23 Oct 2014

Graphic Perception: ELRIC: THE RUBY THRONE

Elric: The Ruby Throne
Writer: Julien Blondel
Art: Didier Poli, Jean Bastide & Robin Recht
Titan Comics $12.99

Rob N: Any review I may offer of a comic adapted from the works of Michael Moorcock comes with the caveat that the author in question happens to be my favourite fantasy/sword and sorcery writer, so it’s true I’m approaching this particular work with more than just a few preconceptions in mind. These days you may be hard pressed to find more than a single solitary book by the great man in the Fantasy/SF section of Waterstones, but throughout the 1970s Moorcock ruled the roost with 50 or so slim paperbacks to his name, all of which could be found squatting on the shelves of every bookshop you cared to visit, like an anarchist hippy commune occupying a boarded up townhouse in Ladbroke Grove. Appealing very much to the counterculture at the time, if you were a hippy or a punk in 1977 and you liked SF/fantasy, then you probably read Moorcock’s books. Times change and so do popular tastes, and while you could never claim he’s now forgotten, he no longer seems to capture the popular imagination of fanboys reared these days on a diet of Lord Of The Rings, Robert Jordan's The Wheel Of Time and Game Of Thrones. So it goes.

Many artists have at one time or another produced adaptations of Moorcock’s works. Some of them have been very good indeed – P. Craig Russell and Mike Mignola’s adaptations of Elric and Corum respectively were perfectly embellished works (and judging by their personal art styles, those artists were surely born to illustrate Moorcock’s novels), but many of the others have ranged from pedestrian at best to extremely poor. Some of the later Elric adaptations by First Comics in particular showcased some of the worst art I'd ever seen in a comic book, and yes I am familiar with the works of Rob Liefeld. In fact, a good few adaptations seemed to serve no purpose other than to put potential newcomers off from ever bothering to read anything by Moorcock ever again.

It’s always been my belief that a comic book adaptation succeeds or fails on the quality and appropriateness of the art. Since the story is nothing new, the very raison d’etre of an adaptation is to provide an illustrated version as an accompaniment to the original virgin text. Essentially then the choice a budding artist has is to produce work that either faithfully reflects the descriptions within the book, or to take a radically different interpretation that still captures the flavour of what the writer has to offer, but goes off on a tangent. Both courses are prone to dangers. A faithfully rendered artistic vision can come across as being simply too faithful (a complaint some viewers directed at the film version of Watchmen, for example), while taking a radically different interpretation of the text carries with it the risk that fans of the original work will feel disengaged from it.

Elric: the Ruby Throne (published by Titan Comics) is an adaptation of the first half of the novel, Elric Of Melniboné, which, until recently, was the first in the narrative sequence of Elric stories, if not actually first in terms of being chronologically written. Elric, along with Jerry Cornelius, is Moorcock’s greatest literary character and when created he seemed to subvert every recognisable fantasy cliché that existed at the time. Where Conan was a muscular barbarian swordsman, Elric was a physically weak, noble sorcerer, the last in the line of Melnibonéan emperors. Where Conan saved the princess, Elric ended up killing her (albeit by accident). Where Conan fought the powers of darkness, Elric actually invoked them to save his own life as and when needed, and then agonised about it afterwards. Where Conan might save his country, Elric ends up dooming his, and so on.

Melniboné was in many respects Moorcock’s allegory of the British Empire in decline, for at the start of the Elric sequence, Melniboné has ruled the known world for 10,000 years through a combination of overwhelming dragon power (the very definition of weapons of mass destruction in a sword and sorcery world) and various ancient sorcerous pacts with the Lords of the Higher Hells (the Sword Rulers of Chaos – in particular Arioch, Knight of the Swords, possibly the greatest literary 'demon' since Lovecraft's Cthulhu pantheon) and various lesser Elemental and Beast Lords. But now, after hundreds of years of decline, Melniboné is reduced to nothing more than its original island as the young barbarian kingdoms surrounding it have one by one thrown off the yoke of subservience and gained their freedom, taking advantage of Melniboné’s decline into inbreeding, arrogance and apathy. Melniboné however is still a nation to be feared at the beginning of Moorcock’s books, but by now the young nations are beginning to think that maybe its days are over and it is ripe for looting and pillaging. The Melnibonéans themselves are cruel, immoral and sardonic, existing simply for the pleasure of existing. Elric, born a weak albino, depends on a concoction of rare drugs to give him the strength to raise himself from his bed in the mornings to rule his people, and yet through his bloodline he commands potentially devastating powers of sorcery should he choose to summon his demonic or elemental allies (something no emperor has dared do for hundreds of years). But by and large Elric doesn't bother, for he is prone to brooding states of philosophy and (unusual for a Melnibonéan) almost human-like emotion – something that many of his people do not understand or appreciate as they look to him in the hope that he will lead them on instead to reconquer their lost lands. This then is the starting point for Moorcock’s most ambitious and influential fantasy cycle – the Elric Saga - and it is the starting point for this particular adaptation.

By and large the graphic story follows the narrative of Moorcock’s novel reasonably faithfully. Certain tweaks have been made to character motivations and certain scenes are compressed or approached from a different perspective, but broadly speaking the story is recognisable to anyone familiar with the source material. All well and good, but what then of the art, for which the success (or otherwise) of the project depends?

Well, let there be no doubt that the artists (Robin Recht and Didier Poli) have chosen the second path – to reimagine the visual aesthetics of Elric’s world - and in doing so they have presented us with a dynamically inspired Melniboné that resembles a Cenobite city of torrid and virulent depravities. Where Moorcock hinted at the unhealthy tastes of the ancient race of Melniboné, Recht and Dodi give free reign to their surely disturbed imaginations to demonstrate what it could have looked like, with vast decaying architecture still glorious in decline, populated by a languishing race, still dreaming of past glories, for which there are no taboos standing in the way of pleasure. Like Clive Barker did in the Hellraiser films and stories, the artists imagine Melniboné as the construct of a sadomasochistic pleasure palace, highlighting the inhumanity of Elric’s race compared to the younger races who lurk in their flimsy wooden ships on the edge of the ocean, hoping to overthrow this cruel and ancient blight on their world. It is a powerful vision and one that transcends the subtler touches implied in Moorcock’s novels (which in themselves paint a more colourful psychedelic landscape reminiscent of early ‘70s Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews airbrushed art) but it is one that works very well indeed. The art takes the risk to reinterpret the visuals in a way that remains faithful to the spirit of the writing but offers something that no other adaptation so far has done. Maybe at times the bleakness of the lack of vibrant colour becomes overpowering, but that can be excused when you consider this half of the novel is exclusively set in and around Melniboné. It will be interesting to see how the visual style changes in the second half when Elric is forced by circumstances to leave the sleeping drug-induced spires of Melniboné to seek his revenge in the Young Kingdoms.

Elric: The Ruby Throne is to my mind the finest Moorcock adaptation since the six Chronicles Of Corum comics illustrated by Mike Mignola in the 1980s for First. It’s a splendid (if rather brief) book that promises great things indeed for future episodes. The creative team obviously understand the imagery of Moorcock’s world, and what they have achieved here is an excellent introduction to his ‘Eternal Champion’ cycle of interconnected novels. As a lifelong Moorcock fan, I am in short, impressed. 8/10

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