UNEARTHED: Elric: The Dreaming City, Part One

OMIGOSH I’M HYPERVENTILATING

*passes out for 3 hours*

Okay, I’m back. Sorry about that, it’s just that this comic means a lot to me. There’s a ton of stuff to unpack here, so let’s get to it.

THIS… is writer Roy Thomas and artist P. Craig Russell’s “Elric: The Dreaming City”, a comic adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s hero Elric of Melnibon√©. Originally appearing in Science Fantasy Magazine No. 47, in June 1961, Elric has such a convoluted history I’m not going to attempt to recount it. Suffice to say, the series of novels is extremely doom-laden and gothic and it hit me at just the right age, probably 12 or so.

But what you need to know for the telling of this story is that this adaptation is from somewhat farther into the novels. Elric is exiled from his homeland where he’s a prince, and his cousin/lover Cymoril is imprisoned by his other cousin Yrkoon. Just… just go with it.

Holy shit. Just LOOK at that. P. Craig Russell’s known for his extremely ornamental and design-informed work. He doesn’t really vary his line weights, which gives everything a slightly ethereal quality, but man, you can get lost in all the decorative elements, huh?

I’m a huge Russell fan, and he gets more play later in this Marvel Graphic Novel series, have no fear of THAT.

Incredible use of color, too. But on to the story.

As befitting the genre, the language here is a bit elevated/stilted, but that’s all to the fun of it. Notice again the color work, which really adds to the mood of the piece.

One thing to note about Russell’s work: he favors characterization over realism most of the time, which is one of the things I love about him. It’s known that he does use photo references for much of his characters, but his stylization overwhelms any sense that you’re just looking at figures drawn directly from life.

Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about, as we meet all the people in the room. Their poses and attitudes are immediately readable and almost, but not quite, caricaturistic.

Another thing to note: you can tell when Russell is working from photos and when he’s just using his memory and imagination. Contrast the figures in the first panel with the highly-detailed realism of the foreground figure in the second panel. That’s from a photo for sure. And it’s kind of strange that Russell would have devoted so much time to drawing him in such detail, given that all we’re doing is looking past him to the figure in the background. But panels like this stick with me long after I’m finished reading the comic.

So here’s what’s going on: Elric wants to return to where he’s from, where he’s a prince: Imrryr, the Dreaming City of the title. But it’s guarded against his return, it’s one of this world’s major cities of power. And these ship lords want to take it for themselves, but even with their might, they can’t risk an outright frontal assault. But having lived there, Elric knows a secret way in. And thus…

Elric makes his dramatic entrance. In the novels, Elric is described as sickly, a frail albino who must use sorcery and drugs to sustain his very life. But he’s also a powerful sorceror with an allegiance to one of the Lords of Chaos, a godlike figure who grants him power. He’s also got a magic sword, but we’ll get to that later.

Now, one of the things Russell does is, much like a lot of Japanese manga artists do, he’ll forego using detail for anything less than close ups. That, combined with his single line weights, means that without the proper use of color, objects and figures can blend into each other. Fortunately, Russell knows what he’s doing and that never happens.

Here’s a panel to my point. Close up, we get a look at Elric’s haunted face, and his crimson eyes. And note what Elric’s saying here: if he can’t have the throne of Imrryr himself, he’ll just destroy it. A bunch’a shit’s already gone down in ol’ Elric’s past. We’re fully in media res here, y’all.

Russell’s design sensibilities once again to the fore in this splash page. I believe I’ve seen the photo that Russell worked from for this image of Elric’s mad cousin Yrkoon, but I don’t recall if the model had the same weird swollen mouth pucker on the left side of his face. We may never know. But hey, that’s an evil face, huh? Whoo.

Mysterious! How WILL Elric hide the fleet? HMMMMMMMM?

Leaning heavily into gothic imagery here!

This is an aspect of Moorcock’s fantasy worlds that I always appreciated, and something I’m using for my own work: that magic has a cost. You don’t see that much in other fantasy stories.

This is Elric’s doing. A fog so thick no one can see through it.

It’s cool when an artist knows to just let the text do the work. Elric’s cloak serves as a graphical element here to frame the words.

Here’s another thing I love about Russell’s work: he concretizes magic in a really fun and beautiful way.

Not since Dr. Strange have we gotten these kinds of energy manipulation effects. Cool shit.

What’s next for Elric? Find out in the next episode, “UNEARTHED: Elric: The Dreaming City, Part Two”!

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