Warlord 1-12 and Dynamic Comic Equilibrium

Today’s fantasy is a totally different beast from what went on before mass-market fattybacks let undifferentiated Tolkienoids define the genre. Lately I’ve been reading Warlord, a sword-and-sorcery comic series from the mid-1970s, before Brooks and co. made “fantasy” synonymous with “elves and dragons.” Here’s a comic about an Air Force pilot, Travis Morgan, trapped in a dinosaur-filled Hollow Earth where the eternal sun renders the passage of time meaningless.

It’s fun to read, but more fun is to see what was dusty and clichéd in the 70s, as opposed to 2012–since Warlord, despite its strengths, is full of clichés. Like Kirby’s near-contemporaneous Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, Warlord draws on the popular entertainment of its era, especially Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose inner-world of Pellucidar serves as the chief inspiration for Warlord’s Skartaris. Here we see the “elves and dragons” of pre-fatbook fantasy: lost kingdoms, tyrannosaurs, jungle babes, and a Howardian obsession with the dual poles of civilization and savagery. Howard’s Conan was a savage with enough native intelligence to pass as civilized when the need arose, but Warlord’s Travis Morgan is a civilized man who rises to the savagery of his adopted home. That Morgan is simultaneously civilized and savage, gentle and brutal, is a motif that Warlord’s writer-artist, Mike Grell, continuously returns to, and it exposes an interesting facet of comic writing that I think goes back to the early Marvel comics of the 1960s.

Marvel characters–Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men–exist in a state of perpetual dramatic equilibrium. (Or they quickly moved there within the first few years of their runs.) Marvel heroes, unlike their original DC counterparts, are constructed as tightly-wound drama engines. Spider-Man exists amidst a web of alliances, obligations, and urges, most established toward the beginning of the comic’s run, and a writer can come into the story, pluck one string of the web to destabilize Peter Parker, and squirt out a story. Think of the messy three-way between Peter, MJ, and Harry Osborn. You can milk the tension in that set-up forever. And writers do. Forever.

Interestingly, MacFarland’s Spawn (created 30 years after the Marvel idea explosion) sets up the same kind of situation, with Spawn, his ex-wife, and his best friend. That scenario, too, is an endless supply of pathos and sustainable drama. Marvel comics were almost all set up this way and that trick is used everywhere in superhero comics nowadays. Warlord is a DC comic and in 1975 DC still didn’t seem to understand what made Marvel so successful. Warlord’s tension-web is badly-strung: Travis Morgan’s traveling companion is a sexy Russian scientist, and the writer, Mike Grell, makes the occasional effort to introduce East-West conflict, though it lacks the emotional intensity of Johnny and The Thing’s squabbles in The Fantastic Four, while retaining all of those squabbles’ fundamental vacuousness. Morgan’s other friend is a black king, but the potential for tension in Morgan’s relationship to a black man is reduced to a few pithy soundbites about tolerance. It’s like Grell dimly perceives that “the kids want” these notes of unresolved tension, but can’t quite commit to them.

Unresolved tension in comics is interesting to me because my comics have a fixed end-point. The Water Phoenix King is full of unresolved relationships and ideas—between Anthem and Maresh, between Maresh and Barabbon, between Lyca’s goals and her loyalty to her allies. But these elements are intended to resolve–The Water Phoenix King has a fixed end-point, and isn’t intended to maintain its tension forever, like the early Marvel comics.