Comic Book Review: Marada The She-Wolf

Marada The She-Wolf from Epic Illustrated magazine #10–11 (‘The Shattered Sword’), #12 (‘Royal Hunt’) and #23–24 (‘Wizard’s Masque’)
Created by Chris Claremont and John Bolton
Written by Chris Claremont
Art by John Bolton
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Edited by Jo Duffy
Published by Titan Books

I was first introduced to the creative combination of Chris Claremont and John Bolton through their work together on the wonderful back-up stories in Classic X-Men, a reprint title of The Uncanny X-Men (with excellent covers by Art Adams) that was first published in 1986. However, they had already been working as a team for a few years – Marada The She-Wolf was first published in Epic Illustrated in 1982, and The Black Dragon, another fantasy series, was published in 1985. Their work in Classic X-Men was an amazing product of their combined talents, but as evidenced by this handsome hardback reprint, the two talents clicked immediately to create beautiful comic books.

Marada The She-Wolf is a historical fantasy – Marada is the daughter ‘of the first born of Caesar’ and ‘a prince in his own land, a slave in Rome’ – about a female warrior renowned throughout the Roman Empire for her ferocity and skill. However, when we first meet her in a caravan in Gallilee, she is being rescued by Donal MacLlanllwyr, warlord of Ashandriar, the mythical stronghold on the coast of England. She is not the fierce warrior she once was; instead, she is a scared and submissive reflection of her former self, barely able to hold a sword, let alone fight with it. It transpires that she was a captive in Damascus of a sorcerer called Simyon Karashnur, who serves the Mabdhara, Lords of the Abyss, so that she could be the consort of the demon Y’garon (or Ygaron – it’s inconsistent between the first two instalments). During her several months in Ashandriar, she recuperates and develops a friendship with Donal’s daughter, Arianrhod, and feelings for Donal. However, Simyon has sent a demon after Marada, which captures Arianrhod, meaning that Marada must travel to the demonic domain of Y’garon to save her and face her own demons, both metaphorical and literal. Even a strange duplication of two word balloons (in different styles) in the climactic pages doesn’t affect the power of the panels, as Marada achieves her revenge.

The second story sees Marada and Arianrhod in the empire of Meroe in East Africa, after Arianrhod’s transportation spell to depart Ygaron’s domain left them far away from their intended destination of Ashandriar, captured by the ruler of Meroe, Ashake (called a ‘Candance’, which seems to be a Claremont corruption of Candace, a title for a queen of the people around Nubia and Ethiopia). Ashake wants to go on a Royal Hunt, with Marada and Arianrhod as the prey, with the goal of freedom if our two heroes can make it to the Mountains of the Moon. Obviously, things become more complicated than that … The third tale finds our heroes on a boat out of Alexandria bound for Brindisium; unwisely, Arianrhod tries another transportation spell to aid their journey home but it goes awry, opening a portal that allows a demonic creature access to their cabin. Marada fights it off but ends up transported to a ship where she ends up earning a place on the crew of Taric Redhand, ‘scourge of southern seas’, eventually arriving at the black isle of Djeriabar and the tower of Jaffar Ibn Haroun Al-Rashid, ‘the greatest wizard in the world’. Jaffar helps her in a moment of danger but things turn for the worse when it is revealed that Jaffar serves the Mabdhara, who still want Marada …

These stories stand the test of time, retaining their evocative power 30 years after their creation. Claremont was at the height of his creative powers back then, and Marada was a distillation of the strong female characters for which he was known in The Uncanny X-Men. Marada is strong, courageous, smart and capable, but not devoid of heart and an ability to connect emotionally with people and the world. The stories are fantastical adventures but they also have an emotional resonance (the only misstep is the ‘demon rape’ aspect of Marada’s story, which is almost forgivable when you consider that there were hardly any strong female characters in their own stories in comic books at the time, but is still uncomfortable to have in an otherwise excellent tale).

For a fan like me, who entered the world of comic books reading Claremont’s work, it’s charming to see his dialogue and descriptive text in this book. The word ‘eldritch’ appears several times in the stories, thought balloons are filled with a purple-prosed inner narrative on what is happening in the panel (‘It’s some huge, hellish kind of octopus. Its tentacles are foul as sewer slime to the touch — and they burn!’), and there are some classic Claremont turns of phrase peppered throughout: ‘bound to them body and soul’, ‘reacting without conscious thought’, ‘numbing [my] heart … and soul’, ‘a scream torn from her soul’. Fortunately, these elaborate constructions seem even more appropriate for the fantasy setting so it works well, and it’s great to see the energy and enthusiasm Claremont employed in this creator-owned work. As an added bonus, it was also a delight to see the wonderful lettering of Orzechowski, the man who did such a masterful job of squeezing Claremont’s dialogue and narrative text into the pages of The Uncanny X-Men without it seeming overcrowded – his unique cursive and the deployment of changes to the shape of parts of the word balloon to indicate dramatic moments in the story are a joy to behold for this old-school fan.

The art is equally powerful. Bolton does a masterful job here – his photorealistic style adds weight to the fantastical setting, making the real and magical aspects all seem believable. His composition is painterly – some panels look like classical paintings, with their settings and rich colour and dark shadows and the classical anatomy of his figures – but there is still the dynamic aspect required in a comic book, and his storytelling is superlative, always finding the perfect moment to capture and moving the panels along expertly, each one exquisitely rendered.

It’s a delight to have these stories back in print, including Wizard’s Masque, which has never been reprinted. The stories have been digitally remastered, to better show off Bolton’s beautiful art, and this deluxe hardcover also has an introduction from Jo Duffy, several pieces on the conception of the character, Bolton’s art and how he came to draw Marada, and the process of how the creative team created the original stories, as well as original art and covers. It’s a complete package for a collection of stories that deserves such treatment.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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