Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #331: The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell by Michael Moorcock & Howard Chaykin

Michael Moorcock has "ended" his Eternal Champion cycle many times over the past decades -- I think he did it for the first time back in the late '60s, when it was still almost entirely Elric and just a bit of those other guys. But none of those endings have taken; he's come back time and time again for more stories of Elric in particular and other incarnations as well.

One of the earlier endings was in the mid-70s, after two "John Daker" novels, about an incarnation of the EC that remembered all of the other incarnations. Those felt like summings-up, and were a little heftier than some of the EC novels (Dorian Hawkmoon, I am looking at you). But of course a working writer will work, and he'll come up with more ideas -- particularly for the central project of his career.

So, in 1979, Moorcock, in whatever way and for whatever reason, wrote a treatment for a third Daker story, which he gave to Howard Chaykin, then very early in his career, to adapt and illustrate and turn into a graphic novel. (I don't think that term existed yet, or at least wasn't in wide use, but this was one of the first created-as-a-book comics in that first burst in the late '70s.) It was published as The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell, missed its market almost entirely, and has been a sought-after collector's item for Moorcock completists since then, but little-remembered otherwise.

But Titan is doing a big series of all of the Moorcock EC comics, in more-or-less uniform editions, so earlier this year they reissued Swords of Heaven into a market where it actually could find the intersection of Moorcock and Chaykin fans.

The best Eternal Champion stories have quirkier, less obviously heroic plotlines -- particularly the Elric stories. But a whole lot of them from the '60s and '70s take that essential sword-and-sorcery plot -- evil forces are threatening {insert place}, which is generally where {hero}'s love {hot girlfriend} lives, and often where he's from, too, and so he must battle their {fiendish weapon} against overwhelming odds and win out in the end despite great losses to his forces and/or allies. Better versions of that story turn up the woe and bleakness; what made Moorcock's epic fantasy stories distinctive was the attitude of his stories and protagonists -- they're depressive and tormented and unlucky and nearly incapable of happiness.

Doing the same story in comics form means less of the woe-is-me narration, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view. But it does tend to make Swords of Heaven a little flatter and less distinctive than an equivalent Moorcock novel. By this point in his career, Moorcock's language was stronger, and often more of a draw, than his epic adventure plots. (His plots outside of epic adventure had gotten substantially better -- this book came out only a year after one of his best novels, the World Fantasy-winning Gloriana, and just before a burst of interesting early-'80s novels including the Von Bek books.)

In this case, the transform table goes thus:
  • {insert place} = The Dream Marshes, a lush and rich land about to be invaded by the barbarians of the desert realm Hell on their way to invade an even richer land called Heaven, ruled by aristocratic assholes
  • {hero} = Urlik Skarsol, bodily dropped into the body of Lord Clen of the Dream Marches
  • {hot girlfriend} = Ermizhad, the wife of Erekose, which was our hero's name three or four books ago, and who he's trying to get back to in the sense that he pines for her and has no way to actually control his travels
  • {fiendish weapon} = mostly human-wave attacks, though they're also the usual mix of inventively bloodthirsty and maniacal
So Swords of Heaven does have a faint whiff of the generic to me -- not as much as the first Hawkmoon series, luckily, but less distinctive than the first two Daker novels The Eternal Champion and Phoenix in Obsidian. The names in particular are a bit on the nose, aside from the odd "Lord Clen." Clen does not have a sword that steals souls, does not massacre his entire race, and does not lose his homeland or One True Love. He's a smartish guy who wins a brutal war against an overwhelming enemy, though only after his side takes horrific losses. So, not entirely devoid of woe.

Chaykin is working in fully painted pages here, without a lot of black lines. The characters look like Chakyin people, but the overall look aims for more of a classic-illustration look, vaguely in the Howard Pyle vein. And that's very appropriate for a very traditional adventure story like this one. It's difficult to tell what of the writing is his and what is Moorcock's, but it's all plausible and sturdy, with no major problems.

This is not a great lost Eternal Champion story. It's a pretty good late-70s EC story, that links Phoenix in Obsidian to 1986's The Dragon in the Sword. That's fine for me; it might be fine for you.

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