Welcome back to the Elric Reread, in which I revisit one of my all-time favorite fantasy series: Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. You can find all the posts in the series here. Today’s post talks about Elric in the comic book world, and about Moorcock’s own comics in particular.
Elric appeared in comic book form as far back as 1972, in a guest appearance in Conan the Barbarian, drawn by the great Barry Windsor-Smith. All of the original novels have been adapted into comics form as well, the best by far being P. Craig Russell’s gorgeous adaptation of Stormbringer. Recently, Chris Roberson has taken on Elric and the Eternal Champion mythos in his series Elric: The Balance Lost—an ambitious multi-Champion story in which Roberson’s reach somewhat exceeds his grasp, and which unfortunately isn’t very well served by the art.
Key to the Elric saga, however, are the comics that Michael Moorcock himself has penned: Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse and Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer.
The Making of a Sorcerer, first published in 2005 and 2006, is by far the easier one to discuss, and the most accessible to readers just getting acquainted with Moorcock. The scripts were published in the Gollancz edition of Elric of Melniboné, but it’s worth seeking out the original four-issue comic or trade paperback, because it’s illustrated by the brilliant Walt Simonson, whose 1980s run on Thor is essential. Simonson’s angular, muscular Melnibonéans might come as a shock to anyone who’s envisioned them as a sort of delicate, effete race of elves, but his ability to draw genuinely awe-inspiring gods and elementals and weird creatures is a big part of this comic’s success.
This prequel to Elric of Melniboné shows the four dream-quests that young Elric undertakes to prove his fitness as the future emperor of Melniboné. In these magical dreams, Elric’s soul returns to an earlier period in Melniboné’s history; in each tale he gains knowledge and experience which, while not consciously remembered, add to his skill in the waking world—and where he also plays a key role in determining his people’s fate and their eventual turn towards corruption and Chaos.
There are some interesting questions raised by this—is Elric stepping through fixed historical events in some manner not unlike the protagonist in the Assassin’s Creed games? Are they dreams with only a little relation to reality? or is his agency such that he could have made a grandfather-paradox decision to, say, not ally the Melnibonéan kingdom with Chaos? If the latter, there’s a disconcerting degree of predestination going on here, underlining an idea that runs throughout the Eternal Champion books: that the Champion, whatever form he wears and whatever incarnation he’s in, is doomed to repeat the same narratives over and over again. As the White Crow, he must make an infernal bargain with Arioch to save his people; as Prince Silverskin, he must take up a demonic black sword for the same purpose; and as King Elrik, he will lead a fleet of outsiders against Immryr and kill his sister-queen Asrid with his runesword.
A lot of what’s laid down here ties in with the last three Elric books, which we’ll be tackling in the new year, and the theme of repeated incarnations harks back to Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, published in 1997 and illustrated by Simonson, Mark Reeve, and John Ridgway. This comic is a deeply weird piece of work, drawing together characters and themes from all over Moorcock’s writings. Framed as a multiverse-determining game in which Moorcock himself is a player, the comic features Jack Karaquazian and the hallucinatory Chaos Engineers of the Second Ether books, and multiple versions of the Rose from The Revenge of the Rose. There’s a Seaton Begg story which includes an early version of the short story later known as “The Case of the Nazi Canary,” and a tale called “Duke Elric” in which our moody albino is recast as a Crusades-era English nobleman sent into exile and seeking out a legendary creature known as the Silverskin.
Yes, that word again. There’s a frequent sense in which Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse feels like a dry run for a number of ideas that Moorcock explores in subsequent books, like the whole concept of the Melnibonéan silverskins and the white-skinned, red-eyed albinos in the bloodline of the Von Bek family that we’ll learn about next in The Dreamthief’s Daughter. “Duke Elric”—the comic scripts for which are included in the Del Rey volume of that name—is a rehearsal for the stories of Elric’s thousand-year dream quests, in which he lives out life after life in “our” world, including his existence as Zenith the Albino in The Metatemporal Detective.
All of this is played out amongst a series of intertwining stories involving Sir Seaton’s own search for the Silverskin, the Chaos Engineers’ fight against the forces of the Singularity (Chaos vs. Law, again, but here Law is very much the villain that would remove all strangeness and wonder from the multiverse), and Moorcock’s own game against Karaquazian, where the Rose is something of a wild card and in which the fates of the characters of all the other stories is decided. As with The Making of a Sorcerer, Simonson’s art is a true highlight of the whole endeavour. Reeve and Ridgway are good, but Simonson gets to go all-out with some brain-bending double page spreads, and he’s probably one of the few artists who could do justice to Moorcock’s surreal vision.
This really isn’t Moorcock for novices. It’s heavily influenced by Moorcock’s own reading of James Gleick’s Chaos, and dives deep into ideas of repeated narrative patterns and the vision of the Multiverse as an enormous fractal, containing infinite variations of the larger whole. It can be very hard to follow and, for the reader seeking out a bit of straightforward sword and sorcery, deeply frustrating. In the event you decide to tackle this, finish up with Elric, and then go spend a little time with Von Bek, Jerry Cornelius, and the Second Ether books. Much, then, will be clearer.
We’re into the home stretch now. This is the last Elric Re-Read post for the year; I’ll be back in January with The Dreamthief’s Daughter, the first of the Moonbeam Roads trilogy. I’ll leave you now with a sample of that P. Craig Russell Stormbringer, just to give you one last pretty thing to look at.