by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "C" page 1-A

Camelot 3000 199_ (SC TPB) 312 pages.

cover by Brian BollandWritten by Mike W. Barr. Pencils by Brian Bolland. Inks by Bruce Patterson, Terry Austin.
Colours: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Len Wein.

Reprinting: Camelot 3000 #1-12 (1982-1983 maxi-series)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewed: Dec. 8, 2009

Published by DC Comics

Suggested (mildly) for mature readers.

The King Arthur legends often end with the notion that Arthur will some day return, being the so-called "once and future king". Camelot 3000 runs with that notion by imagining a sequel to the traditional Arthur stories -- something which few writers have done, at least that come to mind, though it seems obvious enough (I did recently come upon an old comics magazine from 1978 with ads for an art portfolio by comics artist Jim Starlin featuring illustrations on the theme of "Camelot 4005").

Camelot 3000 is set a thousand years hence in a high tech future that is under siege from an alien invasion fleet. Into this reality Arthur is accidentally resurrected by a youthful archaeologist, Tom. Merlin follows suit and the rest of Arthur's knights are re-assembled. Unlike Arthur and Merlin, though, these are re-incarnations of the original characters, whose suppressed memories of their past lives are revived by magic. This leads to particular complications for Sir Tristan, who finds himself in a woman's body. Ostensibly King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have returned to thwart the invasion, led, as we soon learn, by Arthur's old nemesis, Morgan Le Fay. But that often takes a back seat to other conflicts, such as a revival of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle.

Camelot 3000 is a grand idea, and I was curious about it ever since seeing the striking ads for it in my youth (a coolly anachronistic image of the sword Excalibur rising out of what looked to be a power plant's water supply). At the same time, I may not be the target audience for this. I'm familiar with the Arthur saga, and have read and watched various interpretations over the years, but I'm no expert, have been as disinterested in various tellings as I have been interested, and can barely distinguish my Percivals from my Gallahads. (At the same time, the legend has been told and retold over the centuries that I'm not sure any one version can really claim to be "definitive" -- even Thomas Mallory's seminal work which this series credits). So a series like this has to engage me as much for itself, as out of any nostalgic resonance.

All that should be laid out up front, as even after a second reading (some years after the first) and even though I ewanted to like doesn't work for me.

Mike Barr is clearly an Arthurian fan and, in the editorials that accompanied the original maxi-series, claimed this was an idea he had been working on for years -- even before he started working for DC Coomics! I've noted before that Barr can be an ambitious writer...but that he often isn't able to mould his big ideas into a satisfactory whole.

Barr seems so enthusiastic about conjuring the Arthurian mythos that it almost seems to get in the way of this story. Theoretically, the story is about fighting off an alien invasion. The saga begins effectively enough, with England being straffed by space ships and with descriptions of refugees fleeing to France...but then Barr kind of sidelines that whole concept for much of the series.

Occasional references are made to the invasion, but little is seen, and with little sense of any global impact. Arthur has a few battles with aliens throughout...but usually only when the aliens attack him at his orbiting satellite, New Camelot. In other words, Arthur and his knights do almost nothing to protect earth throughout most of the series -- which was surely why they've returned! What makes this most glaring is that Arthur's return inspires a global populist ground swell clamouring for Arthur to lead earth. This doesn't sit well with many of earth's corrupt leaders (modelled after 1983 geo-politics, including a still thriving Soviet Union, and a satirical U.S. cowboy president evoking a caricatured Ronald Reagan). But it seems wholly implausible. Arthur had barely appeared in public, let alone done anything, to warrant such a reaction. His main public act was to draw Excalibur from a stone on global TV -- a scene Barr intends to be dramatic and moving, not just for his characters, but for us, the reader. But since it's so obviously staged (even within the story, that is) it's more likely to alienate the public with its obvious grand standing than endear Arthur to them. Well, another act Arthur "performs" is to break the neck of one of the government's soldiers, which elicits cheers and grins from spectators -- a scene which Barr clearly means to be inspiring, but is really just unsettling. Bread and Circuses anyone?

As such, what's missing from the saga is an underpinning of plausibility. It's hard to believe in the world, or the people. Even the logic is inconsistent. In the first chapter, England is being systematically destroyed by aliens, and one character remarks they aren't taking prisoners. Yet later in the series, the English population seems largely unharmed, even permitted to make holy pilgrimages, with the aliens acting more as occupiers than exterminators. Presumably part of the advantage/disadvantage to a year long series is just as the creators have the freedom to tweak the plot as they go...they might equally lose track of where it had been!

Frankly it's a bit as if Barr (and co-creator Bolland) are more concerned with the moments, the ideas, and not how -- or if -- they hold together (which also allows for a few sequences where magic is conveniently used to solve a problem). Now, admittedly, any story allows for actions to occur that aren't depicted, that can be inferred by the audience. But how significant, and how frequent, are those missing scenes can impact on the overall sense of plausibility. When part way through the series Arthur refers to the earth governments as his "allies", and yet we hadn't seen Arthur exchange so much as a memo with any of them, it's hard to quite pin down the premise. At 12 issues, it just feels belaboured and padded, like Barr only had enough material for 6 issues.

With the overall narrative a bit ill-defined and under-utilized, what's left is the characters caught up in their personal foibles and machinations. This clearly is what Barr loves best, playing with these ancient icons. But even here I wasn't overly impressed. Barr's Arthur isn't the thoughtful, brooding king (some) interpretations paint him as, but more like a cross between the comic book versions of the Mighty Thor and Conan the Barbarian. In fact all the characters are a bit over-pumped on the testosterone and not exactly ingratiating. Guinevere is toughened up from being a spoiled Queen, and turned into a fellow warrior -- it's a move that may make her more contemporary, but also rather bland and just like all the other characters. In fact, many characters are barely defined at all. Gawain wants to return to his family, and mutters as such every few scenes; Galahad, reborn as a Japanese soldier, mutters on about honour -- but that's it, really, as far as making them 3-D people. The characterization Barr is clearly most pleased with is the gender bending idea of Tristan as a woman, and bitter about it, so much so that he-she considers making a deal with villainess Morgan Le Fay. But even here, the thing just gets repetitive, as Barr hammers away at it incessantly. And Barr might have been better to ressurect more of the old knights, if only to fill up the background -- as it is, a fighting force of less than a dozen hardly seems like something to turn the tide of an interplanetary war.

Part of the problem is that the characterization seems driven by the ideas, rather than vice versa. It's hard to empathize with, let alone care about, the characters, because it's hard to believe in their actions. Lancelot and Guinevere re-start their affair more because it's a staple of the legend rather than because Barr convinces us of a passion that will not be denied even though it might mean the destruction of earth! While Tom -- essentially the only "new" character in the group -- is infatuated with Tristan but it's not clear why. Such things could be forgiven used as minor undercurrents in a shorter series, but at 12 issues, they need to do a better job of convincing us. Admittedly, I've thought before that comics have a disadvantage compared to, say, movies, where an appealing actor can be all you need to "justify" a romantic attraction. Comics have to work harder.

Barr revives familiar ideas -- the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur thing, the quest for the Holy Grail (though, squeezed into a single issue, it's less a "Quest" than it is a Nip-Out-to-the-Corner-for-the-Grail) -- without really adding to them, or making them convincing, or even always integrating them into the narrative. The love triangle climaxes in bitterness...then is largely forgotten a few issues later. Likewise, the villains frame Arthur and his knights for a crime...but that plays no part in the ensuing events.

There are some neat ideas (forging the Grail into a suit of armour which, because of the Grail's healing properties, makes the wearer essentially invulnerable) and potentially interesting threads that would make nice sub-plots but, as noted, often they aren't sub-plots. They are the plot, and most just aren't that interesting, or convincingly fleshed out. The various villains plot treachery against each other, but since they all want the same thing -- Arthur dead -- it doesn't actually affect the plot any.

Barr also doesn't really milk the old-new idea of medieval knights fighting high-tech aliens very much, robbing the saga of an interesting concept.

And just as an aside: Barr throws in a peripheral Canadian character, which is kind of nice (since this is a global story)...and then proceeds to demonstrate that he has absolutely no idea what a Canadian accent is. Granted, I was more amused than annoyed, but still...

This was DC Comics first Maxi-Series (a limited series, but running more than the usual 3 or 4 issues of a mini-series) and its first experiment with expensive paper, direct sales, and "mature readers" subject matter. The latter amounts to less than half a dozen racy panels (a couple of bare backsides, as well as breasts in silhouette) -- not much compared to 288 pages! There's also a lesbian kiss or two (involving the gender conflicted Tristan) and some violence and horror-images.

Because it was the first, maybe DC and Barr were a little nervous about what they could do with it. One can't help thinking Barr should've dumped the whole alien invasion thing (since he gives it so little weight) and focused instead on Arthur battling corruption on earth, giving the saga a greater socio-political edge (much as T.H. White's classic mid-20th Century re-telling of the Arthur legend, The Once and Future King, re-envisioned the myth as a parable for the rise of fascism in Europe). Barr touches on corruption (even throwing in a cynical jab at a cowboy president) but he doesn't do much with it. As it is, for all the pomp and grandeur, for all the attempt to be dramatic and moving, this epic doesn't really seem to be about anything...except maybe for the open-mindedness to sexual orientation. Though even here, Barr (and DC) may have misjudged their audience. Perhaps the reason Tristan's inner torment is so protracted and belaboured is because, as possibly the first lesbian-themed plot in (more-or-less) mainstream comics, they felt they had to carefully build to its acceptance...but looking at some of the original letters, most readers we're okay with it and didn't understand why Tristan was so up-set (particularly once his true love, Isolde, is also reincarnated as a woman...and likewise has no problem with his feminine form).

The art is by popular artist Brian Bolland -- a British artist better known for supplying cover art this side of the pond, rather than interiors. I can only think of a handful of things he's done, of which the most noteworthy was Batman: The Killing Joke. A meticulous, detailed, realist artist, Bolland delivers nice art, particularly evoking a kind of Magnus Robot Fighter feel for this clean, high tech future. His eye for details (background figures with gestures and reactions, as opposed to just filling up space) enriches scenes, and the arcane aspects of the story (Merlin and Morgana's respective rooms) is also nicely filled up with eerie and grotesque brick-a-brack. However, though never confusing, his choice of panel composition is, mayhap, not always exciting -- I can't recall too many actively striking or breathtaking scenes. In fact, I'll be up front and say I'm not that big a fan of Bolland's work -- and even I don't know why! I'm often a fan of realist art, and Bolland's stuff is often meticulous in its realism. But I tend to find it a bit stiff.

In the end, this is great idea, but indifferently handled. Despite periodic action scenes, it doesn't really succeed as grand adventure, and despite a plethora of characters, the characterization isn't always involving. There are some interesting aspects, but most aren't realized to their potential. Although, interestingly, in the letters pages accompanying the original series, a surprising number of writers were women, moreso than the average comic book. Indicating that Barr and company, however unintentionally, may have stumbled upon a concept that appealed to both genders...something modern comics have been looking for for years. Perhaps because of the Arthurian topic, the comic was drawing a readership that wasn't strictly comic fans.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the maxi-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.95 USA

cover by Dave SimCerebus 198_ (SC TPB) 536 pages

Written and Illustrated by Dave Sim.
Black and White

Reprinting: Cerebus #1-25 (1977-1979)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Mar. 2012

Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Inc.

Cerebus the Aardvark may well be one of the most astounding creations in comicdom! It was an independently produced comic that weathered the boom and bust cycles that have plagued the underground and independent comix biz (while major companies like Marvel and DC chug on, undaunted). Early in the series' run, creator Dave Sim made the claim it would run three hundred issues, chronicling the life and adventures of his misanthropic anti-hero. People scoffed -- comics (and, indeed, TV and books) are full of creators bragging about their series' "arc" and the great plans that lie in the future -- only to have the series die a quick death, either due to poor sales, or because the creator was largely talking through his hat, selling a vision that even he had no clear sight of. But 300 issues later, the saga of Cerebus came to an end.

Another astounding thing about Cerebus is the professionalism of the product.

Oh, that's maybe not quite as obvious in the earliest issues. It's certainly a decent series -- but not exceptional.

Created in the mid-1970s, Cerebus was initially a satire of the then burgeoning Sword & Sorcery trend -- particularly Marvel Comics' series based on Conan the Barbarian -- mixed with more than a little of Howard the Duck. Cerebus is a talking aardvark in a world otherwise of humans, the setting a pre-industrial fantasy world of kingdoms and sword fights. Sim's early art was even deliberately meant to evoke the art of seminal Conan illustrator Barry Windsor-Smith. And the early issues are enjoyable -- but slight. Light spoofs of Conan-esque cliches as Cerebus, a wandering barbarian mercenary (and aardvark) gets into various adventures...and misadventures. Spoofing both Conan-like stories...and even the behind-the-scenes stuff (in Cerebus there is a spoof of Red Sonja -- called Red Sophia -- and her father is drawn to evoke popular Red Sonja artist, Frank Thorne). The Windsor-Smith style art is certainly impressive in the way Sim can evoke the latter...but can also be a bit rough. Still, even in the early issues what you notice is that the stories -- simple, or simplistic as they may be -- are still stories. It may be a humorous/satire series...but the stories can still hold your attention as adventures, even divorced from the gags. And the humour itself can be varied -- some slapstick, but some low-key. A reaction shot, a raised eyebrow.

But the series is more ambitious than just a few punch lines. Story threads might carry over for a couple of issues, Cerebus might arrive in a town...and still be there a few issues later. Characters recur. Essentially, continuity is established, and a world is being created.

The Conan-esque environment also begins to share space with societies that seem more modelled after Renaissance, or even Victorian, eras, as Cerebus gets embroiled in stories that wouldn't really be at home in a Conan comic -- political machinations, and bureaucracy, high society, and even boarding schools!

And Sim's art moves away from the Windsor-Smith imitation, developing its own look -- cartoony and spoofy...yet also textured, and atmospheric, the figures well modelled, the use of light and shadow Eisner-esque in its ambition, the panel composition more creative, artistic...yet rarely self-indulgent.

Which is part of what I meant about "professionalism". The brutal truth is, a lot of independent comix can look kind of, well, crude -- as though the artists don't really have the background in fundamentals that a mainstream comics artist does. But there is nothing crude or unpolished about the art in Cerebus (at least after the first few issues).

Cerebus' look itself evolves, from an early long-snouted aardvark look, to something more distinctively individualistic. And astoundingly (there's that word again) utilitarian. Somehow Sim has landed on a look that is both adorably cute, and well suited to comedy...yet dark and burly enough to work as an action hero. And despite a face that bears so little resemblance to a face (the eyes drawn together almost like a cyclops, a mouth forever on the side of his face) Sim milks amazing nuance from Cerebus' expressions, conveying emotions and intentions just with a knitted brow, or a pursed lip.

The writing mixes silly gags, sly observations, yet laid over plots that, in and of themselves, hold your attention -- all with a dash of true characterization. Cerebus is a cunning old son, and so there can be a fun in just watching his schemes unfold, his cons and double crosses...sometimes successful, sometimes blowing up in his face. And Cerebus begins to emerge as an intriguing, if mercurial, personality -- cynical and self-centred...yet also capable of acts of altruism, often throwing in his lot with the underdog...if only out of curiosity to see where the adventure takes him. And though a barbarian, with simple desires, he is often the voice of wisdom, the reader's avatar as he drily reacts to the madness around him.

Though sometimes the barbarian roots of the character can arise unexpectedly...and disturbingly. After a number of issues where we seem to have left that milieu behind, and with Cerebus behaving in a (relatively) up-standing can be a bit of a surprise when he fronts an army of mercenaries and we see him wandering nonchalantly through a town, dead bodies strewn about him. And you remember -- oh, right, he is supposed to be a barbarian mercenary!

As things progress, the stories become increasingly talky, and talk-heavy. Satires of S&S adventures must share equal time with social and political satire, as Cerebus for a time finds himself joining the staff of Lord Julius, leader of the city state of Palnu. There's also an intriguing style to some of the stories. In a comic book, where anything goes, some issues involve epic quests, or battles with monsters in catacombs...yet others can feel almost as though modelled after plays, the entire action taking place within a single building, or with Cerebus wandering a dark alley, accompanied by some eccentric companion or other. It emphasizes the evolving, oddly literary nature of the series. Yet those stories hold your attention as much as any of the more flamboyant episodes.

What begins to evolve is Sim as a guy who may well have a finer grasp of the comics medium than almost anyone else I've ever come upon, just in the telling of a scene, in the use angles and close-ups, and in his handling of the various tones of the series...from farce, to sly wit, to drama, with some emotional or suspenseful moments. If the people working on Batman or Spider-Man had as much command and understanding of their craft as Sim...I doubt they'd still be struggling to get comics accepted by the mainstream.

There are flaws.

Even as the series veers into semi-drama, or sly wit and social and political satire...Sim can be a bit slack when it comes to narrative or plot progression. In the second half of this collection, we get into more involved story arcs that carry over multiple issues...yet those stories can seem to veer abruptly left, or get dropped unceremoniously, as Sim's attention may have drifted and he's pounced on a new idea (in one example, a story ends on a semi-cliffhanger of Cerebus drugged and unconscious in one place...then wakes up the next issue in a new location, embarking upon a new story line, with little explanation for how he got there!).

As well, though the whole series began as a spoof of comics -- specifically Conan -- it moves sufficiently away from that, that it can almost be distracting when suddenly we veer back into doing obvious parodies (or at least references) to comics like Batman (not to mention spoofs of movies like the Clint Eastwood film, The done as "The Beguiling", or even the fact that Lord Julius is drawn to look like Grouch Marx). The problem with these spoofs is you can find yourself unsure if that's all it is, a spoof of another comic on the stands, or whether Sim is trying to make a point by spoofing the underpinnings of those comics (such as conflating Captain America with the kind of "master race" rhetoric the character was ostensibly opposed to), or whether the comic book references are simply a minor gag layered on the otherwise independent plot.

Come to think of it -- Howard the Duck was similar, as creator Steve Gerber would seem to move into social and political commentary...then abruptly drag it back to a simple comic book parody with little warning.

My first true experience with Cerebus was the second collection, High Society, which is generally regarded by fans as when the series truly hit its stride. But though this collection of the first 25 issues takes a bit to find its legs, and is perhaps not as too is quite impressive -- and entertaining. Indeed, because it's not as sustained, more prone to one issue adventures, or arcs that only cover three or four, it maybe works as a better sample and introduction to the series and the various tones and styles it would come to emply.

Cover price: __

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