Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #1


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Sword of Sorcery #1

Sword of Sorcery #1

By Matthew Sunrich

In the early Seventies, the sword & sorcery craze was in full swing.

Marvel had launched Conan the Barbarian at the beginning of the decade, and its popularity opened the doors for other, similar concepts to find their way into American comic books. DC had actually introduced a "sword & sorcery" character called Nightmaster in Showcase #82 in 1969, but, as the lead singer of a rock band who accidentally discovers a doorway into another world in a bookstore (fair enough, I suppose) and wears a form-fitting blue suit and red cape, he seemed more like a weird version of Superman than a swashbuckling fantasy hero. His adventures, despite featuring some of the earliest work of Bernie Wrightson, only lasted three issues.

In 1972, DC decided to bring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Fritz Leiber's seminal sword & sorcery pair, to comics. Far less well known that Robert E. Howard's Conan, Leiber's heroes were nonetheless created in the late 1930s, although the stories chronicling their adventures (Swords and Deviltry, Swords against Wizardry, et al.) would not see print until much later.

Denny O'Neil, Samuel Delaney, and Dick Giordano tried them out in the pages of Wonder Woman (?) #s 201 and 202. All I can say about that is that it was the Seventies. (This sort of thing would be seen again ten years later when Marvel incomprehensibly made Rocket Raccoon a guest star in Incredible Hulk #271.) In any event, their appearances must've proven popular enough to warrant their own series, so the following year Sword of Sorcery hit the stands.

Featuring adaptations of Leiber's stories, as well as original ones, and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, and the Crusty Bunkers (Neal Adams and the gang from Continuity Associates), Sword of Sorcery had all the signs of a hit, yet it only lasted five issues. It was well received by critics, but sales were weak, though it's not exactly clear why.

The series gets off to a strong start with an adaptation of Leiber's "The Price of Pain Ease" (peculiar title, that). As the story opens, we find Fafhrd, the seven-foot-tall, red-maned barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, his much-smaller but just as formidable companion, enjoying ale and the company of scantily-clad lasses in a tavern. As they carouse, they are being eyed by a coterie of shady-looking characters. One of them makes the mistake of insulting Fafhrd, and a brawl ensues. When the owner of the establishment shows up with the local authorities, they escape and meet up in the marketplace.

Knowing both the Thieves' Guild, from which the pair purloined some treasure, and the law will be looking for them, they decide to take up temporary residence in the palace of Duke Danius, who is staying elsewhere. Just as they are settling in to their new, lavish digs, Danius shows up and orders his men to kill them. The rogues manage to make it back to the courtyard, but the wall is too high to scale, and the Duke's archers are unlikely to miss.

Fafhrd is in the process of drawing his sword, prepared to go down fighting, when two unicorns suddenly materialize. Realizing it is not the time to ask questions, the barbarian and his diminutive partner leap onto the steeds. Climbing into the sky, the mystical mounts deliver the pair to a cave, wherein two sorcerers, standing behind a burning brazier, await them.

And this is where things start to get weird.

The first of the sorcerers, clad in a crimson robe, is Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, whose features are hidden in shadow beneath a hood. The other, covered by a green robe, is Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. His (?) features are similarly hidden, but snakelike eyestalks in consonance with his title emerge from the darkness. They both desire the same object: the mask that Death keeps above his throne. To obtain it, the heroes must journey to his castle, deep in Shadowland. Sheelba tells the Mouser that he must get it for him or else face terrible consequences. Ningauble promises Fafhrd great riches. The problem, of course, is that they can't both have it, but they decide to sort that matter out later. Complicating matters further, Danius, who is already unhappy with them, is also headed to the castle.

Danius, we find out, has obtained an enchanted axe. He kills the witch who created it for him and sets out for the Shadowland with a singular, insane purpose: "to slay Death himself."

When Fafhrd and the Mouser make it to Death's throne, they find it empty, with the mask right there for the taking. Faced with the aforementioned dilemma, they try to think of a compromise, but one isn't apparent, so they draw their weapons to settle the long-pondered question of who the superior swordsman is. They swing their blades at each other for a few minutes until they decide that they enjoy each other's company far too much, and that a better solution must be available to them.

Before they can discuss it, however, an axe flies across the room, and they turn around to find Danius standing before them. Fafhrd attempts to engage him, but the axe's magic renders him unconscious. The Mouser throws his dagger at the Duke, but the other uses his weapon's power to send it right back at him (fortunately, not blade first). As Danius prepares to finish his foes, the scent of the grave permeates the chamber, and he realizes that Death has returned.

Danius swings his axe at Death, but it has no effect whatsoever. Realizing that he has been lied to, he begs for mercy, but you can't expect death to be the forgiving sort, can you?

Having woken up, and with Death distracted, Fafhrd and the Mouser make their way out of the castle, having broken the mask in twain, hoping that Ningauble and Sheelba will each take half.

Engaging and entertaining on every page, Sword of Sorcery #1 is a true Bronze-Age gem. The cover, masterfully illustrated by Michael Kaluta, is a real eye catcher, even though it depicts a scene that doesn't actually appear in the comic. The interior artwork is detailed and exciting, and the storytelling is superb. The images flow easily, carrying the story along at a near-perfect pace.

I have never read Leiber's original stories, but if this adaptation is any indication, I definitely should. Whereas Conan's adventures are typically completely serious, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's (this one, at least) manage to be more lighthearted without compromising the fantasy elements that the stories rely on. Knowing how and where to insert humor in a sword & sorcery tale requires finesse, and we definitely see that here.

I have already ordered the second issue, so you can expect so see it reviewed here soon.

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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