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by James Stokoe
Orc Stain was one of the more celebrated new books of the last year, and somehow I missed it. Not just the hype, but even the book itself. Til I saw it pop up on a bunch of year’s best lists, I was at best only vaguely aware of its existence. I can only assume that it got swallowed up by the competition on the racks. I mean, it’s possible that I picked an issue up, flipped through it, and tossed it back. My flip-through instincts are pretty reliable, but sometimes…
Sometimes, I just fall asleep at the wheel.
And that seems to be what happened with Orc Stain. Because this book is pure dynamite. How to describe it, though? What words best-capture the Orc Stain experience? Here, let me lay a few on you:
If I just stopped the review right there, you’d still have a pretty good idea of what to expect when you pick up Orc Stain. But lord knows I can’t stop there. I may be constitutionally incapable of it, in fact…
As the title probably implies, it’s a fantasy comic. A fantasy comic about orcs, and the way they ruin everything they touch (which is where the “stain“ comes in). More specifically, though, Orc Stain is about an orc named One-Eye, who, you guessed it, has only one eye -- not a subtle people, the orcs. Anyway, One-Eye is a traveling soldier of fortune type, smarter than your average orc, but still just taking whatever jobs he can get from whatever local orc bosses are hiring. Elsewhere, the mighty Orc Tsar is gathering his forces in a quest for a legendary object of power. A prophesy draws One-Eye into the Orc Tsar’s plans, and…
Yes, yes. I know. I’ve just described Fantasy Plot #2-B. But as with most genre fiction, it’s not the plot that makes Orc Stain shine. It’s the way that plot is executed. And Stokoe’s execution is pretty freaking stellar, and moves the book well outside the realm of bog-standard fantasy. He seems to have taken much of his inspiration (in terms of tone, at least) from stuff like 2000 AD and the game Warhammer, which gives the whole thing an irreverent and pleasingly cynical tone.
So the ruination that comes at the hands of the orcs, for instance, isn’t due to some magical evil or anything; orcs are generally just stupid and ill-tempered hooligan types given to violence, drinking, fucking, and very little else. Like football fans run amuck. And that object of power the Orc Tsar is after? It’s something called “The Ganga Gronch,” which in the orc language essentially means… “The God Dick.” That’s right: he’s after the severed penis of a god, which he believes will give him (some sort of ill-defined) ultimate power.
The Orc Tsar is pretty wildly obsessed with penises in general, in fact, as is all of orc culture. They chop them off as punishment, display them as trophies, and make money out of them. This phallocentrism may stem from the fact that there are no female orcs. Or, rather, the female orcs may be called nymphs. Not that Stokoe explains this at any great length, but (assuming that the nymphs aren’t an entirely separate species) the two sexes seem to live separately for the most part, with the orcs considering the nymphs as little more than sex objects, and the nymphs (who don't seem to have much more on the ball than the orcs, frankly) working mostly as prostitutes in exchange for money or drugs.
If this all sounds kind of grungy and biologically-obsessed, that’s because it is. Stokoe’s orcs live in a very (VERY!) organic world. The orcs are surrounded by any number of bizarre little insects and creatures, some of which they use as tools and food, sort of like in the Flintstones, but far more grotesque. My favorite example of this is a scene in which One-Eye’s given a pop-top can to drink, and we realize that the can is actually some kind of can-shaped animal that desperately does not want its innards drunk. “Oh god no!!” the can screams in its tiny voice as One-Eye pops its top, simultaneously horrifying and hysterical. And that sums up orc society better than anything else I could tell you: they have a callous disregard for anything and everything around them, no matter how much it might protest.
Which brings to mind another of Orc Stain’s charms: though he keeps the tone light, Stokoe has obviously figured out his fantasy world pretty well, from orc society to the ecology surrounding it. Plot and action never stop their effortless forward motion, but not a chapter goes by that doesn’t introduce us to something new. Whether it’s a penis-based economy or mind-control embryos, to read this book is to be smacked right in the face, over and over, with an endless array of raw, wet ideas.
Ideas rendered in some of the most idiosyncratic and crazily-detailed artwork to come down the pike in quite some time. Stokoe’s visuals are equal measures Moebius, Jamie Hewlett, graffiti art, and GWAR album covers, and are pretty damned compelling. You can click to embiggen all the following images, which I heartily encourage you to do, just so you can see the detail work involved. The first and last images, in particular, are whole different pictures when viewed full-size…
That last one features my favorite supporting character, Boss Beard. We don’t know much about him, other than that he’s right-hand man to the Orc Tsar, but dude! He appears to be a head that moves around under the power of an ambulatory beard! THAT, my friends, is genius character creation, and exactly the sort of thing that moves this book beyond standard fantasy fiction and into the realm of the extraordinary.
Orc Stain was probably the best new comic of 2010, and the fact that I’m only just reading it in 2011 pisses me off to no end. It’s time, I think, to trust my instincts less and give distinctive new books more of a chance…
by Malachai and Ethan Nicolle
I did start reading Axe Cop in 2010; it was, in fact, one of my nominees for Best Funnybook of the year. I discovered it around the same time everybody else did: when it went viral, and got written up all over the web. The story of the strip is pretty well-known by now, but I’ll cover it briefly anyway: Axe Cop is written by five- (now six-)year-old Malachai Nicolle, and drawn by his big brother Ethan (a 30-year-old professional funnybook artist). The characters and subsequent stories came out of play-time between the two brothers, and the book captures the crazy, funny, violent, don’t-know-any-better creativity of a young boy.
So when Axe Cop’s partner Flute Cop gets dinosaur blood on him when they go to the Land of Volcanoes to fight dinosaurs, and turns into the reptilian bad-ass Dinosaur Soldier… It’s best not to ask questions, and just go along for the ride. And when he later (like, two pages later) eats an avocado and turns into Avocado Soldier? Just laugh your ass off like I did and keep on rolling. And when Sockarang (who doesn’t have any arms, but instead has socks that he can shoot off at bad guys like boomerangs) gets blood from Bad Santa on him, grows a bushy black beard, and gains the power of Christmas? Yeah, you get the idea…
I think I’ve said “WHAT?!?” more times while reading this strip than I have while reading anything else, ever. It’s that kind of book. Characters get weird power-ups and change into different people and do all sorts of things that make total sense to a five-year-old, but sound completely insane to anyone else. What does Axe Cop do at night, for instance? He puts on a black cat-suit (which actually has cat ears on it) so he can sneak into bad guys’ bedrooms and kill them while they sleep! That shouldn’t be surprising for a guy whose battle cry is “I’ll chop your head off!” but somehow, I was still shocked by it. Shocked into hysterical laughter, granted, but still. Shocked!
The craziest thing in this first volume (which, by the way, is a print collection of Axe Cop strips that first appeared on-line) is the Baby Man sub-plot in the “Ultimate Battle” storyline. Baby Man, of course, is a full-grown man (with five o’clock shadow) who wears a big padded baby costume. Well, in “The Ultimate Battle,” we discover that he lives with a whole Baby Family, and we follow his misadventures as he goes out to hunt down a series of escalating threats, all of whom crap incredibly dangerous objects. Because Baby Man and his entire family are mute (perhaps due to the pacifiers in their mouths), the whole sequence is lent an even more surreal atmosphere than the Axe Cop strip normally has, and is thus somehow even funnier.
Of course, I’m making the same mistake every other reviewer has with this strip: talking about Malachai’s story contributions without mentioning brother Ethan’s artwork. Ethan gives Malachai’s anarchic creativity a bit of structure, and makes sure that it’s readable (though he uses the kid’s exact words whenever possible). But without Ethan‘s rock-solid cartooning and character design, Axe Cop just wouldn’t work. Even on the early strips, when he was just doing it as a throw-away thing for family and friends, there’s an unmistakable vitality to the art. So while Malachai is certainly the star here, Ethan’s the guy that makes it work so very well.
If I have anything negative to say about Axe Cop in book form, it’s that, much like playing pretend with a five-year-old, it can be a bit exhausting in long stretches. The near-constant invention, the bizarre kid-logic plot twists, the complete disregard for “proper” storytelling… It can get to be a bit much after a while. My rule was that if I went for more than a page without laughing, it was time to put the book down for the day. I found it telling that, when I re-read that page the next day, I’d usually laugh pretty damn hard at it. This (for better or worse) made Axe Cop volume one great toilet reading for me. I’d almost never get burned out on it in those short bursts. Of course, that also meant it took me a while to get through it. But, considering how much I loved the ride… That’s not a bad thing.
by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt
I first read the Sixth Gun on last year’s Free Comic Book Day, when the first issue was given away to all comers. I was pretty impressed, and intended to pick the book up when it started coming out regularly. Then I just… didn’t. Don’t remember why, really. Maybe I forgot about it. Maybe it had the misfortune to debut during one of my “too many floppies!” periods, when I curtail my monthly comics buying. Whatever the reason, I’ve been passing it up in monthly form, but decided to get the trade when it came out recently. But that’s enough about my buying habits! You’re here to read about some funnybooks!
And The Sixth Gun is good funnybooks. Not great, but good. Bunn’s script is solid if not stellar, with good panel-to-panel transitions, no clumsy dialogue, and perhaps best of all, no painful exposition (and there’s plenty of need for exposition, so that’s doubly impressive). Hurtt’s art matches that performance. It’s good, solid adventure cartooning, realistic but simple in an eye-pleasing way, and with some frankly terrific character designs that tell you exactly what you need to know about each of the major players at a glance. It’s not exactly energizing work, but I like it.
Not to damn the book with faint praise. Because where The Sixth Gun really shines is in concept. It’s a supernatural Western, first of all, which is one of my favorite sub-genres. But more importantly, Bunn has stocked his Haunted West with a collection of really fantastic toys. There’s a ghost tree, for instance, to which the souls of those hung on it are bound, forced to serve as macabre oracles until the map to their location is destroyed.
And then there’s the guns, six mystical weapons, each of which has a different power. One shoots flaming bullets, one infects its victims with a hideous rotting disease, one can summon up an army composed of the spirits of those it’s killed, etc. Each of the guns twists its user, eventually rendering them into monsters.
Which brings us to the human toys Bunn’s populated the story with. Four of the guns are held by a terrible posse of evil bastards in service to the former owner of the missing sixth gun, a Confederate general and major-league diabolist who’s been chained into his coffin and entombed on holy ground at the start of the story. His wife (my favorite character in the book) holds the fifth gun, which grants her eternal youth and a healing factor that would make Wolverine green with envy. And of course there’s Drake Sinclair, who used to work for the General but is now in business for himself. He’s a thoroughgoing bastard, but considerably less of one than his old boss, and is therefore Our Hero by default.
Now. None of those characters have a whole lot of depth, and neither do the ones I haven’t mentioned. The grand epic sweep the book’s concepts beg for isn’t quite there, either, and if I have a complaint, it’s that. Events escalate a tad too quickly, and none of it’s given time to breathe sufficiently. [SPOILER] So when we get to the big climactic battle, and so many of the book’s grand mythic characters start to drop dead, I’m left feeling a tad disappointed. Creepy-Guy-With-Flour-Sack-On-His-Head, I hardly knew ye. And, man, I really wanted to see more of you. [/SPOILER] Instead of six chapters, this really felt like it should have run twelve, and that rush to the finish line hurts it. What’s there is good. I just wish there had been more of it.
So. Tons of great creepy-mythic ideas power this book, and the execution, while not awe-inspiring, is strong enough to carry it. Again, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from reading it when I say that. Being good-not-great actually puts this book a few steps ahead of most of its competition. If you like Mike Mignola‘s BPRD, you’ll probably like this, too. Even if you don’t love it.