Comic of the Month
For anyone who wants to catch up quickly and cheaply on the history of American comics, there can hardly be a better way to do it than DC’s Showcase and Marvel’s Essential series. Over 500 pages of comic for a little over a tenner is not only a bargain, but allows for the reprinting of entire runs of a title rather than a few select issues. (Okay, so it’s black and white, but colour wasn’t up to much in the seventies, and the cheap paper is a nostalgic reminder of the originals). Of course, some comics benefit more from this format than others, and Mike Grell’s The Warlord is the perfect example of this: for a number of years it has been in my top three hoped-for reprints (the others being All Star Squadron, out later this year, and Master of Kung Fu).
The Warlord is ideal for Showcase as it’s written and drawn entirely by Grell (with Vince Colletta providing inks from issue 16) and it’s entirely self-contained: no background knowledge is needed of the character or the DC universe. It’s also great fun. The Warlord is Travis Morgan, an air force pilot (as Grell was) who, when his plane crashes, finds himself in a strange underground land known as Skartaris. Within a few pages he has wrestled a dinosaur, fallen in love with a warrior princess, and made a mortal enemy of the high priest Deimos. In fact, what is most astonishing about the series now is the pace with which it moves. Whereas today comics writers tend to take one idea and stretch it over many issues (often of more than one title), Grell seems to come up with a new idea every few panels. The fact that Skartaris is entirely imaginary is in his favour: it does, at times, feel as if literally anything could happen.
By the end of the first issue proper (The Warlord was first introduced in 1st Issue Special #8, also reprinted here) he has been captured by slavers; in issue 2 he is a gladiator who is soon leading a gladiator army in rebellion; in issue 3 he is attacked by lizard men and we get the first hint of science fiction undertones as the final panel reveals a very modern control room in a ruined city. Issue 6 sees him return briefly to earth; returning to Skartaris only a few days later he discovers he has been gone for far longer. Grell is clearly having fun plundering his favourite writers (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells) to create something entirely new. He even manages a story with aliens.
Of course, it doesn’t always make sense. He tells his Russian travelling companion, Mariah Romanova (picked up when he briefly surfaced to allow some Cold War banter), to melt her rifle down for the steel as “your ammo is almost gone and there aren’t any sporting goods stores round here,” but his pistol is still firing away twenty issues later. (Female readers may also object to the fact that when she is asked to wear something less conspicuous than her earth clothes she opts simply for something less that looks to be mostly made out of ink.) However, you don’t read sword ‘n’ sorcery for its impeccable logic – what sensible man would walk around in a loin cloth in a land of perpetual sunlight? The stories are driven along by Grell’s love of the genre and the increasing dynamism of his art, with figures forever bursting out of panels, where the pages contain panels at all.
An enjoyable reminder of the less serious seventies for those with a tolerance for muscled men wielding swords at improbable angles. And with The Warlord lasting for 133 issues, with Grell writing and drawing the first 52, there’s plenty of opportunity for a second volume.