Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Black Dragon #1

Fantasy February and Magical March!
The Black Dragon #1

From Marvel’s Epic line comes a truly epic fantasy

"Part 1 of 6”
Written – Chris Claremont
Art – John Bolton
Editor – Archie Goodwin
Editor-in-Chief – Jim Shooter
May 1985

I should have expected it. With luminary Chris Claremont in his prime of writing great comic book stories and expert John Bolton’s skill with pencil, ink, and color pallet, I should have known this book was going to thrill me.

But I didn’t. I expected to be bored. In the same manner that you might start to watch an old black-and-white Republic serial expecting the trappings of a bygone era of moviemaking and the less sophisticated storytelling techniques to bore you.

You take one peek behind the cover of this book and find it harkens back to the days of Prince Valiant in the newspaper comic strip. Neither flashy nor stylized, the pictures are depicted in a realistic fashion, with Bolton painstakingly rendering every link. Immediately you discount it for not having the explosions nor the over-the-top fight scenes. You set it aside for later.

This is a mistake, because The Black Dragon isn’t just “good,” it is fan-freaking-tastic. Rarely have I been so swept up in a story that feels truly legendary. The story features some prominent statement from the actual era that it weaves into a historical fiction with some mystical elements. I’m getting ahead of myself and spoiling things, so at this point we should really just dive right in…

We find ourselves astride a horse, magnificently drawn by Bolton, running at full gallop. A knight sits atop him, musing about believing with King Henry dead that he could safely return home from exile. That Henry would be Henry Plantagenet or Henry II making this story set sometime around 1189 AD or so. I’m not English scholar so I don’t know the parts this book gets wrong, but damned if I’m not intrigued at how much of it rings true.

Anyway, we have some action going on. Best pay attention.

Our knight tries to make for the treeline, hoping if he reaches it that he can evade and lose is pursuers. We see them for the first time and they look numerous and deadly serious. So serious that they care not if the injure an innocent beast in their capture.

Injure or kill, as luck may have it.

I am in by page three. That’s like some kind of record. The art pulls you in and takes you back to that era in a flawless wave of thundering hoofbeats and the clink of armor on lance. Magnicent job on these. And as stories go, Claremont has some really fun twists coming up, so this book will grab you too.

Back to our knight though, who is downed for just trying to go back home from whatever war he was in to gain back favor. Apparently he was branded as a heretic and banished. That doesn’t phase him, as he defeats this rider trying to shish-kabob him.

This story really knows what it is doing, starting off right out the gate showing us action from Bolton that confirms that when the book gets to the action you won’t be disappointed. Our knight, for all his battle prowess, is overcome by the number of enemies arrayed against him.

It appears the men both hate AND fear him, as our blue aproned knight is rumored to be a sorcerer. All of that comes from his skills on the battlefield though, but these men would rather hand him over to the priests than soil their hands with whatever curse his blood would bring them.

So they do that thing and we end up with out hero sitting in the dungeon of some monk’s abbey awaiting eventual spiritual cleansing, which is to say “certain death.” Appears the priest in charge of his torture had a mystical knowledge of his coming. We learn our knight’s name is James Dunreith and it appears the priest seems to think he is going to cause Satan to take over England. Nothing like a crazy religious fanatic to be your antagonist, eh?

Right at that moment they are interrupted. The priest goes off to see what caused the ruckus and when next the door opens, it is this knight. He proceeds to cut the chain holding Dunreith captive and not his neck, as Dunreith expected.

The abbey has been beset by invading knights, although for what reason it isn’t readily apparent to neither the audience nor our protagonist. He is so badly injured that he can barely make his way out of the dungeon he was kept in while tortured and onto the back of a waiting steed.

They arrive at a nearby castle and Dunreith passes out from blood loss as they make it through the main gate. The attendants hustle his body upstairs.

Suddenly we are thrust into Dunreith’s dream, a fantastical flight where he sees all of what looks like England spread before him and then a huge head rises to greet him…

…a head that resolves itself to be a giant black dragon that states it is either his salvation or his damnation, but the choice is his. It also says that it is James Dunreith, himself and that it will not be denied.

The black dragon belches flames on Dunreith and he awakens, healed completely as if by magic. It perplexes both himself and his hosts.

Now we get to the meat of one of the series two conflicts. It appears that Dunreith is going to have a struggle with this dragon spirit for control of himself and his destiny. That’s conflict one. The second will be this long plot that has some historical underpinings. This is the current Queen of England, although not for much longer as her husband has recently past. She ordered her knights to free Dunreith from the priests. 

Her reasons? She wants to use Dunreith to uncover and foil a rebellion against the crown by the Earl of Glenowyn, Edmund De Valere. Henry’s death and the disposition of two of his sons have left the monarchy up for grabs. And since both heirs are squabbling about who has the rights to the throne, Edmund might try to take it out from under them. The Queen-mother just wants it to “stay in the family” and she doesn’t mind using Dunreith to do that. Especially since she suspects fowl magics at play and she wants a hole card on her side if there is.

Dunreith is reluctant at first, but the Queen offers a path back to holding his own lands again and he can’t refuse. The knight vows to prove her wrong about Edmund.

We learn more about James Dunreith moral compass when he sets out from the castle. Because he can’t be seen with Queen’s men if he is to be successful, he is left to set out alone. He muses that he could abandon his charge as soon as he out of sight of the castle and there is even a fork in the road to use as a clear literary device to determine what he will do. His conscious forces him to undertake the quest, given that he pledged his cooperation to the Queen.

He worries a bit about how he got healed, still not sure how that came about. His thoughts even wonder into whether or not it was mystical in nature.

On the road he bumps into his friend and vassal Brian Griffon, who had a vision he would be coming. This odd fact is glossed over as the two reminisce about Edmund De Valere and the Queen’s quest. We learn Edmund and James were old friends, even though the fellow was a bit rowdy. James pitied him due to his being viewed as an outsider in all ways possible. That may work out against James, as he could be blindsided if Edmund is working against the crown. We get just enough of both sides of this story from the conversation between the two men. 

Because this book knows its stuff, we now get a bit of action to balance all out the intrigue and character building. This wagon is attacked by brigands. And the brigands are in turn attacked by…

…James and Brian, rushing in fast so the villains don’t notice their small numbers.

Their stratagem works, but as their enemies leave in full retreat, the pair realize they have only saved one young squire…who is intensely upset that the Lady Gervaise de Lacey has passed.

As they attempt to have him mount a horse so they can flee before the bandits return, he pulls a knife on them, demanding they not leave Lady de Lacey.

And it is then that they realize the squire is actually a young lady, who they quickly disarm and carry off to safety.

Or sort of safety. They head for a nearby inn and if we are talking inn, that also means we are talking tavern. Our young lass is not very thankful, even though Dunreith is having none of that backtalk.

Brian lays out the cold, hard truth of the matter until she finally relents and accepts a more gracious attitude toward Dunreith saving her. I LIKE ALL of THIS. The characters, the action, the overarching plot we are on, the hints of magic, the art the pacing; it is an amazing book Claremont and Bolton have put together. I wish I had the other FIVE. So good!

Especially when we find out the girl is Edmund’s daughter. Oh! And of course, a pretty girl in a tavern means drunk asshole we will definitely see later comes over to be too forward and try to force himself on her. 

Brian kicks the guy to the curb, and that starts a ruckus…

…but in the showdown, the guy acts a bit of a coward…which makes me think he’ll try to get even LATER. 

As the group of drunken louts leave, they give a final threat and like I said: they will be back later!

The innkeeper thanks them for avoiding a tussle that would have broken up the place. As James heads to bed he muses about how Edmund must have had it just as hard hers, the racism playing a factor in how he was forced to rule. When suddenly, a cry from Ellanne’s causes him to rush to her room to find…

…Ellanne in a panic saying demons are after her.

Wow! What a monster of a book. Weighing in at 31 pages and NONE of them wasted, this comic is such a bargain. I love how deep the story feels and the fact that it skirts along the magical-maybe line so well. The art is amazing and draws you in the same way an Errol Flynn movie would. Impossibly good tale. I likely will never see another in the discount bin, but if I do, I am scooping it out for certain.

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