Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fur Bikinis and Dangerous Hand

The only thread of commonality running through these Comics Cabinet posts has been my attempts to look at complete story lines. So far, that's mostly been old stuff in the Cabinet, but I'm going to branch out a little. Very little.

I believe Pops gave up on this book early on, but I'm going to review the opening arc of the latest DC stab at doing The Warlord. Following rather shortly on the heels of the disaster that was the 2006 Bruce Jones re-launch of the series, DC has made another attempt as of 2009. We'll not speak of the 2006 mess any further, but clearly DC learned its lesson and hasn't strayed far from the original Mike Grell creation of 1975. That's a lot easier to do when you bring Mike Grell back to write the new series.

After 6 issues, Grell has now concluded the opening arc of the series. I'm going to stick with it awhile longer, but he's going to have to tread some new ground if he wants to keep me with him. This arc feels like a primer more than an actual story.

Grell sets it up with a new portal to the mythical land of Skartaris in the Himalyan mountains, on the Tibetan side. An explorer named Alysha Grant stumbles on it with her Sherpa guide, but doesn't actually find the portal at that point. She finds the cave where it is and stops with the frozen dinosaur. She takes a chunk of the dinosaur to a paleontologist in Chicago. The paleontologist, Kate Archer, then taks Grant to an adventurer, and former bed partner, named Ned Hawkins so Hawkins can bank roll an expedition to get back to the cave fast, presumably before anyone else finds it.

This is problem number one with the premise. What's the rush, from a paleontologist's perspective? Why should Archer be hell bent on avoiding the time it would take to get funding through the museum? It's not like they wouldn't be all over an expedition to find an intact, soft tissues and all, dinosaur. And an actual respected paleontologist, like Archer is supposed to be, having been recommended to Grant by a National Geographic writer, would be far more interested in getting it right than getting it done fast. Science isn't about fast. It's about repetition. That's what the scientific method is.

But, it's off to Tibet. Illegally, of course. Wouldn't want the Chinese government to know they're going, but they bring along a videographer named Ewan McBane to document the expedition (and, de facto, its illegality). They don't have massive digs in their Western desert that they work with scientists from around the world or anything. No, they're just concerned with China for the Chinese and keeping down the Tibetans. Naturally, the protests by the Tibetans have now caused an influx of Chinese troops. Bizarrely, this means Chinese troops have set up a rather large camp right by the cave entrance. Why would the Chinese have a camp in the middle of nowhere when they're concerned about controlling the Tibetan population? Wouldn't it make more sense to have the troops in places where there are actually Tibetans living? I'm willing to suspend disbilief for a good story, but this doesn't work, especially for a writer like Grell who used to be in the military.

Naturally, they're spotted by a Chinese soldier and all the Sherpas are killed before they can get into the cave, but our 4 people with names are not. Bringing litetal meaning to a magic bullet, Ned uses a sharp shooter's rifle to trigger an avalanche that stops the Chinese from following them into the cave. This a sword and sorcery book, but what single, relatively small caliber bullet is going to cause an avalance? Once in the cave, Archer finds the portal to Skartaris and walks through. At least I think it's Archer. She and Grant are drawn with the same face so I really can't tell them apart when they're bundled up in winter gear. One's wearing light purple and the other pink (perfect colors for hiding from an expected Chinese presence while sneaking into a snow covered landscape, mind you), but with the light projected from the portal, the colors wash out to being about the same. Anyway, the other three follow.

After that it's all pretty standard. We have a two page spread of the background of how Travis Morgan came to Skartaris. Our eponymous hero is disillusioned by his life, though why I don't know. He's The Warlord and mate of the queen of Shamballah, the dominant kingdom of Skartaris. He's got his bed buddy, Shakira, who transforms at will from black cat to hot chick in a fur bikini and back. That Tara is one understanding queen, considering all the time her mate spends with another hot chick. No time for reflection, though. Refugees, both human and fauna, are streaming into Shamballah from the dark lands because a new power is taking over and driving them out. Off runs Morgan with Shakira in tow, to find out what's happening. Not so much because he's concerned about the fate of these poor refuges but because the kingdom of his friend, Machiste, has been overrun.

Naturally, it's Ned who's the new power, and Archer is his queen. At first it just seems like the rifle that's the source of his power, but there's some vague magical source, stolen from the stores of Morgan's former enemy, Deimos. We end up with Morgan's wizard daughter, Jennifer, and Tara gathering up an army to march north while Morgan and Shakira go ahead to scout. Former sidekick Tinder, now a young man and not just a kid, is also along for the ride, but when the three spot Machiste in a cage headed for slavery in the new wizard/warlord's kingdom, Tinder continues on alone to warn settlements of approaching slavers while Morgan and Shakira free Machiste, but not before Tinder lectures Morgan about his responsibility.
This new trio then goes north to free Machiste's mate, Mariah, who's being held by Ned. They're captured, of course, and their capture leads to Mariah, a one time Russian professor of languages, being blackmailed into translating some book that will lead Ned to more power that was held by the ancient Atlanteans who founded Skartaris.

Tinder is thought dead for awhile, but isn't. He ends up raising a militia of settlers to fight for freedom. Very Braveheart, actually. No blue face paint or mooning the opposition, but much akin in its appeal of freedom to a bunch of people that really have no concept of the idea. Meanwhile, Tara and Jennifer approach with the Shamballan army. Machiste and Morgan are set free by McBane, the videographer who has had a change of heart from his role as uninvolved documentarian. Grant, who set all this in motion in the first place, escaped from Ned and Archer some time earlier and is with Tinder while he raises his mililtia. Machiste escapes to the outer edges of Ned's territory and signals Jennifer and Tara to bring their army forward. Ned's got his power, though, and uses a flying boat of sorts with a magnifying glass like contraption to concentrate some magical power he has to cause a landslide that crushes most of the Shamballan army. Evidently Ned's quite fond of crushing people with large mounds of snow or earth. Only a few soldiers, Tara and Jennifer survive, thanks to Jennifer projecting some sort of magical shield.

Tinder then shows up with his militia. Morgan the Jaded thinks they'll just be slaughtered. One of the settlers is a one eyed guy who fought with Morgan back when Morgan first came to Skartaris and was fighting slavers for the freedom of all Skartarans. He chastises Morgan for getting comfortable in his role as quasi-royalty and forgetting the people he inspired. Morgan is chagrined and mounts his best Mel Gibson moment, riding in front of the settlers and inspiring them onward. Got me why he cared about them being slaughtered. He only needed them as a distraction while he went after Ned, anyway. Besides, prior to this Morgan had gone back through the portal with McBane and raided the Chinese camp for weapons, so the militia now has automatic weapons. What do they need to worry about with a bunch of guys just armed with bows, arrows, swords and spears? Well, other than the fact that they don't know how to operate the automatic weapons.

By this time Mariah has escaped and Archer has been given to slavers, as Ned's decided she's plotting against him on the sly. Morgan takes out the flying ship, but Ned's decided he can wield his new magical powers on Earth to rule there. Ah, but unfortunately for Ned, Morgan blew up the cave and the portal when fleeing back to Skartaris with the Chinese weapons, so Ned's stuck in a cave with no way out. Morgan destroys the portal on the Skartaran side for good measure.

In the end, we're left with a set up of the status quo. Morgan's re-inspired to fight for freedom in Skartaris, though he's still mated to the queen of the most influential kingdom in the place. Shakira remains the hot side kick. Grant's linking up as Tinder's significant other, fur bikini of her own in place. Machiste and Mariah have his kingdom back. Jennifer Morgan's the ever enigmatic wizard. Archer has some painted skull and a mask that's supposed to foreshadow some dastardly deeds on her part in a future arc. Now that that's out of the way, I hope Grell moves on to new stories and new ideas.

I also hope the art team improves. Grell didn't do the art, with the exception of the covers. The original art team was Joe Prado and Walden Wong. As I mentioned, the faces were all too similar especially for the women. The men had the benefit of facial hair or skin tone to distinguish them. Shakira's usually easy to pick out because of her hair, and Mariah always has face paint, though I don't know why, but the faces of Tara, Grant, Jennifer, and Archer are largely interchangeable. The art improved some with the 5th issue when Chad Hardin and Wayne Faucher took over, but it still doesn't quite sit right. In none of them could I tell what McBane's ethnicity was supposed to be. His hinted back story involves a girlfriend or wife who was killed during the Irish Troubles, but he's drawn dark most of the time so that he appears to be an African and European blend of some sort, but really it could be most any ethnicity that's spent a few millenia in the sun. At first I thought he was drawn with a darker skin tone because he was in an ill lit bar, but he still looked darker in the perpetual light of Skartaris.

The Warlord is back to being The Warlord, though. That's a good thing. Grell had a nice explanation for the lack of aging, too. There was no re-set to try to have Travis Morgan arriving in Skartaris more recently. Instead, there's something about Skartaris that retards aging. People age normally through adolescence but then slow significantly in adulthood. Now that's the kind of willing suspension of disbelief in which I'm willing to engage.

I also like the equal oportunity clothing impossibility, which goes back to the original series. Not only do we have the patently impossible outfit of Jennifer Morgan, with its neckline that plunges to her waist but never has a wardrobe malfunction (I suppose she could use magic to keep it in place), but we also have Travis Morgan's utterly futile loin cloth. He's largely naked but for this skimpy thing, which seems less than useful in a sword fight. What keeps the family jewels from public display is a secret best kept, I suppose. Machiste's no better dressed, and on top of that has a mace instead of a right hand. I hope he takes it off to sleep, but even during waking hours it seems like a good way to give yourself a fatal accidental injury.

One story arc, maybe two. If Grell gets something better going then, I'll stick with it awhile, but he'll need to do more than what he did in this foundational arc.


  1. Great post - reminded me of why I hung on for a few issues and why I dropped it. Let me know if arc #2 is worth jumping on again.

  2. Grell is scheduled to draw a few issues, so I'm looking forward to that at least. I also want to see Morgan find out once and for all that Tinder is his son, I've been waiting a loooong time for that story resolution.

  3. Man, that thread's so old I'd forgotten about it. Kind of wish I hadn't sold all the old ones I had from the early to mid '80s, so I could go back to that stuff.

    As far as the next arc, I'll make a note of it when it concludes.