The Mercenary: Cult of the Sacred Fire is a wildly fun jolt of early 1980s Heavy Metal thrills.
With its gorgeous oil-painted art, deliriously odd storyline and copious nudity, the first volume of Vicente Segrelles’ freewheeling series is a perfect distillation of a now distant era that’s incredibly fun to revisit.
The storyline here gives an idea of the over-the-top oddness of this book. In a strange land beyond the clouds, the Mercenary flies atop his flying lizard, looking to save the beautiful queen of a distant land, suspended perilously (and both naked and afraid) from a rope that hangs above a seemingly endless chasm. It’s not really a spoiler to say that he rescues the princess, but in doing so, the Mercenary launches himself into an even more improbable adventure involving warrior concubines, giant gothic balloons and another woman who’s suspended from a cage in different set of clouds.
Originally published in the early 1980s, The Mercenary was an early bestselling graphic novel, ultimately selling over 100,000 copies in the US. Now back in print in deluxe hardcover form, similar to a 40th anniversary DVD set of a classic movie, it’s easy to see why this book was so popular.
First and foremost, Segrelles’ art is luminously gorgeous. His painted art has a compelling, almost supernatural feel to it. He brings his strange world to life with scenes that look like paintings from amazing fantasy painters like Boris Vallejo or Frank Frazetta. The art is amazingly clear and almost overly realistic, suffused with light and a fascinating attention to detail that is deeply impressive in pre-digital work. Readers can almost feel the scales of the flying lizard creatures, touch the skin of the warrior women, and feel we are seeing photos of the strange cities Segrelles creates. The oil paintings he delivers feel different from anything we see in comics today. In the analog era, all the work had to be done on canvas, and that gives these images a luminosity we seldom see today.
Delivered in a sumptuous 9×12 format, The Mercenary: the Cult of the Sacred Fire feels like a widescreen take on traditional barbarian action, bringing readers on a journey to strange lands of odd imagination. Though its plot is a little thin, with a lot of background story to be fleshed out, this first chapter works as a teaser for the many future volumes to come. Our hero is a bit of a cipher because this story teases his world. In future volumes readers will get to explore more of the panoply Segrelles created.
Another reason this series is so popular is because Segrelles devoted so much thought into creating his world. Each panoramic scene delivers details that tantalize and taunt. These gorgeously pained cinematic moments hint at worlds beyond worlds and details yet to be discovered. When the Mercenary plunges from the world above the clouds to another world below the clouds, it shows we have a large world to explore.
Like all good DVD collections, publisher NBM presents an extensive collection of commentary and backmatter in this volume. I found myself fascinated by the description of how this book was in part a reaction to the freedom Spanish artists felt after the fall of their censorious fascist regime. Because of that new freedom, Segrelles felt empowered to follow his imagination, to create worlds of imagination and the beautiful people to inhabit them.
Segrelles is also honest in his introduction in discussing a bit of the shabbiness of the plot of this first volume. Like many first chapters, it’s a bit compromised by imagination and the mindset of the artist who hasn’t quite broken through as a fulltime working comics professional. We can read his obvious energy and thrill in the work he’s creating, but the plot meanders a bit and there’s more painting than story.
But even with that complaint, The Mercenary is a delightful and somewhat nostalgic exploration of a certain type of comic art that is mostly out of style these days. Lush fantasies are out of fashion, in favor of more groundlevel work like Saga. I love Saga, but I’m delighted to be reminded why I enjoy lush painted fantasy too. I’m glad The Cult of the Sacred Fire is back in print and I’m excited to read future volumes of the series.