Black Blades and Other Sorcerous Things

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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  1. Edo Bosnar

    Well, I certainly enjoyed the result, but man, I’m now feeling a bit guilty for not getting around to reading this stuff myself; as I mentioned in my comment, I have a few of the same books in different editions, plus a number of Moorcock’s prose books also waiting to be read – the Nomad of Time omnibus you have, plus the Hawkmoon and Castle Brass omnibuses.
    But yeah, we had a similar experience with Moorcock – I was also always aware of him, but only started seriously reading his stuff less than 10 years ago.

    By the way, Moorcock also involved with another prog-ish band, actually a ‘space rock’ band, called Hawkwind, including a pretty serious collaboration on a mid-1980s album called The Chronicle of the Black Sword (there’s also a pretty psychedelic concert video from that album tour).

  2. Peter

    Michael Moorcock is one of those authors who seems to be way more influential than he is popular (at least, in broader pop culture outside of dedicated sci-fi fandom). I’ve always felt like I should know Moorcock’s work better given how frequently he is referenced by so many of my favorite comic creators, but I’ve only ever found “Behold the Man” in my county’s library system (it was blasphemous, but quite good) and I read one collection of Jerry Cornelius stories that I picked up at random for about a buck at a random bookstore.

  3. My first encounter with Elric was around 1970 when The Dreaming City (later retitled Elric of Melnibone) came out from Lancer. I didn’t know at the time it was a prequel.
    Sailor on the Seas of Fate, like White Wolf, was a collection of shorts stories loosely strung together.
    I was lucky enough to pick up the Corum books while visiting family in England because those covers are way cool (
    One thing about the Elric novels is that as they came out over a looong stretch of time, they vary wildly in style and tone. This gave them an odd but interesting feel when I reread them in order of internal chronology.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    I was aware of Elric before I ever read any Moorcock. I come from a family of readers, so we always frequented bookstores. I’d see Moorcock’s name (hard to pass by a surname like that!) and would see the Elrics and Hawkmoons and Corums (Oh my!) My cousin, who is the same age (we were born 11 days apart) had a BIg collection of sci-fi and fantasy and at least had the Corum’s. I came across one of the Erekose books in my school library (the only Moorcock we had): The Silver Warriors (original title A Phoenix in Obsidian). It had the Frazetta cover, with Urlik Skarsol and his sled, towed by three polar bears). That was too cool an image to pass up and I read it. The prologue made reference to the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion and I fell in love with the concept. From there I sought out the Elrics and slowly put them together. Mostly, I had the DAW editions, with the Michael Whelan covers, where Elric is a but more butch than Moorcock describes (or anyone else drew). Ironically, Sailor on the Seas of Fate is probably my favorite book of the bunch. The team-up plays a bit better there, IMO.

    I came to the comics later, after college. I saw the Russells and the Gilbert and the rest, as First was doing Hawkmoon and Corum, by that point, as well as continuing Elric. I didn’t actually start reading them until First put out their album collections (Moorcock also wrote the forward to the first American Flagg album, “Hard Times,” from Chaykin, where he talked about Cody Starbuck and their collaboration) I continued picking up Moorcock books, though I bought used books more than new and had a ridiculous unread stack, for some time (plus getting weekly hauls of comics). Later, working for Barnes & Noble, I got some of the White Wolf omnibus collections, including Nomad of the Timestream (as it was called there, with Oswald Bastable), Kane of Mars (his Burroughs pastiches), Hawkmoon, Erekose, and Von Beck. I have to confess that I kind of grew tired of Elric, by the time I had read them all and skipped the later ones. He got a bit whiny, for my tastes. The Von Beck stuff was a bit more interesting, as that crossed into different time periods, and not just a traditional fantasy setting.

    In later years, I grew to appreciate more his non-sword & sorcery works. The Bastable trilogy was a great start and the White Wolf edition had cover and spott illustrations from Christopher Moeller, of Iron Empires fame, who did great military sci-fi and fantasy illustration. He made the airships look massive and foreboding, plus had a flair for the regalia of the characters..

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    Thanks to McSweeney’s 1st anthology of pulp stories, I encountered Moorcock’s Sir Seaton Begg, his pastiche of the British detective Sexton Blake (one of many Sherlock Holmes imitators). Moorcock cut his teeth as editor of the Sexton Blake library and created his own version, known as the Metatemporal Detective, who crosses realities and times. The story features Begg being brought to 1930s Germany to investigate the death of Hitler’s niece (who was also his mistress, in the early days of the rise of the Nazi party). Moorcock pulls off a great twist in it. It also featured Zenith, the Albino, which was a French pulp literary character who inspired Elric. Of course, in this, he is another aspect of Elric. Moorcock did a few more stories, which were collected in The Metatemporal Detective, which is a fantastic read.

    Moorcock’s influence was greater in the 70s and 80s, as he was quite prolific then, and he rode that fantasy wave of the late 60s and 70s and crossed into the 80s, as D&D and fantasy films brought in newer audiences. He remained huge in the UK and Europe, but kind of waned, in the US, as his books became more sporadic. The White Wolf collections did quite well, when they came out and the Lord of the Rings films kind of stoked the market to rerelease Moorcock, which has continued (from Titan). Elric was optioned at different times, for movies and LOTR led to another; but, again, nothing came of it. Wendy Pini was involved in an attempt at an animated version, way back when.

    Moorcock has had one film adaptation: The Final Programme, aka The Last Days of Man on Earth, from the Jerry Cornelius Chronicles. It was a loose adaptation and Moorcock wasn’t happy with it. He, himself, was one of the screenwriters of The Land That Time Forgot, though he says their script got heavily altered, by filming. Final Programme is interesting to watch; but is’t a great film and requires patience. It doesn’t do Cornelius justice; but, probably did better than Hollywood would have done. Cornelius is one of his really influential characters, on the British scene, particularly the British comics writers and artists. Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright owes a big debt to it, Alan Moore is an acknowledge fan as is Neil Gaiman (who also did a short story, “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock.” Grant Morrison wouldn’t have had much of a career without Moorcock to inspire him and to swipe from. Moebius did his “The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius,” which Moorcock loved, though after Moorcock pulled back from letting people use the character, the title and character name had to be changed in reprints of the graphic novel.

    Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance is worth reading, too. It features his essays on fantasy literature, including “Epic Pooh,” where he takes Tolkien to task for his simplicity of characters, vs Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series. He also praised Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, over Howard’s Conan, for the depth of characterization.

    Glad to see Moorcock’s comic adaptations being collected. I just wish we’d see more adaptations of his other works, like Kane of Mars, Sir Seaton Begg, Oswald Bastable, Col Pyatt and Gloriana. I know the DC Moorcock Multiverse touched on some of it, but barely.

  6. Rob Allen

    Seems like everybody’s path to Moorcock is different. I first encountered him when I bought those Conan issues by Roy and Barry Smith off the stands and loved them. A year or two later I visited London and found that fantasy books were a lot more popular there. I bought the four-volume Hawkmoon series on that trip. I know I read them but I can’t recall anything about them now. A few years later I read The Dreaming City, and I remember that better. I have that issue of Unknown Worlds with the adaptation of Behold the Man, but I dropped out of comics shortly thereafter and have never seen any of the comics adaptations done since 1978.

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    ps Moorcock and BOC have further connections, beyond “Black Blade.” Moorcock wrote (or co-wrote) “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” a song about the Eternal Champion; and, “The Great Sun Jester,” based on his novel Fireclown. The latter appeared on the 1979 album Mirrors, while VOTPW appeared on both the 1981 Fire of Unknown Origin and the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal (used in the sequence where the green orb is uncovered).

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