Monday, October 31, 2016

Swordsmen And Sorcerers!

Sword and Sorcery came to comics in a big way in the Bronze Age with the arrival of Conan the Barbarian to Marvel Comics. Of course there had been precursors, but the genre (a weird offshoot of classic horror and fantasy) to no small extent dominated the comic racks in the early parts of the 1970's when not only Marvel began to imitate their own success with Robert E. Howard's pulp icon but so did DC with a big push into the field along with Gold Key, Warren and the brief but busy Atlas-Seaboard. The burst lasted briefly but Conan and few other similar types forged on into the 80's and slightly beyond as independent publishers like Eclipse, Pacific, and others joined the fray. And then it ended and Marvel let the license go which it ended up at Dark Horse. There has been some success there, but nothing like what preceded it in those halycon days. Take a gander at the covers below and enjoy a time when men were men, and so were the women.

Happy Halloween!

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser!

Despite the sales domination of Conan the Barbarian for many years from Marvel, other sword and sorcery properties discovered limited or little success in the market. They tried Thongor of Lemuria, Gullivar of Mars, and Elric of Melnibone. But never had they attempted Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a series which had been adapted to comics once before by DC in the early 70's. Then in their Epic Comics brand they tried it out and brought back a much more experience and seasoned comic talent Howard Chaykin to do the writing. He'd been the artist on the early DC effort with uneven success and this time he was joined by the up and coming artist Mike Mignola and the respected veteran Al Williamson. And finally we see these two heroes as they should be in the four issue limited run titled Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser.

The first issue adapts "Ill Met in Lankmar" and we see the duo pair up for the first time to carry out raids on the Thieves Guild of Lankhmar. Spurred on by their loves Vlana and Ivrian and no small amount of drink they invade the thieves sanctuary and confront the leader and his resident sorcerer. But they fail to realize that for an earlier attack they were already being targeted for sorcerous destruction, a destruction which tragically claimed the lives of their lady loves. Filled with vengeful rage they attack the Guild again and blood is shed in abundance. Overcome by grief and regret the freshly minted team vow to leave Lankhmar never to return.

The next issue gives us "The Circle Curse" in which we meet Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and we find that despite their best efforts our heroes eventually return to Lankhmar after a long time wandering across the varied and dangerous landscapes of Newhon looking for some measure of solace.

"The Howling Tower" is a properly scary tale which starts with the duo led by native guide encountering ghosts on the plains of Newhon. A mysterious disappearance leads the two of them and later just the Mouser (when Fafhrd too disappears) to an ancient tower in which a weird menace presents itself. Mouser must become a wraith himself to help Fahrd put down the threat but they escape just barely and justice served to some extent.

"The Price of Pain Ease" is adapted for a second time by Chaykin and this time with the proper back story of loss which gives it the emotional depth to the tale that it requires. The duo are in a contest to claim the mask of Death itself for their magical mentors and must compete with the depraved Duke Danius for the prize.

"Bazarr of the Bizarre" has the Mouser fall victim to an other-dimensional marketing scheme which sells garbage but makes the customer convinced it is of great value. Not only is he being swindled but he is about to die when thanks to Fafhrd and the intervention of their mentors he is saved barely.

"Lean Times in Lankhmar" is a classic tale, perhaps the single finest in the canon and is adapted here with skill. Fafhrd and Mouser have fallen out (over how to spell Fafhrd's name it is suggested) and since have followed separate paths. Fafhrd has become a zealous acolyte of the god Issek of the Jug and Mouser has become the top enforcer for the gangster Pulg. The two come into some conflict when Pulg for his own reasons wants to put the pinch on the priest of the cult of Issek and a bizarre and peculiar set of circumstances lead to one of the better finales in all pulp literature. This adaptation is not as deft as the original Leiber text (a masterpiece) but it does a good job nonetheless.

"When the Sea King's Away" closes out the four-issue run with Fafhrd and Mouser seeking treasure and a bit of romance at the bottom of the sea. They snake their way down through a weird tunnel of air and find strangely attractive women but have to make a dash for their lives when the sea closes in.
We leave our heroes adrift in a small bark seeking as always new adventures. 

And that's a wrap for the team. Dark Horse reprinted these stories in 2007 and that's the collection I read this time out. It's surprising that in all the time that has passed there have been no other attempts to adapt these tales. Over forty years since the first try and twenty-five since the second. Whole generations have come since anyone's tried. But maybe they don't think they can do better. It would be hard.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Sword Of Sorcery!

This whole month was kick started by the publication from Dark Horse which gathered for the very first time, the very first comic book adaptations of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories by DC Comics way back in the early Bronze Age. The stories in the volume dubbed Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser - The Cloud of Hate and Other Stories are themselves are of suspect craft, but their existence is a pure pleasure in and of itself. But the saga is more complicated even than that.

Not included in the collection but rather in another which put together the last of Wonder Woman's Diana Prince stories is the debut of Fafhrd and his pal the Mouser. The story is bit of windy one and in the first part Diana and her mentor of the day I Ching seek to rescue their sometimes partner Jonny Double from the clutches of I Ching's daughter who has kidnapped him to motivate Diana to steal a certain gem. This gem along with its other-dimensional counterpart opens a portal to the world of Newhon. The Catwoman is involved as any decent jewel their might be. At the close of the first part of the story by Denny O'Neil and Dick Giordano the portal is opened and Diana, I Ching and Catwoman find themselves at the mercy of two distinctive swordsmen.

In the second part of the story Fafhrd and Gray Mouser introduce themselves properly and join forces with with our heroes (of a sort) to confront the menace and find a way back to Earth. The battle is at first between the comrades then shifts to the cavernous lair of a sorcerer and his weird machinery. This tale by Samuel R. Delany is magnificently drawn by Dick Giordano and at its end Fafhrd and Mouser find themselves in New York City (and not its Newhonian counterpart Lankhmar) but reject the noise, smell, and hubbub of modern machinery.

They want to return home and thanks to a jewel they still have they disappear. It's a rouser and sets up the series in a manner of speaking. Note that the series was called "Swords Against Sorcery" in this ad.

Under a lush action-filled cover by Mike Kaluta, the series dubbed Sword of Sorcery begins with an adaptation by Denny O'Neil and near novice artist Howard Chaykin of Leiber's "The Price of Pain Ease".

This story is seriously clipped with the removal of the core tragedy which motivates the duo of Fafhrd and Mouser, the murders of their twin loves Vlana and Ivrian as a backstory.We get the raid on the Duke Danius and we get the mission by Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Nignguable of the Seven Eyes for the mask of Death itself but without the underlying regret of those tragic deaths our heroes seem to lack a bit of motivation and sense they need to ease pain is all but lost. A young Howie Chaykin's artwork is barely serviceable and the storytelling is often clumsy with some truly peculiar character designs.

Things look a little bit better in the second issue under a Chaykin cover, this one inked by Berni Wrightson. The story O'Neil adapts this time is "Thieves House" and simplified though it is for comic book purposes most of the misadventure makes it to the page. The horror of the encounter with the bones of ancient thieves is largely lost but the action is ever present. Fafhrd and Mouser trade barbs and quips and they come across with the proper blend of adventure and satire which informs the stories themselves, but again missing the underlying gravity of lives suffering loss.

In the third issue we get an original story by Denny O'Neil and a new cover by Chaykin who is getting a wee bit better at the storytelling. We have our heroes waylaid by pirates who steal a girl. After some effort they find the one they thought did them dirt and discover it's more complicated. A beautiful and silent girl with magenta wings and feathers leads to the lout who killed their shipmates and they rescue the girl but find a surprise. With the aid of a dandy deck of cards they wind the day. At long last a death seems to impact the duo, but truth told this story seems to be missing a page or two in its finale. Not that reprint messed up, but I suspect the original dropped at least one page and it makes the end a tad clumsy.

The fourth issue gives us two stories. The first is The Cloud of Hate, an early Fafhrd and Mouser story about a cult which uses a potent fog to enthuse pliable villains to turn to violence in the streets of Lankhmar. The story is simplified a bit but the core remains and our heroes find a solution.

The second story is a tale from the teenage years of Fafhrd himself and tells of his early romance with a blonde beauty and how a Snow Serpent seeks to steal her away. Fafhrd saves her by chance though a prophecy might've shown him the way had he been more attentive. Denny O'Neil's script this time was illustrated wonderfully by Walt Simonson and immediately it's obvious that he should have been at the helm the whole time.

Simonson takes over the lead story in the next issue when the classic Leiber story "The Sunken Land" is adapted by O'Neil. Fafhrd finds a magical ring when fishing and soon enough he and Mouser both run afoul of a no account who is seeking treasure when the hidden land of Simorgya rises from the sea. They get out with their skins barely when dark magic takes over as it usually does in these affairs.

A second story written by George Alec Effinger and drawn by Jim Starlin gives us a peek at the apprenticeship of Mouse (not yet grown to Mouser) and his training in subtlety by a knife artist named Shendai the Deft. This is dandy little tale and features a few cameos, one by a certain Cimmerian is appears. Nice exchange for the appearance of Blackrat and Fafnir in an early Conan story.

Is that a Cimmerian in your background or are you just happy to see me?
This series was not a success in terms of sales. Five issues seems hardly a worthy outing but it was for a very long time the only adaptation of these heroes to comics until Marvel took a tumble in the early 90's and Howard Chaykin is back. To take a gander at some of these stories for yourself follow this very groovy link. More on that one tomorrow.

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