On The Surprising Competency Of Wulf The Barbarian #1: 31 Days Of Atlas #31

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continued from here;

Atlas Comics never seemed to me to have been a well-run venture. Even as a twelve year boy, its titles seemed doomed to failure. Some of them were, briefly enough, captivating, as with The Scorpion’s first issue. Others were faintly alluring in their sheer strangeness, as with the potpouri of exploitation cliches that was Planet Of The Vampires. But it’s only over the past month, and these 31 Days Of Atlas posts, that it’s sunk in just how profoundly misguided and frankly perverse the whole Atlas enterprise was. As I’ve been discussing, the likes of Vicki, Movie Monsters, Devilina and Uncanny Tales Of The Macabre were cheap, nasty and cynical rip-offs, unlikely to ever turn much of a profit, if at all, and guaranteed to reflect badly on the new publisher’s self-lauding mission statements. Iron Jaw was even worse, a hyper-macho manifesto with the most appalling sexual politics ever seen in a mainstream American comicbook, while The Grim Ghost was tar-pitted in long outmoded storytelling principles. As for Phoenix, it was a superhero tale produced by a team which appeared not to understand very much about the superhero genre at all. None of these comics could possibly have survived as they were for any length of time. (*1)

But writer/artist Larry Hama’s Wulf The Barbarian #1 was in some ways very much out of step with its fellows in those first few weeks of Atlas’ releases. It too was surely doomed to fail where matters of profit were concerned, being entirely lacking in fresh spins on old conventions, but it was at least a highly competent comic book. Its plots at least made sense in the context of the comic, its genre and the given of the period’s storytelling. If the package as a whole aimed at far too low a target, it did at least hit what it sought to. From the very first page, which you see below, there’s the presence of a welcomingly transparent tale matched, sadly, to entirely derivative characters and events. Where other Atlas titles baffled, on grounds of quality or feasibility, Wulf immediately works on the level of meat-and-potatoes storytelling. For there’s the noble young hero, and there’s his grizzled old mentor, and there’s the barely dressed prostitutes, and there’s the vaguely Middle Eastern setting, and there’s the obese member of the governing class and there’s the unappetising market-seller peddling their wares. Everyone is indeed there, apart from all of the endless variety of characters who we don’t come across very often in these kind of identi-kit fantasy tales.

*1:- I’d love to know whether more expert minds believe that Vicki, of all those titles, might have continued to turn a few pennies for the Goodmans, but even were the comic able to do so, where would it go for material? Vicki was, after all, burning through reprints from those old Tippy Teen issues at a furious pace.

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But clarity, even in the total absence of originality, is still a virtue. Aided by inker Klaus Janson at his least impressionist and most helpfully precise, Hama’s storytelling is charming in its thoughtful, and almost theatrical, hewing to principles of brevity and lucidity. (There’s practically a proscenium arch curving over the scene.) While characters are as bland as they’re predictable, the artwork often hints at a far more substantial mileu than the comic ever successfully establishes. Take the following panel, from page three. We might quibble that a second look at the perspective therein feels unconvincingly forced, but there is still an involving sense of place, of depth and structure and time. The shadow at the frame’s forefront is distracting and ugly, but those that stretch back into the plane of the panel most certainly suggest a solidity of form matched to a particular time of day. It may seem like the kind of achievement that ought to pass unmentioned, but none of the first Atlas titles come close to Wulf’s sense of a lived-in, if over-familiar, world.

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Wulf’s back story can be summarised with ease. A young prince barely survives the slaughter of his noble parents when their hunting trip is ambushed by the “misshapen forms” of trolls. Everyone is killed, and the kingdom lost, except for the crusty one-eyed warrior Stavro and Prince Wulf, who dash and slash their way to the freedoms of exile and poverty. Finding shelter in a distant desert city, Stavro earns the two of them a crust or two through the unlikely performance art-form of dagger juggling while training Wulf to be a princely warror. (It’s an unconvincing choice that does at least set up the winning blow in the comic’s closing brawl.) Tracked down by the trolls, the old man is, of course, murdered and the young one, of course, avenges him. At the tale’s end, Wulf is shown leaving the city on his lonely, lonesome mission of vengeance.

Perhaps the origin might have proven more compelling had it involved the kind of sly, convention-pricking tone of Fritz Leiber’s S’n’S comedy-dramas. But, no, Wulf is mostly all angst broken only by brief touches of utter despair. Perhaps a second dimension to the lost prince’s personality might have similarly gone a long way. For a naturally good and true young, beautiful blonde princeling makes for a profoundly uninteresting protagonist. By the end of Wulf’s first issue, I was wildly longing for a revelation that would have seen him throwing his lot in with the Trolls and their sorceror king. Now that would have been interesting.

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Yet for all of its prettily-done and yet yawnsomely by-the-numbers approach, there are moments when Wulf suggests a less conventional tale might have one day developed. In the page above, in which the fleeing Stavro and Wulf fly a dying dragon to relative safety, Hama and Janson briefly reference a whole series of locales. It’s world-building on the level of a youthful first lunge at tapletop fantasy roleplaying, but it is often seemingly throwaway ideas that carry the most potential. If “the dizzying spires of The Valley Of Screaming Demons” appear to be all show and no substance, the “floating cities of the Sky Pirates” seem a fascinating prospect. An age-old cliche given a slight but interesting new spin through Hama and Janson’s single panel depiction, there’s enough information in view to inspire a host of questions. Who, or what, do these pirates prey on? How do they live up there? Are those seemingly-modular living units safe and secure when storms close in? How can they safely land, or are they perpetually aloft?

In such moments, we glimpse the prospect of a genre being interrogated in a way that the ever-changing cast of creators on Wulf ultimately chose not to. For if the world that Hama and Janson described in Wulf #1 was, even then, familiar to the point of tedium, there were still plenty of annexes in the story’s structure in which novelty and fascination might have be found. Sadly, it was not to be. In that, Wulf The Barbarian was very much a typical Atlas comic books.

This is the 31st and last of these posts about Atlas Comics. You can find, if you are of a mind, the table of contents for these posts here.

This Them Darned Superpeople blog will return at some time in the future …

 

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