Sword of Sorcery 3

One thing that I do have to applaud DC for is the conscious attempt to broader the scope of their DC Universe line in the wake of their reboot. Whether it has lived up to expectations or they’ve really given it the attention it needs to succeed is a mater of perspective but they are making an attempt, which is especially admirable when you consider that the last time I can think of that either of the big two made a push like this was the “DC Explosion”.

If I’m right that means that the DC universe has been handily dominated by superheroes, space opera (to a lesser degree), and superhero space opera for pretty much as long as I’ve been alive and now the company is trying to change that. Certainly the positive reviews for All-Star Western (perhaps the only other genre to survive into my lifetime in any meaningful way) have shown that DC is invested in putting out at least one solid Western comic and their repeated attempts to invigorate their new war comics imply a desire to return to the glory days of such stories. They’ve also had great success with their horror comics. So we’re seeing superhero comics, ‘edgy superhero comics’, war comics, Batman comics, a Western title, Horror comics, Sci-Fi comics, and Batman comics. Are we missing anything?

Oh right, fantasy, that super popular genre that takes up about half of nerd literature (at least half of the sci-fi/fantasy aisle we seem to like). It’s kind of strange that fantasy is so poorly represented at DC, I mean one of their trinity of heroes is finally seeing her due attention paid thanks in part to a more fantasy-centric approach and their only initial offering, Demon Knights, is a sleeper hit. But oddly enough, tales of the fantastic and the magical tend to be strongly in the superhero or horror genres with few titles even taking the popular urban fantasy approach without trying to advertise as something else.

Enter Sword of Sorcery, the nonsensically titled non-anthology that may already have been cancelled.

Family Reunion

Written by Christy Marx
Art by Aaron Lopresti and Claude St. Aubin

We’re three (read: four) issues into the new adventures of House Amethyst and this is the issue where it feels like we’re finally starting to get our footing, as is Amaya.

Aside from genre, one of the other things that I’ve been thinking about since the New 52 initiative began is pacing. We’re living in an era of comics that has decided what it’s preferred format is and the answer is the trade paperback. That’s not to sound the death knell of monthly issues, but you can feel confident these days that big two comics in particular will tend to break into six issue stories or four issues and change. The point is that comics are “written for trade” these days, they’re made to fit into a collection, usually around six issues long, that can be read in a single sitting if you’re willing to wait for the story to wrap up.

There have been many differing ideas of how to structure comic pacing from month to month, especially in the last thirty to fourth years as the one story-one issue and anthology models have fallen into disuse. There’s the model where adventures run their course alongside escalating events that continue throughout the writer’s run. There’s the bi-monthly model adopted by titles like Batman and Detective comics in the 80s, where a story will start in one book and end in the other to help alleviate the loss of momentum that comes from longer stories. But epic fantasy has a tendency to bring out variations on a somewhat lesser seen model, ongoing adventures. While we haven’t reached the magic number six (which may be number eight in this case), it’s looking like Sword of Sorcery’s Amethyst will be a single story that finds convenient points to pause each month.

On one hand that means that writer Christy Marx has a big sandbox to play and build in and, by extension, the reader has a lot to explore. On the other hand, we won’t be resetting to a status quo every few issues so she better build it right the first time.

So, how’s she doing? Well, if you’re a connoisseur of fantasy, you might find Nilaa slightly generic. It’s hard to surprise the audience when the premise is a world featuring House Turquoise the spellcrafters and House Onyx the assassins. Nonetheless, in a world where physics are really more guidelines than rules you have to wonder what else is possible. Like a person in the dark, we naturally flail around looking for detail, and to her credit, Marx delivers. This issue we get to learn about magic and the origin of Nila. What we find out adds a few wrinkles to our understanding of things and hints that there could be more than meets the eye here.

Sadly, Amara’s training is no Harry Potter. Also, who’s that guy on the cover? I know his name is Elzere, but all I know other than that is that he’s training her. He’s a weird character who appears, serves his function, and disappears, his role and personality a mystery that lacks vital clues as well as the sense that it’s worth solving. The whole sequence is clearly just setting up for something, or at least I hope it is.

Similarly, I’m sure that the significance of the Ghaggra Clan will become apparent with time, but, for the moment, it’s a random page from a different story.

Luckily the rest of this issue does much better. Marx clearly wants this series to highlight relationships between women, especially familial relationships, and one has to applaud that. Aside from some of great ‘teen speak’, Amaya is a likable character and there’s truth in her dialogue with Ingvie and Mordiel particularly. Her attitude towards the weirdness that’s come into her life is refreshing as well. She’s not complaining all the time but she’s aware that it’s bizarre. And she’s not under any illusions about how out of her depth she is either, so all that’s left to do is enjoy what’s worth enjoying. I particularly enjoy the first panel of page 10 which I read as the most casual word balloon I’ve ever seen containing two exclamation points.

The biggest issue is the somewhat haphazard arrangement of scenes in this month’s installment. Sometimes it seems like those out-of-place scenes were constructed apart from the main scene at Bhoj’s mansion and thrown in with it to make an issue. Certainly the last sequence of the book is peculiarly paced.

Still it’s hard to deny that Amethyst keeps you turning the page, and asking questions. What is the blood-power of House Turquoise? What sides will the noble houses of Nilaa take? Will Mordiel really kill her niece? Why are Vyalas so awesome (seriously, they’re like Avatar meets tigers meets My Little Pony and I am totally ok with that)? It’s that natural curiosity I alluded to earlier that secondary world fantasy can bring out. Marx may not be hitting it put of the park but she’s doing just enough to make me believe that where she’s going is worth following.

The art is strong. Lopresti’s work is solid fantasy faire that slips between an attractively cartoony style and a simple realism for close-ups. That might not sound terribly wise but it works in my opinion and the difference isn’t so great that you’ll notice it and be distracted. One thing that’s nice about Sword or Sorcery 3 is that the cover is done by the same artist as a majority of the issue and the quality is fairly consistent between them. If I had to say anything against Lopresti it’s probably that he clearly enjoys being his own inker and sometimes he goes overboard. Apparently eyeliner is huge in Nilaa.

Contrarily, Claude St. Aubin delivers softer, simpler lines. He’s obviously less consistent that Lopresti but he tends to deliver at least one great panel per page and, for any lows, his highs deliver beautiful images and strong personality.

Marx clearly knows how to work with her artists and the whole book is laid out quite nicely. There are plenty of interesting risks taken that generally pay off. Marx also makes the wise choice in this issue of giving Graciel a new hairdo, which silly as it may sound to those not reading, has been of serious concern to those of us who are. Together with Mordiel’s crazy Loki helmet, the three women of House Amethyst are finally completely distinguishable.

So should you pick up this book? I would say yes. I think that whether you read the preceding issues or not, if you’re not interested when you put this one down, Amethyst probably doesn’t have a lot to offer you, but my feeling is that it’s worth it to see how it treats you. Not to mention that we’re not done with Sword of Sorcery just yet…

Iron Trolls

Written by Tony Bedard
Art by Jesus Saiz

Much as I enjoy the liberating sensation of reading fantasy about a family of women who draw power from the color pink (basically), Sword of Sorcery really shines in its backup. Now to be honest, I find that sad, as I would love to say the main draw is a clever reboot of a thirty year old fantasy comic focused on a mother daughter relationship, but it’s simply not so. Beowulf is the toy in the happy meal of Sword of Sorcery and just as in those days of old, the ‘boy’ toy is better.

And that’s a shame, not only because I want a title that can help show DC that they’re severely underestimating both the size of their female readership as well as what their male readership will buy, but also because Tony Bedard’s Beowulf is a Sci-Fi comic. It’s still the Beowulf you know and love, but it’s fantasy the way Stargate is mythology (I love you Daniel).

This issue we get to see Beowulf and his young ward, Wiglaf, stare down Grendel’s Mother and, jubilation abounds, she’s not Angelina Jolie! What she is creepy as fuck. I want to go on record right now as saying that in love what they’ve done with Grendel’s Mother. It’s a simple yet haunting design that fits perfectly with an abnormally subtle characterization. Not to mention that blood, what a great way to make such a simple visual say so much. Grendel’s mother takes up a lot of this installment with her exposition but it’s interesting and she’s well designed, well drawn, and well written. My favorite moment comes a little over halfway through when Grendel’s mother refers to a him and it’s not entirely clear who she means, something I imagine will only increase in significance as the story continues.

Beowulf and Wiglaf continue to be a great pair and this issue really does a good job of justifying their partnership. It also just makes you like Wiglaf. The relationship between this boy and the monstrous soldier he’s fallen in with is just great and you have to appreciate the sense that Bedard has thoroughly considered the layers of their thoughts about each other and how to express them in ten page increments.

I honestly have a weird relationship with Tony Bedard. It seems like every time he sits down to write a series he rolls a dice and the quality of the series depends entirely on the result. There’s no way of knowing if he’ll live up to expectations. But whatever it is about Sci-Fi/Fantasy fusion that gave us Starro the Conqueror in R.E.B.E.L.S. is alive, well, and thriving in Beowulf.

In this issue, Bedard finally tips his hand, letting us in on how the world came to be in this state, but keeping enough tucked away that I feel confident that there’s much more to learn. I’m happy that this series is finding ways to justify its connection to the DCU. I admit that I did have worries at one point that the answer to the mystery of why this story was connected to WayneTech battle robots and The Red would turn out to be, “because it’s cool.” Thankfully, it seems Bedard has a plan. Now let’s just hope that DC will give him time to enact it.

Jesus Saiz lends a cinematic flair to the ancient tale, aided by some lovely color work from Brian Rebel. Like Lopresti, he’s not reinventing the wheel, this is just well drawn sword-swinging artwork. It’s not in the quality of faces or the proportions of bodies, or even the care of his details that make Saiz’s work so nice to look at (though it certainly possesses all of those), but, rather, the basic and essential knowledge of what to draw and how to make it look awesome. You can feel the pace of the shots and the weight of the characters.

Strangely enough both stories in this comic and all three artists seem to have some beef with backgrounds, but it’s a small price to pay and they do usually lead to greater sense of motion or more interesting layouts.

Now that Beowulf has returned to Hrothgar’s hall, I’ll be interested to see how closely the story sticks to the epic. I really do look forward to Beowulf each month. It may only be ten pages a month, but they’re always ten pages given the attention of a full length issue.