Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Beowulf #1

Hello again! It's Anj from Supergirl Comic Box Commentary and once again I have dusted off a 1970's DC Comics fantasy book to look at here at DC Bloodlines.

As I have said before, I love the idea of this blog. How great for there to be a site where the depth of DC Comics can be explored by multiple bloggers with different viewpoints and passions. And I am glad when time allows me to come here and post about some non-Super related topic.

I mean where else would I feel welcomed when I want to talk about Beowulf #1?

My interest in the 1970's DC fantasy books was rekindled by Gail Simone's treatment of them WonderWoman #20-23 back in 2008. In that storyline, Stalker organizes Diana, Claw the Unconquered, and Beowulf into a group to fight the demon god Dgrth.

Simone and artist Aaron Lopresti really shine here, showing Diana to be an extremely capable warrior but also armed with compassion. And clearly the two creators have as much a love of DC lore as any fan.

Here is a scene from the opening chapter of that arc, where Diana first meets Beowulf. He initially thinks she is an agent of his enemies, sent to trick him. He attacks. Diana is eventually able to reason with him.

The look of Beowulf is exactly that of the 70s comic. He is shown to be a ferocious fighter, nearly unstoppable. But unlike the cursed Stalker or the unhinged Claw, Beowulf is shown to have a sense of nobility, a deeper sense of ethics. While Diana fights next to all the warriors, she relates best to Beowulf.

And so ... on to the comic.

Beowulf was written by Michael Uslan and penciled by Ricardo Villamonte.

Here is the opening page of the book, a very nice montage page by Villamonte with some minor exposition about the world that Beowulf lives in. It is really a lovely page, Villamonte showing he is up to the artistic task on the book. I mean, a devil head, a comely woman, a warrior swinging a mace ludicrously too big for his frame. It all works ... it would still work today. My description sounds like a video game cover.

If I had seen this in my youth, it would have affected me in many many ways. I would definitely want to collect every issue that came out.

One thing I found amusing about the issue was the letters page. While it included short bios of Uslan and Villamonte, it also talked about the actual literary work Beowulf. DC made sure to say that while elements of the book would mirror the 'real' Beowulf, that Uslan would be given some leeway to explore other aspects of the character. He might also 'fill in' areas of the story, adding to what existed. The funniest line in the column was DC telling the reader that they should not use the comic to help write a book report. I guess it was a simpler time.

The comic starts off with classic Beowulf moment. The devil Grendel lurks in his swamp and cannot rest. He hears the joy coming from Castle Hrothgar and that happiness causes him great pain. Whatever he needs to do to shut off that noise he will do ... and that means blood will be spilled.

This is not at all how I imagine Grendel in my mind. I always think of him as a more ogrish, distorted human, but human. So this much more monstrous version of Grendel, orange fur or orange scales, was different for me.

His reasoning reminds me of the Grinch, someone who wants to stop Christmas from coming because of the noise down in Hooville.

As for Beowulf, we meet him on the battle field. He and his men are wading through enemies, slaughtering the army of the Franks.

With that battle won, Beowulf is greeted by a bard of some sort, an insane appearing minstrel/raconteur who tell him in cryptic verse about how a Satan spawn is attacking his father's friend's land.

Bound by honor, and his belief in the Teutonic ideal of 'lof' ... fame that will keep your name alive forever, he boards his ship and sails to Hrothgar's lands. As I said above, this code he follows is the core of Beowulf. He is often called the 'noble savage' in the book.

Meanwhile back at Castle Hrothgar, the raucous festivities of the mead hall continue on.

Interestingly, the minstrel that was just speaking to Beowulf is shown singing here as well. In fact, his songs are in praise of Beowulf and his great deeds. This irritates Unferth, a member of the court. Unferth seems to have some hatred in his heart for Geats such as Beowulf. But he is appropriately chastised by the lord of the hall.

Hrothgar knows that the 'wandering minstrel' has traveled far beyond just the lands. The soothsayer admits that he is a servant of the gods, of Wyrd, and that his words speak the truth (even if it is hidden in tricky verse).

Hrothgar also knows that Beowulf is worthy of the praise. Beowulf's exploits are already well-known.

But the party takes a sudden bloody turn when Grendel arrives. Invulnerable to the Frankish weapons, Grendel simply plods through the hall killing as many men as he can get his hands on. It is a great scene with great art. I especially like the panel showing shadows on the wall leaving the bone-crunching details of those murders to my imagination. Sometimes that works better than showing me everything.

Temporarily sated, Grendel leaves the hall and goes back to the peace of his swamp.

Beowulf's voyage to Hrothgar's unfortunately does not go peacefully.

En route, the ship gets lured towards rocks by a siren's song. The crew falls sway ... but not mighty Beowulf. He throws himself into the water and that shock clears his mind. He then swims to the crags to confront the siren face to face.

Showing incredible will power, he does not succumb to her magic and takes her out.

But there is more here than meets the eye.

The woman was not a siren after all but a lure. And this is no simple rocky outcropping; it is a doorway to Hell itself, guarded by demons. Now I'm not sure where that massive rocky club comes from but Beowulf has it and wields it effectively bashing in the skulls of the monsters.

The demons have numbers though and just as the last demon is about to eviscerate Beowulf it is killed, run through by the woman Beowulf just punched. I like twists like that. It is suddenly clear there is more to this woman than just being a 'damsel in distress'.

She tells Beowulf that she is a Scyfling warrior  who was trapped by the demons and forced to obey them.

The great Geat laughs at such an idea, a woman warrior, let alone a Swede. But her skills are pretty evident as she does what no one has yet done in the book ... landing a blow and knocking Beowulf off his feet.
But our hero isn't dispatched that easily. The tables turn quickly and suddenly the roles are reversed. Hmmm ... you can cut the tension with a knife.

With nowhere to go, she joins the crew hoping for a ride back to land.

After that small side adventure, the ship finally lands in Hrothgar's realm. Beowulf meets one of the Hrothgar's messengers and they plan their trek back to the mead hall.

But Unferth, skulking in the shadows, doesn't like that idea. He was so easily defeated by Grendel. If Beowulf vanquishes the monster, Unferth will be ridiculed. Rather than think of what is best for the kingdom, he thinks about himself. Using dark magic, he changes the lay of the land, creating a false road that will lead Beowulf and his men into the dangerous swamp lands.

And the evil spell works. Suddenly Beowulf and his men are hip deep in the bog, surrounded by lizard men, disciples of Satan.

What a cliffhanger! Good enough that when I recently saw Beowulf #2 at a local comic shop I bought it. You probably will be seeing more of that book soon! I have to say I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, but not nearly as much as I like Stalker.

Certainly, the art is radically different than what Ditko did on that book. This is much more traditional 'sword and sorcery' art. And the story is actually a bit denser than I expected. Exposition is written in rhymes and poetry at times.

But outside of place names, character names, and the idea of 'lof', this could just as easily have been a Conan book. Beowulf #2 takes many strange turns making me think that if I see other issues of this short series, I'll be there.

As I said, my interest in these characters was reignited by Simone and Lopresti. Here we see how deep their vision and respect for these books go. This Grendel is the same Grendel as in Beowulf. And they fight on a bone lined bridge much like was saw in Stalker #2.

We only catch this glimpse of Grendel in Simone's arc. We never see a fight. I wonder if Simone had sequel in her mind.

Since I have touched on Simone's arc so much, I figured I would let the cat out of the bag. In the end of Wonder Woman #23, Dgrth is beheaded. The four warriors kill him on an ancient stone table. I love Diana's words here: "I lowered my sword into the empty sockets of his eyes until I hit the living meat underneath." Chilling. Lovely. I miss Simone's Wonder Woman.

I'll thank Diabolu Frank again for spearheading the creation of this blog. Glad I was able to help these last three weeks. And I'll continue to try to post here more. Suggestions?

Overall grade (Beowulf): B (raised half a grade due to art)
Overall grade (Wonder Woman 'Ends of the Earth'): B+ (knocked down half a grade because Dgrth gets taken out to easily)


Diabolu Frank said...

That last Wonder Woman panel was seriously bad ass. I'm going to have to buy that trade. I can handle Diana dealing death by sword, so long as her attitude is right, as it seems here.

I was a little bummed at the lack of insanity in this first issue. I guess it went progressively off the rails. The art is nice, though. Do you recall if Ricardo Villamonte was part of the '70s Filipino invasion?

Thanks again for the excellent blogging!

Luke said...

Oh yes. Beowulf, Dragon Slayer gets much, much crazier. The story just continues to build upon itself with each issue bringing some inane new element or twist to it. By the time the lost tribe of the Israelites are doing battle with Vlad the Impaler, you have crossed a level of awesomeness which no other comic could ever hope to achieve.

Please note that I am not being ironic. I LOVE this series. I really wish it had continued, along with its stablemates Stalker, Claw The Unconquered, and the Joe Kubert prehistoric epic Tor.


Anj, do you have the other 5 issues? Let me know and I will see what I can do.

Oh and one more thing -- Villamonte is actually Peruvian.

Anj said...

I will review #2 next week, the only other issue I have. It is INSANE! And awesome!