Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Enter the Lost World

"In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: If you let down your guard for an instant you will soon be very dead."

So begins just about every issue of the longest running sword-and-sorcery saga in comic book history not based on a Robert E. Howard creation. It’s the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Travis Morgan, USAF, who is forced to ditch his SR-71 blackbird in the arctic circle, but instead winds up in a tropical jungle under an eternal sun, and is soon saving a sword-wielding, fur-wearing, princess with supermodel looks from a velociraptor.

Then things get really weird.

Over the course of the thirteen-plus years, 133 issues and 6 annuals, original run, Travis Morgan wandered through the dream-logic geography of a collective pulp unconscious world—a mash-up of prehistoric adventure, sword and sorcery, comic book sci-fi, and Bullfinch’s mythology, seasoned with a little Tolkienian epic. Damsels were saved a-plenty, monsters were slain, spells were cast, and swashes were definitely buckled. And since June 2009, Mike Grell, The Warlord's creator, has been the guiding hand for more of the same in a new series.

For the uninitiated, I'll summarize the basic set-up. The aforementioned Travis Morgan winds up in Skartaris, a world inside the hollow earth, bearing a strong resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar. Like most Burroughs protagonists, Morgan wins himself a princess and a kingdom. The main difference between The Warlord and most of Burroughs ouevre is the existence of magic. At first, this is teased as perhaps only the misunderstood, remnant advanced technology from a lost Atlantean civilization, but eventually true sorcery rears its head. This element, and the structure of most of the stories, lends a more sword and sorcery feel to the proceedings, than Burroughsian pastiche.

The Warlord was one of my favorite comics as a kid. It also provided a lot of inspiration for gaming in my early dungeon-mastering years. Well before Aaron Allston's campaign setting for D&D's Mystara line, my players were venturing into a hollow world. Like Skartaris, a couple of my campaign worlds have had a wandering moon whose movements weren't predictable. I also borrowed the cursed hellfire sword (first appearing in issue #34)--which had to draw blood every time it was drawn, even if it be the wielder's--and inflicted it on one of my players.

Skartaris was, and is, what would be called, in gaming parlance, a "kitchen sink" world. It's full of creatures from classical and medieval mythology, remnant super-science from Atlantis, aliens, sorcery, barbarians, lost tech from our world, time-travel, malfunctioning AIs, and of course, dinosaurs. In true "show don't tell" visual storytelling fashion this "anything goes" philosophy is driven home by great images: a tyrannosaur snatching up a unicorn in its jaws; a group of primitive cultists sacrificing a woman on an altar that's actually a crashed SR-71 jet.

One of the most interesting things to me about all this, and one of the things I find inspirational when considering rpg setting creation, is that Grell provides a rationale for these disparate elements existing together. In the distant past, we're told, Skartaris was Wizard World, a high fantasyish Tolkien-lite kind of world of elves, dwarves, wizards, and the like. After a time, for reasons never fully explained as I recall, this civilization waned. In the millennia that followed, openings to the outer earth allowed prehistoric animals to enter and avoid the extinct that claimed their fellows. Sometime later, an Atlantean fleet fleeing the destruction of their homeland arrived in Skartaris and built a technologically advanced civilization, only to have it end in nuclear war. Civilization slowly climbed back to the pseudo-Medieval level of the Warlord's time.

Ok, so I didn't say it was an airtight rationale, but its plenty good enough for gaming.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think this sort of "kitchen sink" fantasy might be exactly what I want to do with my next campaign. Maybe.

Of course, I'll still need to find a way to throw some Planet of the Apes/Kamandi elements in there, but I'm sure "the kitchen" sink is big enough.


Brian Murphy said...

Great post. I read this comic off-and-on as a kid and remember loving the hell out of it--it was like a grimmer, more graphic version of Thundarr the Barbarian. Somehow I wound up losing a bunch of my old, battered Warlords in a move. Your post made me regret it.

How is the resumed series? I assume it was a relaunch by Grell?

Trey said...

It's good, largely following up with the themes of Grell's post-series cancellation llimited series after in the nineties. He introduces a few new characters, and Deimos is on his way back. Grell is writing, doing covers, and has drawn an occasional issue.

This is actually DC's secnd attempt at relaunch. Their was one a couple of years ago by Bruce Jones and Bart Sears that is best avoided.