Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Reimagining a classic manga and anime series that introduces a fresh storyline yet paying homage and preserving the spirit of the original can be a daunting feat, yet Jérôme Alquié successfully achieves this vision in Space Pirate Captain Harlock. He adapts basic source material from Leiji Matsumoto’s rendition of the iconically eye patched, skull and bones emblazoned cape donning pirate, sailing across space with a ragtag crew of misfits en route to save the earth from an unidentified global threat.

The story is set in 2977, paralleling the original series. A wave of unexplained snowstorms ravage the earth, throwing the climate off balance. Teams of scientists launch research expeditions to uncover the mystery behind these phenomenally violent blizzards. Clues lead to the discovery of a mausoleum buried beneath the icy depths of the arctic regions. As the mystery deepens, a trio of mutant sisters appear, somehow collectively connected to unique elemental forces of nature like fire and ice. They have engineered a masterplan to undermine the stronghold of the Mazon—an ancient race of female aliens hibernating upon the earth for millennia.

This version of the Captain Harlock mythos presents a faithful rendering of the original both in character and set design along with core characters such as the impulsive driven Tadashi, loyal lieutenant Kei, reticent, observant alien Mimay, model building hobbyist and expert shipwright Yattaran, and on planet earth, little Mayu, daughter of a deceased friend whom Harlock has sworn to protect. Narrated in part as an epistolary series of journal entries from Harlock to the spirit of his battleship Arcadia, the plot unfolds through episodic chapters. The crew ventures through space in search of answers to combat the imminent invasion descending upon the earth. Rendered in noir style within the reaches of a deep blue outer space, Alquié also integrates brightly lit landscapes of a snow-covered earth. Intermittent expositional summaries fill in the backstory for new readers through intricately composed montages, highlighting key events and characters strategically arranged in a collage-like style.

Exquisitely illustrated panels packed with crisp, colorful character and set designs hearkening back to the original series will appeal to past and present otaku fans alike. A bonus gallery of variant covers and character sketches and descriptions occupy the back matter. This brilliantly crafted story takes place alongside the setting of the original and introduces a new alien threat, this time stemming from the earth. Space Pirate Captain Harlock offers a fresh, deftly reimagined take on a classic manga series that will attract younger as well as familiar fans in the science fiction canon of Japanese animation.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock Vol.
By Jérôme Alquié, Leiji Matsumoto,  ,
Ablaze, 2022
ISBN: 9781950912544

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  French,  Character Representation: Japanese,

The Cimmerian, vol. 1

The name of Conan of Cimmeria is well known to most fans of fantasy, though most associate it with the 1982 movie that made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet that movie would never have existed had it not been for the 1970s Marvel Comics series, which was adapted from the original stories of Texas author Robert E. Howard.

Howard originally spun his tales of Conan in Weird Tales magazine throughout the 1930s and his original stories have been in the public domain for quite some time outside of the United States. This led French comics publisher Glenat to start producing their own comic book adaptations of Howard’s Conan stories and American publisher Ablaze to start publishing English translations of those adaptations. There was a brief legal battle with the Conan Properties company that manages the license in the United States, but eventually it was agreed the comics could be published under the name The Cimmerian.

This first volume of The Cimmerian collects the adaptations of two of Howard’s most popular stories: Queen of the Black Coast and Red Nails. These stories are largely popular because they introduced two of Howard’s most notable heroines: the pirate queen Belit and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood.

One of the cruel ironies of Howard’s life is that he favored writing women warriors to damsels in distress, yet helpless women are more commonly associated with the sword-and-sorcery genre that Howard pioneered. The image of a shrieking, near-naked maiden clinging to the hero’s leg has become synonymous with Conan thanks to the liberties of more than a few artists and it seems likely this would have annoyed Howard to no end.

I mention this little factoid because the major selling point behind The Cimmerian series was that, since it was being produced by a European publisher, it would be free of the puritan standards of the American comic book industry. This series was promoted as being “the true Conan… unrestrained, violent, and sexual… just as Robert E. Howard intended.” The irony is that while Howard was not above putting a bit of sex appeal into his stories, he mainly did this to cater to the artistic preferences of Weird Tales cover artist Margaret Brundage (who loved painting women in peril) because the writers whose stories were chosen to inspire the cover art got paid more.

Unfortunately, those hoping to see such famous scenes as the mating dance of Belit or a naked and unafraid Valeria slitting the throat of the witch who intended to sacrifice her will feel cheated. For all the talk of this adaptation being bloodier and more sexual than the American Conan comics, there is nothing here that would rate higher than an OT (Older Teen) rating, at most, in terms of nudity and sexual content. Just a few mostly bare bottoms and some side-boob. Indeed, it is comical how far the artists go to avoid showing nipples when the female characters are naked to the waist.

Beyond that, these comics do not really succeed as adaptations. The artwork on Queen of the Black Coast is muddied and the action is crammed into too small a space, so it is hard to tell just what is happening in most of the action sequences. Red Nails is better paced but is drawn as a more generic fantasy work than the historic “pirates versus Meso-American cultists” story Howard wrote it as. Tellingly, Valeria spends most of the story in a halter and breechcloth rather than the breeches and silk shirt described in Howard’s original text, which is also included in this volume.

In the end, it is hard to say who The Cimmerian might appeal to. Howard purists will dislike the divergencies from the original text. Those hoping for a more adult sword-and-sorcery experience than those published by Marvel Comics and Dynamite Entertainment will be sorely disappointed, as there is nothing here that lives up to the series’ hype. In fact, despite being promoted as an adults-only comic, this series is rated OT for older teens and that’s largely because of the violence. All in all, most librarians would be better off investing in the Conan omnibus editions than this series.

The Cimmerian, vol. 1
By Régis Hautière, Jean-David Morvan, Robert Howard
Art by  Pierre Alary, Didier Cassegrain, Olivier Vatine
Ablaze, 2021
ISBN: 9781950912209
Publisher Age Rating:  15+ Only
Series ISBNS and Order
Related media:  Book to Comic

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)

Common Grounds

Common Grounds is a lost treasure of the Modern Age of Comics. (That’s not hyperbole. I literally lost my copies of the original six-issue mini-series somewhere along the line and only recently rediscovered the series after chancing upon the trade paperback collection in a used book store.)

There is no over-riding plot or main character in Common Grounds. Instead, writer Troy Hickman presents a series of thirteen vignettes built around the titular chain of coffee shops. Founded by a retired superhero named Big Money, the goal of the chain was to give costumed crime-fighters a place to relax in their masked personas while they were off duty. In an effort to foster understanding and peace, costumed criminals are also welcomed provided they leave their grudges at the door.

These interludes run the gamut from low comedy to high drama, occasionally playing with both comedic and dramatic elements at the same time. The opening story, “Beyond the Speed of Life,” sets this balanced tone perfectly. It tells the story of a reporter interviewing his favorite superhero, The Speeding Bullet, at a nearby Common Grounds location. The Speeding Bullet is a speedster who is widely beloved by the public and acknowledged as one of the greatest heroes in the world. He is also, to the surprise of the reporter, largely unsatisfied with his life outside of heroism. While he loves helping people and is thankful for the opportunities his powers give him, “SB” does express his wish for the ability to slow down on occasion and his desire to live a normal life.

It would be easy to play the problems of a man with super-speed off for laughs or for Speeding Bullet to come off as a bit of a whiner, but Hickman seriously examines how super-speed with the heightened perceptions to match your reflexes would make everyday life a bit more difficult. For instance, being able to eat whatever you want due to a heightened metabolism that burns off excess calories in minutes sounds great in theory, but the fact of the matter is you have to spend more time in the bathroom than a normal person. Why? Well, there are some things you can’t do at super speed. Such is Hickman’s gift as a writer that he can play up the comedy such situations while simultaneously exploring the dramatic elements of the superhero genre.

The book’s cast features a host of other such memorable characters, but my favorite is probably Moshe Chomsky. Moshe is a devout Hasidic Rabbi who somehow developed the power to melt anything he touches. Moshe is an honestly good person who prays for guidance and struggles to find constructive uses for a destructive ability, all while trying to tolerate “the smart-alecks in the media” who dubbed him “The Acidic Jew,” with good humor. There’s no small amount of irony that such a potentially deadly power should wind up in the hands of someone so ill-disposed toward violence and hurting people and it is fun to watch Hickman play off the clichés of comics (which demand that anyone with fire powers have a temper or anyone with cold powers be emotionally distant) in this way.

This is one of the best-looking comics series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, featuring an all-star roster of artists. Dan Jurgens does the lion’s share of the work, having drawn six of the thirteen vignettes but there’s not a single scrub in the line-up. Michael Avon Oeming. Ethan Van Sciver. Chris Bachalo. Carlos Pacheco. Angel Medina. Sam Kieth. The legendary George Perez. You’d be hard pressed to get one artist of this caliber for a mini-series, let alone all of these fine artists!

Common Grounds is a must read for any fan of the superhero genre, as well as those who typically dismiss superhero stories as childish fantasies. There are some truly complex stories here, with none of the gore or overt sexuality one usually expects in a Top Cow graphic novel. Indeed, apart from some frank discussions about superhero sexuality ala the Man of Steel/Woman of Kleenex debate, there’s no material in this collection I would consider objectionable for a teenage audience.

Common Grounds
by Troy Hickman
Art by Dan Jurgens, Michael Avon Oeming, Ethan Van Sciver, Chris Bachalo, Carlos Pacheco, Angel Medina, Sam Kieth and George Perez
ISBN: 9781582408415
Top Cow Productions, 2007
Publisher Age Rating: (13+)