Review: Sword of Sorcery Vol. 1: Ameythst trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Sword of Sorcery Vol. 1: Amethyst is a pleasant surprise, a book whose main story is quite good, and then as a bonus, whose backup stories are also impressive. I'm as much to blame as any other reader because I wasn't very interested in this series when it started, but now I'm bummed to know it was cancelled quick as that.

[Review contains spoilers]

Chalk it up to a combination of factors that turned me off of Amethyst originally: a general aversion to "sword and sorcery"-type books versus sci-fi and superheroes; that the other-dimensional setting suggested less interaction with the rest of the DC Universe; and that "Amethyst," as a concept, felt too much like a Rainbow Brite/Jem mash-up to me -- very pink, very 1980s (though I did like the Amethyst cartoon shorts that aired on DC Nation). So I was inclined to put Sword of Sorcery toward the bottom of my reading pile and only take it out to read before Amethyst's (really Princess Amaya's) appearance in the next Justice League Dark collection (fortunately I needed something to read in a jiff).

Christy Marx's story addresses all of my concerns. First, this is of course a fantasy story, but Marx gives it a firm rooting in "reality" -- "Amy"'s high school troubles, the fact that both Amaya and her mom are "from Earth" even as much of the action takes place on the "gemworld" of Nilla, that all the Nillans are actually descended from humans, and John Constantine's appearance right at the beginning all keep the book from becoming too esoteric. Constantine's presence equally promises that the DC Universe proper isn't too far away, and this is enhanced by Marx's choice of villain for the piece, none other than Eclipso (had Sword of Sorcery continued, one could have imagined Amaya fighting Felix Faust and other such mystic DCU foes).

What I enjoyed most, however, was Marx's conception of the "Gemworld" itself. Nilla is ruled by various "houses" that correspond to the different stones -- Amethyst, Citrine, Diamond, Turquoise, and Onyx, to start. The heads of each house gain different powers from their respective stones, and then additional abilities are released when the powers are combined (often through marriage between the houses and the production of children). It's all reminiscent of when Geoff Johns rolled out the various-colored corps in Green Lantern, and equally interesting in terms of the personalities and powers of the houses (there was a time in DC Comics circa Final Crisis when I'm sure actual ties would have been suggested between the various gem-houses and the various Corps, as was the case in Legion of Super-Heroes and Flash at that time, among others). I'm not a long-time Amethyst reader so I have no idea how well Marx's iteration of the character adheres to what came before, but I found it fascinating (and not too treacly or "pink").

With the various Houses and powers comes an fun band of characters. Marx hews to predictable fantasy tropes here with a thief, a thinker, a bruiser, a knight, and so on, but I liked seeing how each corresponded to a different gem and that gem's anthropomorphized characteristics. I thought Marx was wise in keeping Amaya's mother in the story; this preserves Amaya's youthful perspective -- she is the princess, not the ruler -- and gives Amethyst a different dynamic than other comics, focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter; even as Wonder Woman and her mother sometimes interact, Hippolyta is rarely a regularly-appearing character like Lady Graciel. There's also a nice twist at the end when Marx moves the book's initial antagonist, Lady Mordiel, to the side of angels (if begrudgingly) by the end; I appreciated the sense that, if the book had continued, Marx has built a good rogues gallery for Amaya including Eclipso, Mordiel, Lord Reishan, and others.

Really Marx's only stumble is an odd fifth chapter (issue #4) in which Amaya, transported back to Chicago, fights a power-hungry CEO; Marx never names the woman, though Marx even goes so far as to have the woman ask Amaya, "Do you know who I am?" -- if perhaps the woman is supposed to resemble some real-life person or such, the implication isn't clear. I did like that this issue brings Amaya back to Earth for a bit, demonstrating the series' ability to switch between telling stories on Earth and on Nilla had it continued. The rougher villain here is also well-balanced by Marx's strong use of Eclipso, including positing a new origin for the character.

Aaron Lopresti provides most of the art for the "Amethyst" story. I have enjoyed Lopresti's artwork over a number of titles -- including Wonder Woman, Justice League: Generation Lost, and Justice League International -- and his animated style works well for this story; Lopresti keeps things appropriately light most of the time, but delivers a scary Eclipso as well. The pages by fill-in artists closely resemble Lopresti's, giving Marx's self-contained story a general feel of a whole-cloth graphic novel.

Inasmuch as I didn't have high expectations for the "Amethyst" story, however, mine were even lower for Tony Bedard's Beowulf backup. Even despite that Jesus Saiz is one of my favorite DC artists ... c'mon, Beowulf? I was sure I'd be in for lots of bad "old style" dialogue and barbarians in furry loincloths. Instead, Bedard sets his Beowulf story in the future, a kind of techno-wilderness that reminded me of Greg Rucka's Lazarus, and posits Beowulf as a feral killing machine (whom Saiz draws, maybe not coincidentally, to look something like an aged Wolverine). Moreover, Bedard sets his story not just in a potential DC Universe future, but one that's part and parcel of the New 52, referencing new universe concepts like the Rot, Basilisk, and Amanda Waller's Samsara project. I thought the backups in the first volume of All-Star Western were a letdown, but here I enjoyed Bedard's backup story just as much as Marx's (even if it never delivers on the promised Beowulf vs. Justice League fight). Saiz's Grendel is also flat-out terrifying.

Marc Andreyko's "Stalker" story is less impressive largely because it has no such ties to the greater DC universe (also I'm fairly sure a dozen other writers are going to re-write Andreyko's portrayal of Lucifer); it's not badly written, but it lacks the other two stories' spark. Artist Andrei Bressan's work is uneven, with the characters looking distorted at times. "Stalker" is more what I expected from Sword and Sorcery's backups, though impressed as I was with both "Amethyst" and "Beowulf," "Stalker" couldn't lessen my esteem for this book.

On occasion I'll recommend "airplane books" (Tony Bedard's Blue Beetle Vol. 2: Blue Diamond and Batman: Night of the Owls are others), collections that are both long and self-contained, good for reading on a lengthy plane flight. Sword of Sorcery Vol. 1: Amethyst is another one of these -- ten issues, many of them oversized, and three complete and engaging stories. I didn't think I'd like this one, but I did; it makes me more eager to read Christy Marx's Birds of Prey, and hopefully she'll get another shot at Amethyst at some point, too.

[Includes original and variant covers, reproductions of two "WTF" covers, character sketches]

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6 comments:

  1. I wish more people had given this series a chance. Marx's background as the creator of Jem and the Holograms made me expect a trite, old-fashioned comic aimed at pre-teen girls, but Sword of Sorcery turned out to be a great fantasy epic with strong, relatable characters and some of the best artwork Lopresti has ever done.

    I also loved the Beowulf serial, and I keep hoping Bedard will bring the character back in one of his current books.

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  2. I was also pleasantly surprised by this series, and darn shamed I hadn't discovered it sooner.

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  3. I picked up the trade this Christmas at a 3-for-2 graphic novel sale at B&N along with vol. 1-2 of Demon Knights. Looking forward to it.

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  4. I'm one of those who contributed to an early-issues drop-off in sales on this title -- I picked up the first couple of issues, wasn't hooked, and dropped it. Sorry guys ...

    But darned if your review doesn't incline me to pick up the collection anyway!

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  5. Art by Jesus Saiz! Often I don't need to hear more than that, myself ...

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  6. Annoys me that they put 'Volume 1' on the trade though. Surely it had been cancelled before it was released, so they knew there wasn't going to be a volume 2.

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