Title: The Michael Moorcock Library Volume 1: Elric of Melniboné
Publisher: Titan Comics
Writer: Roy Thomas (adapting original works by Michael Moorcock)
Artist: Michael T. Gilbert
Inker: P. Craig Russell
Colorist: Michael T. Gilbert and P. Craig Russell
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Cover Artist: Michael T. Gilbert and P. Craig Russell
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Having very little knowledge of the work of Michael Moorcock, I wasn’t sure what I would find inside this volume. As it turns out, I found an epic tale of classic sword and sorcery, richly poetic in both word and image, adapted by one of my favorite comics writers and beautifully rendered by two talented artists. When I read Moorcock’s introduction to the book, praising the material within, I knew I was in for a real treat.
The first page offers a narrative scroll to the left side of the page, next a thin man on a high throne, elevated by spindly stairs. It is surreal from the beginning, with brilliant colors set against a gothic design aesthetic. The scroll introduces us to the kingdom of Melniboné and its capital city Imrryr, called the Dreaming City. Melniboné is in decline after millennia of unquestionable supremacy, facing the rise of the “Young Kingdoms” of the humans over the past few centuries. In the next few pages, we learn the man on the throne is Elric, emperor of Melniboné, envied by his cousin Yyrkoon. This is all narrated beautifully by Roy Thomas’ caption boxes, and I wish I were able to compare Thomas’ prose to Moorcock’s. All the same, Thomas’ words are strong, standing on their own legs, complementing and enhancing the art rather than merely describing it. The interplay engrossed me, transporting me to Elric’s world, allowing me to inhabit it.
Even filtered through Thomas, however, this volume shows Moorcock is no slouch himself. The world’s mythology is rich, and he has more ideas than you can shake Jack Kirby’s inking brush at. It reminds me very much of the Doctor Strange stories Thomas wrote for Marvel. There are powerful elementals like Straasha, king of the water, and Grome, whose domain is the earth. There is something like a religion surrounding “the Lords of the Higher Worlds,” like Arioch, one of the Lords of Chaos, who naturally have opposite numbers in the Lords of Order. There are artifacts like the Runeswords, Stormbringer and Mournblade, twin black swords given to mortals by the Lords of the Higher Worlds; the Ship That Sails Over Land and Sea, which is exactly what it sounds like; and the Mirror of Memories, which steals and stores the memories of anyone who looks into it.
The plot is just as refreshing as its trappings. The first few chapters make it seem a cut-and-dried story about a usurped king who must go on a quest to regain his throne, but in the same chapter that Yyrkoon leaves Elric to die at sea so he may become emperor, Elric manages to return to Melniboné ahead of Yyrkoon, which makes Yyrkoon flee to gather armies and search for the Runeswords. Elric’s head hangs heavily with the burden of leadership, knowing Melniboné is in decline and wondering if he might be to blame. Born a sickly albino, his strength is sustained by the combined efforts of drugs and sorcery. He is wary of using his powerful magical abilities, forsaking the violent, conquering ways of Melnibonéan emperors past. But when Yyrkoon escapes, he brings his sister Cymoril, Elric’s lover, with him, and we see Elric begin down a road of desperation that forces him into using his talents and even making a bargain with Arioch, who was formerly a patron to Melniboné in its harsher days. This makes for the start of a compelling character arc in which the formerly cautious Elric becomes more like his ancestors.
I haven’t said much about the art yet, but if I had gone more in-depth earlier, I may not have written much on the story at all. Michael T. Gilbert and P. Craig Russell are a miraculous duo. I can’t overstate how absolutely beautiful this book is. Russell’s layouts are nothing short of extraordinary, giving us dream-like frames into Elric’s world. Even the most innocuous rectangular panels are arranged in interesting ways, but naturally, the work really shines on pages such as that on which the Mirror of Memories shatters, depicting the scene in the mirror’s shards. The pieces seem to fly off the page, out at the reader, and look sharp enough to cut. Russell’s inks give every line a beautiful flow and can make shadows menacing, lending to the dreamlike nature of the illustrations.
Gilbert’s pencils make Elric look like no other comic, save maybe The Sandman, which is appropriate, given that Russell drew the Sandman stories Ramadan and Death and Venice. There’s a fantastic sense of scale to any environment, be it the Dreaming City or a mountainous wasteland in a barren dimension. The sorcery looks appropriately arcane, with swirling portals and burning swords. The runes that appear on Stormbringer and Mournblade are drawn with painstakingly intricate detail. When Arioch appears as an insectoid monster, it is truly grotesque. The depiction of Elric is haunting. A metal dragon rears up from his helmet, and he looks truly resplendent in his armor of black and gold. His fingers are long and slender, with slight points, accentuating the thinness of the rest of his body. His sadness, his madness, his pain are all depicted in expressions that are strong on any character.
The colors appear to be painted, and the world of Elric is brought to life by rich hues and subtle shading that can’t always be contained within linework. The colors look like they were preserved as much as possible from the original printing in the 80s, so it really feels like reading an older comic. As great a job as Gilbert and Russell did, Tom Orzechowski’s lettering also deserves high praise. It jumps out and demands to be noticed in sound effects and emphatic dialogue.
Elric of Melniboné is a sweeping adventure, exquisitely adapted by some of comics’ top talent. It may not win you over to the fantasy genre if you’re not already a fan, but if you are, it’s clear that you can’t miss the Elric stories. This is a great introduction to that world, and I’m sure it’s a great companion piece to Moorcock’s prose work.