Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #5


Hasslein Blog

Friday, May 31, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #5

By Matthew Sunrich

"I feel evil seeping into my bones." –The Gray Mouser

Humankind has an enduring fascination with lost civilizations.

Of particular interest are those that are believed to have been swallowed by the ocean, for reasons that we can only guess at. The most famous of these is, of course, Atlantis, about which stories too numerous to list have been written. Others, including Lemuria, Mu, and Ys, have found their way into fiction, as well. (Mu, in particular, was a favorite of H. P. Lovecraft.) The idea that an entire continent could have just vanished from the face of the planet is undeniably intriguing, especially if we also subscribe to the idea that its human inhabitants differed from us in significant ways and that creatures beyond imagining walked its forests and shores.

This fascination is certainly connected to the belief that we, as a race, have lost something important. Perhaps the suffering and injustice in the world can be explained away by some document penned by a sage thousands of years ago, and if we could only access its wisdom peace could be restored. We were never meant to lose connection with our ancestors; they possessed fundamental knowledge that had been passed down since the beginning. Alas, those voices were forever silenced, and the cataclysmic severing of that connection is why we find it impossible to function in the world today.

For the less idealistic and more avaricious, there is also the notion that untold riches, imprisoned in decaying coffers, lie at the bottom of some unfathomable undersea trench. The value we place on gold and jewels is, of course, related to their rarity. Could this rarity be the result of treasures' having been excavated throughout untold millennia and then being lost beneath the waves? While there will always be more "regular" rocks than precious stones, it's possible that the latter were once more abundant and easier and cheaper to obtain. Anyone canny enough to devise a way to retrieve those lost riches would be a king among men.

Sword of Sorcery #5 is, sadly, the final issue in the series, but it goes out on a high note. Like its predecessor, it contains two stories, the first being a joint adventure, the second a solo one.

Things open up with "The Sunken Land," which finds our heroes, Fafhrd and the Mouser, at sea once again. Fafhrd is in the process of trying to subdue a giant squid, as his companion stands by, an arrow nocked in his bow. While it initially appears that the barbarian is struggling, it soon becomes clear that he is merely toying with the thing and that the pair is planning to make lunch out of it (the Mouser claims to have a good recipe). I guess when you're miles from anywhere in open water you take whatever you can get.

When he cuts the beast open, Fafhrd finds a strange ring with an emerald key attached. The Mouser recognizes its symbols as originating from Simorgya, a legendary land populated with evil wizards that sank beneath the ocean. He advises his companion to rid himself of the thing before it brings them bad luck. Fafhrd, in his typically skeptical manner, refuses, and immediately the sky darkens and the sea begins to churn. The barbarian loses his balance and plunges into the water, and by the time he surfaces, the boat is nowhere in sight.

Fortunately, he spots another boat and calls out to the crew to let him aboard. The reply comes in the form of a paddle to the head. He manages to flip the oarsman off the boat, however, and climbs onto the deck. There, he encounters a brace of armored men, who, despite the barbarian's goading, do not speak. When he has dispatched them, an old man apprises him that the ship belongs to Lavas Laerk, who seeks the riches of Simorgya. He has forced his men to take a vow of silence (in reverence, I assume) until they reach it. Laerk appears and, noticing the ring on Fafhrd's finger, declares the barbarian a spy and orders the crew to attack. Though he fights valiantly, the hero succumbs to the overwhelming numbers and is hung from the yardarm to serve as an example to others.

Laerk is angered when one of his men speaks but soon realizes that the fabled Simorgya has emerged from the waves beneath the boat. Traversing the island, they find a door in a hillside, and, predictably, the key on Fafhrd's ring opens it. Inside, illuminated by preternatural light, a stunning array of treasures greets them. Fafhrd, having been tossed aside, is working at freeing himself when he spots the Mouser, who had followed Laerk's vessel. The barbarian grabs an axe from the hoard, and the companions engage the villains.

It is at this point that they notice that seawater is filling the chamber. Deciding that the fight is not worth it, Fafhrd and the Mouser head for the egress, and Laerk orders his men to give chase. When the heroes pause for breath, however, they notice strange forms rising from the shadows. They appear to be cloaks, but there are no visible men occupying them. The phantasms seize Laerk, sending him to a watery grave, as the cursed island again disappears beneath the waves and the heroes return to their boat. Fafhrd, wisely, heeds his companion's advice, tossing his purloined weapon into the sea.

In Sword of Sorcery #4, we are given a glimpse into Fafhrd's youth in the frozen north in the backup story. In this issue, we are treated to a Mouser solo tale, taking place during the time when he was a wizard's apprentice and titled, appropriately enough, "The Mouse Alone."

His master has sent him on an errand to the city of Bathaal. Weary from the journey and eager to get things over with, he demands to see the king, to whom he offers his service. Finding his diminutive stature amusing, the king asks what the young Mouser can possibly do for him. He insists that his fighting skills are worthy, but after being given a sword and facing one of the guards, he is merely humbled. The king orders Shendai the Deft, a master of daggers, to take the Mouser away and feed him.

On the way, they are beset by brigands, but Shendai succeeds in easily killing both. The Mouser offers to reward him for protecting his master's gold, but when he reaches for his purse he finds it gone. He is left alone in the marketplace, realizing that he learned an important if costly lesson.

Unless I missed something, it's never made clear exactly what the Mouser is supposed to be doing there. Was he supposed to have purchased something? Why did he seek audience with the king?

Howard Chaykin's art, which graced the pages of the first four issues, is nowhere to be found here. The main story is illustrated by Walt Simonson, who provided the art for the Fafhrd backup story in issue #4, and the backup is by Jim Starlin. Both are inked, to great effect, by Al Milgrom. Starlin, of course, is best known as the creator of Thanos and the force behind the most memorable runs of Captain Marvel and Strange Tales (featuring Adam Warlock). He has also written and illustrated several creator-owned series, including Dreadstar, 'Breed, and Cosmic Guard. Simonson has worked on just about everything (most notably Thor, Batman, and X-Factor) and is currently involved in various projects for Marvel (he just completed an excellent three-issue run on Indestructible Hulk).

Looking back, Sword of Sorcery is a book that featured the all-stars of Bronze-Age comic art, and if it hadn't been canceled there's no telling how great it could've become. Sword & sorcery fans will definitely want to collect all five issues, which can be accomplished relatively inexpensively (under thirty bucks, depending on condition).

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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