one, admittedly, but it is a choice nevertheless. Her origin, too, highlights her desperation at an explicitly misogynistic and unequal society. That origin is not presented, however, in a way calculated to engender sympathy for Corinna (for one thing we don’t understand she’s talking about herself at the time and, when we do find out, the focus is on her lust for power); similarly, Arak’s astonishment at her choice both during and after the story’s denouement ensures that we don’t feel much sympathy for her then either. To what extent she ‘expands’ the stereotype of ‘astonishingly lovely witches’, then, remains to be seen.

Another imperative that influences the writing is the need to differentiate the setting from that of the Conan adventures that Thomas had spent so long penning. Again, to what extent the story succeeds in doing so remains to be seen. The action taking place in and around a seaside castle on an isolated plateau makes the story feel quite divorced from its historical setting despite the frequent references to the court of Carolus Magnus. Compared to the first issue in which Vikings, Christian monks, Northumbria and Native American culture all play an integral part in the story, the setting of “The Devil Takes A Bride” is less specific and consequently feels more dislocated from the wider setting of late 8th century Europe. Arak is not Conan here (for one thing he’s much less proactive), although his directness and ferocity certainly contain echoes of Robert E Howard’s most famous creation. The supernatural elements, the character of Corinna and the less defined setting all contribute, however, to the sense that this is a more generic story. (And when the genre is sword and sorcery, Conan probably is the benchmark at this point in time.)

That said, the story on the whole works well, not least because of the Colon/DeZuniga art team. While their backgrounds are somewhat sparse, their character work is impressive; Corinna is suitably vampish, and Arak is well-proportioned and, when called to action, a dynamic heroic figure. Adrienne Roy’s colours are, though, somewhat mixed. There’s impressive subtlety in, for example, the reflections of flame on Arak’s face when he stares horrified into Belial’s pit, but Arak’s leggings change colour at times as does Corrina’s dress.

On the whole, though, Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2 is an enjoyable comic book. If it wears its 70s influences a little too obviously and feels at times a bit too indebted to its illustrious barbaric competition at the House of Ideas, it can perhaps be forgiven. Its function as a vehicle for the introduction of Malagigi (who will become a regular companion of Arak for the next year or so) weighs it down somewhat, but there is a lot to like here and it does act as an interesting example of the small but popular sword and sorcery niche of the DC universe of the 1980s.