DC Comics’ Sword of Sorcery

coverI’ve read somewhere that DC’s Sword of Sorcery was conceived as an answer to Marvel’s runaway success in bringing Robert E Howard’s most famous creation to the world of comics, with Conan the Barbarian issue 1 appearing in August 1970. DC dipped its toe by having Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser guest in Wonder Woman #202, in Oct 1972. I haven’t read this, so I don’t know how the two (to my mind, wholly separate) universes would have been brought together. I’d like to imagine a story featuring Fafhrd & the Mouser’s rivalrous attempts to woo the Amazonian Princess, while perhaps simultaneously trying to relieve her of her lovely gold wristbands and glowing lasso (which I can see the Mouser finding irresistible), probably only to be soundly and solidly put in their place — but I think, to judge from the cover, they just get into a fight.

Sword of Sorcery, a standalone title featuring Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser in their proper environment, the fantasy world of Nehwon, debuted in March 1973. In the first editorial, writer/adapter Denny O’Neil issues a pledge: “We’ll change Fritz’s work as little as possible, because we love it, because it would be silly to imagine we can improve on greatness, and because, for the first time in our comics careers, we’re approaching a project with genuine reverence.” But by the third issue (which mentions, in its editorial, that both Leiber and Harlan Ellison have complimented them on their adaptation) they’re presenting an original, non-Leiber story. I do have to say it sticks quite well to the feel of the F&GM stories, including in its cast a bird-woman (which fits in with the pair’s many dalliances with exotic, semi-human females), but this same bird-woman brings out an uncharacteristic note of sexism from Fafhrd (usually the more chivalrous of the two). Thinking themselves abandoned by the half-woman half-bird Lissa, Fafhrd says: “She could be of no help… and besides, what do you expect of a woman… even a woman half a nobler creature?”

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 1, Ningauble and Sheelba

The wizards Sheelba and Ningauble, minus the clash of terse/loquacious personalities Leiber gave them

In general, though, seen as a comics-of-the-time take on Leiber’s tales, Sword of Sorcery manages an okay series of adaptations. The stories have mostly been boiled down to centre on one big fight, but do include a smattering of the sort of wordplay & archaicism so characteristic of Leiber’s writing. One thing I forgot about this sort of comic (not having read any in ages) is just how much the characters love to talk during fights, and mostly about themselves. As soon as they whip out their swords, Fafhrd & the Mouser turn into a pair of gangsta rappers — “Hey, I’m great at this, I’m great at that, look at me, how good I am in a fight.” Fafhrd calls himself a barbarian rather a lot (and is “Fafhrd the Barbarian” in the titles); Leiber’s character wouldn’t do that — not as a boast, anyway, as he was more interesting in being civilised. It’s basically a shorthand way of getting readers to grasp his status as a Conan analogue. And I have to mention one truly awful thought bubble from a non-Leiber back-up strip in issue 4, about Fafhrd in his youth. Seeing his girlfriend snatched by a snow-dragon, the young Fafhrd thinks: “So… my blooming manhood is put to the test!” A letter from issue 4 says it all: “A splendid adaptation of ‘Thieves House’ this month. I wonder, though, why you retitled it ‘Revenge of the Skull of Jewels’. That’s laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it?” Laying it on a bit thick is what this sort of comic does.

from Sword of Sorcery issue 3, a fight scene

Another thing I forgot from US comics of this era is just how crude the colouring technology was. In most cases, the splotchy, all-too-basic colouring detracts from the artwork far more than it adds. I would have preferred to have seen it in black & white just to get a better look at the linework. And I wasn’t 100% taken by the depictions of Fafhrd & the Mouser — mostly the Mouser, who, though properly short, still had the usual superhero proportions, making him seem like a 7 foot tall man shrunk in size, rather than a short man with a short man’s proper proportions. But, again, I suspect this is just one of the conventions of the time. One thing I would like to say about the art, though — and this isn’t at all intended as faint praise — is I liked the backgrounds. They really brought out the feel of Leiber’s Nehwon, particularly the city of Lankhmar, a lush mix of opulent Orientalism and Renaissance Europe:

panel from Sword of Sorcery issue 2

And this panel is simply beautiful:

panel from Sword of Sorcery, ship at sea

Sword of Sorcery died without an announcement after five bimonthly issues. It was an interesting run, but more for how Leiber’s work could be fitted into a medium or market that couldn’t properly deal with his attempts to rethink & out-think the clichés of a genre he’d helped define (even, to name).

Fafhrd & the Mouser would appear in comics again in 1990, this time from the Marvel-owned Epic Comics, where they distinctly benefit from being directed at a more adult market, and in a generally more mature (post-Watchmen) comics milieu. In a neat link, although it was drawn by Mike Mignola, this later series was written by Howard Chaykin, penciller for Sword of Sorcery. I’ll maybe cover it in a future Mewsings.

Happy birthday, Robert Louis Stevenson

Edward Gorey

I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:

“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”

There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.

Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).

extract

The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.

All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall/Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall

The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.

In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:

Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan

But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).

It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?