Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sword & Sorcery Heroes in the Bronze Age [Part 2]

This is the second part of an article originally written for my friend Jim's Flashback Universe Blog. It's part of a series called Bronze Age SpotlightThis particular piece examines the S&S characters adapted to comics in the so-called Bronze Age, this time, those from DC Comics, in the main.

In regard to Part 1, I'm indebted to Marty Halpern of More Red Ink who pointed out an error: Effinger's When Gravity Fails was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula, but unfortunately won neither.  The post was corrected accordingly, and in doing so I caught a few typos and cut-paste malfunctions which have also been corrected.  Dammit Jim,  I'm a Doctor not a word processor!

Hopefully, I'll be closer to error-free today...

DC's Sword & Sorcery: “TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE”

“At least we have something in common!—we’re all three crooks!”
- Catwoman (to Fafhrd and Gray Mouser) Wonder Woman #202 (1972)

Perhaps it was because DC didn’t have the works of Robert E. Howard to fall back on, or maybe it was a reluctance to delve into this sort of material, but for whatever reason, they didn’t adapt as many literary sword and sorcery characters as Marvel.

When they did, at least they got two for the price of one—Fritz Leiber’s sword and sorcery duo, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.

Fafhrd and Gray Mouser’s prose debut was in Unknown in “the Year of the Behemoth, the Month of the Hedgehog, the Day of the Toad”—well, in story, at least. In our world we may reckon that as August 1939. Leiber chronicled the twain’s adventures off and on from that story until 1988’s “The Mouser Goes Below”—a longer span than the entire life of Robert E. Howard. Fafhrd was a Northern barbarian from Cold Corner, and Gray Mouser was a thief and one-time sorcerer’s apprentice from the urban South. They met in decadent Lankhmar, “City of the Seven Score Thousand Smokes,” and became lifelong friends and companions in (mis)adventure.

When Fafhrd and Gray Mouser came to comics, they did so in an unlikely place. They first appeared on the last panel of Wonder Woman #201, during her powerless, kung-fu-fighting, Diana Prince era. Issue 202 has them teaming up with Wonder Woman, her sifu I-Ching, and Catwoman, to thwart a wizard and save Jonny Double who’s trapped inside a mystic gem. In the words of Bart Simpson: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

The issue was written by New Wave science fiction luminary, Samuel Delany. Highlights include Fafhrd backhanding Diana, and Mouser and Catwoman having a totem-appropriate face-off, before they all decide to join forces. This all serves as a “backdoor pilot” for the twain’s run in the bimonthly Sword of Sorcery series premiering in 1973. It only ran for five issues, but featured original stories and adaptations, most scripted by Denny O’Neil (except for one by George Alec Effinger), and featuring art by Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Jim Starlin.

Fafhrd and Gray Mouser vanished from DC at the cancellation of Sword of Sorcery. The two were next sighted at a different company in a 1991 Epic limited series which reunited them with Howard Chaykin, who scripted adaptations of Leiber’s tales. All issues featured evocative art by Mike Mignola.

“Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

- Conan “Queen of the Black Coast” Robert E. Howard

Sword and Sorcery comics did good business in the Bronze Age, both with licensed characters, and original creations like Arak, Dagar, Wulf, Claw, Ironjaw, and the Warlord. It was a true Golden Age for comic book sword-swinging!

Today, Robert E. Howard properties are still appearing in comics, mostly from Dark Horse.  So far they've given us two successive Conan series and various limited series, a Kull series, and a Solomon Kane limited series. Image has given us a line inspired by some of Frank Frazetta’s great sword and sorcery-themed paintings. Marvel and DC, on the other hand, have concentrated on the mainstream superheroes that are their bread and butter; most of their sword and sorcery creations stalk only the back issue bins.  True, we have gotten a Showcase Presents: Warlord, but that's about it.

These things go in cycles, surely. Maybe one of these days will see Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Charles Saunders' Imaro, or perhaps the outré exploits of Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, realized on the comics page.

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