Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Crossed Swords #1

Fantasy February and Magical March!
Crossed Swords #1

Glimmer of hope?

Writer – Tom Zjaba
Art – Andrew Barrett
Editor– Tom Zjaba
December 1986

We covered the rocky history of Cleveland based KZ comics back when I reviewed TheUnicorn Kings last year. The tiny publisher, headed by Tom Zjaba who ended up being the only remaining partner and creative force. A copy of his book Colt still sits in the Crapbox, unreviewed, but I thought this was the perfect time to take a look at his fantasy D&D effort “Crossed Swords,” which came out right around the time his company folded.

The book is exactly what you would expect from an "about to go under startup publisher" in the mid 80’s: poor artwork and generic story setup. There isn’t anything in this issue that will blow your socks off, but something about it intrigued me toward the end. However, with the uneven art and juvenile story concept, it is easy to see how audiences moved on to other titles after a quick flip-through in the comic store.

As for the dungeon in the back, we’ll get to that in a bit.

First off, the entire book is a recapturing of role playing games in story-form according to Zjaba, a tricky prospect to pull off as I recounted in the Dragonlance review. It is made all the more tricky as Zjaba doesn’t properly grasp the idea of giving a decent backstory and motivation to stand up behind his cardboard characters. What he does do is bombastic, full page openings:

We start with a title scroll, which in this case comes on an actual scroll, that introduces us to some pre-historic, mythical land where men have finally risen above all the other races to combat the Darkness. Which, in this case, is capitalized to represent any generic fantasy race of evil variety. We can tell that because our next page…

…features a two page spread of just such generic fantasy orcs in a hack and slash contest with some generic fantasy humans. It is also in scroll form, and at this point I wondered if the entire book would look like every letter you received from your grandmother after she found the boarder tool in Word. Not only was it a time of war against the darkness, it also appears it was the age of the excessive semi-colons too.

Now that we’ve adopted a generic fantasy setting, it's time for getting on with the story by introducing the audience to a generic wizard. He's the character who serves to assign our heroes a plot. Next comes two cowardly fighters, who are supposed to serve as main characters. The fighters escaped the carnage of that two page spread only to find themselves pursued by orc creatures and cornered in a dead end canyon. Throughout the story they waffle between stating the obvious and making jokes. In some ways it plays a bit like one of those old “Road to…” movies if it were drawn on some teenager’s book cover in high school.

We get the name of the wizard, as "Krell the necromancer" pops up to save the pair from the hordes closing in on them. 

He zotts poor Ugor into a stone statue, an action that does little more than piss off the other two orc-things. 

While the monstrous beings attempt to rush him, he adds insults to injury…

…followed by more injury, causing one orc to burst into flames and a second to decay to dust in his grip. The only thing I’m wondering at this point is why the wizard needs the fighters at all. He looks so formidable that he could take on pretty much any challenge single-handed.

The horn-headed barbarian says they are now in Kell’s debt, which is probably not the best choice of words, as the mage whisks the pair off to extract payment…

…They appear in his magical sanctum via a cloud of teleportation or some such. Here we learn the pair are Dalen the Destroyer (horn-head) and Cornelius the Conqueror (pornstache). The pair attempt to snow the wizard that they are great warriors, but he sees right through that crap. Didn’t he tell is four-armed familiar that he needed two “mighty fighters”? These two hardly qualify.

But Kell has got them on the hook, as he clearly points out.

With their choices whittled down to A.) go on a quest or B.) back to certain death on the field of battle, the pair beg for a chance to handle whatever business the mage decides to set before them. 

In all honesty, I’m only half listening to the story at this point. The art is blah, the characters only mildly interesting and the plot is recycled from countless bad D&D sessions. So why would I state that I saw some kind of glimmer of hope in this?

It comes right in here, where the wizard, after stating he knows they are not “true warriors”, decides he doesn’t have time to look for better replacements and tosses them in with this party of adventures lead by Larris the Paladin.

Still generic, right? We’ve got broadsword wielding paladin, monk-robed cleric guy with a mace and possible female rogue. There is a dwarf with a pickaxe and a magic user standing off screen too. They are not helping, apparently. Still all of this is same old-same old. But just when you think there is nothing new to this, Zjara throws in a bit of a twist…

Okay, now that’s a bit intriguing. One of the guys we met will end up plotting against the others. That actually works as a bit of a story hook. The introduction of these concepts have been right out of a cliché handbook, but at this point I got interested in deducing which character was the traitor. The art doesn’t improve, but I found myself looking intently for clues in how each of these new characters acted.

We have Larris stating our objective and Cornelius putting is big foot in his mouth. Then we start a round of “who’s who.” Pollack is our mage and Grimkey our dwarf.

Elena is the female rogue who gets paired up to guard the rear with Dalen, who either doesn’t like women fighters, doesn’t trust anyone given Kell’s proclamation, or is gay. Perhaps even a combination of those. Either way, Elena appears to be thinking about guarding his rear quite literally and he only cares that they are not in the direct line of attack.

Note we don’t get the cleric’s name. That’s suspicious!

Immediately Elena suggests that Dalen and her hang back to be more effective and SEE how this starts looking better? So, is she the traitor? Hard to say as Dalen turns his back on her to see what might be following them.

Meanwhile the rest of the group has made it to this giant steel door, with a lock on the outside and ruins that say “Open me, great treasure here!” or something.

Behind the door are some surprisingly robust orc things that bounce our heroes around for a bit before being overcome by their awesomeness. Or something. How are they even alive? They were behind a door locked by a padlock from THIS SIDE!

Cornelius is shaping up to be comic relief, as he is saved here by the sudden arrival of…

…Elena and Dalen, who found nothing following them but some stray noises. Clearly Elena isn’t the traitor, however, because she killed the orc-thing with his blade at Cornelius’s throat, right? Or is that just what she wants us to think?

Either way, she is now charged with interrogating their prisoner, which puts a lot of power in one person’s hands. Since she’s the only one who knows what he is saying, she could easily lead the group into a trap. Hmm…

After listening to his babbling, the party learns they will have to hurry to stop the cult from completing the ritual. Larris wants to free their captive, but is that because he’s a lawful good paladin and this isn’t a fair fight OR is it because HE’s the Traitor? Elena wants to kill Mr. Orc. Wants to so bad that she gets upset when the creature gets away and Larris warns her against putting an arrow or three in his back. But is her wanting to cross swords with Larris due to his bossiness or because she’s working against the group? 

By adding the mystery element (no matter how ham-fisted he did it), Zjara came up with a way to keep the audience intrigued and guessing at who might be plotting against whom. It is an effective storytelling technique that I hope was intentional because I’m enjoying how this is being pulled off. 
Especially when the group next encounters a possible trap and two ways to go around it…

…and while the mage says to go on the left…

…the cleric/monk shows that the proper, untrapped tunnel is the one of the right.

Feeling that the group hasn’t had enough melee, Zjara throws in a few shriekers and a giant purple worm. Both of these are right out of second edition monster manual, which might have gotten Zjara in trouble hade the title been successful. This also gives him the chance to split the party.

Which leads to Larris getting conked on the noggin and left for worm food by our traitorous party member.

At least we think it is our traitor that did this. I happened to read all eight pages of the dungeon at the back, which looks suspiciously like the one the party is traveling through in this comic, and I found that in one of the rooms lurks a doppelganger. And since one of those creatures could impersonate anyone from our group, that MIGHT mean the traitor is still one of our other party members. THIS is what Grimkey finds when going back to search for his paladin friend and not the purple worm snacking down on his body. So now it is possible there are TWO bad guys in the party, perhaps working in concert…maybe acting alone. Who knows? 

Or for an alternate take, it could be the magic user casting an illusion to look like Larris. Or perhaps it is our monk using some unknown clerical magic. There’s a lot of what-ifs that come into play here.
Oh, and while this is taking place, our heroes have totally boofed up their mission. The mighty T’Darktha gets released…

…and immediately betrays his followers by ripping the cult leader’s body in twain…

…then he settles down for a nap for two days, asking the rest of the cult to guard him while he sleeps. That’s…not very smart. Those cult followers should take this moment to just ease their way out of here. I mean, this guy is just as likely to eat you as reward you and where’s the payoff in that?

Meanwhile, the monk returns to the group with his head bashed in. He’s been knocked cold for a bit and doesn’t know who did the deed.

Then the real Larris returns, looking all bashed up, bloody, and covered in worm guts. The party throws our all sorts of possible scenarios, which we kind of know the real deal here…or do we? Larris did get eaten. How did he get out of that worm?

We end with fake Larris attacking bloody real (possibly?) Larris and lots of unanswered questions.

Okay, so the artist needs a lot more lessons before this could be considered good, but it is serviceable. The plot takes far too long to get started and feels cliché and juvenile at the beginning. BUT there is a glimmer of a good story here. What Zjara needed was an editor. Someone who could come in and tell him the story elements that worked and what didn’t. He could also have used a more seasoned artist. I think he might have had something if this had gone through a bit more polishing. That marks this as not so much as crapbox turd (since no matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd) but more of a lost opportunity.

Sadly, it may have been Zjara’s own over ambition that sank the book. Following the story are two nicely done single panel pin-ups that look much better than the art in the story…

Which shows that Berrett had some artistic chops, just didn’t get time to use them in creating this issue. These two pages look great, almost like they were drawn by someone else.

Then we get the 8-page dungeon, which is as laughable as it is ambitious. The introduction is trite and generic, the rooms have no cohesive flow or theme, and the presentation is amateurish. It would have been better if Zjara had left this out and spent the time and effort on it in refining the good parts of his mystery in a dungeon. 

I’d love to see Zjara get a mulligan on this one. There are elements here that work and could make an enjoyable story. But like most startup publishers, the work included is rushed out before it is ready, and it flounders because of it. I wouldn’t have bought this off the rack, but I’m glad the Crapbox shared it with me. It is intriguing to think what might have been.

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