Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bazaar of the Bizarre

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: adapted by Howard Chaykin from stories by Fritz Leiber; illustrated by Mike Mignola and Al Williamson (1991; collected 2010): Lovely adaptation of several of Fritz Leiber's terrific, seminal sword-and-sorcery tales featuring Northern barbarian Fafhrd and Southern thief Gray Mouser having adventures in and around the imaginary city of Lankhmar in an unknown time and an unknown place.

Leiber's stories were unique for their sense of humour at a time -- the series started in the 1930's -- when sword and sorcery tales were in their infancy, the rules of the game having just been codified by Robert E. Howard in his Conan stories. And Conan wasn't a barrel of laughs. These stories often are, though they also contain sinister magic and mayhem, sorrow, ghosts, monsters, and literally cut-throat businessmen.

Obviously, one should read the originals. Leiber was one of the true greats of the Golden Age of American science fiction and fantasy, with a career stretching from the 1930's up until his death in the early 1990's. He was probably the best prose stylist in the entire field for decades, while his eccentric and encyclopedic tastes and interests made him a major figure in American horror, science fiction, and fantasy.

Howard Chaykin, one of comicdom's wittiest scripters, does Leiber proud here in distilling the stories down into dialogue. A young Mike Mignola approaches his later Hellboy form, aided by legendary inker Al Williamson. Mignola's art shows when it should and suggests when it should. The monsters are creepy and the women gorgeous.

Teeming Lankhmar itself becomes a seedy, crowded warren of strange houses and temples and dim alleys. The countryside, when we see it, is filled with menacing space. Williamson makes Mignola lighter in the lines than Mignola-inking-Mignola later would, which fits the material -- there's no character here as massive and gravitic as Hellboy. These characters are light on their feet; so, too, both writing and art. Recommended.

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