Blogging Arak 13: Arak Gets Satyrical
Issue 13, “The Demons from the Dark!” (or “Demons from the Caves of Night!”, depending on whether you go by the cover or by the splash page), marked a second year for the series and DC seemed to have a contender on their hands to cash in on sword-and-sorcery popularity of the day.
The issue is dated September 1982. Clash of the Titans and Dragonslayer had brought mythological fantasy to the big screen a year earlier (Greek and medieval respectively, which Roy Thomas was fusing here in novel ways). Conan the Barbarian that summer — at the very time this comic hit the racks, since dating on monthly periodicals tends to lag by a month or two — was turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into a star at the drive-ins and the newfangled multiplexes. Dungeons & Dragons was firmly established as a cultural phenomenon.
Yes, legendary wizards, warriors, and monsters were becoming fixtures in the American household and DC had scored a coup by getting for this foray into the genre Roy Thomas, the writer who had turned Conan into a successful comic franchise over at their rival Marvel.
That Arak never spun off his own movie, or television cartoon, or toy line (he did get one scarce figure in 1982 from Remco) is no basis on which to judge the series. So let’s dive right back in to the story where we left off: with one dead centaur, one missing Valda, one new satyr sidekick, and one befuddled Arak…
We open with Arak and Satyricus coming upon a band of Saracens slaying monks. Satyricus stays true to his established character trait of wishing to avoid confrontation (unless said confrontation involves young, nubile women). You can probably guess what Arak thinks about Satyricus’s suggestion of giving the scene of carnage a wide berth. As the narration informs us:
“The Quontauka’s only answer is a black-maned, well-chiseled head thrown wildly back, and a battle cry which echoes through these Grecian hills: ‘HAIII-YAAAH!’”
Satyricus is clearly going to be providing plenty of comic relief throughout his stint: “I – I wish you wouldn’t DO that! You nearly scared the ichor out of me!”
The banter between Arak and his horned sidekick is more solid than last issue, about which I noted the dialogue was uncharacteristically flat (and went on to speculate that this may have had something to do with Thomas going on a European honeymoon with his new bride Danette – more on her later!).
Thomas gets some mileage out of a recurring tete-a-tete: Satyricus laments that he ever promised Khiron the centaur that he’d watch over Arak, since it seems to put him in danger with exhausting regularity, to which Arak launches such retorts as “I release you from your vow, satyr – anytime you want!” Satyricus is like that relative or hanger-on who complains about everything, yet apparently would rather be nowhere else in the world. They’d turn down a trip to Florida if you offered first-class tickets just to get them to leave.
When Arak does choose to go all Viking raider on the likes of these Saracen bandits, Satyricus with his “pipes never whittled by human hand” does prove to be a handy ally indeed. He plays his tune that fills “men and mounts alike with a sudden, unreasoning panic,” and it’s all Arak can do not to flee himself as the Saracens make a hasty exit.
Arak and Satyricus barely have time to notice that one of the monks is not dead when they see winged humanoids approaching. For Arak, harpies come to mind – he and Khiron fought them just two issues earlier. But Satyricus knows these are something different. Something worse.
One of the bat-winged demons – a Ker – swoops down to finish off the wounded monk. When Arak challenges it, it warns, “’Ware, mortal! Arouse not the wrath of the Keres – if you wish to live out your own allotted time.”
In response to this warning, Arak notes, “So you talk like a man, at least – for all your wings and pointed ears! Let us see if you die like one, as well!”
Then he throws his otomahuk, burying it deep in the creature’s forehead. In response, the demon hisses, “You shall swiftly learn, red-skinned manling – that I do not!”
The creature yanks the axe, bloodless, from its own head and throws it back at Arak, who, fortunately, is nimble. The weapon whizzes past him and nearly neuters Satyricus but for a quick goat-leap accompanied by the exclamation, “Winds of Zephyrus! A bit slower on my part – and my nights frolicking among the wood-nymphs would have been only a memory!”
The Ker (I capitalize it because all the Keres refer to each other as “Ker,” using it like a proper name) leaps on Arak and overpowers him; somehow, in this vulnerable position, Arak has time to notice that the other Keres are drawing spirit orbs from the corpses of the murdered monks and flying away with them. This appears to be his imminent fate as well, but one of the other Keres calls back, “Leave off, Ker! It is plain his time is not yet come!”
Arak’s nemesis is duly persuaded, replying, “Yes! I see that now! But mark you this, Ker – when this mortal’s death-time does come – and by the Fates, I feel it near at hand – it must be my hand which administers his death-blow and none other!”
It flies off, leaving those portentous words hanging heavy over our young hero.
We then get a bit of exposition, courtesy of Satyricus, about these death-spirits. (He notes that although they sometimes appear as male, more often they are seen as female. I surmise that the reason for the gender choice here is that they would have otherwise been too similar to the harpies featured a couples issues earlier.)
Before they continue on their merry way, Satyricus avails himself of one of the monk’s robes, to conceal his goat-legs and horns when next they come to human habitation.
The conversation turns to Satyricus’s randy nature, with such quips as “If the ladies like my lusty pipe playing, who am I to deny them?” (One can imagine Jimmy Page uttering the same rhetorical question). Arak’s shrewd reply: “You must be agile, to have lived so long – without some human husband or father slaying you.”
They then come to a mountain, to which Arak feels strangely drawn. Satyricus explains that it is Mount Athos, “whose heights were once graced by a temple to the goddess Athena. But when the old beliefs fell, so did the temple.”
They discover signs of recent usage, as well as a pile of human bones. Arak notes that the way some of the bones are broken, they must have been thrown from the cliff, but his conjecture is answered by a voice from above: “We assure you wayfarer – those men leaped to their own deaths of their own accord!”
The Byzantine monk who greets them mistakes Satyricus for “Brother Theophano,” whose robe of office the satyr wears. This sets up an awkward situation for the ancient Greek creature, who must play along if he and Arak are to secure safe lodgings.
He almost blows his cover before they are even granted access – the monk notes that he speaks “strangely for one sent by the patriarch of Byzantium” – but quickly devises a cover story that demotes Arak to the role of slave (not the first time this has happened to Arak – Malagigi used the same deception to get him into the court of Carolus Magnus).
They climb to the summit via a ladder rope, to be welcomed by half-a-dozen monks who are disappointed that “Brother Theophano” comes sans the “icons – the holy images and statues” that he was supposed to bring. Easy enough for Satyricus to cover his tracks on that count: the Saracens who slew all the other monks took them. Arak is then ordered to hand over his weapons, since no such accouterments of war are allowed in the monastery. Said monastery proves to be barely-furnished caves, the shadowed recesses of which the travelers enter just as a furious thunderstorm breaks outside (definitely portentous).
When one of the monks asks “Brother Theophano” if he will take a loaf of bread or if he is under “a vow of abstinence of some sort,” Satyricus slyly answers, “A vow of semi-silence only, brother…but not of starvation.”
Arak grumbles to Satyricus about not procuring food for him. Satyricus quips, “Please, slave…A bit more respect, if you don’t mind,” but then assures Arak that he purloined three more loaves while they were talking.
Arak is duly impressed, observing, “Othin, but you’d make a thief to be wary of!”
The monks sit cross-legged around “Brother Theophano” to seek his counsel in dealing with the matter of a visit from “the Devil himself not many weeks ago.”
“Was he seven feet tall – wings like a bat’s,” Satyricus blurts out, but the monk quickly disabuses him of this notion: “No, he visited us – as he does so often – in female form!”
In the next panel, Brother Theophano/Satyricus is literally licking his lips as he says, “Female? Oh yes, those are often the worst visitations. Tell me of it. I may have to deal with the matter personally.”
The monk relates his story. While he was wandering through the tunnels lost in his prayers, he came upon three bathing women, “each wearing no more than they wore when they entered this vale of tears!”
“I fled, of course – but what eyes have seen, and the senses wallowed in, cannot be taken back. So I punished myself – in the way that all must be punished, who look upon them!”
A clearly shaken Satyricus stutters, “Oh? And wh-what was that?”
Brother Urias pulls back his hood to reveal two empty sockets. “I put out my eyes – so they might never again look upon such EVIL!”
Here is the evil he beheld (please don’t go putting out your eyes):
Now the monks humbly beg “Brother Theophano” to go take care of this pestilence of naked women that keeps causing members of their order to poke out their own eyes or leap off cliffs. “Your holy order is known for casting out devils – so would you go forth into the Caves of Night, and deal with the minions of Satan who lurk therein?”
“By all means. Why not? Just point the way. Brother.”
As soon as “Brother Theophano” and his “slave” are on their own, Satyricus drops the ruse and suggests this is a perfect opportunity to make a hasty retreat. He shouldn’t be surprised when Arak refuses, but is compelled to go meet this new challenge head on.
Arak explains, “I sense that whatever led me to Mount Athos now draws me onward like a sleepwalker!”
Suddenly, Satyricus gets all sleepy and passes out. Arak writes this off as his short companion having wolfed down too much food – a rather dense conclusion given the circumstances, but Arak does seem to be in some sort of single-minded, hypnotic state. He lifts the torch and carries on by himself, but his quest is cut short by a swooping form – the Ker coming back to deliver that promised death blow!
The Ker knocks him off a cliff; luckily, he lands in an underground spring, but he is now plunged into darkness. When he emerges from the water, he finds that a slight glow emanates from the rock walls, just enough to illuminate a long piece of string. He picks it up and begins to follow it, as if he had suddenly stumbled into a fairy tale.
It brings him to the Big Reveal…
A tapestry hanging on a phosphorescent cave wall: “Hung here in this sunless cave, and vanishing off into the shadowed distance! But, the scene woven into it by unknown hands – a scene which no living man can know but me – it is one of He-No, Thunder God of my long-dead tribe – and of my own birth, in a land far across the ocean!”
This is a cliffhanger on par with Arak discovering his own likeness carved alongside Greek demi-god heroes on Mount Olympus, and perhaps even more strange.
The back-up feature this issue is the first in a new ongoing chronicle of Valda’s earlier adventures as a knight in the court of Carolus Magnus. It is co-written by Roy Thomas and his new wife Danette. We learn from the letters page that they are also co-scripters of Wonder Woman, and I suspect it is a great boon for Roy to have this input of a female perspective writing female characters.
The back-up features are short and thus highly serialized – I might give an overview of them after a few issues, once there is something of a story arc built up.
One other big staff change this issue is the replacement of Arak co-creator Ernie Colon with Alfredo Alcala, who not only pencils and inks, but also takes on lettering duties! Colon pencils the back-up Valda feature; he apparently also handles inks and letters on his own segment.
An interesting juggling of duties, to be sure — Colon could have penciled the whole issue and Alcala inked and lettered, but divvying up roles this way probably worked better with coordinating schedules. One subjective observation I’ll make is this: Alcala acquits himself well with the penciling; he does some especially nice work with Arak and Satyricus. However, I think I prefer Colon’s pencils inked by Alcala to either Alcala inking his own pencils or to Colon inking his own work: the sum is greater than the parts with the two working together.
MONSTER TALLY: 2 (Keres; satyr)
“Death glides on soft butterfly wings, / But its touch is hard.” – Quontauka Proverb
(I think that a Quontauka proverb has appeared on the splash page of every issue thus far. They are obviously written by Thomas, since the Quontauka are a fictional tribe. In retrospect, I should have been including them; it can be entertaining to see how they tie in with the story in each issue.)