I had a somewhat atypical introduction to the writing of Michael Moorcock.
Regular readers might remember my occasional mentions of my old high school friend Joe, who would generally rescue me from my dysfunctional home on weekends to go tooling around Portland visiting record stores and bookstores and so on. (I wrote about my favorite of those bookstores, Looking Glass Books, here not too long ago.)
Joe’s place was where my high school posse gathered most of the time, because, first of all, Joe had the cool mom that would leave us alone, and also because he had all the cool STUFF. You remember how in the old Gerber/Buscema Defenders everyone would gather at Dr. Strange’s place in the Village because nobody wanted to go home and deal with their trainwreck private lives? It was like that.
Around that time, late 1976 or thereabouts, I was going through kind of a psychedelic fantasy binge. It had started with the aforementioned Gerber Defenders, which had led to the trippy Englehart/Brunner/Colan version of Dr. Strange…
And I also had just discovered Robert E. Howard. Again through comics– not really Conan so much as ancillary stuff like the backups in Savage Sword, and also the Thomas/Chaykin Solomon Kane in Marvel Premiere. That was what got me hunting the paperbacks.
But once I found the books, I was ALL OVER that action, believe me.
Looking Glass had all the Sphere Conan paperbacks with the Frazetta covers, as well as the other Howard stuff with the Jeff Jones art. I was in love.
At the same time, Joe was getting into a prog-rock phase. King Crimson, Yes, Jean-Michel Jarre, that crowd.
When Joe got interested in something, he was all in. (Just like me; we both have a bad case of collector OCD, it was one of the things we bonded over back in high school.) So he had lots of posters and books and things as well– Roger Dean’s Views, the Album Cover Album, and so on. And one particular artist caught my eye– Rodney Matthews. Joe had a poster Matthews had done of The Ice Schooner that blew me sway.
He showed me the catalogue he’d ordered it from and I was lost in wonder. In particular, this poster got me. Elric and Moonglum.
I ordered it for myself and it was with me for YEARS. All through high school and several colleges and my disastrous first marriage before it finally got torn in a move sometime in the early 1990s, I think.
The catalogue helpfully informed me that it was based on the writings of Michael Moorcock, as was The Ice Schooner. So that put Elric, and Moorcock, on my radar.
Not too long afterward, I picked up Weird Heroes volume eight.
That had Moorcock’s “The Deep Fix,” illustrated by Howard Chaykin. I was already a fan of Chaykin because of Kane and Monark Starstalker, so as far as I was concerned it had an instant cool factor baked in before I even read it.
I loved that story, and certainly Moorcock seemed like one-stop shopping for the kind of dark fantasy I was craving at the time… but for whatever reason, I never quite got on board with Elric. I was all around Moorcock’s albino wizard, certainly. In addition to my beloved Matthews poster, I saw all sorts of ads for Elric portfolios from guys like Dr. Strange alum Frank Brunner…
And fans (in letter columns, generally) would mention things like the time Elric met Conan; though I didn’t actually see the story until four or five years ago, when I got the Dark Horse paperback collection reprinting it.
Likewise, I’d heard about Elric getting adapted in Star*Reach but never saw it myself.
And of course, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Black Blade” was getting a fair amount of airplay back then, though I never connected it with Moorcock or Elric until I was in my forties.
For that matter, Moorcock himself dabbled in prog-rock with his band The Deep Fix (named after the story I liked in Weird Heroes, I assume) though that one missed us at the time as well.
What I’m saying is I was conscious of Moorcock, he was a presence in my nerd/fandom orbit… but somehow, I’d never quite caught up with the actual books. The only other Moorcock I’d actually read was the first Corum trilogy– this paperback edition, that I’d scooped up on impulse in… I think it was 1979 or so.
I have no idea why but the Elrics were not available where I was– indeed, there was hardly any Moorcock on the stands at all, not even at my beloved Looking Glass, where I bought The Swords Trilogy. On that occasion there were only two to choose from; it was either that or Behold the Man, a blasphemous time-travel novel that seemed a little too intense for seventeen-year-old me. (I did eventually catch up with the latter in Marvel’s Unknown Worlds.)
That was a terrific adaptation with breathtaking art from Alex Nino (another artist I knew from Weird Heroes.)
As it turned out, Elric has a sort of cameo in the final book of the Swords trilogy, but teenaged me was not terribly impressed. The character seemed to come off like a rock star slumming it. After that I lost interest, moving on to hero pulps and noir and whatever else caught my eye back then. Too many books, too little time.
So all this is the preamble. The point is, I hadn’t read anything by Michael Moorcock in decades, not until I ran across a couple of SF Book Club hardcovers for way cheap a couple of months ago. (The old SF Book Club editions often were the only hardcovers science fiction books got, back in the day, and lately they are a bookscouting thing I pick at in a lazy sort of way when we are out on our thrift store excursions.)
Anyway, I picked up The Nomad of Time, an omnibus collecting the Oswald Bastable trilogy (Mr. Moorcock has done a lot of trilogies, it seems) for a buck and a half or so. Strictly an impulse buy.
I liked that one a lot and went trawling Amazon for more, which led me to The Ice Schooner. Which is kind of where I came in. I remembered Joe’s old poster and how I’d always meant to read that book, and so it was an easy sell.
That, in turn, led Amazon to start recommending Titan’s The Michael Moorcock Library, nice hardcovers reprinting a bunch of different times various Moorcock books have been adapted to comics. I found a bunch of them discounted and scooped them up.
Which is how I finally caught up with Elric of Melnibone.
And I’m here to tell you that, Jesus, I GET IT now. These are amazing.
Honestly, I would have fallen for these books just for the art, something I almost never do; but the stories are compelling reading too.
I’m kind of glad now that I never got around to the novels, because I was able to come to these stories pretty much cold, without any of the surprises spoiled in any way. So far I’ve gotten the first four of the Elrics, Chaykin’s Erekosë, and the first Hawkmoon’s on the way. Here’s the rundown.
Elric of Melniboné, volume one of The Michael Moorcock Library, is apparently the first in the fictional chronology of the series, though it is not the first one to be written.
This is a nice hardcover repackaging of the adaptation Pacific Comics did in the 1980s, with art by Michael T. Gilbert and finishes by P. Craig Russell. It’s the story of how Elric first got hold of the runesword Stormbringer (that is to say, the evil soul-stealing “Black Blade” I first heard about from Blue Oyster Cult) and his battle with his evil cousin Yyrkoon for the throne. The plot’s fairly standard but it’s gorgeous to look at and there’s a lot of groovy psychedelic imagery built into the narrative.
This sets up the premise of brooding Elric just kind of wandering around the world getting into trouble against his better judgement, which brings us to the second volume, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.
This is the weakest of the four in terms of story, because there’s not really much of a through-line to it. It’s mostly Elric sailing around on different ships getting embroiled in other people’s quests, and the relationships are awfully vague and understated. I was sort of familiar with Moorcock’s multiverse concept of the Eternal Champion, the theory that Elric and Corum and Hawkmoon are all different incarnations of the same guy, but it would be rough going for someone coming in cold. And having them all together here… I dunno. Maybe I’m too jaded after reading superhero comics for fifty years, but it feels like a team-up stunt that doesn’t quite come off. It’s really stunning just to look at, nevertheless. Even when Craig Russell’s not involved the pages are still breathtaking. Gilbert with George Freeman on finishes isn’t as baroque as it was with Russell but it’s very, very good.
I am ashamed to admit that I knew Michael Gilbert primarily as “the Mr. Monster guy” and I had no idea he had these kind of chops, but his work here is definitely a career high of the stuff I’ve seen from him.
The third volume, The Dreaming City, is probably the strongest story of the lot.
I don’t want to get into a bunch of spoilers, but suffice it to say this is the climax of the struggle for the throne between Elric and his evil cousin and ties up a lot of stuff left hanging from volume one. It was definitely my favorite in terms of story, but I was glad to have read the other two first so I was all caught up on what the stakes were.
This is probably the one people are most familiar with, since it originally appeared from Marvel. It’s also my favorite art job, overall. Gilbert and Russell just hit it out of the park here– even the pages where not much is going on are still stunning to look at.
The fourth volume, Weird of the White Wolf, is a little bit of a letdown after the amazing volume three, but I still enjoyed it.
It’s a bunch of shorter Elric stories tied together with a loose narrative frame, wherein a mysterious enchantress-type is showing Earl Aubec the story of Elric’s wanderings after the events of The Dreaming City. (Also helpfully summarized here for those who came in late.)
Still very enjoyable, certainly, and the Gilbert/Freeman duo seem to be hitting an artistic groove here as well.
I haven’t said that much about the writing. But Roy Thomas is a master at doing this sort of adaptation and his style is just old-shoe comfortable to someone of my era. It might strike modern readers as a bit wordy, but it suits the material, as far as I’m concerned.
The last one I picked up is a bit of an outlier. The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell is an add-on to Moorcock’s original Eternal Champion trilogy.
As such, it’s a little harder to get into, though there’s a quasi-recap at the beginning that gives you all the setup you need. Erekosë is the incarnation of the Champion that actually remembers his other lives, so when he wakes up in a new one there’s a more world-weary what-now? vibe to things.
This new edition also has helpful introductions from Cullen Bunn and Mr. Moorcock himself, who explained that he gave Chaykin a basic outline and told him to run with it, so it’s much more of a true collaboration that the other Moorcock comics adaptations. This is the groovy fully-painted Chaykin from the era of The Stars My Destination and Empire and Cody Starbuck, and if you know those books you will love this. I certainly did.
These five volumes of The Michael Moorcock Library more than sold me. I blew the rest of the month’s comics budget on a sixth, the first Hawkmoon volume, which has yet to arrive, or I’d have included it here as well. I imagine I’ll be picking up the rest sooner or later.
Also, Amazon seems to think I would enjoy Elric At the End Of Time, illustrated by none other than… Rodney Matthews.
Which brings us full circle, doesn’t it?
So there you go. That’s my take on these books, as requested by readers of last week’s column. I hope everyone who voted for this topic enjoyed the result. Certainly, I enjoyed writing it. I got so carried away thinking about those old days rummaging through the stacks at Looking Glass and hanging out at Joe’s house I even put on a little prog-rock soundtrack to listen to while I worked on it.
You’ll have to supply your own incense, though.
Back next week with something cool.
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