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.