Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dinosaurs, Satyrs and Gladiators.

Morgan Travis, aka the Warlord, first appeared in 1st Issue Special #8 in 1975, a book DC used to try out new characters before giving them their own series. In this story, Travis is an Air Force pilot forced to crash land while flying near the North Pole. His descent took him through an entrance to the under-surface world of Skartaris, a fantasy world full of medieval-level human cultures, the remnants of an advanced science-fiction civilization, dinosaurs, creatures from mythology, magic and (eventually) a girl who could turn into a cat. (Or perhaps a cat who could turn into a girl--writer/artist Mike Grell would never say one way or another.)

Grell made no bones that he was drawing heavily on Edgar Rice Burroughs and also dropping in influences of other writers as well. But he did this skillfully and constructed a unique world full of endless adventure.

The Warlord began its 12-year run with an issue cover-dated January-February 1976. It picks up right where the 1st Issue Special left off--with Travis and the beautiful swords-woman Tara on the run from the demon priest Deimos. Tara is helping Travis brush up on his swordsmanship, which is an especially useful skill since Travis has not yet acquired the .44 auto-mag pistol he would be famous for carrying throughout most of his adventures. (So the question of where the heck Travis carries his extra ammunition has not yet been raised.)

After encounters with a T-Rex and a lustful satyr, Travis and Tara are attacked and captured by slavers. Travis helps Tara escape, but he himself ends up tied to a tree, left to be the next meal for whatever creature wanders by.

In issue #2, Travis manages to kill a saber tooth tiger despite being tied to a tree, but he then ends up as a galley slave on board a ship. Here he meets Machiste, a fellow slave and equally skilled warrior. The two prove their worth when they help fight off pirates (they had no choice--the pirates were going to kill them as well as the regular crew), but this fails to earn anyone's gratitude. Instead, the two are sold as gladiators.

Which is just as well, because Travis soon goes all "Sparticus" on his captors and leads a gladiator rebellion. Learning that Tara has been captured by Deimos, he plans to lead his men in an organized campaign  against the tyrant, raising up more men as he goes.

This was a strong start to a great series. leading into several issues describing Travis' campaign against Deimos and eventual rescue of Tara.

Grell created a world that pretty much allowed him to toss whatever he wanted into the mix--later issues would include everything from killer robots to cursed weapons. Grell deliberately choose not to explain how all these diverse elements came together, just as he refused to ever create a definitive map of Skartaris. As he once wrote, he "refused to put a boundary on the boundless... the realm of imagination."

Grell was actually taking a chance with this. Normally, fantasy and science fiction worlds work best when they are given boundaries; when we have set rules for what is allowed and what is not allowed. Otherwise, storytelling can become too chaotic to maintain proper drama.

But The Warlord (perhaps because it existed within a comic book universe that already mixed so many diverse elements together) became the exception that proves the rule. There were no boundaries in Skartaris and this turned out to be a strength rather than a weakness.

The Warlord was filled with great storytelling. Grell tossed his hero into a new, strange world, then sent him on an adventure in which Travis rose from a nameless slave to the leader of an army. And those of us reading about this enjoyed every second of it.

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