Saturday, 15 October 2016

Atlantis (Popular) Rising #2: Arion, Lord of Atlantis (1983-5)

So, as a kid I liked comics.

I read a lot of them, but because it was the 80s, mainly they'd be either British comics or British reprints of American comics, and that meant Marvel Comics, which meant that I didn't just know about Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Avengers and Daredevil; I was also familiar with Machine Man, Rocket Raccoon, Shang-Chi the Master of Kung-fu, Alpha Flight and a bunch of other minor Marvel characters too, and these relatively obscure characters would be the ones I remembered best.


On the other hand, the DC characters didn't get British news stand reprints and consequently I was nowhere near as familiar with the DC characters. I knew of course about Superman and Batman, because they were on TV, but the only times I actually got to read the comics were isolated occasions where one news shop on the way to my grandmother's house would somehow get occasional copies of imported DC comics, and the half dozen issues, mostly Superman and Batman comics,1 were treasured possessions, their stories complete in a single issue and yet weirdly incomplete, referring to arcs I would never see resolved,2 and having a weird newsprint glamour to them, full of adverts for products I would never get and other comics I would never read.

And one of those ads for a comic I would never read was for Arion, Lord of Atlantis.

The ad had a poetic byline about a quest to save a dying world's magic, and had a picture of a brooding long-haired man staring into a magic orb, surrounded by smoke resolving into the faces of people and monsters.

I wondered about it, what it was like. It was about someone from Atlantis. Of course I wanted to read it! Of course, I never got to see it. But it was hardly a big deal among the deficits of my childhood. And so I forgot about it.
Arion turns a monolith into a sky-chariot.
When researching Atlantis for the beginnings of my Chariot project in late 2014, I Googled "Rmoahals" to see what was out there (not a whole lot, as it happens) and found one of the top results was an issue of Arion, Lord of Atlantis called something like "The Freedom of Rmoahal", and I thought, oh yeah, wasn't there a comic, and I went looking to see if there was a collection anywhere, and of course there wasn't, it had never been reprinted, so I shrugged and moved on.

Last week, literally while I was writing about the BBC show, I thought, I wonder how easy they are to find on eBay? It turns out that it's easy and they're cheap. Had I a hundred pounds to drop, I could get the whole run if I cared to. The 80s was a peak time for print, see, so much so that comic sales that would be considered monster hits now would get a series cancelled on the spot. It was before DC had really begun to try to make their comics collectable; they were ephemera, for kids. Hundreds of thousands of copies of Arion's comic circulated, and even though he was never hugely popular, his comics are not hard to find at all.

So I took a punt and picked up a handful of copies, the cheapest ones I could find, issues 8 and 9, and the 1985 Special, which turns out to have been the final issue in the series.
S'net the Jackal-man is a recurring bad guy. He pops up in two comics as a henchman to other baddies. Both times he cuts out on them when it looks like they'll lose. Note his cyborg arm.
I wasn't, at least not for the time being, interested in getting whole runs. I wanted to look at them with eyes like my boyhood eyes.

I think I would have treasured them.

Arion is an immortal sorcerer with godlike powers. He lives in a fantasy Atlantis rather than a Greek myth Atlantis. The main, human, characters are diverse in gender and ethnicity, appearing Asian, African, and Native American as much as white, and with as many female characters as male. Although of course Arion, our main protagonist, is a white man, the captain of his guard and the best swordmaster of the kingdom is his lover, Lady Chian. For a comic in the early 80s I'd say that was pretty progressive.

The humans live alongside sub-men (basically underground-dwelling Neanderthals) and jackal-men, both of which groups seem to be pressed into service by one side or other. Clearly magic and technology exist side by side; the most prominent jackal-man, S'net, has a cyborg arm and Arion's companions wear holsters on their belts which contain ray guns.
I would have gone nuts for this when I was a kid.
There's a sense of wonder here. Colossal stone starships carry Atlantean colonists to the stars; Arion battles Lords of Chaos; an ice age encroaches from the North; everything is big, everything matters somehow. The comics I have seen never lose the sense of epic grandeur.
Note that in one of the other issues, S'net is all "nay" and "aye".
They're beautifully drawn. The artist, Jan Duursema, who was apparently one of the first really successful women to draw mainstream comics, has a fine sense of pacing and a good grasp of anatomy. The writing... Well. It's uneven. It works.

On the one hand, the writers – stalwart, prolific Doug Moench and Paul Kupperberg  – do just fine. I'd say Moench is better than Kupperberg but if I was eight or nine I would have adored these comics. Both writers have read the source material, at least superficially. Vague references to New Age Atlantis material are scattered throughout; the capitol of Atlantis is the City of the Golden Gates, for example. Pulp, too, gets referenced: the king of Atlantis, driven out in one issue, takes refuge in dim Carcosa.

Dialogue in the Moench issues is all swords and sorcery. Characters say things like, "Nay, Lord Garn, it is a vaunted station, is it not? And I have climbed high to attain it..." and "Thence onward to the City of the Golden Gate..." In Kupperberg's issues, it's a bit more uneven, and alongside the cod-Shakespearean stuff you have characters who say things like "Gee, you're just saying that 'cause I'm such a swell little fella," and "what's with those two?"
I love how someone with a hand around his throat is able to speechify. 

Plotwise, in the earlier issues, Arion faces a dark sorcerer named Garn (who's also his brother) and saves Atlantis, only to find himself worshipped by the people, much to his dismay and the anger of the King's general. In the double-sized finale, invaders come from outer space, invited by the God of Chaos. They turn out to be the descendants of Atlantean colonists from the distant past. They're defeated, but at the cost of Atlantis itself.

The story is lop-sided, frankly. Kupperberg has to not only wrap up the arcs of all of his not insubstantial main cast, he has to introduce the aliens as characters as well, and then sink Atlantis, and it's clearly all a bit out of hand, and Atlantis only actually starts to sink three pages from the end.
The final couple of panels. 
It's interesting, this comic. I mean, it had an audience inasmuch as comics had an audience, period, but it's not more than a footnote, really. The internet tells me that Arion would later be drafted into the wider comics universe and rub shoulders with the superheroes, but that doesn't interest me so much.

It's weird, though. Of all the fictional and New Age Atlantises I've read of, few are so close in atmosphere to the Atlantis of Chariot as the four-colour kids' Atlantis of Arion. Which is weird, because of course I never read it. But it's the Atlantis of my boyhood imagination nevertheless. Or one of them at any rate.


Notes
1One of the issues I had was about Superman and Batman defeating a giant pirate ship from space or something; another was made to celebrate DC editor Julius Schwartz' 70th birthday, and had Superman save Julius Schwartz, in his world a dying tramp, from a supervillain and then carry him into the real world, crashing the real Schwartz's birthday party, allowing the fictional and real men to merge, which was a mind-blowing thing for a kid, I can tell you. (back)

2A pretty great story with Mr Freeze ends with Robin getting taken away into care by Social Services and a "to be continued"; an issue of The Fury of Firestorm, The Nuclear Man in which he turns the Hudson River to oatmeal made no sense whatsoever to me, ending on a cliffhanger that was nonsensical without its context (he was curled up into a ball in the back of a truck, hallucinating, if I remember right). (back)

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