DC Showcase Presents The Warlord Volume One
Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell
Published by DC Comics
Let's talk about the joy of faith rewarded for a moment.
Longtime readers of TCD may recall that my initial review of the recent relaunch of Mike Grell's sword and sorcery hero The Warlord met with a relatively lukewarm review. I didn't hate the book, but it had yet to wow me with the same intensity as I'd remembered from reading my cousin's comics so long ago in Ostrea Lake, Nova Scotia in the early '80s. Hearing that DC was going to be collecting Grell's run on the title into their affordable black and white Showcase volumes gave me some cause to hope, and I awaited it's release with eager anticipation. I plunked down my 23 bucks plus tax and took it home to my To Read pile atop my computer desk. And there it waited. . .
. . .and waited. . .
. . .and waited some more.
I was afraid. Afraid that--as with so many things in our lives--that time and experience would dull my enthusiasm for something that I'd loved so much as a kid. I put off reading it for as long as possible until my pile thinned out enough so that the iconic cover above was staring up at me every morning as I rose to check my e-mail. With no other option open to me, I warily picked up the tome and began to read, hoping against hope that the book would be as epic as I remembered. It wasn't the first time I've been wrong, and it won't be the last.
This book wasn't as epic as I remembered. It was even better.
It's more metal than an Iced Earth/DragonForce double-bill, and that my friends is pretty damned metal.
The premise is elegant in it's simplicity: in 1969 at the height of the Cold War, Lt. Colonel Travis Morgan of the United States Air Force is tapped to fly a reconnaissance mission in that hazy airspace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. along the North Pole. He's spotted by those rascally Ruskies and his plane is damaged, sending him spiralling out of control. He manages to ditch at the last minute, his navigational instruments having gone haywire, and parachutes into a strange new world. A world of eternal sunlight, a world of ancient technologies that might as well be magic, and primitive beasts from epochs long past. I think the alternating tag lines of the series puts it best:
'From the sky he came, to a world of eternal sunlight and eternal savagery--Travis Morgan, a man with a lust for adventure and passion for freedom! As his fame spreads, so grows the legend of--THE WARLORD.'
'In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: if you let your guard down for an instant, you will soon be very dead.'
If you ever wondered what a grindhouse sword and sorcery film would look like, look no further than Mike Grell's The Warlord. The storytelling engine is so simple and so elegant that the work and care that's gone into it might almost be lost. Grell's Skartaris is a world unto itself, a land where time stands still (quite literally, as Morgan finds himself back in his own world at one point to discover the year is now 1977. What have been days and weeks for him have been years for the rest of the Earth) and a variety of perils can be thrown at strong-thewed heroes with a lust for life and adventure. Grell's creation is the heir of heroes like John Carter and Eric John Stark, men from our world who've literally fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where their prowess in combat can be more asset than the liability it might prove in more 'civilized' surroundings. Here, life and death is decided by how quick you are with a sword, and sudden danger lurks around that next corner or over that jungle mesa.
Morgan is our protagonist, but he has a pretty solid supporting cast too. Tara, warrior-princess of Shamballah and the love of his life, Machiste the gladiator turned lieutenant in Morgan's crusade to overthrow the tyranny of his arch-nemesis Deimos(whom will get to momentarily), and Professor Mariah Romonova of Moscow University, an archaeologist and fencing champion who takes Morgan up on the chance to see history's savage past life in the flesh. . .which she tends to bare in an outfit that makes Red Sonja look like an extra in a Jane Austen novel. Grell has a talent for distributing equal measures of beef-and-cheesecake, as most everyone who fights to survive in the savage world of Skartaris does in fact tend to look like they stepped off the cover of Men's Fitness and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Running from marauding dinosaurs, fighting blade to blade against bandits, and wrestling eldritch-spawned horrors amidst ancient ruins from the ancient past probably provides for good cardio and chiseled physiques. Maybe Grell could share the secrets of the Warlord's fitness regimen in the current series.
A good hero is nothing without a good villain, and with The Warlord as our stalwart protagonist Grell meets that challenge with the scheming mastermind Deimos. Replete with his ebony hair, pointed goatee, and wizard robes with flared collar, he is the quintessential evil sorcerer. Of course, as we learn over the series he isn't using actual magic so much as the ancient technologies of the first peoples of Skartaris, the survivors of Atlantis. With their super-science Deimos does his ample best to set himself up as the lord and master of all he surveys. It's just too bad Travis Morgan is always on-hand to topple his every scheme, even killing our villain fairly early in the series. Of course, you can never keep a good baddie down long, and Deimos proves to be just as unkillable as the Joker, and even more ruthless given his plots and schemes as the story progresses.
Mike Grell's artwork is a joy to behold; he clearly has a blast depicting Morgan cutting loose with sword and .44 pistol against dinosaurs, dragons, and assorted dastards. Unlike some other Showcase editions the artwork here is actually helped by black and white format, giving the reader an appreciation for the detail and frenetic energy Grell bring to his battle sequences. Grell's prose is lean and services the story in carrying things through from the jolting start of each issue to it's conclusion, usually tying things up with our heroes in triumph(though on occasion he delves into an epilogue that foreshadows storm clouds to come). These books are products of the late 1970s, where newsstand distribution was still king and each story had to work hard to provide a complete reading experience in and off itself. Threads are picked up over the course of the 29 issues contained herein, but this book is tight, lean, mean and refreshingly free of the decompression of more contemporary fare.
This book was everything I hoped it could be and more. If you want an enjoyably escapist read that's self-contained and doesn't require a degree in comics continuity I'd encourage you to seek out Showcase Presents The Warlord Volume One. It's a comic that takes the sword and sorcery genre in all it's ale-swigging, sword-slinging, vine-swinging glory and runs with it. A delight from start to finish, I recommend it as highly as I can.