Saturday, December 20, 2014

Comic Bookshelf: Royal Blood (2014)

Knights of Christendom making a Prince & the Pauper style switch (page 10).
The sword-and-sorcery fantasy comic book is far from dead. In fact, it has seen something of a revival thanks to the re-emergence of old stars Conan and Red Sonja in series from Dark Horse Comics, combined with newer independent titles such Image Comics' Rat Queens and Helheim from Oni Press, not too forget an ongoing adaptation of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones from Dynamite Publishing.

While not the first graphic novel I've read by ionic Chilean-French filmmaker, and frequent dabbler in the sequential art medium, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Royal Blood is the first that was purchased and consumed immediately following it's American release. Very different in tone from my previous Jodorowsky reading experience, the neo-western Bouncer: Cain's Eye (reviewed here), Royal Blood also offers a decidedly different visual take, thanks primarily to the artwork from Chinese artist Dongzi Liu.

The "eccentric" storytelling most film fans are familiar with from the avant-garde Jodorowsky remains. Having seen his "acid Western" El Topo (1970), I knew to expect a level of philosophical and sexual subtext and Royal Blood delivers though with some inconsistency. No taboo is safe. As rendered by Lui's fantastic artwork and editorial choices as to what to depict visually, and that which is better left off-panel, the gritty tale of royal betrayal, amnesia, and incest is as elegantly portrayed as could be expected given the content. There was quite a bit to take in visually, due to Liu's beautifully rendered panels, but as a narrative, I had difficulty finding a character with which to empathize for more than 3-4 pages at a time.

In Joffrey-esque fashion young Prince Rador is revealed to be knd of a jerk (page 27).
In a story that is not nearly as taboo as it might have seemed prior to the mainstream success of the aforementioned Game of Thrones novels and cable show, Royal Blood follows King Alvar's loss of his kingdom and eventual quest to regain his stolen throne. It is a weird place in fantasy literature when incest (thanks to GoT?) is somehow so old-hat that a writer needs to up the ante to such extremes as Jodorowsky does here, in an effort to shock. Of course, Jodorowsky does "shock" as well as anyone, so if one incestuous relationship doesn't surprise, how about the suggestion of two?

Jodorwosky seems to have an awareness of this, as he includes a throwaway line in a ghostly monologue that ameliorates the impact of the on-panel incestuous pairing, while the second is merely suggested. Perhaps mutilation is the new taboo. Jodorowsky raises the stakes by putting his character through no less than three individual acts of mutilation., ranging from the commonplace (guess what happens to those whop talk too much?) to an act of self-mutilation on the part of the "protagonist" intended to ensure he has no more children.

Royal Blood is most definitely not an all-ages book and certainly not for the squeamish, though the art is so darn lovely...

It really is much easier to validate a marriage to your daughter if her bear agrees to serve
as the maid-of-honor when your king (page 49).
Despite the handsome artwork, and execution of fairly common narrative tropes, the challenge continues to be actually caring about any of the characters involved. As the primary character, noble King Aldar is just about to receive a level of sympathy from the reader, his characterization takes a turn for the worse by belittling and humiliating the woman who saved him. As one begins to empathize with her plight she reveals information that lessens her morel character too. And so it goes, each character throwing away any empathy afforded them by the reader until there is no one left to root for. I'll be darned though if I didn't find a level of an enjoyment in reading Royal Blood, enough so that I read it again a few days later.

Rador's sadism takes a very unnerving turn (page 63).
Coming in at 112 pages, the quality of the hard cover packaging of this novel, published by Titan Comics is impressive. As, for all intent and purpose, a stand-alone comic book issue, the paper quality, and binding are top notch. I've come to learn when purchasing graphic novels of this nature that the $16.99 price tag is very reasonable, especially given the high level of re-readability of the story. And that artwork... wow. Whereas, the 16 year-old fanboy in me would have balked at such a price for a single issue, the 45 year-old reader ordered it from his local comic shop sight unseen. Though I felt the storytelling and characterization was inconsistent, on Jodorowsky's name alone, and based on a few preview pages online was a no-brainer that, in terms of entertainment value, paid off.

While Alvar is not haunted by his wife/daughter's mother, Batia,
 she does appear frequently to laugh at his (many) misfortunes (page 86).

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