Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Welcome to the Lost World

All right, let's be serious here because we're going to talk about a serious place. We may be comic book readers but not all comic book readers are created equal. Some of you scoff and giggle at any series that has a hero with a furry G-string, a sword, and a helmet that looks like its going to fly off his head any minute. I was like you at one time also and gave The Warlord nary a sidelong look. But any one who dared to venture into the confines of the hidden world Skartaris quickly discovered it was a world that laughed back at you.

Warlord#11

"In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: if you let your guard down for an instant you will soon be very dead."

This little introduction appeared in most issues of the series and could easily be lost amidst the luscious art of Mike Grell or Dan Jurgens. Believe me, you did not want to skip over it because no more honest a warning was ever given to any reader. This book may have seemed like a silly Sword and Sorcery comic, but creator Mike Grell was not kind to the usual conventions of the genre.

The Warlord was a unique series in the DC Comics firmament of stars and arguably its best contribution to the Sword & Sorcery genre. Originally intended as a comic strip called Savage Empire, the book chronicled the adventures of Air Force pilot, Travis Morgan, and his incredible descent into the lost world of Skartaris, hidden beneath the Earth's crust. In the 1970s, the comics field was awash with comics attempting to cash in on the current Sword & Sorcery fad spearheaded by Conan the Barbarian at Marvel Comics. Few of the series had the vigor to retain readers, or writers, and fans saw an army of sword-wielding heroes march into the sunset. A whole legion of tough guys, with sobriquets like Lockjaw, Wulf the Barbarian, Stalker the Soulless, Kong the Untamed and Tito the Flexible, were sent back to the testosterone jungle from which they sprung sweaty and macho. At face value, The Warlord didn't have anything to distinguish itself from this great, unwashed herd. It contained all the typical trappings of the Sword & Sorcery genre: monsters around every panel, swords, scantily clad women, high adventure and plenty of magic. It's hidden weapon, and every hero needs a secret advantage, doesn't it, was Mike Grell, creator, writer and penciller.

Grell was a wonderful draftsman who got his start drawing Brenda Starr's body in the syndicated strip. He brought a degree of sophistication to the Warlord series and utilized intelligent panel layouts and unpredictable, but not messy, narratives to tell his story. While stylistically different from Barry Windsor-Smith of Conan fame, Mike Grell approached his Warlord series in much the same vein. "I wrote Warlord for me" Grell recently said in Comic Book Artist # 8. "I wrote the story I wanted to read, and yes, I like that kind of stuff." Grell also brought a modern heart and mind to the proceedings. He recognized that fantasy had an inherent strength, which allowed him to explore a wide range of adventure. "I wanted to create a format where I could do any kind of story - you could get fantasy stories, you could get adventure stories, you could get romance, you could get comedy - to create a format where none of this would seem awkward or out of place."

Indeed, Skartaris, that strange world lurking inside the Earth, seems to be everywhere at once, and obeys its own rules regarding time, gravity, and place. Characters inexplicably aged while others remain unchanged. Countries and locations blended into each other, seeming to exist side by side one minute and then leagues apart the next. Humor lived beside morbidity. Sorcery mixed with science until the pages dripped with the fantastic. It existed outside the bounds of reality, and was justly one of the few books totally outside of DC continuity. Grell admits that Skartaris WAS a world of imagination - one without definite boundaries. Skartaris was not a reflection of our own world of cruel fate but a mirror of the reader's imagination, filled with a dream-like power that is the birthright of comics.

Warlord#50

Let us not forget about the characters of the Warlord, our faithful lens into this forbidding world. Unlike other comics, The Warloard regularly featured non-typical characters as its heroes. Strong, independent women, like Tara, Queen of Shamballah and the Warlord's love, Mariah the Russian Swordsmaster, and Shakira the Cat-woman were often showcased. The book discarded the typical weak-knee, bosomy cheerleader types appearing in Conan and his ilk. These women were as tough as Travis Morgan, and, like Lilith the proto-feminist, demanded to be on top. In addition, minorities were presented not as tokens but significant people of power. Machiste, Travis' close friend, was a mighty warrior and noble king, in addition to being black (we can not call him African since Africa does not exist in Skartaris). Mike Grell boldly crossed sexual and racial politics by demonstrating that all men and women must rise to the challenges set upon them. Throw in one orphaned child from a broken family, Tinder, whom is the lost-son of the Warlord, and a vertically challenged wizard, Mongo Ironhand, and you have one of the most diverse casts in comics.

Travis Morgan is not Johnny-come-lately, either. He lived the life all readers, particularly pre-pubescent boys, wanted to lead: vigorous, haughty and independent. The Warlord was the story of the reader's inner life and Travis was our four-color, swashbuckling simulacrum. He was Peter Pan, but in the body of Stallone and not Cathy Rigby; a man-child whom experienced adult adventures but with a child's attitude.

Did I mention he packed a pistol, too? Morgan carried a .44 Magnum that roared his potency across the land. It was his single constant link with the outer world, a sterling, oiled weapon which could only have been made by a civilization propelled by a desire to assert itself over nature. The natural order of Skartaris was kill or be eaten. It was a reminder that no matter how much he aspired to be a pulp hero, that he was reared in world of technology and steel. It was this world, with its accordant philosophies of liberty and civilization, that preserved his life with a combination of gun powder, velocity, and metal. The weapon may have looked cool, but it was also a reminder that Morgan was a "modern" pulp hero - one who could not escape the future no matter how much he wanted to live in the past. I'm sure it is all terribly Freudian, but then Freud and I never really got along.

Travis Morgan was a warrior and leader of men, like all classical heroes, but one with tragic frailties. He is also an absent father and husband, faithful only to the call of adventure. Much as John Carter felt no allegiance with the Earth, Morgan's entrance into Skartaris is an escape from all adult responsibilities. His negligence leads to his daughter's terrible childhood and eventual mental rape by Deimos. In a sad running joke, Morgan abandons Tara as soon as it seems rulership of Shamballah means he must settle down. Even worse, he inspires a dream of liberty in his followers but is unable and unwilling to be the actual holder of that liberty. His life demonstrates the terrible and piteous price of shunning responsibility for the open road of adventure.

Grell invested a healthy dose of sobriety and reflection into a character that didn't ask for it. Conan may have been a noble savage, but Travis Morgan was a noble with savagery beating beneath his civilized shell. Grell reminded us of our own primitive origins, which they still exist at some primordial level. Travis Morgan's adventure was one into his own imaginative subconscious.

The beauty of The Warlord was its unpredictability. It turned the conventional sword and sorcery on its head. It did not give up its secrets easily, and 25 years later, the origin of Skartaris is still unknown, having stood against the pawing of fan boys who can't keep a good mystery a mystery. We still do not know if Shakira is a woman who turns into a cat or vice versa. Like any good book, it speaks to us with secrets, drawing us further and further into its depths. Within it, we search not for truth but rapture. Travis Morgan was the reader come to life. He embodied all of our fantasies for a life more exciting than reality. It's like has not been seen since.

 
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