In 1991 I wasn’t a fan of the Mike Mignola. To be frank, I actually couldn’t stand his artwork, but again I was twenty and my taste in art leaned much toward the polished standard and less toward the truly talented.
At that time I also wasn’t much of a reader. Sure, I read almost every day, taking in as much fantasy as I could, but for the most part it was also commercially driven stuff that in the final call of ‘what matters in fantasy’ it would almost all be found woefully lacking.
So it was with great interest that I discovered Epic Comics rendition of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on my comic shop’s shelves. It was noteworthy because it featured art by Mike Mignola, was adapted by Howard Chaykin, and had a kind of darkness to it that was antithesis to the flare of most superhero books coming out of the early stages of the comic boom.
For me this series created a kind of enigma, that being that I loved fantasy but had only associated with Fritz Leiber in the TSR gaming supplement Lankhmar: City of Adventure. [Note: At the time I role-played in TSR’s Lankhmar, the song ‘One Night in Bangkok’ was on the radio and to this day I can’t say the world Lankhmar without setting it to a British vocal intonation accompanied by the words ‘City of Adventure’, just as Murry Head would began his song with ‘Bangkok, Oriental Setting’. BTW, it has to be the only Top 10 song in history that makes Chess seem downright cool.]
Anyway, back to task, I’d always turned my nose up at Mignola. In these pages, however, something about Mignola’s gritty style found purchase and fruition in Leiber’s world. I think it must have been Fafhrd’s broadsword, something I saw in Mignola’s treatment of Marvel’s Conan when he did guest covers for issues 236 and 237 that said ‘you need to own this’.
The cover for Book One, Ill Met in Lankhmar, is something straight out of a John Woo movie, even white doves flying around the battle. We are shown Fafhrd and Mouser in all their rooftop glory, and I have to say I almost pity the collection of warriors around them; especially the one holding Fafhard’s belt before the barbarian’s sword puts an end to his miserable existence.
Ill Met, of course, introduces us to the duo as a pair, both men having first taken their steps into adventure with the winning of their true loves in solo adventures, Mouser’s delicate noble flower Ivrian, and Fafhard’s powerful malcontent Vlana, having found home with these two prior to their journey to Lankhmar. This tale, however, ends that love affair in gruesome fashion, but it serves the purpose of setting our venerable sword and sorcery fellows on all the rest of their famed adventures together.
This mighty tale won Leiber both the Nebula and Huge for best Novella in 1970 and 1971 respectively, and it takes the full volume of Book One to deliver it. Still, this isn’t my favorite story in the Lankhmar pantheon, and I’d have to wait a few more volumes for that tale to come forth.
Book Two brings a spirit-like nature to the cover art, the stories of The Circle Curse and The Howling Tower brought into lovely color in its pages. After the dark affairs of Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fafhrd and Mouser flee the city to find their fortunes in the wilds, their wanderings helping them forget what they lost.
I always enjoyed the travelling duo, but when witnessed in Mignola’s depiction, I think it becomes even more alive. Mignola, you see, seems to believe in a concept of art that I adhere to, that being that characters need to change clothes. One thing that always annoyed me about comics or animation was that unlike role-playing or real life, characters became static representations that never ‘upgraded’ or changed what they wore from day to day. This is almost universally true of American 80s animation [ala G.I. Joe, MASK, Transformers], and in most cases is also the case in hero driven comic books [save for Iron Man who was always redesigning armor which probably was a primary contributing factor to him being my hands down favorite super hero.]
Anyway, Mignola does what I love here, as the duo tends to change and evolve as they progress, their outfits and equipment morphing with their travels. In The Circle Curse for example Fafhrd has 3 costume changes in 13 pages, which for a comic is extreme, and I applaud any artist willing to take the time and effort to pen such adjustments.
Book Three… ah the wonders of Book Three. Here Mignola does his very best to tantalize us with the female form. Now perhaps a reason I so disliked Mignola’s work in 1990 was because I was 19 and so full-up with hormones that I couldn’t see beauty for what it was [a point which my wife of 20 years never fails to remind me]. Beauty in my testosterone soaked brain was bound by the chains of the U.S. media machine with the SI Swimsuit Edition, whatever Playboy found its way to my dorm floor, and the shiny talents of John Byrne, Jim Lee, and as Jeff Easley calls him ‘The Thighmaster’ Clyde Caldwell helping define what I believed to be a ‘real’ female body.
Mignola delivers his own brand of beauty in these pages, and as I’ve moved on with two decades of imagery, I can still see why I was taken with his female depictions even after the wonder of more socially acceptable artists have worn off.
This volume places our heroes back in Lankhmar for a second stint in the fabled city. Two stories, The Price of Pain Ease, and Bazaar of the Bizarre, appear within. Both prove worthy of inclusion, and Chaykin’s adaptation and Mignola’s art make each story sing with page-turning pleasures.
Although my not my favorite stories, this is my favorite volume of the set, and I have to say that inside I’m always taken with the depiction of two of my most beloved magical beings in any sword and sorcery setting I’ve read, those being Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. To me, they are what magic should be, and no matter how many magic-users I’ve played in RPGs, I still crave a magic system where normal folk aren’t included in the ‘fun’. These two are alien things beyond any realm of knowledge we should understand and therefore we never question their ability to do what they do. Oh, and don’t forget that in Bazaar of the Bizarre they gift Fafhrd with a Cloak of Invisibility and a Blindfold of True Seeing, two items found in D&D! Simply outstanding!
So we come to Book Four, and believe it or not, the editors decided to save my absolute two favorite Fafhrd and Mouser stories for the final volume. Lean Times in Lankhmar and When the Sea King’s Away are stellar, and although I think this cover is the weakest of the lot, the pages within do well to depict the weight of the tale.
Still, one can never fully realize the wonder of Lean Times in Lankhmar unless you read the tale in full, and Chaykin fails to capture what makes the story so dear to me in the first place, the absolute lambasting of organized religion. You see, Leiber worked for a time as a lay preacher, and his knowledge of religion and both its rise and fall are told in such eloquence in this tale that I keep it beside my bed to remind me just how reactionary faith can be.
Why do I love When the Sea King’s Away? Sex of course! Not to say that there is even a bit of sexual verse in this tale, but it’s all about the subtlety that flames my mind. Depending on your thinking [glass half full, or glass half empty] this story is either a torrid romp among aquatic demi-gods or a brush with intercourse that could have been. I’ve debated it many times with fellow authors, but I like to use this story as a barometer of my own work, as if to confirm that many times ‘less is more’.
I was once told by and English editor who read one of my novels that by page 16 he wanted my main character to die, by page 80 he was begging the gods to strike him down and end the misery, and by page 170 wished against hope that every one of my characters would burn in flames so that my world would be a better place upon the book’s completion. He eventually asked, ‘In what world does everyone think about sex twenty-four hours a day other than in an American soap opera?’ Well, to put not too fine a point on it, the reply I would love to have given him was something like this ‘my characters are nineteen, I don’t know how things work in England, but in the U.S. sex is probably 90% of any boy’s thought process and to deny that is to deny the very rudiments of human nature.’ However, I kept my tongue…
Ok, I still got his point, that being that sex doesn’t have to drown you with adjectives to get it across that people are having it, and in When the Sea King’s Away, Leiber writes of sex in masterful fashion, so much so that you can’t actually prove it’s happened! Really, I dare you to find this short story and read the part within the Sea King’s cave and then come back and tell me you can definitively prove what has occurred…
Well there you have it, my personal take on Leiber, Mignola, and four wonderful graphic novels. Over the passing of the years I’ve come to both adore Mike Mignola and Fritz Leiber, and I want to remind everyone reading this that the Nameless Pulp Project is now a week old at The LA Gamer and I’m still hoping that people will come over and help build a brand with me because like the above, it’s what I’m trying to do, create great swords and sorcery pulp fiction with outstanding art, but I’m going to need some fantastic writers to do it!