Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The World is a Vampire

And Elric, albino emperor of the kingdom of Melnibone, feels every bite. He sits atop the Ruby Throne, gaunt but striking, suffering the mediocre entertainments of his court. The ravishing Cymoril, his lover and cousin, is never far from his side. They rule from a palace in Imrryr, the Deaming City, capital of the Dragon Isle. A few hundred years ago, the Melniboneans owned the world. Now, an upstart race called humanity (broken itself into squabbling kingdoms) threatens to overtake all like a piratical fungus.

Legendary fantasy writer Michael Moorcock gave us this formidable premise in the 1960s and 70s. Elric, around whom the series of novels and short stories revolve, is so sickly that he lives, "Thanks to sorcery alone, his strength sustained by every art known to the sorcerer kings [who preceded him]." He also lives thanks to some wonderful comics produced in the early 80s by Roy Thomas (The Avengers), P. Craig Russell (Sandman) and Michael T. Gilbert.

Short-lived independent publisher Pacific Comics released their adaptation of Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone between 1983-84. I'd had the first of six issues for years, never bothering to track down the rest. Finally doing so put me in touch with a comic just as tortured as its sword-and-sorcery antihero.

Richly colored, ecstatically composed, the first issue is a treasure. Scripter Thomas (who's adaptations, from Conan to Dracula, are always great) fluffs and folds Moorcock's writing impressively: "Without both magic and his daily intake of drugs, this albino whose skin is the color of a bleached skull would barely be able to raise his arms from his side. His is a grim but natural lassitude-"

Cymoril's conniving brother Yyrkoon knows this too well. He wants to wrest from Elric both the Ruby Throne and his sister's physical affection (shudder). The opening scene establishing this dynamic among the characters is a tightly paneled marvel. Later, when the lovers journey through the countryside toward the ocean, the layout blooms to comprise ever wider panels, allowing us to thrill at Russell and Gilbert's elegant art.

Elegant, yet weirdly symbiotic. Initially, Russell (the more gifted of the pair) sketched out the panels. Then Gilbert did the actual drawing of figures and landscapes. Afterward, Russell inked the work, giving it his rococo sharpness. The result is a strange compression of Russell's artistic delivery (extravagantly present in his Jungle Book adaptations of this era).

The second issue, featuring a sea battle (and Elric in his signature bat-winged helm), is on better paper. But the colors aren't as rosily warm this time. Seemingly a mix of marker and watercolor paint, they struggle against too white pages. The overall work is still exceedingly beautiful, which can't be said of the third and fourth issues. They've got, quite possibly, the most hideously intrusive colors I've ever seen in a comic. Pale pink skies and orange flesh exist alongside muddy green word balloons. Entire panels vanish beneath flat blocks of blue.

The saving grace is that Russel and Gilbert hit their stride envisioning Moorcock's landmark realm of sorcery. Elric is aided by wood and water elementals, and the Chaos Lord Arioch, in his quest to confront Yyrkoon, who's taken Cymoril (and cities of Oin and Yu) captive. Thomas' absorbing abridgement of the tale is just as entrancing as the original: "For a goodly space of time the rune-chanting goes on, the Melnibonean high speech mingling with the sound of the fiercely beating rain."

Issues five and six see Elric enter the Shade Gate in search of two mystical swords- Stormbringer and Mournblade. Otherworldly purples and grays service this shadowy dimension well, and no longer imply an epic tussle between creators and printing technology. Thank heavens, because the showdown between Elric (like a giant insect in his black armor) and Yyrkoon (like a raving derelict in his checkered robe) is orchestrated masterfully. Russel and Gilbert's lithe figures, each brandishing one of the swords, clash with vibrant force. Color-wise, the solids, washes and gradations are finally perfect; like characters unto themselves, they tell a share of the story important as any other.

And, I may be a biased child of the 90s, but I detect a strong line of descent racing from Russell to Yoshitako Amano and his work on the Final Fantasy video games. Both are capable of startling delicacy in their designs, whether it's clothing or architecture. Both have worked on Sandman with Neil Gaiman. Both melt reality, painting miraculous alternatives with the runoff.

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