GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "W"

 

 

Wake, vol. 4 / 5 : The Sign of the Demons 2003 (SC TPB) 96 pages

cover by BuchetWritten by Jean David Morvan. Art and colour by Philippe Buchet.
Letters: Ortho. Translation: Joe Johnson.

Originally published in 2001 in Europe

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by NBM Publishing

Suggested (mildly) for mature readers

Wake is a European graphic novel series -- now being re-published in English by an American company -- that can be seen as a bit of a hybrid of Star Trek/Star Wars. The setting is an armada of spaceships cruising through the galaxy, looking for planets to colonize or otherwise contact. And though ostensibly benevolent, there is corruption on board (as evidenced in one of the stories here). The inhabitants of the armada are multi-species, but the central heroine is Navee, a spunky human -- vaguely North American Indian -- but who seems to be the only human in the fleet (a mystery that, presumably, both she and the reader will unravel as the series evolves).

NBM Publishing had started out releasing English translations of each 46 page graphic novel but, either because they were falling behind, or perhaps for sales reasons, with this volume started publishing two stories per volume. The first story (#4) "The Sign of the Demons" and the second (#5, whose title is written in an alien script and so can't be reproduced here).

The first story in this collection has Navee and some compatriots arriving on a primitive planet, looking for some observers who were sent ahead of them but have gone missing. The planet is in the throes of a revolution, as a slave class has risen up against the ruling species, and our heroes get embroiled in it...and learn of a sinister conspiracy in their own fleet that has been exploiting such worlds in the past.

I'll confess, I've had some mixed feelings about European (and non-North American comics in general) that I've read over the years. For all that fans of them often cite them as more sophisticated, more mature than American comics, I often don't feel that way. Worse, not only have they often seemed shallow and thin, but many times have a smary, sophomoric sense of "humour" and a "sense? who needs to make sense?" approach to plotting. But this turned out to be an enjoyable adventure. It's coherent, with a nice mix of larger-than-life comicbooky action, and light-heartedness, with some genuine character detail and serious undercurrents. It's briskly paced, and just complex enough -- in story and character development -- to adequately justify its page count.

There's even a cute, if problematic, idea that some of the planet's inhabitants talk in a way where their dialogue is spelled out phonetically...meaning you sometimes have to sound out a word balloon in order to "hear" what they're saying.

The art has a certain manga influence, with a cartooniness, and Navee as a perky, big eyed heroine. But it's effective and expressive, keeping a jaunty tone and, given the series' emphasis on non human looking aliens, serves the needs of the different species. The backgrounds are beautifully detailed with an at times extraordinary sense of perspective that really makes the vistas seem huge, and Buchet often employs panoramic angles that really make a waterfall, or a sprawling city, fairly leap off the page. The bold, cheery colours help, of course, as does the fact that it's printed in an oversize format that really shows off the art (Buchet often employing 10 or 12 panels per page). Oh, why mince words? The art was enormously attractive and helps to let you lose yourself in this alien environment.

Though a peculiarity of the lettering, which I'm guessing is a result of translating the dialogue into English (and therefore, employing different numbers of words) while employing the original word balloons, is that the size of the words can vary from baloon to balloon

The second story goes an even more political route involving an underclass of aliens aboard the Wake itself who have begun suicide bombings to draw attention to their plight. Naveen becomes involved when they try to kidnap her to blackmail the governments into providing them greater aide. And Naveen begins to sympathize with the terrorists.

It's an interesting, probably controversial story, to craft a tale that is so clearly meant to show the human/sympathetic side of terrorists (even as the writer is not endorsing their actions). It's an ambitious notion...even as the issues are maybe simplified. By making the Ftoross mainly an economic underclass, fighting to end their poverty and disease, Morvan avoids the more complicated dilemmas that are posed by many real world terrorists, whose actions are often motivated by religious and racial factors. Yes, one could argue it's only the systemic poverty and hopelessness of such groups that makes them prey to religious demagogues who twist things into religious and ethnic strifes. But the fact of the matter is, it might be harder for Naveen (and the reader) to empathize with the Ftoross if they, say, wanted death for all heretics, or preached genocide against another ethnic group as such real world terrorists often do. Of course, one could argue that I'm simplifying, as some observers would argue there is a difference in motivation between, say, Palestinian suicide bombers and other Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

Anyway, the story is well told and well paced.

By telling a self-contained story, each in 46 pages (with lots of panels) Morvan and Buchet have crafted two well told, interesting stories, deftly mixing fun and light-heartedness, with seriousness and even poignancy. For fans of science fiction TV series like the various Star Treks, Wake will be a welcome experience. With breathtaking sets and scenery, and weird and diverse aliens, this volume of Wake seems like a couple of episodes of a TV series -- a TV series with an unlimited budget and special effects, with effective and appealing characters, and an intriguing reality against which the stories can be set.

Visually appealing, and highly entertaining, Wake is quite enjoyable. In fact, it's easy to get dragged along in its wake (oh, I couldn't resist).

Cover price: $__ CDN./ 14.95 USA


The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye 2004 (SC TPB) 154 pages

cover by MooreWritten by Robert Kirkman. Art by Tony Moore.
Black & White: Letters: Robert Kirkman.

Reprints: The Walking Dead #1-6

Additional notes: intro by Kirkman.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Review embellished upon: Jan, 2011

Published by Image Comics

Recommended for Mature Readers.

I've added a post-script considering these issues in relation to the later TV series.

Perhaps the oddest monsters are The Living Dead. Not to be confused with Zombies or Vampires, The Living Dead are walking corpses that grunt stupidly and subsist on the flesh of the living -- usually in the context of an apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario. They're odd because they aren't rooted in folklore like most monsters, but owe their origin to the 1968 horror film directed by George Romero, "Night of the Living Dead". Sure, the basic concept of the malevolent, rotted, ambulatory corpse dates back farther (I'm sure more than a few EC Comics horror stories employed such) and true cinematic connoisseurs will note that "Night of the Living Dead" itself was basically a rip-off of the 1964 film, "The Last Man on Earth", which was based on the novel, I am Legend. But for all intents and purposes, Romero's flick has been shamelessly ripped-off -- or homaged -- in so many horror flicks and short storyy anthologies since its initial release that it has essentially spawned its own little genre of horror fiction.

It's not every storyteller who can claim to be the father of a genre.

I think "Night of the Living Dead" is a great horror film. I've occasionally seen other films in the genre that are worth a look, bu I'm not, you know, a nut about the idiom. What I didn't realize until now, though, is that there are other people who are. Nuts about it, I mean. And comics writer Robert Kirkman is one. Which is why he created The Walking Dead, an on-going comic that follows the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by anthropophagic corpses, of which this TPB, Days Gone Bye, collects the first six issues.

To Kirkman, Living Dead stories are as much a genre as a courtroom drama or a western, and as such have their own fixed cliches. These living dead look like Romero zombies, shuffle like them, can be killed by a blow to the head like them, are more dangerous in large numbers than individually, like Romero's. With some genres, there's often the desire on the part of a writer to add his own spin -- read twelve vampire stories and odds are you'll get twelve variations on the mythos, some minor, some major (I am Legend/The Last Man on Earth, for instance, was technically about vampires...but wth a novel twist on the vampire legend: zombified vamps rather than the usual suave Euro-trash with fangs). Not so Living Dead stories, which seem to pride themselves on sticking to the established template.

Perhaps the only original idea introduced in these first six issues (assuming it is original) is that a living human can disguise himself as a living dead, and fool the other living dead. Which is a nifty idea, and provides this TPB with its most suspenseful sequence.

Kirkman's series even begins with a sequence that seems lifted, down to the overhead angle on the hospital bed shot, from the movie "28 Days Later" (which was a Living Dead movie in all but fact). I liked "28 Days later", but it was a wholly generic regurgitation of earlier sources (from the novel Day of the Triffids, to the movie "Night of the Comet").

But I realize the appeal of Walking Dead is precisely that it isn't trying to break new ground. It's creepy horror...but it's also cozy in its familiarity, bordering almost on being like fan fiction.

The story here concerns Rick Grimes, a small town Kentucky police officer who wakes from a coma to find the town mysteriously deserted and over run by living dead. Eventually he hooks up with survivors -- including his wife and son -- camped outside Atlanta, some convinced the army will be by soon to rescue them, even while others suspect there's no government left (Atlanta itself is completely overrun by living dead).

If Kirkman isn't offering us much that's new, that doesn't mean it can't still be entertaining.

But a problem is that Kirkman joins the legion of modern comics writers caught up in their own perceived profundity. In his opening introduction, Kirkman waxes on about how ambitious his series will be, and about all the social significance inherent in Living Dead stories, and promises a character growth for Rick so profound we won't recognize him by the series' end. Unfortunately, sometimes setting out to write a "great" story is like trying to run before you can walk. An earlier generation of comics writers (Stan Lee, et al) sometimes wrote "great" stories...but they set out to write "good" stories, and the greatness took care of itself. Kirkman, who maybe sees himself as the next Dave Sim (whose Cerebus epic ran 300 issues, some volumes of which I review here), almost seems to be selling this series on where the saga's headed...when he should be focused on where it is now.

These issues aren't bad, but they're kind of slow, with the survivors in their little camp, living from day to day. Kirkman wants to focus on the people more than the monsters. But he doesn't entirely pull it off. Toward the end, one of the group is killed, and the others deliver heartfelt eulogies...for a character that I think barely spoke two lines in the entire book! By the end of six issues, many of the characters remain only vaguely defined.

The characters' reactions to what's going on around them is not entirely convincing. And it's unclear if living dead movies are supposed to be a part of this reality or not. No one says so, but no one seems that surprised by what's occurred (no one asks what are the living dead, how do they function, why) almost as if they were already familiar with the cliche of walking corpses that eat human flesh and so they don't feel a need to understand the mechanism behind it.

And I'm ignoring the dubious notion, shared with "28 Days Later", that a guy could wake from a weeks long coma and be fit enough to run about and fight the living dead.

Kirkman doesn't really explore some of the possible dynamics and conflicts that might arise among people trying to form a kind of mini-society (of a dozen people) from chaos. Rick and his best friend, Shane, argue over whether they should move the camp somewhere safer (Rick's idea) or stay where they are because they'll be easier to find if rescue comes (Shane's idea). They argue about this...but neither seems to consider the idea of bringing it to the others for a vote. Apparently democracy went the way of running water.

The fact that Kirkman himself proudly sells this as high minded stuff means we have to take any (perceived) sub-text seriously. Instead of really exploring the ins and outs of trying to survive after an apocalypse, we get Rick arguing for the importance of letting a seven year old carry a loaded gun (one can imagine the NRA will be putting the Walking Dead on its book club list), to which his wife objects -- until she learns better in a particularly contrived and even sexist scene. In fact, an undercurrent of sexism crops up more than once. From the scene where a woman is chastised for objecting to doing the washing while the men hunt, to a scene where the living dead attack, and all the women panic, some dropping their guns, while even the meekest of the men calmly dispatch the ravenous dead heads.

At one point a character dismisses another character's objections saying they're just "being realistic and doing what needs to be done." which could be inferred -- rightly or wrongly -- as Kirkman's statement of principal. After all, science fiction world building -- whether post-apocalyptic, or what have you -- is often a way for an author to expound on his beliefs. And Kirkman's idea of "realism" is a retro, 1950s reality where men are men, women folk do the laundry, guns are good, and democracy is an obsolete affectation.

Fair? No? Am I reading too much into it? Yeah...maybe.

Of course, even if you do take issue with these (possible) themes, that's not necessarily enough to ruin a story -- a sub-text is, after all, just that, and secondary to the surface story. I've always had a certain fondness for post-apocalyptic tales, grouchy misanthrope that I am. And the sequence where Rick and another character sneak into Atlanta by disguising themselves as the dead is creepy and suspenseful. But overall, Kirkman seems to deliberately eschew the horror/adventure scenes, without really substituting an affecting human drama -- I didn't find myself caring overmuch about Rick or any of them. A story arc involving the tension between Rick and Shane doesn't develop all that well, or offer many surprises, though its culmination provides the book's climax.

The black and white (and grey) art by Tony Moore is pretty effective. A mixture of realism and detail with caricature (with maybe a hint of the great John Severin), it looks almost as though it would be better suited to, say, an autobiographical series about growing up in Brooklyn or something. Which is the point. The flavour Kirkman is going for is one of mundaneness, where real people struggle in this unreal environment. Though the slight caricature bent to his art might also be a factor in why I didn't quite groove to the characters emotionally.

Moore is also good at drawing the rotting corpses shambling along and the comic, it's worth noting if you didn't realize, isn't for the squeamish. On one hand, because it's drawings, it's not as gory as a comparable motion picture would be...on the other hand, it's actually gorier, because Moore can draw in grislier detail than an image that flashes across the silver screen, and there aren't any puppet strings or matte lines around the creatures to assure you these are just special effects.

Because (in his words) Kirkman is in "for the long haul" in creating his "sprawling epic" one can understand that he doesn't want to play all his cards right away. But, at the same time, this does represent six whole issues of the comic, which ought to be a good sample of the work. This first collection of the Walking Dead is capably put together, but it's deliberately paced, the premise is (intentionally) unoriginal, the characters not especially well defined or that interesting, and the plotting minimal. Other than the sequence of sneaking into Atlanta disguised as walking dead, it's not like each issue sets up a situation to be resolved, or an obstacle to be overcome. Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye is O.K....but we still have to just take Kirkman's word for the greatness to come.

Post script: a few years after this was published (and with the comic still in full swing) it was adapted into a TV series (a short, six episode season at the writing of this, but with more episodes in the works). And it's interesting to compare them. The TV series actually stays remarkably close to the comic, utilizing many of the characters, and even dramatizing some of the same scenes -- even as it diverges significantly in other ways (though they may just've been incorporating threads and characters introduced later in the comic's run). Yet that very fidelity is, in a way, a problem. Because though I didn't dislike the comic, it left me with mixed feelings...yet I did quite like the TV series. The characters are better realized, more comlex and nuanced, the overall feel more atmospheric. Re-reading these issues post-TV series, it can actually come across at times as a glib, superficial version (not the least example is the single father he meets in the first issue who is basically just a plot point in the comic, but is given an emotional back story in the TV series). Sometimes, when comparing a movie/TV show to a novel/comic, there can be a give and take -- you can prefer some aspects of the filmed version, even as you prefer other aspects of the printed version. Re-reading the comic, the dialogue can be a little glibber, a little more flippant...but that might be a good thing (depending on the mood you're in) in contrast to the TV series' more grim and sombre tone. But for the most part, the TV series was just better all around. Some of that might be inevitable -- the TV episodes are hour long, compared to 22 pages of comic, and having real actors play the parts might inherently imbue the characters with more life and personality. Yet I've seen other movies-of-comics where I felt the comic book characters were more involving. If you buy into my earlier comments about the comics' political subtext (which you might not) the TV series is arguably a little more liberal, the female roles stronger, the guns simply tools not symbols. My point? Well, aside from just considering the two mediums, is that sometimes seeing a TV/movie that has a comic book counterpart can lead me to seek out the comic, to satiate a need during broadcasting lulls, but I'll admit I didn't feel that here, the characters in the comic may have the same name and roles as their TV counterparts...but they don't necessarily feel like the same people. So even though I liked the TV series...even re-reading the comic, it didn't ignite an interest in the rest of the comic book series for me. Anyway, that's my two-bits on the subject.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $9.95 USA. 


coverWar Stories, vol. 1 2002 (SC TPB) 220 pages.

Written by Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Chris Weston & Gary Erskine; John Higgins; Dave Gibbons; David Lloyd.
Colours: Pamela Rambo, David Lloyd. Letters: Clem Robins.

Collecting: War Story: Johann's Tiger, War Story: D-Day Dodgers, War Story: Screaming Eagles, War Story: Nightingale (2001-2002)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: afterward by Ennis; bibliography.

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Vertigo / DC Comics

War Story is the umbrella title for a series of one shots written by Garth Ennis and drawn by various prominent (usually British like Ennis) artists. These aren't your usually blazin' combat action-adventures, not even of the slightly melancholic, thoughtful variety Robert Kanigher might have turned out for DC Comics years ago. These are bleak, bitter, and bloody.

Vol. 1 collects the first four such stories. Johann's Tiger chronicles the journey of a Germany panzer tank unit in the waning days of the war, as, tired and fed up, they've deserted their position, hoping to find some Americans to surrender to (rather than the more vicious Russians moving in from the East). Along the way they must grapple with their own memories of what they've done and with German military police hunting deserters. D-day Dodgers follows a fresh lieutenant joining up with a battle weary British regiment in Italy -- a regiment not just worn out by fighting, but demoralized by reports from back home that those fighting in the bloody Italian campaign have been labelled D-day dodgers by those erroneously thinking Italy is a cakewalk. Screaming Eagles chronicles an almost idyllic interlude as four American G.I.s, isolated from their c.o., decide to indulge in a little r and r when they come upon a deserted rural estate and are joined by some friendly local girls. The final story, Nightingale, focuses on navel conflict, and a British destroyer that develops a cursed reputation after surviving a mission in which so many others perished, and of the crew's final attempt at redeeming their honour and reputation.

Clearly these projects are labours of love for Ennis and seem fairly meticulously researched -- in some cases (like with Nightingale) the fictional incidents are even inspired by real life ones. Shifting in tone from the gritty and violent, to, at times, witty and whimsical, Ennis handles things well. Johann's Tiger is pretty much what you'd expect, in that it starts out in a combat zone and continues that way for its 50-some pages, but D-day Dodgers is equally effective starting out more relaxed and even witty as the tenderfoot lieutenant joins up with the battle-hardened troops, much of the story set before, rather than during, a conflict.

But I'd argue a problem is maybe that Ennis is too sincere. Clearly he feels strongly about the men who fought and died, and just as clearly he doesn't want to do some gung ho adventure that reduces the brutal combat to a, well, comic book adventure. Though Ennis employs a bitter, "war is hell" mentality, rather than an "anti-war" philosophy. I'm not "anti-war" totally myself, feeling some fights have to be fought, some enemies -- like Nazis -- have to be stopped. But in his desire to act as an advocate for the "boys" Ennis can get a bit reactionary (although, maybe he's just trying to be true to the characters, not necessarily himself), such as a scene where characters belittle those who participated in a pacifist debate that took place at a university...years before anyone knew a war was coming!

As well, in his afterward commenting on Screaming Eagles, Ennis says that if such soldiers did take liberties and engage in looting, who can blame them? Again, that's showing his soldier bias. After all, if the story was about Germans, we would see it as showing how vile they were. And imagine how someone would feel, returning to the home the fled, only to find it looted and wrecked, not by the enemy, but by the guys supposedly sent to liberate you?

But the chief problem, to me, is that in his desire to be realistic, and in his desire to not trivialize the events, Ennis has put his sincerity and good intentions ahead of storytelling. Not too far ahead, perhaps, but enough ahead that the actual plots of the various books can seem a bit weak or meandering. Heck, in three of the four stories, almost everyone dies, making for kind of fatalistic, unsatisfying endings from a story point of view.

Ennis treats us to some good scenes, though often those stray into diatribes as characters start spouting monologues about war and the callous brass that seem too scripted and contrived, but the whole is often less satisfying. Probably the strongest, narrative wise, should be Johann's Tiger and Nightingale. Johnann's Tiger delivering a reasonably suitable ironic end, and Nightingale with its premise of a crew in search of an imagined redemption. But in the case of the latter, Ennis fails to really make it stand out as a human drama, at least for me. With the characters more just there to occupy a page -- heck, I was part way through before I even figured out who was narrating! The art by David Lloyd doesn't help. Lloyd, best known for drawing V for Vendetta, is a striking artist, with a great flare for realism, and moody, shadow drenched images, perfect for the tone of the piece, and the opening scenes of conflict in the perpetually gloomy Arctic. But as with V for Vendetta, Lloyd is a bit weaker if you actually need to tell what's going on, or in clearly distinguishing characters from each other. Ennis' script combined with Lloyd's art makes for a moody war story...that falls short of scoring as a human drama.

Ironically, the most memorable of the tales is Screaming Eagles -- ironic because it's the lighter one, the one where almost no one gets killed. Funnily, I'm not sure it would work as well read on its own. As the story of soldiers taking a break from the war, when we don't actually see them fighting, it maybe is more effective when sandwhiched in between these other, bloodier tales. But Ennis is eschewing the flamboyant or an larger narrative theme, so this lacks the high concept of, say, the whimsical, semi-classic film Le roi de coeur (the King of Hearts) about a soldier stumbling upon a town deserted by all save the inmates of an asylum.

The art throughout is well-done of a realist, meticulously researched variety. It should also be emphasized that this is a "mature readers" book, with some brutal, gory violence and plenty of profanity.

The bottom line with War Story, vol. 1 is that these are good, well researched tales, meant to plunge you into the unvarnished thick of a brutal and uncaring conflict where everything doesn't end happily and the hero doesn't engage in heroic, Saturday matinee daring do. But no one story quite stands out as a well crafted story, with the parts (scenes, dialogue, art) often greater than the whole.

Cover price: $30.95 CDN./ $19.95 USA


cover by GrellThe Warlord: The Saga 2010 (SC TPB) 160 pages.

Written by Mike Grell. Pencils by Joe Prado, Chad Hardin. Inks by Walden Wong, others.
Colours: David Curiel. Letter: Rob Leigh. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Collecting: The Warlord (4th series, 2009) #1-6

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Published by DC Comics

Review posted: Mar. 2016

Mike Grell's 1970s-1980s series, The Warlord, was arguably the most successful comic book fantasy/sci-fi creation published by a major publisher and not based on a pre-existing property (And when I say "not based on", I concede there was a lot about it that was derivative and imitative, Grell borrowing inparticular from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar novels). It chronicled the adventures of a U.S. Air Force pilot, Travis Morgan, who crashes in a lost world at the centre of the earth, peopled by primitive societies and dinosaurs, where magic and super science rub shoulders.

Grell wrote and drew it for the first few years, then fell back to only writing it (and even then in subsequent interviews Grell freely acknowledged some of his later scripts were ghost-written by his then-wife -- which is interesting because there was a bit of a stylistic change then as the storylines shifted away from the action-heavy adventure-of-the-month plots loosely strung together by an overall arc to a multi-issue Alexandre Dumas-esque story emphasizing court intrigue and machinations). Then Grell left entirely and the comic continued without him for a few years before being cancelled.

Grell then returned to the property for the mini-series which seemed as much a nostalgic homage to the series as it did an original story.

Then a few years after that DC tried one of its re-boots, re-imagining the property under new creators -- but it proved short-lived.

And finally Grell returned to the property full time for this on-going series, returning to the original continuity -- though it also proved ultimately short-lived. Grell wrote this initial six-issue arc, with others illustrating, but then afterward he took over the drawing as well. That may have been because he needed to get a few other projects out of the way first, or possibly the comic wasn't doing too well and the brass figured Grell back on pencils would re-ignite fans. Then -- apparently -- Grell even went so far as to kill off his lead, replacing him with a younger "Warlord" which, again, given the series was cancelled after less than a year and a half, might have been a last minute sales-boosting gimmick (or maybe it was a genuine artistic expression).

Anyway, back to this inaugural story arc.

Such revivals are hard to assess, since they are constantly torn between pleasing old fans and winning new ones, between recycling old ideas and introducing fresh ones.

I'll touch on the art before delving into the meat of the saga. As mentioned, Grell didn't draw this story. And as an artist, Grell could be uneven, but I always kind of liked him, and to me he was always the visual standard for the series (the fact that even when he's returned to it as a writer-only, he draws the lavish covers). The art by others on this six-part saga is capable enough, but didn't fully excite me. I tend to feel that sword & sorcery type series benefit from a soft, organic style (since it's all about half-naked bodies, wild animals, and lush forests) yet the art here is often more hard-lined and, well, comic book-y. It tells the tale well enough, without too many scenes or sequences that stand out or ooze atmosphere. Reflecting modern standards, it's much gorier than it used to be, the fight scenes bloodier with hacked off limbs and heads. The clothing is, arguably, marginally more skimpy on some of the women, but not by much. (That's always the funny thing: up the violence and no one blinks, but if the comic had started to include naked bodies, people would be shocked and demand a warning sticker on the cover).

Now the story:

Nothing much has changed in Skartaris or for the characters since last we saw them. Grell indulges in some recapping and recounting of the past, just to bring new readers up to speed -- unfortunately it can feel like a lot of recapping and recounting, rather than smoothly working such info into the new story. While the plot is pretty familiar, even generic stuff for Grell, not just echoing past Warlord stories, but even other things he's worked on -- such as a 1980s Tarzan newspaper strip! Speaking of lack of change: a character who hangs out with Morgan is a minstrel named Tinder -- Tinder is Morgan's son he believed died years ago, but neither of them know of their true relationship. So, yup, three decades later and Grell is still stringing out that sub-plot!

To introduce us into the property, Grell starts out with new characters discovering an entrance to the inner world of Skartaris -- and entrance that happens to be in China-occupied Tibet, the characters being chased into the portal by gun-totting Chinese troops (an example of what I mean by Grell recycling -- I seem to recall past Warlord stories where the entrance to Skartaris was in enemy territory, resulting in Travis Morgan or whoever being chased by soldiers).

Shortly thereafter Morgan learns of a world conquering army that is marching across the land, and he sets out to stop it with a few companions in tow and an army of his own following some days behind. At first he suspects it might be his old enemy Deimos back from the dead (again!) but actually it turns out to be remnants of those surface dwellers chased into the portal whose 21st Century knowledge and technology has helped them conquer local tribes (which reminded me of a story Grell did for the Tarzan newspaper strip).

And as I say it all feels a bit caught in limbo -- too much like the old stories, while simultaneously not being enough like them. The old comic was often prone to breezy adventures-of-the-month (battling Cyclops or Morgan captured for a pagan sacrifice) as part of some loose quest. Not too taxing -- but briskly-packed and fun. But here Grell tries to stay focused on his six issue saga (which, admittedly, is modelled after a pulp serial, with lots of running about and fighting). But the problem is there's nothing really fresh or unexpected in the plot, without Grell finding anything that quirky or memorable to do with the scenes or characters to enliven the familiarity. (And maybe I need to come back to the visuals -- more enrapturing visuals might have made the scenes more involving).

Perhaps an interesting aspect of the original series was Travis Morgan himself, Grell successfully creating a (slightly) complex figure even within the whip-cream light plots. He was a well-intentioned guy -- but could be bull-headed, insensitive, and had commitment issues, both in his relationships (he was married to the Skartarian Queen, Tara, but tended to go off on quests with the catwoman, Shakira, their relationship ostensibly Platonic but you always kinda wondered -- to the point where you might consider The Warlord the only mainstream comic fronted by an openly bigamist hero) and his ideals (preaching freedom and rebellion against tyranny -- and then wandering off, leaving followers in the lurch). And this was a deliberate characterization, Grell fully aware of the character he was presenting.

Unfortunately Grell hasn't really found anything new to say or do with it. Except over the years Grell has, arguably, become more pretentious and serious-minded. So while Morgan's feet of clay gave an unexpected maturity to those old, breezy adventures, here (and in the 1990s mini-series) it ends up a central focus, with characters constantly harping on it as if we're supposed to be impressed with the ambiguity. What worked as a subtle subtext seems a bit thin made into the central thesis -- particularly since Grell doesn't seem to have anywhere he's headed with it. Unfortunately Morgan lacks some of his roguish, swashbuckling charm of old, and the other characters tend to be pretty bland (even Shakira who I recall as being more interesting in the old stories -- but maybe that's because she works best playing off of Morgan; here amid other characters her one-note acerbicness seems limiting).

As well, the old stories benefitted because there was a sense Grell really was sincere about some of the philosophical and ideological themes, as Morgan led slave rebellions and overthrew tyrants. But likewise, here you can find yourself feeling all that stuff can seem a bit simplistic -- either because Grell pushes it too much to the forefront, or maybe just because a reader like me isn't a kid anymore!

It's probably fair to say there's a bit of a Libertarian thread to Grell's beliefs (at least as expressed through the fantasy of this lost world) -- complete with the paradoxes and contradictions that belief entails. He has characters exhorted to rise up and fight for their freedom, even quoting an old adage that for those who fight for it, freedom tastes sweeter (a line that must have stayed with him, because he quoted it in the old comics, too). But surely there's a paradox there: suggesting freedom only belongs to those strong enough to fight for it. Which can be construed as somewhat Nietzschean. It also kind of defines freedom by narrow criteria. In other words, you deserve freedom only so long as you meet Grell's standards -- but then, you're not really free to be yourself, are you? For that matter, suggesting it is better to fight for self-interest (the farmers and peasants that rally to the cause insist they are doing it for themselves) than for a greater good can also seem an odd moral position.

Now, obviously, Grell (or others) might say I'm mis-construing the message. And that in the kill-or-be-killed reality of this fantasy world, fighting for freedom is simply a pragmatic reality, not a moral statement. And when characters say they are fighting for themselves it's a paean to self-determination, not a critique of altruism.

Fair enough.

But my point is Grell seems to spend a lot of time having characters expound on these philosophical ideas, as if it's meant to give the story some extra gravitas -- but it's not hard to pick holes in the ideals.

I guess the thing is that in Saga Grell has crafted a perfectly competent sprawling adventure in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the like. But it never really exceeds expectations. As just a fun romp there aren't really any surprise twists, or quirky plot threads, nor any memorably funny wisecracks nor powerfully dramatic moments. Grell doesn't surprise us with any unexpected motivation or challenge us with any unusual perspectives. Instead of the bad guy just being a complete bad guy (as Deimos and others were), maybe he could've been convinced he was acting for a greater good, trying to civilize the savage world -- Travis Morgan if Morgan had let his own myth go to his head. Y'know -- something fresh. Yet if taken as slightly more ambitious and sophisticated, Grell fails to give us shaded, nuanced characters to hold our attention, or really feel like we're being treated to more complex themes than simply you gotta fight to stay free.

Unlike some times when creators return to old properties they abandoned, I believe Grell was happy to do the gig (rather than needing the money) but equally I didn't really get any sense he had any burning need to do so.

This review is based on the original comics

Cover price: $__ USA

 

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