When it comes to sword and sorcery, there are two brand names that most fans know. One of those is Conan, of course, who has a major connection to fans via comics and the super-popular Schwarzenegger flick. The other name is Elric, the ruminating albino king of a debauched kingdom. Elric doesn’t have a lot of the exposure that his counterpart has: there’s been no film of his adventures, and those thirty-year-old comic adaptations have been rare and hard to find.
But Elric has been the star of several terrific comic titles, and Titan Books is actually publishing two Elric graphic novel series concurrently. One, reprinting several stories by Julien Blondel, Jean-Luc Cano, Julien Telo, Robin Recht and Didier Poli, is a modern and gorgeously detailed take on Elric for the internet age, with deep and lingering backgrounds and a fascinating level of (appropriate) perversity.
The other Elric graphic novel collection from Titan boasts a creative team better known to fans of classic American comics and science fiction literature: writer Roy Thomas and artists P. Craig Russell and Michael T. Gilbert united for a faithful and beautiful adaptation of the first Elric novel. Originally created in the early 1980s, it’s a delight to be able to hold a wonderfully reproduced collection of this insightful and beautifully drawn series.
Thomas, of course, is the dean of sword and sorcery in comics. He’s the man who brought Conan to the four-color page and, as much as anyone, helped to turn the vicious barbarian into a household word for a while (Frank Frazetta might have had something to do with that too, it should be said). Russell is the master of art nouveau in comics, presenting an ornate and baroque world that feels appropriately eerie, with characters who seem just slightly apart from our everyday. He’s joined by inker Michael T. Gilbert, an outstanding stylist himself, who adds an extra touch of mystery and heft to Russell’s often thin lines. This is, after all, still an adventure comic with big important swords and some complicated sorcery. The story’s gotta have some heft for it to work. Gilbert adds that heft.
As you can see from the pages that accompany this review, the team offer a story that is sometimes dreamlike and ethereal, but always compelling. Russell, a big fan of opera, cheats a bit in his style by having his people act in grand gestures and slightly exaggerated faces; it works here because of the sullen intensity of our lead and his mysterious land. In Melniboné, the evil Yyrkoon is an emotionally complex and worthy rival for the crown, our hero’s friends have agendas of their own, and other worlds exist on the other side of a veil that seems constantly ready to be lifted.
Russell depicts some stunning tableaux, which is one of the reasons why I was excited to see these stories reprinted. He unfortunately seems to have lapsed into obscurity a bit – aside from a memorable issue of Sandman, Russell has only illustrated a handful of mainstream books in the last decade or two, opting instead to draw fairy tales and opera for smaller publishers. Elric of Melniboné does a wonderful job of showing Russell’s gorgeous style as it appeared thirty years ago, and his work is still startling and unique today in its grandeur, elegance, playfulness and emotion. Nobody has ever drawn landscapes quite like Russell, or alien faces, or kings and their rivals, and all of that is on glorious display in this book.
But none of that would work if not for the glorious story that Thomas, through Moorcock, delivers here. So much of this story works, and works elegantly, from the smart characterization of Elric in all his contradictory glory (he’s strong but terribly weak, passionate but withdrawn, a drug addict who sees the world as it is) to the great palace intrigues of his rivals to scenes and characters that will haunt me – Nuin Who Knew All is fascinating, as well as someone to be envied on some level – an intriguing philosophical thought.
More than anything, this is a thrilling, brooding, smartly constructed novel in which the lead hero grows and changes and in which we are introduced to a setting in which we want to spend much more time. From ships that sail over land to quivering, living membranes that mysteriously hold powerful swords, from fierce naval battles to horrible dungeons of Kindly Dr. Jest, this story takes readers places that we can scarcely imagine, and does so in a gloriously enticing way.
Elric of Melniboné by Thomas, Russell and Gilbert is a journey that thrills and delights. I can’t wait to come back for the next volume of this glorious adventure.