Out with the Tights, In with the Orcs!

orcstaindetail2The comic book community is nothing if not that – a community. Whether you’re waiting in line to get a sketch at a convention or rolling your eyes with your friends as your comic book shop owner rants, again, about such and such author, or as you debate online about just what, really, happened with those last few Morrison issues of Action Comics (please tell me, I have no idea)—a large aspect of our fandom is the people you bring that “dom” to “fan.”

I was reminded of this when Conor brought me the first trade of Orc Stain by James Stokoe the other day, adding, “It sounded like you were getting burnt out with superhero comics and this is really good, so you check it out.” That’s a good friend, who can rattle you out of your doldrums and throw a book at you that reminds you, “Hey man—it’s just comics, and there are good comics out there to be read, so stop worrying so much and have fun again!

Now, I admitted the other day that I had renewed my World of Warcraft membership (and, of course now I am back at that “So…I’m paying, but when do I actually play” stage), and I am currently catching up on Game of Thrones season 2 with my wife Whitney, listening to the audiobook of Dance With Dragons during my commute, and watching Game of Thrones season 3 with my friend Noah, so my brain is pretty much all about swords, battles, being cold and mutton. So this Orc Stain gift seemed like the perfect opportunity to bust out my Vikings, Vol 1 trade and to catch up on Demon Knights, which I was behind on, to the tune of at least six issues.

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It should come as no surprise to you that I feel a strong affinity to these kinds of stories. I most Friday nights in grammar school (and a rather large number of nights after college), playing Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer (RPG and miniatures) and other games, living in these world, playing these characters and rolling dice and having a helluva time. So, walking off my frustration with The Hobbit, I dove right in with Orc Stain, and wow — this book is really freaking strange…and kind of amazing.

The nice thing about Orc Stain and, to some extent, these other books, is that it is completely free of any kind of continuity, other books, or reality. According to Stokoe’s afterword, he basically was kind of frustrated to see the Orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies just dismissed as hordes of bad guys who acted as slobbery foils to the dashing heroes. What would an orc world be like? What if there was an orc who was kind of tired of relegating himself to constant fighting and, well, prick chopping and bartering?

Orc Stain is the story of this Orc thief named “One-Eye” — though it should be said that Orcs never get names while they are alive, the most important Orcs get a number assigned to their grave marker after they die — and the various trials that he has to go through just to get ahead in one of the grungiest, nastiest, and, well…Orc-like environments I’ve ever seen imagined on paper. I’ve never read anything by Stokoe before, but this guy creates an incredibly detailed, lived-in, and just kind of nasty world, one that you are both intrigued and grossed out by, page after page. At first, I really had no idea what to do with this book—like, for the first part, I was worried that this would be one of those books where I just hated the main character, but, as things settled down and I realized One-Eye was the protagonist and kind of figured out what made him worth reading about, I just relaxed and enjoyed myself.

This is not about any kind of heroic quest — or heroism, it must be said — this more of an exploration of what a world dominated by Orcs could be like…and it’s quite a world. Instead of technology, we have this mix of magic and innovative use of animal assistance. Need to shoot an arrow really far? Then you unroll this vaguely snake like creature with an arrow inside of it and and squeeze appropriately. A really good axe is actually a creature that looks vaguely like an bird with a sharp curved beak and heavily-lidded eyes. Indeed, much of the last part of the book takes place inside some kind of base, which is some kind of really large and really nasty creature.

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This is a very graphic graphic novel. Not in terms of nudity or even violence, it’s just detailed to such a point that everything organic, which is pretty much everything, just made me feel oddly queasy for much of the time I was reading the book. This sounds bad, but it’s really a testament to Stokoe’s amazing art—it’s just insanely detailed and the concepts are so imaginative, that you really do feel like you are transported to a totally different (and fully realized) world. This is no small trick, and though I can’t say I loved the book, I couldn’t stop reading it, and I am really look forward (I think) to finding out what happens next. I’ll just do it in-between meals.

I have started Viking: The Long Cold Fire quite a few times. I actually bought the first two issues of the series, but during that time I was also reading Northlanders, which was already scratching my “Freezing Cold Viking Story” itch, so I never really got into it. Part of it was the anachronistic way of speaking—which was something we all noticed with Northlanders—and part of it was the art, which, on its surface, is, you know, really good, but almost too polished, in a way, which sounds ridiculous given how sketchy and frenetic the pages are at times. I was on a roll, though, and I vowed to break through the first 20 pages and see how the story of brothers Finn and Egil went, and I am glad I stuck with it.

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Vikings has several different story lines. There’s tragic murder and resulting thirst for revenge , there’s kidnapping and plundering, there’s the unlikely (so, of course, totally likely) love story, and lots and lots of swords cutting through people. This slightly oversized trade is a really nice presentation of the story—Nic Klein’s art is big, the pages burst with his frenetic art—and I think this is definitely the kind of story that works best in trade format. I did have issues with some of the character design; there were times when I couldn’t figure out who was who, but when everyone’s bundled in furs and wearing beards that’s part of it, I guess.

While the story is straightforward enough, the storytelling itself is trying at times. There are lots of jumps from time to time and place to place, and not nearly enough markers to let the reader know when and where you are, which was a real distraction. I enjoyed the characterizations of the brothers and, later this princess and her father—indeed, when that family shows up about halfway through, the book really picks up steam—but I wasn’t really sure the why of this book, you know? This felt less refined than Northlanders,  which is kind of ridiculous, we’re talking about Vikings and killing and pillaging and the like, I realize, but you can’t help but compare it to Brian Wood’s series as you read this.  That being said, it’s a fun romp and there are some nice emotional touches, though the art, which is nothing short of amazing at times, sometimes gets too complicated and manic, to the point that it really distracts from some of the moments.

While the book’s ending feels rushed — Ivan Brandon brings all the characters together and their dynamic is far too interesting for them to part as quickly as they do — the characters linger and as I write this I feel a bit surprised that I am still wondering what’s next.  This is worth checking out, especially if you can find it on sale, but if you read Northlanders and didn’t enjoy it, you’ll probably want to pass.

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Of all the stories I’ve been reading, the book that brings me back to my RPG days the most is, of course, Demon Knights, which Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves launched with the New 52 in September 2011. Despite not having a ton of knowledge about any of the characters, this book, which was action-packed, dramatic, and often, hilarious, sporting some of the consistently great art, quickly became one of my favorites. Indeed, as “serious” as my gaming nights were, most of the time we were laughing and cracking jokes, and Cornell’s characterizations hit those notes throughout his run, which ended after 15 issues. Robert Venditti and Bernard Chang are on the book now, and I appreciate how the editors handled it—instead of picking up right after the events that Cornell wrote, their run starts thirty years later and there’s a real “fresh slate” feeling with issue 16 that works quite well.

A series of 19 issues (including #0) deserves its own focused article, but I just wanted to mention Demon Knights because it’s one of those books that really came out of nowhere for me. While I have seen other fantasy books on the shelves, a title like this has to be more than about watching some characters hacking their way through some dungeon—I can do that in Diablo III, after all.  The thing that brings these kinds of books to life are the relationships, and Cornell really created a truly motley band together for Demon Knights. From Madame Xanadu to Vandal Savage to Etrigan himself, these characters come across as really grounded and fleshed out, and even new-to-me characters like the Amazon Exoristos and The Shining Knight, with their secrets and murky pasts are just as interesting as the more obvious “heroes” in the group.

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The group of adventures falling into circumstances far beyond their control is the basis for pretty much all fantasy stories, and Demon Knights delivers on the humor, drama and action pretty much consistently throughout its run. If you have friends who are neck deep in World of Warcraft or other fantasy games, the two Demon Knights trades is a solid gift idea.

We’ve talked about getting burned out on superhero comics before — it happens and it’s fine. Sometimes you need a break and need to go to different times and places, far away from the alleys of Gotham and streets of modern day New York. While the stories I highlighted are certainly not for everyone, they gave me the opportunity to enjoy the kinds of adventures I had with my friends, late at night with dice and miniature figures and laughter…it was nice to be back!

 


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who still remembers his adventures as a Halfling thief named Gamble. You can send him email and follow him on Twitter!

 

Comments

  1. Baykid Baykid says:

    I was much more of a DnD guy than a comic book guy as a teen and I also like classic fantasy a lot. I’d recomend Skullkickers to others with a gaming background. It is a very humorous take on the swords and sorcery genre. It reminds me so much of DnD because while you usually play a “hero” many players are ultimately very motivated by treasure and experience points (often gained by fighting), and Skullkickers comic has played up that contradiction (“heroes” who only loves fighting and booty) to the hilt.

    I really need to check out Northlanders because I love Brian Wood’s work too. Helheim is off to a decent start as a horror-themed viking comic.

  2. theWAC1 theWAC1 says:

    After at least 10 years away from comics (and Magic), and now in my mid twenties, I walked back into my LCS and somehow left with Orc Stain #1. “What the hell?! This is not how I remember comics,” I thought, “THIS is awesome!” Sure, I still pick up superhero comics, but Orc Stain, and soon after King City and The Finder Omnibus, influenced my comic reading for the better (IMO). I now visit worlds and hang out with cool characters who don’t exist simply to punch bad guys. I feel like sometimes things find you (me) and Orc Stain was one of those things. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it.

  3. adrianrigter adrianrigter says:

    Stokoe has said on Twitter that the rest of his year will be spent working on Orc Stain. W00t.

  4. hanson724 hanson724 says:

    Thanks for the article. Never heard of Orc Stain but I’m going to the LCS right after work. Sounds really good….something to sink my teeth into.

  5. IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

    If everybody here is really into Orcs and the like; can I suggest Dustin Carson’s “Half-Breed”? Only 1 issue so far and it’s fantastic.