cover #1The Warlord

(1992 - six issues, DC Comics)

Written by Mike Grell. Drawn by Dameon Willich. Inked by Tim Burgard, Rick Hoberg.

The Warlord originally ran from 1976 - 1988 and was one of the most successful, original (ie: not Conan) Sword & Sorcery comics produced (Cerebus and Elfquest being exceptions...though they were independent comics, whereas Warlord was published by DC). Created by writer/artist Mike Grell, it was about a contemporary earth man, Lt. Colonel Travis Morgan, who finds himself in Skartaris, a lost world that exists in the hollow centre of the earth (ala Burroughs' Pellucidar). Grell eventually left the comic, but it continued on in other hands for a few years before eventually being cancelled.

Then in 1992 Grell was lured back to the property to write this six-issue mini-series (subtitled "Ballad") about a minstral who sets out to learn the truth behind the legends that have sprung up in the Warlord's wake. While this is going on, a background menace starts to rear up, as Morgan's old foe Deimos is once more back from the dead, leading to a climax where the minstral unites with Morgan and his familiar allies and they all battle Deimos.

At first glance this could be seen as a cynical deconstruction of the hero, as the minstral encounters Morgan's old friends who point out Morgan wasn't quite the unimpeachable hero the minstral has made him out to be. But it's not really an overhaul of the mythos...because such character flaws were a part of the character all along. Grell may be articulating them better, but he's basically sticking true to the character -- an idealist who led armies in the name of freedom, then abandonned them, a lover who left his lady, Tara, for wanderlust, Morgan was always essentially an idealist undermined by commitment-issues. Grell may portray him as a little more jaded, a little more cynical, here, but he's not out-of-character.

Ballad starts out an interesting, thoughtful series, and one deliberately steeped in nostalgia as the minstral encounters familiar supporting characters and learns something of Morgan's adventures -- making it fun for old-time fans who hadn't re-read their comic for a few years, while explaining enough that a new reader shouldn't get too lost as we learn, in bits and pieces, about Morgan's history.

But after a while, it starts to seem a tad...indulgent. I've read other comics by Grell from this period where he seemed to have fallen too in love with his own prose. In this case, the story isn't overly verbose or turgid...but it is thin: basically a lot of scenes of characters talking, reiterating the same thing without a lot of action-adventure to liven things up. I thought the comic would entail characters relating untold tales of Morgan's adventures, leading to mini-stories illustrating aspects of his character. Instead, the flashbacks are just montage scenes, not really adventure sequences, and Morgan's character is basically analysed within an issue or two and the rest is repetition. Put another way, though I sort of enjoyed this...if I had been buying this on a monthly basis (as opposed to picking up the complete series cheap in one buy as I did), I probably would've lost interest midway through.

The concept sounds great and thought provoking...but it's as if when it came time to write it, Grell wasn't sure what to do with it.

Worse, it turns out that nothing has changed since the original comic: the nature of the premise led me to assume Morgan had maybe disappeared or something -- but no. Eventually Morgan himself appears in issue #4 and it turns into an adventure in the last issue or two -- though here, the reliance on nostalgic references gets in the way, as Morgan defeats Deimos...using some sort of magic sword that, presumably, hardcore fans will recognize, but is not explained in this series.

Stranger still, fans will recognize that the minstral is Morgan and Tara's son, whom they believe died as a child. Yet the series ends with all the characters still ignorant of that! That would be fine if Grell wanted to leave it as a possible story element for later, but in the accompanying editorials, there is no real indication Grell (or anyone) had much interest in reviving the character for a regular comic. Indeed, the character has only recently been revived some decaded and a half later. Once as a re-booted, re-imagining of the comcept, and still more recently, a return to the original series, with Grell once more writing it.

Willich's art is a sort of mixed bag. Obviously, as a grand, nostalgic mini-series, the ideal choice would've been to have Grell draw it himself (Grell only provides the beautiful, painted covers). Willich is a decent artist, but one that maybe puts me a bit in mind of old Gold Key artists...reasonably good technically (some panels look as though he may be using photoreferences, even as his limbs can look a bit stunted) but a bit undynamic, better suited to the talky bits than the action. As well, some of the arrangements, particularly spreading montages across two pages, can make for scenes where you aren't quite sure in what order it's meant to be read. Still, it's agreeable work and stylistically, is enough in the same vein as Grell that it doesn't jar with the tone.

Most of the series clicks reasonably well with what went before (only the depiction of the were-cat woman, Shakira, seems a bit odd, both in personality, and in skin colouring), but the original series was, first and foremost, an adventure series...and this, well, not so much. And even in its analysis of Morgan's character it can seem a bit shallow (by focusing on his failings, it glosses over his commitments to notions of freedom and equality...what surely gave some of the original stories an extra edge). Ultimately, if you want a sample of the Warlord...better to just try and grab a few back issues, or the out-of-print TPB collection, or the neat digest where DC edited a run of stories together to form a grand, 95 page epic saga.

This return of the Warlod is okay, but a tad thin and anti-climactic.