Saturday, September 25, 2010

Out of the Vault - Warriors of the Shadow Realm

1977 is a banner year for a lot of fans, because that was the year of "Star Wars." But 1977 was also the year that fantasy returned to the public consciousness in a big way. That year saw the publication of two hugely successful fantasy novels in The Sword of Shannara, a Tolkien-lite fantasy by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane, the first of the Thomas Covenant novels by Stephen R. Donaldson, as well as the publication of The Silmarillion , a collection of Lord of the Rings source material written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited after his death by his son, Christopher. That same year marked the airing of the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit.

So it should not be surprising that there followed a flood of me-too works in the years immediately following. Some, like Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, were clearly a matter of timing, since Bakshi had been trying to get the movie made for years and was clearly not jumping on any popular bandwagon.

But some, like Marvel's 1979 magazine-sized event comic, Warriors of the Shadow Realm (published in Marvel Super-Special issues 11-13), clearly were a case of cashing in on a popular trend (illustrated by the words "In The Fantasy Tradition of Tolkien" on the cover of the first issue).

The story was actually an extension of a couple of earlier one-shot stories which had appeared in other Marvel anthologies. Written by Doug Moench and drawn by Mike Ploog, the "Weirdworld" stories had an interesting fairy-tale feel to them, though the main character--an elf named Tyndall who has no memory of his past, only the knowledge that he comes from someplace called Klarn--gets tiresome very quickly.

But with the revival of interest in Tolkien after the publication of Silmarillion and the Bakshi movie, as well as the success of the very-Tolkienesque Shannara novel, Marvel decided to take their interesting little fantasy property and blow it up into an event. Mike Ploog left Marvel while drawing a planned 60-page third installment, and the decision was made to turn it into a three-issue, 100-page extravaganza drawn by longtime Conan artist John Buscema, inked by Filipino master Rudy Nebres, and airbrush-painted by Australian artist Peter Ledger. The resulting product was beautiful, but disappointing.

Marvel hyped the holy hell out of the color art in this book, publishing John Buscema sketchbook pages and behind-the-scenes articles on how the art was produced in every issue. It must be said, though, that they had every right to be proud of how it looked. The art was gorgeous.

This is a pretty typical depiction of Weirdworld. John Buscema set aside his usual, distinctive style and followed the aesthetics that Mike Ploog had established in his earlier stories. The swamp serpents (pictured above) and nightfangers (giant batlike beasts) looked the same as when Ploog drew them, and the landscapes had that same 70's surrealist feel of a Roger Dean album cover. Nebres's feathery colored inks give the drawing a unique texture, while Ledger's airbrushed colors have far more depth and atmosphere than the kind of flat coloring that was standard at the time (in American comics at least).

One big feature of the artwork that I haven't included is the prevalence of two- and even three-page spreads (the three-pages fold out like a Playboy centerfold). But when the artwork is at its best, it is simultaneously solid and convincing, while still maintaining that edge of fantastic wonder, as in this scene where the wizard Zarthon coaxes a mystic image from the magical Darklens Gems.

On the other hand, occasionally the combination of Nebres's inks and Ledger's airbrush would overcomplicate the art, leaving it muddy and hard to reproduce.

Still, even the bad panels are pretty good. Overall, the art was excellent.

The writing, however, leaves much to be desired. Doug Moench said he had never read Tolkien's work, and whether I believe that or not, it really doesn't seem to have had much influence on Warriors of the Shadow Realm. Which is not to say that the story doesn't contain elements that feel very derivative of Tolkien, such as a good wizard who glows white, or another good wizard who is corrupted by the temptation of power, or an even more evil wizard who died long ago, and whose followers (known as, seriously, the Dark Riders) seek a special magical artifact infused with a portion of the evil wizard's spirit with which to resurrect him.

But those are plot elements that Moench could have picked up from the movie. What WotSR lacks is the indefinable spirit of the books, substituting instead your standard Marvel juvenility (I think I made up a word). For instance, when the Dark Riders catch up to a mysterious barbarian elf they've been chasing for the first half of the story, they suddenly turn into Nazgul Ninja.

Tolkien's Nazgul inspired a kind of awe. Moench's Dark Riders make you say, "Yeah, that's pretty cool, I guess."

The pacing is off, as well, with the first half of the story moving terribly slowly (including several pages of useless rehashing of the earlier Weirdworld tales), only to find the second half terribly rushed, climaxing in a hugely unsatisfying Battle of the Dei Ex Machinae.

The main characters, Tyndall and Velanna--the Klarn elves who cannot remember anything about their homeland except for the name--are boring as hell. Worse, their characters are the worst kind of convenient cliche, constantly telling us how their memories are a complete blank, until the story needs them to remember a convenient detail. "By the White Wolf of Salvation!" Velanna exclaims at one point, though she claims not to know where she learned the expression. By incredible coincidence, a White Wolf literally appears out of nowhere to save them moments later.

Even worse is the elves' comedy relief companion (a new character who did not appear in the previous Weirdworld stories), a dwarf named, I shit you not, Mud Butt. If there is any way to further distance yourself from Tolkien than naming one of your three main characters Mud Butt, I'd like to hear it. Even worse, someone at Marvel apparently thought Mud Butt would be this huge breakout character or something, because they featured him in a special full-page inside front cover illustration (though to be fair, it was a really good illustration), featured his character development in John Buscema's scrapbook, and promised to reveal his backstory in a future tale. I know they did a couple more Weirdworld stories, but I don't know if Mud Butt's origin figured in either one of them.

And then there's the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Let's face it, in the late 70's, nobody in comics was writing good dialogue. But there must be a special place in hell for those who write stuff like this. For instance, it gets really annoying having characters (who presumably grew up in this land, and so consider it normal) continuously refer to it as "Weirdworld." We may call it Weirdworld, but why would they? And then there's the question of how many times you can put a character's name in a single speech balloon?


And really, none of this would be much of a problem if this were a normal comic. Warriors of the Shadow Realm was basically your average Marvel comic, combining mediocre writing with outstanding art. The problem was the hype. Every issue featured articles and editorials telling us that we held in our hands the wave of the future, the best that the comics industry had to offer, a story which would set the standard for years to come.

And while it was true in a sense--the production values of WotSR presaged major changes in printing techniques and standards for the entire industry--in a larger sense, it wasn't. The art was excellent, but by no means perfect, and the writing was substandard. And even the excellent production techniques would look pretty average by the mid-80's.

Far more influential in that regard would be the magazine first advertised on the back cover of these issues, Marvel's Heavy Metal wanna-be titled Epic Illustrated.

This is a pretty good painting by Ledger, and at the time, it had me practically panting for the release of the magazine. Now though, I want to laugh when I look at it, because it mainly reminds me of this.

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