Defending Skartaris

If you blinked, relatively speaking, you probably missed it. Beginning in February 2006 with an April cover date, DC revived The Warlord. This time around the book lasted 10 issues. (The original had 133 and went through a number of ups and downs during the run.)

Written by Bruce Jones, the new series was a re-conception of the character, taking it away from its Burroughs-influenced, sword & sorcery roots. Personally, I was really looking forward to this, even though it would not be Mike Grell’s Warlord, because I’ve always liked Bruce Jones’ work. His Ka-Zar the Savage (with artist Brent Anderson) was fantastic, and so I hoped he would bring the same richness to this book.

Warlord Covers

First Issue Special #8 (first appearance of Warlord), Warlord v1 #11, Warlord v3 #1, Warlord v3 #5.

Unfortunately, what we received was a book that was flat and uninspired. Half the time the story did not make sense and as a reader I was not drawn into it in a convincing way. The reworked existing characters were unsympathetic and shallowly conceived, and the new characters seemed out of place.

Warlord Bart Sears

Equal credit for this book’s failure must rest squarely on the shoulders of artist Bart Sears. The early piece of concept art above was promising, showing attention to detail. Once we got to print, though, Sears had changed his approach. While he may have been hoping for a bold, kinetic style with his storyboard-like marker renderings, the action was too close up, too dense and did not allow myself as a reader to get in there and care about the characters and understand the world they inhabit. The women were porn-star mannequins (often without pupils in their eyes) and the men caricatures in muscle-bound poses, all of whom lacked humanity and accessibility. And as an artist, the impression I get is that Sears banged out this book in as little time as possible.

Now, I’ve never been a Sears fan, but he has set higher standards for his work than this, and Jones is doing some pretty interesting stuff with a re-conceived Deadman for the Vertigo line at DC. So why did Warlord tank so badly?

Here are some thoughts and speculations:

No one really wanted to do this book, but to draw in part of the audience the revived Conan book has, they decided to roll out Warlord in his own thing, rather than have Dan Jurgens (yay, Dan), put Warlord in whatever book he was working on that month. And if the book failed, as it did after nine issues and a hasty tenth fill issue, it was no big deal, because the corporate goal of keeping one of their properties current had been achieved. (Really, kudos to Dan. After creator Mike Grell, Dan was a great stepfather to the character.)

It’s a different time than when Warlord first came out. Sword & sorcery was big in 1975. In comics there was Conan over at Marvel, and Warlord was DC’s response. It was a big hit. And it was a big hit because it offered an authentic experience in its genre that was different than Conan. The first two dozen issues by Grell were his best on the book and still stand up as some of the best of his career, the early issues of Jon Sable the only thing I can think of that grabbed me as much. So as readers, we bought into that world, because Grell really cared about it and developed it fully.

Jones is no vacuous young turk. He grew up in the same era as Grell. So why was the book so shallow? I have to wonder what kind of editorial restrictions he might have been placed under. Where was the book to fit? What market were they trying to tap into? If they were trying to do sword & sorcery without doing sword & sorcery in an attempt to interest a young audience, they were forgetting the lush environs and interactions of the book were one of the key reasons why we read it. Unlike Batman, who is iconic and stands up well to multiple visions, you can’t do this for all concepts. It would be like saying we don’t need outer space to do Star Trek.

Beyond readerly issues, I acknowledge that companies do not exist to sell us what we want. They exist to sell what they have, and by using promotion they convince us that what they have is what we want. The problem is, that only lasts for so long, and sometimes they have something good, but not as often as we might like. Without an authentic connection to our audiences, all the promotion in the world will not turn coal into diamonds, and after a certain point we’ll stop believing you have what we want and we’ll turn away.

DC used to do their market research in their tryout books like Showcase, The Brave & the Bold and First Issue Special. If they got response from readers the characters would come back. It was a hit or miss proposition, but a certain amount of R&D in an organisation is necessary to keep things fresh and progressive.

Now DC has a huge stable of characters and the resources to make sure enough of it stays in circulation to maintain their market share, or as I said earlier I believe they brought Warlord back in a half-hearted attempt to respond to the successful re-launch of Conan. However, what we see when they do a re-envisioning of a book like Warlord is not enough market research, and in today’s transparent, communication-driven world that is inexcusable. The response is there for the asking. What did the audience want in a Warlord book that still brought it into 2006 from 1975? We did not need a total redo of Warlord, but an illumination perhaps of things we did not know about the world of Skartaris, with an artist willing to execute a lush, detail-oriented style. That’s the fun, the challenge. Much like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, the revelation that Swamp Thing was not a man who had been turned into a plant, but was a plant who thought he was a man, it violated nothing of what came before it and opened up a new direction for the book. And upon that work the foundation for the successful Vertigo line was built.

If this version of Warlord had been of any kind of quality, I wouldn’t be writing this. All too often in today’s market, we’re seeing things we’ve invested ourselves in as an audience changed arbitrarily. To the authors it does not seem arbitrary because it is their vision and work which they are offering to us, and I do not think they are trying to alienate us. But much like George Lucas’ flawed reworking of his original Star Wars trilogy, epitomised by the fan cry of “Han Shot First!”, once the stuff is out there, it is no longer solely the creation of the author. The audience becomes an equal partner in the experience, and we don’t like people changing our memories.

I think DC understands this to some extent because we are seeing them leverage their back catalogue more or less effectively. A lot of the 70s and 80s stuff is getting reprinted now in various forms because guys like me were kids/teens then and we now have the dollars to spend on those kinds of packages. Hopefully, they’ll do that with Warlord beyond the single TPB they issued in 1991.

The only lingering worry I have is that moving forward will enough of the current generation of work be worth reprinting in 25 years’ time?


Update January 2010 : Mike Grell has returned to Warlord, producing a new series that he is writing and partially drawing. DC has also released a collected volume of #s 1–28 from the original series in their black & white Showcase line.

Update August 2010 : After 16 issues, the latest series of Warlord has come to an end.

You can explore The Warlord in detail on Mike Grell’s website.


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