Titan Comics "Elric" Re-issues - Comparing Classic 70's Elric to the New Versions
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The Titan Comics new collection of Michael Moorcock’s neo-legend Elric of Melniboné made me wonder if the graphic novel is unlike any other medium. They’re incredibly powerful storytelling vehicles. Alongside the collected graphic novelisation of the classic comic book series, Titan also launched a new retelling of the story in bite sized chunks. Made with Moorcock’s approval, they plot a journey that began over 50 years ago when Moorcock penned a novella The Dreaming City (that inspired countless roleplaying variations) and spawned not just a trilogy of Elric books, but comics, graphic novels, crossovers and influences that reached into big name titles like Conan the Barbarian, Marvel’s Adam Warlock, and beyond into TV sci-fi and inspiring musical tributes from cult bands.
Elric, the original and the works it has inspired, has been in print for decades and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. In fact Titan is publishing a new version of the original comics, with really innovative approaches to the artwork (more about that later). But why is this particular character so inspiring for other artists across media and genres? I have to admit I was skeptical about it when I received the review copies from Titan. I am not a fantasy fan. Give me space ships, superheroes and cyberpunk and I’m a happy geek, but sword-and-sorcery epics usually leave me cold. However, there is something undeniably compelling about a work like Elric. Moorcock is, after all, a master of science fiction as well as much broader speculative works, so the story is told very well and in that 1950’s style of brooding plots that build subtly to a climax, rather than the more modern “major event on page 2” style. There’s no denying that both the old and new adaptations hook the reader with those first few panels… there’s something about Elric’s look of utter emptiness and boredom. You simply know he’s the epitome of still waters and their deep running.
Perhaps it’s the underlying political relevance of Elric. He’s not just an anti-hero, the whole story is about debunking nostalgia as a theme of post-war politics. Moorcock’s motivation was (in part, at least) to challenge the political tropes of conservatism, of harking back to a past that never existed. If Elric has a message, it’s there was never a golden age. The romantic Hollywood ideal of chivalry and simplistic dilemma-free morality is nonsense. Human rights, civil liberties and social freedoms didn’t exist back then. Life was cheap. Political power was expressed through violent intolerance, the common man was enslaved by poverty and ignorant superstition defined what little social cohesion there was.
Elric creates a fantasy world in the distant past where nobody, even the most die-hard cosplayer or renaissance faire fantasist would want to live. They’re the perfect counterpoint to the Elder Scrolls escapism that dominates the genre today. These graphic novels do for the likes of softer fantasy works what Wilfred Owen’s poetry does for gung-ho Pathé newsreel propaganda.
Titan’s current mix of titles splits into the re-issue in graphic novel form of the Elric comic series from the 1970s, and puts them alongside a contemporary retelling of the tale, edited for a more modern action oriented plot. These two strands make for a very different Elric experience, although both of them capture the essence of Moorcock’s original works.
The classic issues are tough going at times. The dialogue is thick, quite cumbersome and in speech bubbles that crunch the text a little. There is a wonderful campness about them. It reminded me very much of the strangely generic imperial european visual styles that you’ll find in classic Hammer Horror movies of that era. The colours are perfectly judged with many faded tones of purple and green against soft line-work and sometimes charcoal-like simple strokes. It’s unmistakably old school, but that just adds historical weight, entirely appropriate for their place in fantasy comic book history. If anything, the older comics draw out more of the personality of the main protagonists, Elric is painfully thin and pale, his nemisis, Irkoon with a Cheshire Cat grin that gives him a look of the Joker from early Batman. In the later versions everyone has a less cartoonish rendering, but there’s a lot to be said for the slightly camp styles of the original.
In the new adaptation, this twisted, vivid world is rendered in outstanding artwork. The team approached the work with three artists, drawing the same scenes, then blending the colours and styles of line giving a very distinctive, polished finish. And hence the innovation (in my recollection, I’ve never come across art direction like it). They used two artists, one with very precise line work, another with much more sketchy pencils, who draw the same scenes that are then blended by a third artist to achieve a unique and deeply impressive sense of both precision and impressionism in the same image. The Melnibonéans (Elric’s race of kinky, psychotic meta-humans) are significantly more S&M in appearance, reminiscent of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (and perhaps, even The Matrix) with a healthy dose of creepy, anime-inspired imagery. Evil gods who take the form of black-eyed, blood dripping toddlers and so on. One image in particular, of a slave chained with hideous spikes, shaven headed, flesh being cut from her living body by drug-ravaged Melnibonéans at an orgy is both breathtaking in its horror and compelling in visual execution.
“THE BEST GRAPHIC ADAPTATION OF THE STORY HAS TO BE THE CURRENT ONE BY JULIEN BLONDEL AND HIS TEAM. THIS IS PERHAPS THE FIRST GRAPHIC VERSION OF ELRIC FULLY TO CAPTURE THE SENSE OF UTTER DECADENCE I TRIED TO CONVEY IN THE BOOKS.” MICHAEL MOORCOCK, 2014.
All in all, I’m a bit of an Elric convert. At times it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, the horror grips you and you can’t look away. You’ll find yourself fist pumping when Elric comes through to save the day (in suitably bittersweet fashion), but then forced to flick the pages back and forth thinking “Did they just…they didn’t…oh man…oh those poor people”. It’s absorbing. They’re must for any fan of the genre, graphic novels or Moorcock’s dark, beautiful weirdness. Well worth a look.