Monday, May 31, 2021

Movie Knights - Monty Python And The Holy Grail!

This month-long look at movie and comics featuring sword-wielding types such as King Arthur and his cronies would not be complete without a shoutout to the greatest Camelot movie ever made, and that's the funniest flick in the history of flicks -- Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is the absolute ideal marriage of material and talent, a cretinous bunch of over-educated British louts having a smack at the mightiest of British legends. The Pythons were excellent at pulling the pompous wool out of over-stuffed aspects of society and the hyper-serious considerations concerning the King Arthur legends were ripe for the predations of the Python clan. 

One thing that always bugs me a little when I squander my time watching a movie or reading a book or comic about kings and queens and knights and such is the easy acceptance on the part of all concerned of the absolute correctness of the situation at hand. A king is manifestly right because he is the son of the king before him and the nobility that maintain this hierarchy are showcased without qualm. 

Of course as modern people we know that such a social structure is inherently unfair to the vast majority of mankind and that in our more enlightened times we appear, on the surface at least, to desire structures which are fundamentally fairer and recognize the sameness of people. "Strong Men" come and eventually they go, but most see that dictatorship is not a long term solution to even the most heinous of social breakdowns. It's a patch at best and then of dubious value. For someone to ascend to the throne and ascribe that ascension to the handiwork of a god is outrageous to a truly modern mind. (Not that it doesn't stop some nutter from trying it on, as we've recently learned to our chagrin in my own United States.)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is infused throughout with a good and proper disdain for royalty and that wisdom informs the smartest gags and bits directly. The whimsical debate between Arthur and the "peasant" Dennis at the beginning always gets a laugh from me and sets up the absurdity of much of the rest of the movie. Later we "nobles" doing all manner of things which people are not supposed to do and assuming it right simply because they have a particular bloodline. But likewise rank stupidity of the common man is set afire time and again as the people are show to possess little true critical thinking power in a universe riddled with superstition. 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an excellent movie for our times because it's about our times and not the mythic kingdom of Camelot, but rather the hectic world of modern London and beyond. 

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Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Sunday Funnies - Prince Valiant 1959-1960!

The eleventh volume of Prince Valiant Sunday strips from Fantagraphics gets the vintage series into the 1960's, a heady journey from the depths of the 30's. The strip having completed its first story has been telling of the aftermath really of the joining of Prince Valiant of Camelot and Queen Aleta of the Misty Isles, and this tome is no different. 

The focus is definitely on Valiant though as we pick up the tale of him posing as a minstrel to help free his longtime friend and former mentor Sir Gawain from a somewhat hapless minor King holding him for ransom. This is done and the pair intentionally take a more hazardous route back to Camelot and during this they help bring together a young couple of lovers who have more stars in their eyes than sense in their heads, and they help defeat a dangerous bully knight or two along the way. Once back in Camelot Valiant is quickly dispatched again to discover why some outlaws have taken Camelot's tax money and he finds no outlaws but merely put upon men and corrupt nobles. When he returns he and Aleta have a falling out which results in Valiant giving her a spanking. 

He leaves again on a second mission to discover information on the Holy Grail. This takes him into some far regions where he encounters an ogre who is not an ogre, and holy men attempting to build a cathedral at the site of the first Christian chapel in all Briton. He is forced to battle an evil noble named Timmera the Terrible who proves without his warriors to be not so terrible after all. He ultimately learns from Saint Patrick that the Holy Grail is a symbol and that the knights who go in search of inspire those who seek the faith. Upon returning to report his findings, Val and Aleta still are cold to one another and this makes Valiant a most ferocious warrior until he is seriously wounded and the couple make up at last. 

It is just in time for Aleta and her family to return to her kingdom of Misty Isles to attend to matters there. Arn returns from his foster home and the whole family head South assisted by Boltar the Viking chief. When they arrive in Aleta's kingdom they find it under threat but using cunning to forestall that threat and strengthen the land overall. 

There is a soft change in the storytelling it seems in these strips with the relationshp between Val and Aleta becoming somewhat more realistic (if that's possible) and less ideal. The family feels more real in many ways. It will be interesting to see what the 1960's bring. 

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Saturday, May 29, 2021

Camelot 3000!

I didn't participate in the glory of Camelot 3000 when it was first rolling out from DC, but I have had my copy for a very very long time and I fished it out of the stacks for another good reading after a few decades at minimum. 

And I must say I was both impressed and a wee bit taken aback by the contents. 

For a story of this implied depth, it reads very briskly and the events unfold with a staggering velocity. Perhaps I've just gotten used to more modern epics which spend time fondling character and evoking scene, but in this one you get to know some one just in time to see them hit a snag, and the battle against the invasion doesn't really seem to have much of a logic to it in the end. King Arthur has arisen and that gives the people hope and so the enemy is ultimately repelled. 

But I haven't touched on the main attraction of this work and that is the delicious artwork of Brian Bolland who gives us a sleek future world filled with handsome people and gibbering monsters. It's a bright shiny world and if I would make just one suggestion, I'd have added a bit more gloom to some of the sections to make them stand apart. 

Now this comic yarn was produced in the 80's and nowhere does that stand out more than the theme of Sir Tristan who is reincarnated as are many of King Arthur's more famous knights, but in Tristan's case he is revived in the body of a lovely woman. That his old flame Isolde is also brought back and still wants a relationship causes no end of drama. Tristan's sexual confusion, both internally and externally, might have been shocking stuff over forty years ago, but seems fascinating but not outrageous in the modern day. 

Probably the most memorable character is Morgan Le Fay who as delineated by Bolland is a tempting sexpot with only a single flaw, a mass of boils on her back from her many travails in both time and space. But she's a ferocious villain and so is her son, a character who is more thoroughly modern but no less deadly. 

This is a fun and compelling read, but it's easy to see why it hasn't achieved the iconic status of some of the other 80's epics that redefined comic book storytelling, and that's because it really good and not great. Camelot 3000 was the first in many ways, but being first is remarkable but doesn't change critical assessment of the story itself. 

Here are the rest of Bolland's memorable covers. 

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Friday, May 28, 2021

Movie Knights - Excalibur!

I've matured a bit since I first saw it on the big screen in 1981 but Excalibur at that time was a mighty movie which was filled with rough and rugged knights knocking the stuffing out of one another and hot chicks often in mostly nothing at all. A young man does not forget the first time he got see Helen Mirren's boobs. 

The acting in this one was a bomb burst of over-the-top and no one did it better than Nicol Williamson as Merlin who said his lines like no one else and I didn't know that at the time he and Mirren were arch foes which gave their performances an added heat. Lots of faces show up for the first time in this one for me such Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart, both of course actors who will go on to dominate the pop culture. But through and through this movie is the vision of one man, and that's John Boorman. 

Boorman took Le Morte D'Arthur and hammered out a bold and virile rendition of the Camelot myth. His Uther as played by Gabriel Byrne is an utter villain, a ruthless rapist who is commanded by his passions with no thought of the future. Later the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere will echo this lack of control, though with softer tunes and with a greater sense of shared compassion. Excalibur is a movie that shows man rising up from lustful and violent barbarism and barely making it by the end. It takes the death of King Arthur (Nigel Terry) himself to bring about the transformation, he like Moses having brought his people to a circumstance he cannot and will not be able to share in.  

Excalibur is far from a perfect movie. I've always had a nickname for the Knights of the Round Table as the "Knights of Alcoa", their armor shining so very brightly it reminds me of the aluminum foil. The storytelling is disjointed in places and while I've adapted to that on subsequent viewings it left me a little confused in the beginning. All in all Excalibur is a potent movie that left a firm impression even after forty years. 

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Dojo Classics - Rose!

Rose by Jeff Smith and Charles Vess is a prequel to Smith's sprawling comic book epic Bone. It tells of the early life of "Grandma Ben", a pivotal character in the sprawling saga. Though a sequel, it's best that this story be read after the larger Bone, because alas some key secrets are revealed here.

But as a story on its own merits, it's a winner. Rose and her sister Briar, both princesses of the land Atheia are summoned to Old Man's Cave where they are to study to become better stewards of their land. But things get complicated when a rogue river dragon named Balsaad escapes and threatens the Valley in which they live. Rose is torn between her duties and her obligations as she must deal with the threat of the dragon and the threat of the Lord of Locusts who is behind everything. Also along for the ride is the mysterious Red Dragon and the Rat Creatures from Bone lore.

It's best not to say too much, because this is a riveting little story, which gives us greater insight into the world which the Bones will discover a few generations later. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story is the magnificent artwork by Charles Vess. His gentle illustrations are absolutely ideal for this somber fairy tale. The book is an outstanding entertainment and highly recommend.

Here are some the covers which graced the original three-part limited series from Cartoon Books. The two dogs by the way are named Euclid and Cleo.

And this is the cover for the later  hardback edition.

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Dojo Classics - Bone!

It's quite possible with all the attention that Image, Valiant, and other comic book companies got during the hotly hyped halcyon days of 1990's that the best comic book to emerge from that era was Jeff Smith's Bone.

I followed Bone almost from the beginning, but gave it up fairly soon into the saga as I gave up all independent work for mostly financial reasons. But a few years back I was able to get a copy of the mammoth but still highly readable black and white single-volume edition of the whole shebang. It's been sitting on my stacks for quite some time waiting for its chance to be read.

I read it.

It's great!

It's clear enough that Smith's technique improves somewhat as the early stages of the story develop, but soon enough his style stabilizes and what we are presented with is a sprawling fantasy tale told with precision and wit by a guy who is fully able to use the comic book tools to best effect.

Smiley, Fone, Phoney and Thorn

The story presents us with the Bones, a trio of Pogo-esque cousins (Fone, Smiley, and Phoney) who are run out of Boneville and find their way across a desert into The Valley where they encounter friends and enemies, and love and death. Fone Bone, our hero meets Thorn, a lovely girl with a mysterious history who seems to dream of all sorts of things including dragons, which it turns out are quite real and quite powerful. The story begins quite small, with equal parts humor and adventure, but begins to shift gears as the adventure overwhelms the characters with the danger steadily increasing right to the very end.

Hooded One and Rat Creatures

Don't kid yourself, this is a long story by comic book standards. The volume clocks in at well over 1300 pages and took Smith years to complete. But it reads quite seamlessly as details and hints from the beginning of the saga pay off in the finale. Smith's pacing is immaculate. It's a most satisfying read indeed.

Bone has proven quite successful and is available in multiple editions, not including the original comic books. It's been colored and presented through Scholastic Books as fundamental children's literature, which it certainly qualifies for, though I suspect some of the snide humor might be a tad adult for most kids.

I recommend the black and white though, as Smith's storytelling is not reliant on color hardly at all, and his charming line work shines best in this distilled form.

It's been compared to Tolkien's works, and that's hardly fair. It's got the depth of The Hobbit perhaps, but nothing so dense and detailed as The Lord of the Rings. It's a rock solid fantasy, worthy of inclusion on the shelves of any fantasy devotee, a true graphic novel.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Movie Knights - KnightRiders!

This flick by director George Romero is a sometimes confusing and overlong exploration of how might the ideals of the chivalry of Camelot be realized in the modern world. And the conclusion is just as it was in the myths, Camelot is only available when the people look at the world as a place of nobility and honor. This film is idealistic and the characters are at once complex human beings and mythic archetypes as well. 

Imagine a Renaissance Fair group blended with a motorcycle gang which lives on the edge of modern American society by staging tournaments for the entertainment of the locals here and there across the country. The group is together because of the ideals of one man named Billy who is also considered the king of this particular roving "Camelot". He and his queen preside over the tournament and even take part at times as the knight fight for superiority within certain rules of engagement. Meanwhile various hangers-on sell faux merch to the crowds attracted by the spectacle. The troop is on the outer edge of sustainability as the money the need to continue is being stretched to the max. Efforts by various well-meaning folks in the group to expand the operation are seen by Billy as antithetical to the spirit of the enterprise. 

We have characters who fill the slots, a king and queen, a trusted medicine man named Merlin even and a black knight even. The chivalry which guides the contests is necessary to keep the knights from being injured even more severely than they sometimes are. There are rules to the games they play though those games are rough indeed. 

This movie is too long, a failing of Romero's movies in general. He seems to have scenes which are curious and interesting but not really essential. But that's a small flaw and overall this movie though slow in the beginning after a bravura opening, does pick up the tempo sufficiently for the pay off at the finale. I would not call the end of this movie a happy one, but then the source material and the inspiration did not turn out all that pleasant to begin with. Camelot is an aspiration and this story shows that more than any I've come across, the will to be a part of something greater and better is what is necessary for the better to even be at all. 

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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Dagar The Invincible!

Now technically this series was titled Tales of Sword and Sorcery - Dagar the Invincible, but as the creator and writer Don Glut points out, almost no one calls it that. For most of us it's just Dagar the Invincible, one of the many comic imitators of the highly successful Conan the Barbarian from the House of Ideas. That this version comes from Gold Key is somewhat remarkable as generally sword and sorcery might be deemed a bit too bloody for the family-friendly line which still had some Disney comics on the stands at the time. But also it should be noted that some of the more successful Gold Key books were Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery

The first issue comes after much planning and revision. Glut and artist Jesse Santos had already created a barbarian hero named "Durok" who had appearance in Mystery Comics Digest. (To read those stories check out this link.) But for whatever reason he was deemed not worthy of his own series and so Dagar came about after many name adjustments. He's supposed to look somewhat like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and that sure seems to be the case. Dagar is the last of his kind, a member of the "Tulgonian" society. If you happen to the name "Glut" in that word it's no accident as the writer pulled this trick several times in his Gold Key work which didn't necessarily have credits. Dagar's eventual love interest is named after one of Glut's girlfriends for instance. 

The sorcerer who destroyed Dagar's society was named "Scorpio" and the first four issues of the serires concern Dagar's search for this villain. 

After killing the fiend who killed his pa and ma the series is left with a conundrum. Dagar purports to be a "mercenary" who fights only for gold and says such more than once. But that hardcase attitude gives way more often than not and he is a proper hero who reluctantly does the right thing because as it often turns out he's the one who can. 

Dagar battles werewolves, vampires, zombies and such classic monsters, though these critters are often given a fantasy world gloss. Dagar even travels through time to battle dinosaurs alongside primitive cavemen. Glut had apparently wanted to co-star Tragg, his own caveman creation, but the editor Del Connell nixed that idea. 

Generally Dagar and his squeeze Graylin wander the landscape falling in and out of trouble and battling a host of magicians and monsters. This collection has the first nine issues and of that lot the ninth offers up the best story since the debut with a new black hero joining forces with Dagar. But most of the stories are a bit by-the-numbers sword and sorcery gags with Dagar trying to come across as a tough guy when really he's a sweetheart, albeit a sweetheart who might stab you in the chest if you cross him. 

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Monday, May 24, 2021


This artwork by the late Jeffery Jones is a pretty sweet image for a pretty sweet little 1981 movie.  Dragonslayer was a neat little micro-epic with outstanding special effects, even by today's standards, and an above average story of an apprentice dragonslayer having to fend off not only the monster but an entire village to boot. The movie loses its way a bit in the wildly spectacular ending which while visually compelling is at odds a bit in tone to the rest of the movie. But overall an outstanding effort. 

Here's a sketch Jones made as he constructed the poster.

And here is the final product, one of the more alluring posters from an era when posters were really nifty by and large. 

"Vermithrax Pejorative", the dragon remains the best evocation of a dragon on the screen that I've ever seen, and that's saying something given the advances in special effects since that time forty years ago now. Since then of course there have been a host of dragons done with computer graphics and some are quite excellent such as those in Reign of Fire and of course Smaug for The Hobbit trilogy, but somehow with the myriad physical effects and some dandy stop motion, this little movie gave us a dragon that was indeed scary and without uttering a word was vile as well. 

Marvel adapted this movie with art by Marie Severin, and the cover above by Earl Norem is effective if not especially opulent.

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