Hasslein Blog: GUEST BLOG: Marvel Premiere #38


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, March 28, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Marvel Premiere #38

Marvel Premiere #38

By Matthew Sunrich

One can easily argue that the 1970s was the decade when "fantasy" finally solidified as a genre. And one can also argue that comics had a lot to do with it.

While many, many writers and artists have had a hand in the development of fantasy, the two men without whom the genre would not exist are J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard.

Fantasy is a category of literature that can be divided into several sub-genres (with new ones cropping up all the time), but the two most enduring are those that Tolkien and Howard engendered. The former gave us "epic" or "high" fantasy, while the latter gave us "sword and sorcery."

Epic fantasy tends to involve longer stories; its heroes face forces that, if left unvanquished, have the potential to affect the lives of everyone. To wit: If Frodo hadn't destroyed the One Ring, all of Middle-Earth would have fallen under the control of Sauron.

Sword-and-sorcery tales generally deal with more personal quests; if the heroes fail to achieve their goals, it is unlikely that anyone else will ever even know. The impetus behind most of Conan's adventures, for example, is the promise of riches.

While these sorts of stories had been popular among readers of fiction for several decades prior to the Seventies, it was the introduction of a visual element that really grabbed the attention of the uninitiated.

It is well understood, for instance, that the sales of Conan's paperback reprints had been mediocre until Frank Frazetta, perhaps the first true fantasy painter, began illustrating their covers. The introduction of the Cimmerian's comic series also brought a lot of attention to the character.

Similarly, Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin's graphic novel Blackmark, published just one year after Conan's comic-book debut, won critical acclaim and showed that graphic fantasy was a viable commodity.

Who doesn't love a striking fantasy illustration, after all?

As mentioned, epic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery are two distinct sub-genres, each with its own flavor. What happens, then, when the two are intermingled?

Such appears to be the case with Doug Moench and Mike Ploog's Weirdworld.

Moench (creator of Moon Knight and writer of numerous books for both Marvel and DC) and Ploog (artist known for his work on Ghost Rider, Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing, The Frankenstein Monster, and other horror-themed titles) debuted their creation in the pages of the extremely obscure Marvel Super Action #1 in 1976. (If you recognize this title as being that of an Avengers reprint book, well done, but that was, in fact, the second volume.) The only issue of this black-and-white magazine ever produced, it's headlined by the Punisher, and no one would ever know that the nine-page "An Ugly Mirror on Weirdworld" even exists within its pages, amongst other features, unless he or she opened it.

I freely admit to never having read it, and despite my interest I am unlikely to pay $20 or more for a copy of the magazine just to get the, sadly, never-reprinted story. As far as I can tell, one doesn't have to have read the story to understand the ones that follow (which show up in various places, but more on this later).

Thankfully, the next installment in the series appears in Marvel Premiere #38 (showcasing a superb cover by Gil Kane and Rudy Nebres). The blurb promises that it will appeal to fans of Lord of the Rings, but, all told, Weirdworld has little in common with Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

Weirdworld falls into the category of what I like to call "whimsical fantasy" (I know those words are essentially synonymous, but please bear with me). This type of fantasy, while certainly "adult" in nature, is typified by diminutive, cartoonish characters. A really good example is Rankin/Bass' animated adaptation of The Hobbit. No attempt at realism is made, and there is an unmistakable air of lightheartedness, even though the subject matter is often dark.

The main character is Tyndall. Unless I missed it somewhere, his race is never explicitly stated, although it is fair to assume that he's an elf (he bears a passing resemblance to the characters in Elfquest), though not in Tolkien's sense of the word. The elves in Middle-Earth are tall, majestic, virtually immortal beings. Tyndall and his companion Velanna seem to be more akin to halflings, at least in appearance.

The dwarves of the realm are anything but friendly toward him, and Tyndall concludes that this is because he is different. He hails from a place called Klarn, of which he remembers nothing.

Weirdworld is an apt choice for the title of this series because it's decidedly quirky. When Tyndall first meets Velanna, she is imprisoned inside an egg hidden within the skeletal remains of a "leviathan." After he "rescues" her (it's debatable whether or not she was in any actual danger, as she was asleep when he found her), the two, having made an immediate connection based on their being the same race, attempt to make their way out of the "Region of Eternal Shadow," hopefully to a place where people will not judge them.

They encounter a serpent in the swamp, but Tyndall manages to defeat it without too much trouble. The real danger comes in the form of an aged wizard named Grithstane, who captures them with his sorcery. He promises to release them if Tyndall brings him the blood of an "immortal dragon," which, he believes, will restore his youth, so that the young, beautiful girl chained to the wall of his chambers will love him. (Nothing tops an old-fashioned love story, eh?)

Tyndall succeeds in killing the dragon and bringing back its blood, but, not surprisingly, Grithstane never had any intention of setting them free. Fortunately for our heroes, the young girl he was planning to woo transforms into a swamp serpent and devours him. The story ends with Tyndall and Velanna expressing their love for each other.

On the surface, there isn't much that's "epic" about this story, since the villain meets his end within eighteen pages, but there is certainly the suggestion of something greater on the horizon. After all, Frodo and the other hobbits' adventure didn't end after they defeated the Barrow-wights, did it? Our two characters are on a quest to find a place where they fit in, maybe even to return to Klarn, which, strangely enough, is a ring-shaped island floating in the sky.

I told you it was weird, didn't I?

The conflation of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery can be achieved, as seems to be the case here, by dividing a larger story into episodes and gradually, perhaps even subtly, revealing more about the bigger picture. Why, for example, do Tyndall and Velanna appear to be the only remaining members of their race? Is there something more sinister at play? Are they destined to become the saviors of their people?

At this point, I have no idea.

Tyndall's and Valenna's Weirdworld adventures continue in Marvel Super Special #s 11-13, Epic Illustrated #s 9 and 11-13, and Marvel Fanfare #s 24-26.

I plan on blogging about all of them eventually, so stay tuned.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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At March 28, 2013 at 4:15 PM , Blogger Joe Bongiorno said...

Another great blog! I had no idea these existed, but you've piqued my interest in finding them. There's something about fantasy in the '70s that I love. I tend to think of it as the end of the Golden Age, which ran fifty years starting from the '20s Weird Tales era.


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