Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Review: Weirdworld Vol. 0: Warzones!

Weird? Yes. A world? Well, that might be over-stating the scale of this actually rather small and intimate five-issue Secret Wars tie-in series, but the title certainly suits the story it's attached to.

It comes from a strange sword-and-sorcery concept created by Doug Moench and Mike Ploog that first appeared in a 1977 issue of Marvel Super Action, and popped up occasionally in other anthologies in the late seventies and early eighties: Marvel Premiere, Marvel Comics Super Special and Epic Illustrated. The 2015 series, which does not feature "created by" credits, kept the name and floating island concept, but also featured a grab-bag of various Marvel characters and concepts from the seventies, some of which are, if not as obscure as "Weirdworld" itself, then at least about at least half as forgotten: Roy Thomas and John Buscema's Avengers character Arkon, Marv Wolfman and Steve Gan's Skull The Slayer, Steve Gerber and Rich Buckler's Man-Thing supporting character Jennifer Kale, as well as a "Forest of The Man-Things," characters from the toy line-based comic The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior and the Marvel version of Morgan Le Fay.

Stitching all of these disparate elements together, along with plenty of off-the-cuff weirdness–Apelantis, Eyemazons, Hawksquatches–is the creative team of Jason Aaron and Mike Del Mundo.

It seems am awfully low-profile gig for a creator of Jason Aaron's current caliber, but a story-shaped series taking place in a weird setting where a bunch of weird shit happens is actually well within Aaron's wheelhouse. If there's anything unusual about this story, is that he's allowed to indulge his zany side, but to not have to balance it with superhero genre conventions or to include any "funny" characters at all to comment on just how unusual the zaniness might be, or to try to rationalize it. The delivery is as deadpan as possible; protagonist and narrator Arkon is as humorless can be, and the closest he comes to commentary on the bizarre setting and circumstances is to constantly wonder if he's going mad, and if some of those around him have already gone mad.

Del Mundo is both a highly-stylized stylist and a master of many styles, as his abundant cover work for the publisher to date has demonstrated, and here he works in a highly-detailed, rather realistic style that is somewhat evocative of the source era's fascination with fantasy art (think painted paperback covers, Dungeons & Dragons, the sides of certain vans) and even, to a certain extent, Dark Horse's millennial revival of Conan (and other Robert E. Howard creations). There are no real panel borders, the art in each just disappears into white gutters, and if the artwork is a pastiche of 1970s sword-and-sorcery pop art, it's differentiated by the bright, sometimes ridiculously so, colors, provided by Marco D'Alfonso Del Mundo himself. There is a lot of flourescent-looking pinks and greens, and, perhaps the best example of the incongruity of coloring and art, comes with Del Mundo's cover to the fifth issue. On it, his very Conan-esque Arkon stands crouched with his sword in hand, atop a pile of slain foes. He's splattered with and positively dripping with blood, but that blood isn't red. It's a bunch of primary colors. The corpses at his feet may be those of orcs, apes and robot monsters, but it looks like Arkon just finished a particularly hard fought battle with Jackson Pollock.

The story, such as it is, is that of Arkon, "Lord of the Warlords," as he battles his way through Weirdworld in search of his lost kingdom of Polemachus. Despite wondering for he knows not how long, he's been making a map, and it's a particularly child-like one. Along the way, he gets involved in a war between two witches: Le Fay, the "baroness of Weirdworld," and Kale, The Swamp Witch who lives in the Forest of The Man-Things (and whose design here is, by the way, infinitely better than what she was wearing when I saw her in that Marvel Zombies series). He teams up with a one of Crystar's surviving warriors, and is pursued by Skull.

The final battle is nuts:
That two page spread reminds me of a scene from Alex Ross' Kingdom Come, if Kingdom Come had starred the more obscure late-70s and early-80s Marvel characters and concepts making war on one another, rather than DC's stalwarts vs. Ross-designed upstarts.

The book's relationship to Secret Wars is practically non-existent...until it comes to the fore and sort of spoils the fun. For the bulk of the series, the tie-in elements are completely negligible. Le Fay calls herself the baroness of Weirdworld, which only means something if you're paying attention to the structure of Secret Wars's Battleworld (god-king Doom has apparently appointed barons and baronesses to rule over the various domains, of which Weirdworld is one), and the word "god" has been replaced by "Doom," so that when Arkon swears on a few occasions, it sounds funny: " Good Doomdamned riddance," for example. But at the climax of the battle in the last issue, the end of Secret Wars occurs. Arkon is, of course, ignorant of what exactly happened (as were readers when this was first published, and perhaps Aaron was himself when writing it), but basically the scrambled, "patchwork planet" of the Marvel Universe's Earth was de-rebooted from Doom's Battleworld back to the "real" world.

It doesn't quite undo the entire story, but it does cut it off from a proper climax, emphasizing a reading in which everything we just went through–including Arkon's revelations–were just part of an endless cycle of wandering, warring and weirdness, the storyline appearing to reset itself in its last pages, and we end pretty much where we began.

The series apparently did well enough for Marvel that they launched an ongoing series of the same name in their post-Secret Wars line...with Sam Humprhies replacing Aaron on the creative team. That is why this collected volume is being labeled with a "0" instead of a "1," in case you're wondering. Me I wonder if they're going to collect and release the original, Moench-written Weirdworld comics and, if so, how they'll number that: Weirdworld Vol. -1, perhaps...?


Sean said...

This, as with most of Marvel's current output, didn't float my boat. The art was pretty to look at (in a glaring kind of way) but there were a lot of times when I couldn't figure out what was supposed to be going on. Also, not enough differentiation in the designs of Skull and Arkon that I could tell them apart. As for the writing, all in all, it seemed long for the story's needs with a lot of repetitive action and didn't really go anywhere. In the 70's or 80's, this would have taken two issues instead of five and then moved on to some more crazy, big ideas. The more compact storytelling would have made a better reading experience, I think, but, of course, wouldn't have filled out a trade paperback as well. Still, if people enjoyed it and buy it, then more power to 'em. I've long since realized that I am no longer Marvel's target audience.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

They did release a collection of the Moench Weirdworld back in April. It's called "Weirdworld, Warriors of the Shadow Realm" on Amazon.