I've been known to moan - a lot - that epic fantasy doesn't seem to translate well into comic book format. I'm not wholly sure why. Different storytelling structures, perhaps? (Your theories in the comments, please.)
But all my moaning and theorising aside, there are some great ones. Here are five comics that succeeded in putting the fantasy into four-colour fun (Or vice versa.)
As always, please share your favourites in the comments - the more the merrier!
Gail Simone's Red Sonja (2013+) is my undisputed favourite, and, frankly, the inspiration for this post. Dynamite, of all publishers, seem to be leading the charge on progressive comics (great piece on that from The Cultural Gutter), and Red Sonja is a perfect fusion of the pulpy past and modern-day sensibilities. That is to say, she's got a chainmail bikini and agency.
But over and above Gail Simone (and Walter Geovani's) surprising success in turning a pin-up into a feminist icon, Red Sonja is also a brilliant fantasy adventure. The first volume, Queen of the Plagues, is a strong start - an epic that involves an evil army, flashbacks to Sonja's gladiatorial past and a mysterious 'anti-Sonja' villain. The structure will be familiar to contemporary fantasy readers, with two timelines rushing towards the same conclusions, and revelations in one being explained in the other.
However, the second volume, The Art of Blood and Fire, is where ;Red Sonja really hits its stride: telling a fantasy story that feels like it could only work as a comic - highly visual, cunningly serialised, episodic, but with a triumphant conclusion. Sonja is sent on a - essentially - scavenger hunt, finding a half dozen great 'artists' for a dying emperor. Each task has its own difficulties: some are physically challenging, some are tests of cunning, others surprisingly intimate and emotionally draining. And, in the background, the clock is ticking.
Red Sonja one of the best fantasy stories of 2014, in any format, and my personal gold standard for fantasy comics.
Kurtis Wiebe describes Rat Queens (2013+) as a 'love letter to D&D', and that's, well... kind of obvious. Wiebe - plus artist Roc Upchurch (later replaced by Stjepan Šejić) - has written a filthy, chaotic romp featuring four delightfully post-heroic interpretations of adventurers. Cut from the same cloth as Sam Sykes and Joe Abercrombie, Rat Queens is a firmly tongue-in-cheek send-up of what being an 'adventurer' means: less 'champion of the oppressed' and more 'violent amoral mercenary'.
Although Rat Queens isn't quite on the same level as Red Sonja, it isn't really meant to be - this is more romp than story, with the joy coming in the little details and everyday interactions. In a sense, this is like reading a well-illustrated volume of shit my players say. And god bless it.
Again, a bit like Red Sonja, in fact, there's something to be said about the casual progressiveness - without ever being particularly "worthy" about it, Rat Queens happily demonstrates that good, (un)clean fun can happen with a group of female characters, and that they can be just as irritable, destructive, foul-mouthed and hilarious as the bog-standard, 'traditional', male-dominated party.
Thorgal (1980+) was created by Jean Van-Hamme and Grzegorz Rosiński, with Yves Sente taking over as writer from 2006. There are barbarian epics and there are barbarian EPICS and then there is Thorgal. Taking elements from Norse, Arthurian and even Aztec legend, plus madcap Atlantean theory, Robert E. Howard and space opera, Thorgal is a vast, sprawling and multi-layered epic.
In its basic form, Thorgal is a Viking warrior who falls in love with a young woman, Aaricia, and the two - often star-crossed - lovers have all sorts of adventures. They fight off invading empires, slay monsters and do cool stuff. But Thorgal is also, well, operatic, in scope - with a series of compelling villains each with their own complex motivations and tormented pasts.
It is a complicated twisty-turny maze of stories that has inspired spin-off series, video games and more - and, now, god bless Cinebook, it been steadily released in English. (Curiously, and perhaps sensibly, Cinebook changed the order for publication, so it goes more or less chronologically instead of in order of release. Purists may want to reshuffle accordingly.)
Thorgal belongs on the list partially because of its astounding stature. Thorgal is, for all practical purposes, an epic fantasy character as vastly developed as Conan, yet, unlike Conan, that all world- and character-building has come solely from its creators (plus a hand-picked successor). Taken as a gigantic serialised story, Thorgal is interesting because of how it adds layer after layer, expanding gradually in every direction: going forwards, backwards and even adding alternative perspectives. It is a rich and bountiful mythos, with over thirty years of history behind it and even more ahead.
Roy Thomas's Savage Sword of Conan (1974 - 1995) was technically published as a "magazine", making it non-Code, and therefore - at least, Wikipedia says - much more appealing to artists. And the art is really spectacular, with a host of contributors, including heavyweights like Gil Kane, John Buscema and Neal Adams all contributing. (I was lucky enough to pick up a few library-bound volumes from the early years, and they're stunning.)
I supposeSavage Sword differs from the others on this list because, for the most part, it features adaptations of stories by Robert E. Howard (and his successors). But it is still significant, if for no other reason than it does that very, very well. Converting even a short story into a comic script means shedding 90% of the words, and Thomas (and many others) did an excellent job of figuring out what's important - and what's crowd-pleasing - while still staying true to the angsty and surprisingly-pensive nature of Conan himself. I suppose the secret of the Conan stories is that he's more often than not not doing something - rather, he's the instigator of social change or caught in things by accident. Hell, he spends a lot of time just wandering around - or chained up somewhere. The better comic adaptations manage to capture the balance between high-intensity manly-man action and Conan's underlying emo-ness.
Joe the Barbarian
Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian (2010 - 2011) is a typically Morrisonian post-modern interpretation of the epic fantasy myth. In the 'real' world, Joe is a teenager with diabetes - his father, a soldier, has been killed and his mother is struggling to make ends meet and keep their home. Alone one evening, Joe falls into hypoglycaemic shock, and falls into a hallucinogenic world made from his own subconscious... and his toys.
Structurally, Joe the Barbarian is essentially a quest - Joe, in the fantasy realm, must defeat King Death and save the land. He's accompanied by a variety of interesting characters, including a ninja warrior rat, Jack, an amplified personification of his own pet. We cut back and forth to reality, where Joe is staggering throughout the house, a creaking old structure that has turned from sanctuary to menace.
Joe is a portal fantasy as only Morrison could create - where the magic mirror is in Joe's own mind (much on this here). But rather than being purely a sort of delirium magical realism, there are indications that Joe's fantasies do impact the reality around him: scenes where his rat displays a preternatural loyalty and bravery, or, for that matter, the very ending of the book. Morrison has done this before - a lot, in fact - most notably with Arkham Asylum, where a wildly tripping Batman crosses back and forth between worlds in and out of his own mind. (And - probably - this connects with Morrison's roots in Chaos Magic, which fundamentally believes that thoughts contain power to enact change in the physical world.)
Why Joe the Barbarian is remarkable is because it could only work as a comic. Sean Murphy's preternatural attention to detail contains so much of the story. A story that moves seamlessly between two worlds, as this one does, has to make both worlds immediately and tellingly unique... but also interconnected. And the art does much of the heavy lifting. The scenes in the house contain tiny cues and clues; those in the fantasy world are infused with a lurid hyper-realism that reflect Joe's feverish state. When the borders between the two worlds weaken, we can feel it. Joe the Barbarian simply couldn't be told with words alone, and Morrison and Murphy combine to use the comic book medium to its best.
What other great fantasy comics are out there? Please share your reading recommendations in the comments.