While Gabriel Rodríguez’s mini-series, Sword of Ages from IDW, claims to be a reimagining of the story behind Excalibur (so, not the whole of the Arthurian legend, but a core part of this legend, and an important element in any hero’s quest: the finding of the magic talisman/weapon), it effortlessly mixes in references from other stories too to create this sci-fi/fantasy hybrid. Hell, one of the variant covers even pays homage to a Brian Bolland Camelot 3000 cover, which I thought was neat.
With more than a smattering of The Jungle Book and a pinch of Planet of The Apes, Rodríguez builds a world of magic and mechanical wonders, with this version of Merlin looking more like a refugee from Easy Rider, in both looks and hippie-dippy attitude, man, as he tunes in and drops out encountering prophetic visions that are clearly a foreshadowing of things yet to come. Enemies yet to be beaten. And these enemies, the Black Star Templar, have more than a shade of the fascistic about them too. All blood red, black and jackbooted. They clearly look down on the non-human alien lifeforms that scatter this mysterious planet, such as the ape slavers they encounter on their travels. Y’know, a bit like The Planet of The Apes.
Avalon, the book’s main protagonist and quester, is brought up partly by sentient, speaking sabre tooth beauties in the wilds (hence the sense of The Jungle Book in some small part informing this book) of the planet upon which she and her family (of which, we have no sign of, yet) landed many years previously and as told in the book’s prologue. We know nothing more, at this stage, of her other family members and their fate, but I’m sure we will. The character sketches accompanying this issue drop a heavy clue as to the fate of her brother, Morgan, when running across the gallery of characters. And, anyone even remotely familiar with the Arthurian legend may well be led to think upon her brother’s name in relation to the family dynamics of King Arthur’s story. And, if that doesn’t do it for you, then a preview of the second issue’s cover should really scream out at you.
Rodríguez admits in a fascinating interview at the back of this debut issue that he is very clearly telling a Hero’s Quest story and taking the archetypes of Vladimir Propps and, across the series, trying to breath life into each one, making them more than the sum of their parts. As such, we have already had our hero crossing the threshold, to meet with some of the allies she will accompany, ahead of the enemies and tests that are hinted at in the rest of the book, with the introduction of the Black Star Templar’s Lt. Isolt (another name from Arthurian lore) and Captain Janek who claim to simply be ‘upholding the law’ across this rather barren looking planet.
Its a world both familiar and full of mystery, too. We are literally dropped into the middle of it after the opening prologue, with no easy exposition to fill in the gaps. No, it looks like we’ll be discovering all the nooks and crannies of this planet as we quest alongside Avalon and her newfound companions and fellow adventures who all have their counterparts in the Arthurian tales. Hence, Lancer, is a warrior without equal, just like Lancelot, but there doesn’t seen to be a Guinevere–yet–for him to commit adultery with.
As for the art? Well, what can I say, and where can I start? Rodríguez cites, amongst others, Moebius as well as Steranko and Windsor McCay, and you can certainly see these influences on the design and building of this red world, but I can certainly see the hand of Charles Vess too, what with this being as much a fantasy story as it is science fiction. The boy’s done good, that’s for sure, with widescreen storytelling designed to open up this planet and allow us to take it all in.
The horizon, as was Rodríguez’s hope, does indeed offer the chance for boundless adventures, while the harsh environment reminds me, also, of the great American mythologising of their own history and the ‘Wild West’. A symbolic landscape that is reflected in the heroes it creates. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, you have to be tough to live in this place. If not, then you’ll be crushed. If not by the myriad of species that roam the land, then by the Black Star Templar, I imagine.
This is a comic book that could have simply been a ‘by-the-numbers’ hero quest, but one that isn’t. Because of the artwork alone, but also because of the effective fusion of the old with the new, and a seemingly simplistic story that has enough about the names to suggest there are more depths to this narrative. The mixing of the fantastical with the science fictional creates a comic book that is fascinating, fulfilling and far out, as Merlin might add.
Sword of Ages #1 is out now from IDW.