“Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” – Harvey Pekar
Because I’m an adult, and so is the rest of my D&D group, and that apparently means doing adult things, and having stupid adult responsibility, my D&D game only actually ends up playing about once per month. We all probably want to play more, and individually could make it happen, but as a group, it just works out that way. This leaves me with a lot of time during each month where I wish I was slaying things with sword and dagger, but I’m disappointingly not. That sorry mental state of D&D withdrawal has led me for a search of other items that can hit that certain ‘Swords and Sorcery’ sweet spot. I’m chasing that short term nerd high that will get me through to my next dice rolling, quick thinking, smooth talking and treasure plundering adventure. While I’m pretty up to speed on the state of the fantasy genre as it relates to videogames (excellent), books (saturated), film (mixed bag) and television (mostly shit), I had no idea what was going on with comics. Now I love the medium, comics are pretty damn amazing, but I had sort of fallen out of the comic scene a while back as it is somewhat exhausting to keep up with. As I thought about it though, the fantasy genre is perfect for comics. With sequential art you can create whatever the fuck you want, and then all you have to do is go out and draw it. There isn’t a special effects budget to restrict your imagination, creators can just make whatever stokes the fires of their imagination. Fantasy and comics should be a beautiful match and I was sure if I just poked around a little there would be hordes of graphic novels that could satisfy my D&D cravings.
I started with a humble bundle of the official D&D comics comprising of about 10-12 graphic novels from across their range, and was pretty quickly dismayed. Seriously, a lot of it was piss poor. Soulless adaptations capturing the official worlds but none of the spirit and adventure of the game. I’m sure some talented writers and artists worked hard on those products, but they did nothing for me. I tried a quick sanity check with friends to see if I was just missing out on the good ones and got the reply I feared … “They’re all shit.” So my search continued. I knew what I wanted, badass swords and sorcery, but I didn’t know where to find it. Below you’ll find reviews of some of what I’ve recently found, hopefully shining at least a dim light on the genre within the comics space.
Death Saves – Editor/Contributor Josh Trujillo (and a whole host of other folks)
Death Saves is an awkward beast of a book with a wonderfully niche inspiration. It is a comic anthology of Dungeons and Dragons character deaths with a whole host of different artists and writers. Each story follows the usually brutal demise of members of a party. This is essentially mainlining D&D as you often see not just a sword and sorcery comic, but actual dice rolls and reactions out of character. I ran into one of the creators, Josh Trujillo manning the booth at Alternative Press Expo in San Jose and was immediately drawn to the design of the book. It is basically perfect in terms of look on the outside. A mini pink version of an old school RPG book with authentic weathering and tons of character. I was wearing my CoreHammer Pit Beef shirt and Josh let me know one of the stories was loosely Warhammer inspired. I dismissed that connection thinking to myself “I love D&D too, I don’t need it to have Warhammer for me to enjoy it” but it turns out that was one of my favorite stories in the book. Seriously, Brassfist of Gore, Chosen of the Skull Lord taking over a D&D game and making it more like ‘Gorebludgeon’ had me proper chuckling like an idiot while I read it. Common with a lot of other anthologies, the interior stories are a bit of a mixed bag. Genuinely loved a few of them but others missed me entirely. Stealing a line from a friend of mines overall review of Modern Art, this book had very high highs and some very low lows. ‘Cube’ and ‘Roll of the Die’ were personal favorites along with the aforementioned Gorebludgeon story. Fans of the game, and of a varied set of tabletop stories, should definitely check it out.
Rat Queens – Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
I picked up the first trade “Sass and Sorcery” as an Amazon algorithm recommendation and fucking loved it. Rat Queens follows an all-female adventuring party as they navigate town politics, menial encounters, relationships and ultraviolence. There is a very strange balance struck by the book in terms of world building, but it works so well. This is consciously a game world, with adventuring parties, character classes and a whole host of other sometimes winking, sometimes direct references to RPG’s. There is not however, like many RPG influenced comics before, any breaking of that 4th wall (that I’ve seen) revealing the Dungeon Master or players behind the characters. This creates a fast paced story where characters actively behave as rampant PC’s, and we as the audience get to watch the creative chaos unfold. Much like the pilot episode of a series, I’ve only seen the opening hooks for their longer running story. Right now, the characters are a little thin, but it seems like a conscious decision to get you stuck right into the action and flesh them out slowly over time. I’ve already ordered the second trade and hope the quality keeps up. When I saw the book online, I was figuring the art would be serviceable to tell the story. I actually found myself enjoying the style more and more as I went on and there is some incredible storytelling done. The visual style isn’t my exact taste, but certainly captures the spirit and humor it needs too. Well done all around. The book is crass, violent and a fucking joy to read.
Orc Stain – James Stokoe
Orc Stain is an incredible achievement. Created, written, drawn, inked, colored and lettered by just one James Stokoe. The book is a colorful, immensely detailed and ambitious in scope project that subverts and reimagines classic sword and sorcery genre staples. This comic chronicles a race of Orcs that have swarmed over the world and enforced their society on the classic fantasy lands. By following a specific Orc safe cracker, One Eye, who can crack just about anything with a deft hammer hit, the reader is introduced to a frankly fucking insane world of gronch (Orc penis) hunting, drug obsessed, hyper violent surreal brutality. This is one of those incredibly strange comic experiences where if it was described to me, I’d probably think to pass, but it all just works so well. The art is incredibly evocative and original, and the details are poured on thick like some sort of drug fueled ‘Where’s Waldo.’ I seriously don’t know how one dude made this. Fucking mental and totally worth your time.
Head Lopper – Andrew Maclean
This is a comic I wish I had been part of making. At the same time, I know I could never be part of it, as it is such a singularly focused and individual vision. I, whatever my involvement would theoretically have been, would have somehow fucked this up, so I’m glad I had nothing to do with it. This way I can just read it, like you all should. Head Lopper follows a hulking warrior who rolls into town with the severed head of a shit talking witch on his back, and a brutal set of skills for doing exactly what the title calls out, lopping heads. While Orc Stain piled on details and depth, Maclean’s art goes an entirely different direction. Using bold lines and minimal fussiness, the world is stylishly fleshed out using only the barest of details. There is incredible dynamism in the art that adds extra interest to classic adventuring tale of a wandering warrior. Imaginative layouts and a strong sense of grim humor make me an enormous fan of the series which is getting stronger with each release. This book is just dripping with fucking cool, and is obviously exactly the kind of story the creator wanted to tell. The ability for someone immensely talented to just throw down and create what they want, personified in Head Lopper, is one of the reasons I love comics.
The Autumnlands – Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey
I picked up the first trade of this series at a local bookstore based on the cover art and a deep love for Usagi Yojimbo. The Autumnlands features a magical world filled with anthropomorphic animals behaving (and even thinking of themselves) as people. They wear clothes, build cities, engage in politics and even war. The story focuses on a sort of magic wielding literal upper class who inhabit floating cities above the commoners on the surface level. Their whole economy and world is propped up on magical energy, but where the story opens, that magic is running out. To get magic back flowing freely into the world, a dangerous ritual is attempted to summon a mythical warrior who they hope will fix everything. Shit hits the fan, an entire city crashes to the surface, the tone changes to one of survival and the mythical warrior turns out to be human, que shocks all around. Written by big name Kurt Busiek, I wasn’t sure what I expected, but this ended up being totally different. It somehow manages to be both less and more than I hoped. The scope and scale of the book is far beyond what I imagined, and the large mature world that has been created is impressive and original. Some of the visuals are fucking amazing, and I particularly love the bison tribes, but overall the book left me a little flat. Some of it has to do with the main protagonists, which for the most part, I give no shits about. Besides the young dog character, who plays the Luke Skywalker of the series as a naïve kid thrown into a massive struggle, I actively dislike just about everyone else. I actually found myself siding with some of the antagonists and threats more. The bison tribe had my sympathy as it appears they’ve been kept in squalor and servitude for years by magic rationing rich assholes. I just wasn’t all to invested in the story and have felt no strong pull to read beyond the 1st trade. Part of me thinks this is a shame, as some really cool ideas and characterful designs are being wasted, but then I remember the fucking piles of stuff out there that I haven’t read and stop caring about some series that didn’t grab me.
Nimona – Noelle Stevenson
This is an absolutely charming book. This is not meant as faint praise, as I didn’t actually think I’d be that big a fan of the comic when it arrived, but this one simply wormed its way deep into my cold dead heart and started an adorable little fire providing warmth and feeling. Nimona stretches the genre I was looking at as it is a bit of a world building mish-mash. It takes a classic science minded supervillain story, told from the side of misunderstood evil, and layers on fantasy trappings like kings, knights, jousting and banks full of gold coins and random crowns. The story follows Nimona, a shapeshifting enigma who signs herself up to be the side kick of the super villain Ballister Blackheart in opposition to the establishment and their champion Sir Goldenloin. Shockingly, Ballister and Goldenloin have a history, Nimona has a secret past and the story quickly switches from black and white to varying shades of grey. This began life as a web comic, and the art style is rough and ready to match that medium, but it also perfectly suits the material. Nimona’s shapeshifting is a particular joy to watch and bring moments of damn funny humor. The story moves crisply along while still managing to poke at serious issues of alienation, jealousy, sacrifice and regret. It wouldn’t normally be what I consider my style, but it does such a good job of immersing you in its specific and bizarre world and really making you want to follow the characters, I had no choice but to thoroughly enjoy my time with Nimona.