Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Sunday Funnies - Prince Valiant 1955-1956!

The tenth  Prince Valiant collection from Fantagraphics covering the Sunday pages from 1955 and 1956 are about transitions. The saga picks up as Valiant and his family consisting of with wife the Queen of the Misty Isles herself Aleta, and their children Arn and the twins Karen and Valeta. The family along with their retainers have just left the Misty Isles were Aleta has set things right again and staved off a revolt. Now it's off to home but they find the sea lanes proving too dangerous as well as the trek through Western Europe. So paying heed to Aleta's handmaiden Katwin they decide to cross the Aegean Sea and go up the Bosporus through Constantinople where they gather a crew of Northmen to head further up into Eastern Europe. They have many harrowing misadventures and are attacked many times as they are forced to struggle against long portages. But finally and at last they succeed. 

Along the way Valiant is injured more than once and during his rehabilitation he regales his children with tales of his own youth and we are treated to modern retellings of the earliest Prince Valiant yarns where the young prince find Sir Gawain and eventually Camelot and must save the day by dressing up as a demon. After he's healed the focus of the strip shifts slightly to Prince Arn who has become a sturdy young boy eager to prove himself to his accomplished parents. Eventually they come home to Thule and there they rest for a brief time. 

Valiant's father sends his son on a mission to find new territories for the growing population to inhabit as famine looms. Valiant does so and it give Arn a chance alongside the reliable and venerable hunter Garm to climb his first mountain alone. He learns though that every accomplishment only brings on new challenges when from his summit he spies even greater peaks. There is an uprising in the settlement of a friend and invaders threaten Aleta and Katwin and pillage. Valiant is instrumental in putting down these criminals and attempts to right this powerful wrong. Arn and Garm go on another mission to find a safe passage through the mountains for a proposed road and are forced to suffer through a massive snowstorm which challenges Garm's woodcraft to the maximum, but they survive and Arn learns more lessons and moves ever so slightly away from the protection of his parents into the greater world. 

The saga comes to a close with a tale of Camelot and a young knight named Lord Vernon who is coming into his inheritance but before he can do that and wed his beloved bride a snag pops up in the form of a servant named Alfred who it turns out is the first-born heir. In an act of great charity and noble self-sacrifice Alfred gives up the evidence of his claim to save the life of the woman he loves, the woman destined to become his younger brother's bride. Instead he chooses to become Prince Valiant's squire.  

And that wraps the year. Both Valiant and Aleta move away from the center of the story for many many weeks. The strip has settled into a steady rhythm with mixes of humor and danger, though the latter always seems less than crucial to the status quo. The stories of others become the places in which we see real change, though change does steadily develop as the children continue to grow. 

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Epic Conan - Hawks From The Sea!

In the second Conan the Barbarian Epic collection titled Hawks From the Sea we get a mature Barry Windsor-Smith as he makes a return to the character who made him famous. Smith's tenure on Conan was a journey all its own. He came to the book a relative novice, but in short order his talent and hard work made him a canny craftsman who was not just displaying the digested styles of the masters he'd studied but was becoming an artist distinctive and original in his own right. 

This collection kicks off with a real game-changing storyline fashioned by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn, the two men responsible for the success of another sword and sorcery anti-hero called Elric of Melnibone. Elric was nearly the antithesis of Conan. The former was a weak albino nobleman who was empowered by the black magic of his soul-drinking sword Stormbringer. He was the servant of some of the myriad gods that sought to control his universe and Elirc was mostly famous for his failures. Conan was a rugged, savvy but untutored barbarian who rejected sorcery for the most part and fought using his own brawn and brains which were considerable.

The two of them are thrown together in this two-part storyline that brings back the sorcerer Zukala and his daughter Zephira, though both are much changed. There is death and confusion before the tale is told and by the end Elric has returned to his other dimension never to stroll the byways of Hyboria again. 

And then Smith was gone, but not before his story produced for the debut issue of Savage Tales in glorious black and white was colorized and adjusted to meet color Comic Code strictures (the covered up the eponymous tits and made Conan desire to rape the fetching Atali a bit less apparent). It's as heady story of a young barbarian against impossible odds, potently done. 

And then it was time for Gil Kane to step in and offer up a two-parter that really showcased the contrast of Smith's work with a more standard approach. There's no denying that is  handsome work, a story of a lost island ruled by a nest of gods and a partnership between two barbarians. The story is most remarkable for returning Fafnir to the world, one of two throwaway characters from the early days of the strip. 

By the end of this two-parter Gil Kane is already gone on to other endeavors. It paved the way for the return of Conan's prodigal artist Barry Windsor-Smith. His return would be a relatively brief one, but he'd made some of the best Conan comics ever done and some of my most favorite comic books ever. 

With the nineteenth issue Conan the Barbarian crosses over in epic territory with a storyline that will occupy the next seven issues of the comic. The story is inspired by The Iliad no less according to Roy and what we have is a tale in which Fafnir and Conan after having been salvaged from the sea by the fleet of King Yezdigerd of Turania are compelled to be a part of the army which will sack the city-state of Makkalet and retrieve the "Living God Tarim". (Expect no end of spoilers as I proceed, so if you haven't ever read this one I suggest you get it and do that first, because it is a flawed masterpiece.) In this issue which is partially produced from Barry's pencils (no time for inking) the fleet arrive and the first battle is waged and Fafnir is wounded grievously. 

The twentieth issue is one of the most important comics in my career. I still vividly remember having got hold of this one and sitting in a local eatery when a stranger, older than me and looking rather cool, comes over and asks if I have the latest Conan. This recognition by a stranger of my oddball hobby and his suggestion that the comic was indeed quite cool fired me up and told this farm boy that there was a larger world than  the one I knew. This is an important issue also because it's beautifully drawn and rendered and Conan's battle against his own allies and a black hound (with a descendant heading to Baskerville someday no doubt) was amazing. The cover is amazing. And the finale in which Conan learns that the horribly wounded Fafnir (lost an arm) has been tossed overboard alive is a stunner. Conan's swift silent killing of the offender says more about his savage nature than all the purple prose anyone could muster. (For the record Fafnir does actually survive but doesn't show up again for many years and then he gets a new arm, that of a demon.)

As good as the last issue was the next one was weaker with a trio of inkers (Dan Adkins, P. Craig Russel, and Val Mayerik) darkening the pencils of BWS. In this story inspired by an REH horror tale Conan is betrayed by his new comrades in Makkalet and set up to be a sacrifice to an ancient toad-god thing. Then in one of the smartest moves anyone in any comic ever did, he decides against revenge and just rides off to escape the madness of this nutty religious war. 

Under a beautiful cover we get a reprint of Conan the Barbarian #1. BWS was and is a mighty artist but his ability to meet monthly deadlines is just not on. His detailed work is magnificent but expecting him to deliver on a regular schedule will only breed frustration. Sadly that's the way most comics were back then. 

We did a nifty old-style Barry Smith pin-up but not much else for someone already in possession of the debut. 

In the next issue we finally get the tale of the Vulture, who it turns out is a master swordsman from Turan brought in by Yezdigerd to take care of Conan who put a scar on the prince's face. But as you'd might expect things don't go to plan and in this story drawn by BWS and inked by a trio of talents including Adkins and Chic Stone the Vulture becomes a one-off baddie. But this story did introduce a major character into the Conan universe and one who has gone on to become a power in her own right - Red Sonja! 

It's in the next issue of Conan, the last one by BWS that we get to meet Red Sonja in the...ahem...flesh. This is arguably the finest issue of the comic book Smith ever drew and it pushes a lot of buttons that normally don't get pushed in the color comics of the day. The lust Conan feels for Sonja, a woman who can fight with him fair and square is palpable, so much so that the Comics Code demanded a few adjustments to certain panels. 

In arguably the sexiest page in all the history of comics, in the same category as Jim Steranko's evocative SHIELD page featuring Nick Fury and Valentina De Allegro and a certain gun in a holster, BWS has Conan and Sonja go swimming and despite the cooling waters things get hot. The duo also fight a mystical giant jeweled snake but who noticed that after Sonja took her mail shirt off. She ditches our favorite Cimmerian to boot and that's gotta' leave a mark. 

It's the beginning of a whole new regime with the pentultimate issue of Tarim War in Conan the Barbarian with the arrival of "Big" John Buscema in the penciling position. Of course Buscema had been top choice when the Conan property first came available but he cost too much, but with the book swiftly catching on and selling quite well it was easier to slot such a talent in the role. His brother Sal, who had been the regular inker on Conan steps in to gussy up his brother's work an fine team they made indeed. But it was a different take on the Hyborian Age and fans had been wooed by the hyper-detail of the remarkable and memorable BWS era. Admittedly Conan immediately looked ten years older and my affinity to him was some lessened to that degree. 

And those fans got a little of that detailed magic back in the finale of the saga when a talented Philipino artist named Ernie Chan steps into the inker's spot and gives Buscema's powerful pencils a gloss that hit a chord. Due to the lunacy of immigration he was called "Ernie Chua" at the time, but still he and Buscema formed a powerhouse team that too Conan the Barbarian into the next phase of the his career. His days as a fledgling thief were largely done and now as a proven mercenary he would barnstorm both the ancient world in which he lived and the modern world of ours. 

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Friday, May 14, 2021

Elric - The Eternal Champion Collection!

I imagine the very first time I ever heard of Jim Cawthorn was when he and Michael Moorcock supplied a plot for a few issues of Conan the Barbarian which co-starred Elric of Melnibone. (More on that collaboration tommorow.) That was my first taste of Elric too, so it's likely that was my first exposure to any of the work of Moorcock in any respect. Years later I'd gather up all the Moorcock I could find whether it was Elric, Hawkmoon, or even Jerry Cornelius, and I read all of it. But Cawthorn remained something of an enigma until I was able to read about his early contributions to Elric and other Moorcock concepts. When I saw this Titan tome reprinting work by Cawthorn featuring Elric I picked it up immediately. 

It didn't hurt that the book also features early work by Phillipe Drulliet, a name I first chanced upon in the wild and weird pages of Heavy Metal. I don't claim to have fully understood Drulliet's work but there's no denying his imagery on things like his Lone Sloane is compelling and a perfect fit for the decadent world of Melnibone. And it's this earliest raw stuff which pokes the eyeballs best in my opinion.

Melnibone differs from Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age in that the former is defined by its excess and malignance. That a person like Elric could be considered a hero tells more about the decay and depravity of the time and place. 

And Drulliet captures that excess and vile opulence better than any artist I've ever encountered. His vistas of statues too large for actual human comprehension suggest a world dedicated not to humanity but to other forces beyond the scope and even ken of humanity. 

I often find Elric stories bewildering in their baroque use of names and likewise Drulliet's artwork is at once compelling and confusing. He makes drawings that make you feel like you are experiencing Melnibone. 

Cawthorn on the other hand gives up a world which does offer a greater degree of immediate apprehension. While the story of Stormbringer is a complex and detailed outing and at times I lose my place in Cawthorn's storytelling, I never lose interest in his images, even though some of those images are rough hewn at best. 

Drulliet's line is sinuous and serpentine while Cawthorn's resembles a network of slashes and cuts, as if they were not ink but rather cuts in a piece of wood. Given this rustic appearance it's fascinating at the depth of field he can sometimes create in the stronger imagery. 

These are not perfect works by any means, as they reflect talents capable but still growing and developing, but they are works which capture the imagination and that's the strongest aspect of any of Moorcock's writing. 

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dojo Classics - The Complete ElfQuest!

Elfquest was and is an important comic from the Independent era of comics which erupted with the development of the direct sales market. Wendy and Richard Pini have been able over the years to largely control the destiny of their creations at a host of publishers including Marvel and Dark Horse. But it all began in the late 70's in a rough and tumble comic titled Fantasy Quarterly.

That story was later represented as Elfquest #1 from the owner-operated WaRP Graphics (Wendi and Richard Pini). The saga of the "Wolfriders" has proven to be a potent and viable fantasy yarn. Wendy Pini's artwork is attractive and the storytelling is exquisite. And the story itself was a charming addition to an era which was brimming with quality fantasy adventure. I once upon a time winced at the somewhat cute characters, but the passage of time has made me regard with more affection.

I long ago traded away my original comics, so it was with some anticipation that I got hold of the recent Dark Horse reprint of the original saga which ran from 1978 through 1984. The original was in glorious black and white and this presentation is too. I was both surprised and very pleased by the high quality of the paper stock on this volume which offers up an ideal way to read this fascinating tale of adventure. 

UPDATE: The saga of the "Wolfclan" is an exceedingly human one. We meet an extended family of elves of a particular kind who developed a special relationship with wolves over the generations. We learn how that affinity came to be and we learn just why it is that these elves, so isolated and relatively happy in their wooded home must leave it and trek across a sparse desert. What they find changes them all for all time and for the better. We discover that elves come in varieties who have attuned themselves to the environments they live in. This is a grand love story as well as not only to elves have affection for one another, they are sometimes struck by "recognition", a compelling need for another. They have no control over this and it's the cause of much happiness and much strife throughout the saga. Alongside the elves live trolls who are the long-standing enemies of the elf societies. Why this is so is also answered. The quest referred to in the title is a classic one, a quest of both self-discovery and a quest on behalf of the greater good of the community. It's a quest for knowledge both of the mind and the heart and it's a quest which only finds its true goal when it has already been undertaken. Wendy and Richard created a story of and for its time. The "Elfquest" has continued beyond these original issues, but my interest wanes for now. Maybe some day I'll be smitten with the quest again, but like the "Wolfriders" at the end of this first series of tales, I need a rest. 

Here are the covers of the comic magazines contained in this nicely priced volume.

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