Tag Archives: Fantasy Graphic Novels

The Shadow Kingdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kull, Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad, José Villarrubia, & al, foreword Mark Finn.

Nelson Conrad Villarrubia Howard Kull of Atlantis The Shadow Kingdom

Arvid Nelson returns to the original Robert E. Howard stories to build a 21st-century Kull comic that far outshines its 1970s Marvel predecessor. Certainly, Will Conrad’s art benefits from the improvements in comics production: full-process color and finer printing throughout, with compositions planned for glossy white pages instead of newsprint. But writer Nelson does an altogether better job of adapting the seminal REH piece “The Shadow Kingdom.” A few examples: Nelson adds an artful scene in the Room of Kings in the Tower of Splendor, both to provide background for the later appearance of King Eallal’s ghost, and to serve as a setting to articulate the “Kull … the fool!” mutterings which are here ambiguously attributable to Kull’s animated conscience (as in the REH original) or to lurking serpent priests. Also, where the Marvel writers chose to interpret the REH statement that Kull “had never known … the love of women” by simply avoiding any attention to Kull’s sexual consciousness, Nelson chooses the more sophisticated approach of representing the king in a frosty political marriage. Finally, this newer version returns to Kull’s companion Brule a critical pronouncement during the climactic confrontation with a mass of monsters disguised as the king’s councilors.

The distinctive facial scar that characterized the Marvel Kull is abandoned here, but several panels show Kull’s massively scarred back — no doubt a legacy of his widely-rumored time as a galley slave. The Pict warrior Brule really looks fierce in these comics, while he often looked somewhat silly in the old Marvel numbers. Likewise, Conrad captures the joviality of the Pictish ambassador Ka-nu much better than the Severins ever did. The Serpent Men are altogether more inhuman and menacing, and Valusia itself seems more monumental and ancient than it did in the rather medieval Marvel vision. There is plenty of gore, in keeping with the spirit of the REH original, and an appropriately dark tone pervades the stories. 

The new version of “The Shadow Kingdom” forms the central bulk of this volume, complemented by a warm-up “The Iron Fortress” and the epilogue “The Eye of Terror.” My only complaint about the adaptation was that the very last panel of “The Shadow Kingdom” proper (less than an eighth of the page at the lower right) was a mildly humorous undercutting of the heavy finish of this somber tale. Even so, it did “work” narratively in the larger plot frame that Nelson had constructed in order to expand on Howard’s original.

REH scholar Mark Finn provides a foreword here, as he does for the Dark Horse reprint of the early Marvel Kull stories. But where he focuses on the comics in the Marvel case, this essay is really trained on Howard and the genesis of the Kull character. Likewise, a concluding essay by Nelson reflects on the character and his relationship to the better-known and more “successful” Conan, explaining distinctions between them and his preference for the former.

A King Comes Riding and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Chronicles of Kull: A King Comes Riding and Other Stories [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, John Jakes, & al., based on Kull of Atlantis of Robert E Howard, volume 1 of the The Chronicles of Kull series.

Howard Thomas The Chronicles of Kull Atlantis A King Comes Riding and Other Stories

This trade paper comics volume collects the earliest Marvel comics featuring Robert E. Howard’s Kull of Atlantis, from the early 1970s. It’s a very full book, containing about ten individual comics worth of material. 

Kull is king of Valusia in the pre-Hyborian age of the far antiquity of Howard’s imagination. In these stories (some of them based on REH originals), he is continually subjected to court intrigues, sorcerous impersonations, assassination attempts, and the like. The narrative tone is dark, verging on paranoid. 

The art, meanwhile, though often providing moments of violence, tends toward light. Marie Severin’s four-color treatments would look better on old-fashioned newsprint, but they come out jarringly bright on the glossy white stock of this reprint volume. The visual design of Valusia is not so exotic (as Mark Finn points out in the foreword). Instead, it has a decidedly medieval European look, crossing the blood-and-guts REH concept with something of the style of Prince Valiant. Kull’s costuming varies quite a bit; he often runs about in what appears to be little more than briefs, owing perhaps to his barbarian origins.

While most of the inhabitants of his kingdom seem to be unreliable if not inimical, Kull’s best pal — the only other character for whom he shows actual affection, in fact — is Brule, who is a Pict and thus a hereditary enemy of the Atlantean savage Kull, though he plays the Robin to King Kull’s Batman. Not only does the lead character show a surprising shortage of libido (if we discount lust for battle), there aren’t many women in evidence in these stories at all. The few who do appear are inevitably high-born, and serving as pawns in a larger game. 

On the whole, these pieces from the first heyday of sword and sorcery color comics aren’t awful, but they do show their age.

The Magic Order

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magic Order, Book One [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Millar, Olivier Coipel, & al., volume 1 of The Magic Order series.

Millar Coipel The Magic Order Book One

I borrowed this comics collection from the public library, having heard nothing of it previously. Apparently, the second volume has appeared in individual floppies, and the once-cancelled (during pandemic gyrations) Netflix series is back in active development. It’s ultra-violent and and not especially clever about supernatural magic or stage magic, both of which are central to the story. Thaumaturgy is hereditary, and the “Order” is a family concern.

I liked Olivier Coipel’s art very much. His compositions are dynamic, and the characters are expressive. The art benefits from the masterful colors by Dave Stewart, of course.

The book was just barely good enough that I’ll read Volume Two if I can borrow it from the library, and I’ll give the tv series a shot if it ever manifests.

The Doctor Is Out

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange: The Doctor Is Out [Amazon, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Waid, Emma Rios, & al.

Waid Rios Doctor Strange The Doctor is Out

Although I came to it without high expectations, Mark Waid has provided the best Doctor Strange story I’ve read in many, many years. He has opened up room to reinterpret the character by centering the story on Casey, his new apprentice. Things have not been going well for Strange since he is no longer Sorcerer Supreme, and his broody attitude seems more justified than it has been in the past. He doesn’t have the use of much of his accustomed magical ability; the damage to his hands has returned as a kind of stigma.

While a previous Strange title (based on the unrealized movie script) reconstructed Doctor Strange’s origin story along the lines of The Matrix, the narrative device of the new apprentice’s perspective makes this one feel quite a bit like an occult version of Doctor Who.

The art by Emma Rios is really excellent. Although I was not seized by it at first — mostly because of the overpowering floral colors (never have I seen so much fuschia in an occult comic!) — a few pages of reading showed me that she could really tell a visual story. Her Doctor Strange is more worn and expressive facially, and he largely keeps to street clothes rather than the ceremonial/superhero getup. Rios noticeably incorporates some of the stylistic traits of Ditko and Colan’s classic Strange art, and she acknowledges their influence in a brief interview appended to the comics. In fact, the off-putting element for me (other than the palette) may have been a sort of extreme “looseness” of composition that I also associate with Colan’s work.

Most importantly, Rios draws the magic well! While keeping some continuity with the Ditko and Colan representations of sorcery, she develops her own graphic idiom for the purpose to good effect — entirely distinct from, but comparable to P. Craig Russell’s past turns on Doctor Strange. This book is also full of nonhuman spirits (yeah, demons), and Rios offers persuasively outre and varied forms for these.

This volume, despite collecting four individual comlcs, reads like an integral graphic novel because they were a “limited series.” It does provide a very conspicuous opening for a sequel, and I would certainly be interested if the creators of this one were to fulfill that.

Spin Angels

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spin Angels [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jean-Luc Sala and Pierre-Mony Chan. (See also the Spin Angels series.)

Sala Chan Spin Angels

Billed in the jacket copy as “a head-on collision between John Woo and John Paul II,” Spin Angels (originally Crossfire) is also like what you’d get if Dan Brown were assigned to write a serial plot arc for Charlie’s Angels — although to be fair to author Sala, the details of religious conspiracy and ancient heresy are actually presented more credibly in this comic than what you’ll find in the Da Vinci Code. Certainly, the characters are more vivid and entertaining. Artist Chan mixes manga visual conventions with a detailed, painterly style and highly dynamic panel compositions. 

This volume collects the first four issues of the Marvel Comics English translation of the original Soleil bandes dessinées for this title, which do not in any way conclude the story. The fifth (and most recent as of this review) was published in French in 2010. Recommended to those who enjoy the application of adrenaline and testosterone to esoteric religion.

The Sandman: Overture

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sandman: Overture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, J H Williams III, and Dave Stewart, with Todd Klein and Dave McKean.

Gaiman Williams et al The Sandman Overture

The six-issue Sandman: Overture comics series was the last to be created for the title character. It was published more than fifteen years after the seventy-fifth and last number of the original Sandman title, which had in its day been fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s largest and highest-profile comics work. As “Overture” suggests, this later sequence supplies a story set immediately prior to the main series, anticipating its themes and forms.

Although I was an active comics reader during the heyday of the lauded former serial, and it certainly fit my general tastes, for whatever reason, I haven’t read it–even though it has remained in print in trade paperback collections ever since. It has new currency now with the release of the big-money-small-screen version from Netflix. So when I considered reading some of the comics this summer, I decided to start with Overture. After reading the copious creators’ notes and interviews in this volume, I realize that the intended audience for Overture were really longtime fans and knowledgeable readers of Sandman. Oh, well. I didn’t find it difficult to follow, although I suppose it would have been a richer read if I had been familiar with the other work.

The art in this book is outstanding, with the lines and shades by J.H. Williams III (of Promethea fame) and amazing colors by Dave Stewart. Another key contributor, who doesn’t appear on the cover but still features among the creative personnel interviewed in the end matter, is letterer Todd Klein. Perennial Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean also provided cover art for the series.

Among comics, I was most reminded of the Eternity story arc from 1970s Doctor Strange, although Williams and Gaiman in their remarks refer to Jim Steranko rather than Gene Colan as a visual comics influence. In literature generally, Gaiman’s “Endless” characters reminded me most of Tanith Lee’s “Lords of Darkness” in her Tales from the Flat Earth books. They are not mere personifications of abstract concepts. It might be more accurate to call them hypostases of cosmic principles–but ones that somehow elicit the reader’s human sympathy.

No Escape

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ythaq: No Escape [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Christophe Arleston, Adrien Floch.

Arleston Floch Ythaq No Escape

This second volume of the English translation of Arleston and Floch’s Ythaq reveals a couple more layers to the conspiratorial plot, but offers no resolution. The art remains excellent, and the characters affecting, although the story is increasingly an affair of some god(s) in the machine (planet). It doesn’t seem that the further story beyond this segment is currently available in English, but hopefully it will be in the future. As with other titles of the Marvel Soleil imprint, I find the reduction of the art from the larger European BD size to the smaller US comic book page format to be a loss, but the book is otherwise materially excellent.

The Forsaken World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ythaq: The Forsaken World [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Christophe Arleston, Adrien Floch.

Arleston Floch Ythaq The Forbidden World

The Forsaken World collects the first three bandes dessinées of Christophe Arleston’s Ythaq in English translation. The story is quite an entertaining adventure, told in a style that reminds me of Jeff Smith’s Bone. Whereas the epic fantasy of Smith is written for all ages, Ythaq is decidedly adult, with its three castaways organized into an unrequited triangular affection.

The space opera frame story lands the protagonists in a Flash Gordon-style world with many non-human sentient races, but the overall tone is a little closer to the wonderful sword-and-planet work of Leigh Brackett. As in Bone, the setting has its own mysteries, and the working out of the plot involves coming to understand the history of the fantasy world. This first volume brings the story through many major plot developments, but provides very little in the way of resolution.

Adrien Floch’s art is really comics-stylized and somewhat lighthearted, but his characters and settings are all quite expressive, and they communicate the action very effectively.

The Dreaming City

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dreaming City [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Julien Blondel, Jean-Luc Cano, and Julien Telo, foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet, vol 4 of the Elric series.

Blondel Cano Telo The Dreaming City Elric

This newly-released (in English) fourth volume completes the “first cycle” of Julien Blondel’s bandes dessinées adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. Blondel takes a lot of liberties with the original texts–something on the level of a typical cinematic adaptation of a novel–but his choices are generally very good and have reportedly met with Moorcock’s own approval. One of the biggest changes was introduced at the end of the third volume and is central to this one. . . . . . . . [hover over to reveal spoilers] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I like the gloomy, shadow-heavy art by Telo in this book, but some of the compositions are hard to “read” in narrative terms, especially during the climactic confrontation among Elric, Cymoril, and Yrkoon. In some panels for example, I didn’t know which of the rune-swords is being shown: is that Stormbringer or Mournblade? These stumbles “work” impressionistically, reflecting Elric’s own confusion, but they are still a little frustrating for the reader.

The foreword by Jean-Pierre Dionnet (co-founder of Métal hurlant, who asks that you read his essay after The Dreaming City to which it is prefaced) is the least of these in the series, but like the others it contains some piquant autobiographical reflections and musings on international culture and the role of fantasy. It does include one amusing double-translation through French: the Moorcock novel “Here’s the Man” (i.e. Behold the Man, which is the biblical ecce homo).

The claim to have finished a cycle of the larger saga is a fair one here. Most of the story threads have been tied off, if not ruthlessly cut and burned, by this point. The issuance of these volumes has been at a pretty leisurely pace, and I hope that they continue without an even longer intermission than the ones before.

Scourge of the Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Scourge of the Gods, Volume 1 [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Valérie Mangin, Aleksa Gajić.

Mangin Gajic Sourge of the Gods

Set in a galactic neo-antiquity of Romans and Huns, the plot of this space opera is thick with intrigue. The painted artwork by Serbian artist Aleksa Gajic is gorgeous in its depictions of planetary vistas, and engaging in its character-level events. There is no third-person verbal narration, which suits my tastes, even if it makes the action a little harder to follow at points.

My copy of the book is a glossy, full-color hardcover, reproducing the first three issues of the original French comic in English translation from the Marvel Comics Soleil imprint. I only wish the page size were a little larger to be able to better appreciate the details of the art. The story reaches a point of crucial revelation at the end of this volume, but it certainly calls out for its sequel in order to reach a full resolution.