[13 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Narrative structure is so vastly important to comicbooks, not to mention all mediums. While individual pieces can at times open in the middle and close well before the end, this type of storytelling is better exploited in pop music than in graphic literature. Murky World by Richard Corben is a comic, but plays more like a stereotypical heavy metal song. It is both frustrating in its beauty and in its inability to tell a complete story—like much of pop music.
Corben is best known for his underground comics including Den, and his stories in the magazine Heavy Metal, later adapted as part of the Heavy Metal movie, as well as drawing the cover to Meatloaf’s seminal album “Bat Out of Hell.” He is a prodigy of the Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian, sword and sorcery aesthetic. This probably tells you more than you’ll need to understand Corben and his work—baffling in its beauty, yet firmly ensconced in pre-adolescent fantasy.
Murky World, collected here from its run in Dark Horse Presents, is a comic that takes no time to explain itself and thrusts you right into the action. It’s ambitious, to say the least, but also quite frustrating. It has the feel of a series of small stories that at times lead in to each other, however crudely. In that, we have a clear understanding (because it is rather dark and gloomy) yet not clear.
Tugat the bearded warrior is out to retrieve his lost horse Frix. Along the way he is confronted by zombie-like deadlings, bald female warrior-thieves, cruel and lustful necromancers, a large-chested cyclops and countless treasures. It’s a bizarre land, much like the Cimmeria, but unlike the Conan stories it is obviously inspired by, Murky World ends as abruptly as it begins, without much to connect its plot to its execution.
There is a certain element that could make you believe that the story is about Conan creator Robert Howard himself, minus the suicide. It’s like a three part chorus to the father of pulp sword and sorcery. But unlike what could be imagined as a roaring “hammer of the Gods” heavy metal song epic, the three pieces only loosely connect with no overarching point beyond being inspired by their predecessor.
Perhaps that is the point, and while that sort of tribute is certainly welcome in an anthology like Dark Horse Presents, as a collected edition it needs something more to be complete in the sense of narrative. Is there more to the story? More to be told? There doesn’t appear to be more to come. The story beats certainly demand more, and more were to come, then this Murky World might just be something.
Corben’s artwork is something else entirely. Whereas the narrative lacks discipline, the art is something to behold with its gritty feel and otherworld aesthetic. Here the heavy metal song metaphor takes on its own existence, separate from the story. Each page, each panel is wonderful in its execution and detail. Slightly less bombastic than his previous work, and holding steady somewhere between less-is-more and heavily-detailed, Corben use of thick pencils and inks show why his career is as near-legendary as it has been. The guitar riffs you could imagine accompanying it soar to the lower stratosphere of power chords and reverberate in the sonic understanding of iron power and physical might. The pencil is the pick and the paper its guitar, frozen in the depression that murkiness most certainly causes.
A case can be made that the point of Murky World is to just be, to exist as a land and universe unto itself without some sort of connection to the type of narrative we’ve come to expect from graphic storytelling. It’s like a soundscape of heavy metal barbarians flushed with hints and traits associated with pop music. Fair enough. As a collected edition of its run in Dark Horse Presents, it is exactly what it is. But as a narrative story, it is not complete and only average, no matter how beautiful it looks.