Writer: Roy Thomas
Art: P. Craig Russell & Michael T. Gilbert
Titan Comics $22.99
Rob N: It wasn't too long ago that I reviewed a Titan published graphic novel adaptation of the classic novel, Elric Of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock, and now they're putting out another adaptation of the very same book, but by a different creative team. It's Volume 1 of a proposed 14 book set of 'Eternal Champion' collected editions (and on the basis of the reprint material likely to be available to Titan, I'm guessing that will mean six Elric books, four Corum books and four Hawkmoon books). People unaware of this fact may perhaps be understandably confused when they find themselves reading essentially the same story as before, but with radically different artwork (though the Ruby Throne volume only covers the first chunk of the book - this much longer version is complete in itself). Still, when a novel is as good as this one, you can't really begrudge Titan from releasing it in two different versions.
If you're unfamiliar with the literary world of the Elric saga, then check out my previous review for a concise summary of what it's all about. Essentially it's one of the cornerstones of the modern Sword and Sorcery genre, managing to simultaneously subvert every genre cliché that existed beforehand and subsequently influence hundreds of writers who followed. If you have any interest in fantasy then you've quite possibly come across many Moorcock concepts in derivative and lesser forms by other writers.
So then, if Elric: The Ruby Throne felt like a Trent Rezner/Nine Inch Nails take on the world of Elric, this time around we're looking at the 1969 era King Crimson version – because it's all saffron landscapes with vermillion horsemen, set against magenta skies with impossibly languid, psychedelic Aubrey Beardsley figures, each one as flamboyant and decadently dressed as a tribe of velvet-burgundy flared hipster-wearing peacocks in soft tangerine and butterscotch silk blouses, auditioning for a part in Hair The Musical. With swords.
The style is recognisably that of P. Craig Russell who contributed the pencil layouts for artist Michael T. Gilbert to finish in a style as close to his as possible. And if you're familiar with Russell's work then you know what to expect as he has without a doubt one of the most instantly recognisable set of brush strokes in the history of the medium. This is Elric art the way you'd imagine it to be if you read the books in the early '70s when their popularity was at its peak: decadent, trippy, surreal. The colour palate is mostly soft pastels, adding to the dream-like and hippyish feel of Elric's world. If you're bored of the (sadly very common) expressions of quasi-mediaeval fantasy worlds with their washed out colour, muted browns and greys - part Tolkien, part Dungeons & Dragons, part Game of Thrones - then Russell and Gilbert's imagination, given free rein here, will come as very welcome relief, for there is nothing stodgy and mediaeval about their art. Originally published by Pacific Comics in the mid '80s, hot on the heels of P. Craig Russell's vibrant adaptations of 'The Dreaming City' and 'While The Gods Laugh' for Marvel Comics, this was at the time a very high quality watermark for Sword and Sorcery comics (only bettered perhaps by the classic Barry Smith and Alfredo Alcala art on early '70s Conan comics). Viewing the pages again now, after thirty or so years, it strikes me what a labour of love the project must have been for the artists concerned, for they seem to have tackled it with the same enthusiasm as Darwyn Cooke had for his recent adaptations of the excellent Parker books. Many of the illustrations have, to my mind, become standards for the way the characters, creatures and landscapes of Elric's world should look. Arioch (Elric's patron Demon Lord) in particular is perfectly rendered when he dramatically appears, with swirling halos of lights and colours flowing like silk around his illusionary form. And much of the beauty of the setting acts in counterpoint to the brooding sense of tragedy that permeates the saga. Last time around I praised the art on Elric: The Ruby Throne for daring to be radically different and taking a very unexpected view of Elric's world. Here then is the opposite approach – a faithfully rendered vision that is nevertheless just as splendid. It's hard to choose between the two approaches for each benefits from its own strengths and unique perspectives.
I made reference to Aubrey Beardsley earlier, and it's a fair comparison, because Russell and Gilbert here are almost certainly influenced by the short-lived pen and ink artist, and it is a style that perfectly suits Moorcock's prose.
To the writer then, and Roy Thomas proved long ago that his were a safe pair of hands when it came to adapting classic Sword and Sorcery tales. He has a knack for dissecting a story into its essential components and weaving those parts together again to suit a different medium (comics). Playing on the the inherent strengths of the plot and never worrying too much about dogmatically rendering each and every page of the book, Thomas always succeeds in translating a work into a medium that predominantly relies upon pretty pictures rather than the reader's own visual imagination. As an adaptation I think the script here is probably superior to that of Elric: The Ruby Throne, if only because the larger page count allows Thomas a wider scope. At times Elric: The Ruby Throne had to cut a few corners to tell its tale in a limited page count. That it did very well, but there's no denying that here, given more room to play with, Roy Thomas offers up a sharper script. Sceptical Elric fans will find little to grumble about when comparing the comic to the original novel.
Make no mistake though, this volume is very much a period piece – an artistic expression inspired by the colourful mood, reckless spirit and stylistic excesses of the late '60s that in turn inspired so much of Moorcock's best work. And it may therefore appear dated to some readers, especially if they prefer their fantasy characters to look and act like Sean Bean. There's certainly nothing quite like it on the book covers of identikit modern fantasy novels which proves how far modern fantasy has settled into an overly familiar groove since the 1980s. As a graphic adaptation of Moorcock's novels, this volume is one of the very best. And the good news is that the other 'very best' – the Mike Mingnola's Corum issues - should be coming along in a companion volume fairly soon too. 9/10