I hate to admit it, but I stopped enjoying Chris Claremont's writing years ago. I long ago found myself sick and tired of his endless collection of tropes and his repetitious phrasing. He's the best at what he does, and what he does isn't nice. I'm not sure I've truly enjoyed a Chris Claremont story in the last decade. I know I'm not the only reader who feels like Claremont crawled too far up his own very deep creative outlets to be able to deliver a truly good comic.
But I was shocked by how much I loved Chris Claremont's writing in Marada the She-Wolf. This new collection is a deluxe reprint of a handful of barbarian adventure stories with a very strong female character that Claremont created with the amazing artist John Bolton in the early 1980s for Epic magazine. To my extreme surprise, I thought these stories were absolutely wonderful: thrilling sword-and-sorcery escapades with a strong and intense heroine engaging in immensely dramatic plotlines.
A lot of the success for this book lies with Bolton's astonishing art. His artwork in Marada is absolutely sublime in its subtle characterization, depth of field, complexity of image and the just plain beauty of the image he creates. This collection is jam-packed with pages that seem to channel the best fantasy cartoonists who have ever lived. You can see echoes of Frazetta and Wrightson in some of Bolton's linework here, along with hints of classical artists and British cartoonists, and it all builds up to an almost otherworldly sense of fantastic reality.
Bolton simply brings these scenes alive on the page, rendering even the most fantastic story elements with the rarest kind of attention to story detail. Story scenes are incredibly vivid, but there's more to it than that – nearly every scene somehow comes alive while also feeling thoroughly fantastic and otherworldly. The amount of attention that Bolton pays to important items like costuming, light sources, clothing folds, and animals gives every scene a feeling that it's both happening right in front of us while it actually is happening in a wonderfully complex lost world of ancient Rome.
Bolton's art does a brilliant job of selling the story. Bolton gives Marada a timeless Rafael Sabatini sort of feel, which is appropriate since this is a tale of heroines and demons, great battles and amazing inheritances.
And Claremont is clearly in his element here, with his depiction of a lead who is truly, completely her own very specific, very powerful person. Marada is in some ways the epitome of the classic Claremont heroine. She's the heir to a position of tremendous power and influence in Pax Romana Rome, but Marada is also a brawler, a fighter, a smart woman who can swing a sword and kill a terrible group of privateers. And where the strong female character might eventually slowly and relentlessly become a Claremont Cliché, here everything seems so fresh and intriguing that it's hard to not get excited by this heroine.
She's also a woman with an open heart, and, as we meet her, a woman with deep emotional injuries. In her introductory chapter, Marada has had her ambition raped out of her by a vicious demon that has caused her unbelievably deep emotional and physical pain. But Marada slowly grows out of her pain, with the help of a deep and dear magic-wielding friend, and over time re-emerges as her own self.
It's always a bad idea to have a character's first appearance show them at their weakest ebb. That technique can often backfire on a writer because the reader has no stake in the person that they’re reading about. We have no emotional investment in her regrowth, so Marada's struggles at the beginning of this book simply don't have the impact that they might have had if we saw her in action first, swinging her blade and acting heroic rather than just having those previous events described to us. We get that "the psychic residue of these wounds is unspeakably foul", as one character says, but the story would have been more powerful if it had followed an arc that shows her strong before it shows her weak.
Of course, it's the epitome of the women in refrigerators syndrome to have Marada's heroism emerge from a moment of tremendous violence. As more than one critic has observed, men are seldom raped before they become heroes, but for women – especially in the world of comics 30 years ago – the rape scene was a common, painful trope for even the strongest warriors. It rankles and annoys and frustrates to start the book with our heroine weak and that may be something that some readers may find unacceptable in heroic fiction; the best that can be said is that we're much wiser to the dreadfulness of that cliché now than we were in 1983.
Thankfully, an extremely empathetic heroine emerges from that weakness. Marada's friendship with Arianrhod, which emerges from these scenes, provides a rock on which we are able to learn about Marada and her dreams, hopes, ambitions and injuries. When the two women are together there's a palpable trust between them – expertly depicted in Bolton's extremely empathetic art – a very Claremontesque confidence and love between the two women.
But really, you'll probably be most interested in Marada for its slam-bang action adventure storyline. Aside from the very offensive demon rape scene, the rest of the narrative is quite breathtaking in the way that Claremont and Bolton move Marada from one action scene to the next. The lively energy of the action scenes, combined with Bolton's impeccable artwork, is sometimes astounding, as when Marada battles the cloven-hooved demon Y'Garon. I truly was on the edge of my virtual seat as I read those events, because I felt so thoroughly involved with her success.
Marada the She-Wolf is a true lost classic. I'm a bit of a scholar of '80s comics and I'd completely forgotten this character existed. But while the passage of time hasn't done favors for many comics from the 1980s, this book looks better now than it ever did before. If you can forgive the problems in Marada, you'll find a thrilling and absorbing swords and sandals epic.