Artesia Afire

Zachary Houle

Imagine, if you will, the literary genre of high fantasy existing in the middle of a rather crowded meadow -- one with deep trench now running through the middle of it. The trench would naturally mark the place where J.R.R. Tolkien struck gold with his Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s.

Artesia Afire

Publisher: Archaia Studios Press
Length: 240
Writer: Mark Smylie
Item Type: Comic
Publication Date: 2004-04

Imagine, if you will, the literary genre of high fantasy existing in the middle of a rather crowded meadow -- one with deep trench now running through the middle of it. The trench would naturally mark the place where J.R.R. Tolkien struck gold with his Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s, a trench that's now pretty deep and filled with all sorts of mud and grime.

Despite the depth and ugliness of the trench, there is still many a person working deep inside it, hoping perhaps to find a gold nugget that they can stake their claim to fame on. It's a difficult process to say the least. Work too quickly, and all you collect are rocks. Work too slowly, and chances are someone will strike it rich on the same seam before you.

Well, one of the folks within this trench is an indie comic book artist called Mark Smylie, who has brought forth a comic book fantasy series based on a female witch named Artesia. The series has received a great deal of acclaim of the sort gold can't really buy. The artist/author was nominated for a Ross Manning Award for Best Newcomer in 1999, and also nominated for a 2001 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. ForeWord Magazine gave Artesia, the first volume in the series, its 2003 Graphic Novel Book of the Year Award.

We're not sure if the acclaim has gone to Smylie's head, but he's now announcing he has high ambitions for his sorceress. In the introduction to Artesia Afire -- the item up for review here -- he says that this 2003 six-issue miniseries (now collected into a trade paperback) is only the third part of a massive ongoing tome called The Book of Dooms. It will run a mind-boggling 22 volumes when it's finally completed and, assuming that Smylie continues to publish his work every two or three years, one can do a bit of quick math and figure out the series will probably end in the year 2043.

I hope his readers have a lot of patience. Assuming that they feel rewarded enough to hang around that long.

The problem with Artesia Afire is there's not enough here to keep many High Fantasy readers interested for an extended period of time. While it's obvious that Smylie is talented and ambitious, his comics are rather surprisingly derivative. Few readers will likely have fun counting up all the Lord of the Rings references and allusions to Greek and Norse mythology, since most have already traveled over that sort of terrain many, many times.

In all honesty, Smylie lost me as a reader the first time it was mentioned that this story was set in the Middle Kingdom. (Middle Earth anyone?) On a similar note, the author actually also had the audacity to name a character Boromir -- just like Tolkien did. And that's when he wasn't giving his lands banal names like Attalica, which makes me wonder if Lars Ulrich is the ruler of that kingdom.

Ultimately, if you're going to set your story in another world, you have become more than just a storyteller. You have to become a linguist, a biologist, a chemist, an anthropologist and a journalist. Better yet, you have to become God in every sense of the word. This is not only hard to pull off, it really does take years and years of trying to get things right. It may have taken the Judeo-Christian Lord seven days to create the earth, but it took Tolkien -- a mere mortal -- more than a decade to write the Rings trilogy. Most of his time, particularly in the early years, was consumed with developing a world that was familiar yet strange, and create it right down to its tiniest detail. He had to believe in his own world to such an extent that, upon sitting down to write, he was practically living in it.

I don't get that sense from Smylie, and, if fact, it seems as though he's making everything up as he goes along. (At one point towards the end of Artesia Afire, his main character even cracks that she's doing just that). What's more, the endless essays and glossaries used to fill in the back-story merely bog the reader down, coming across as a laborious pseudo-intellectual exercise. Why not create a stand-alone issue telling this sort of thing in flashback? Robert Jordon does it in his Wheel of Time series of novels, which means a reader can come in and start at book three and logically make sense of what's going on with a fair amount of ease.

Finally, it became readily apparent over the course of reading this that the sex and violence that has earned it a "mature reader" warning on its cover is little more than a crutch to cover the author's world building and storytelling weaknesses. At one point, the sex was so over-the-top that it recalled the orgy scenes out of Caligola -- the campy '70s art-porn film financed by Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione.

While it's certainly great to see someone with passion and drive to scope a series so far in advance, it's hard not to feel cynical that this series is an exercise in futility. There's a reason why some people re-read Lord of the Rings annually. May I propose that it could be to save themselves the trouble of wasting their time and money on unfulfilling knock-offs like this one? As Golem might say, why look over a stone painted yellow when one can savor the precious glitter of true gold?

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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