Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Song of Storm

Before I get on with my re-read and other Ice & Fire-related posts I just want to talk a little bit about a certain series of graphic novels / comic books that I have been in love with since I was a wee little boy living in Holland. When I was back last week, I realized I had missed the four latest releases in the series, and so I just had to bring them with me home, because the stories are so vividly creative, unusual and, well, I suppose I just can't stop when I have all the books that have come before - so with books #25 - #28 in my baggage I went home. Couldn't resist reading two of them on the plane, though. The series I am talking about isn't well known outside of a few European countries, but it has been published in the English language. The series is called Storm.
Storm is the titular character, the guy with the blood-tipped sword and the blaster in a holster. The red-haired almost naked lady is his companion through all his adventures so far. I believe her English translated name is Ember, but for me she will always be Roodhaar ("Redhair"), my first fictional love interest. As the image to the left might suggest, this is a series that takes a dash of Frank Frazetta-esque epic fantasy and mixes it up with space fantasy and science fiction (the blaster pistol), though through the course of the many adventures of Storm and Ember, there have been many genre mix-ups, from near- hard scifi to comedy, western, fairy tale, and much more. Basically, this series blows wide open the gates of genre and doesn't care one whit about it. It allows for very creative visuals, which for the most part of its long run was painstakingly painted by the masterful Don Lawrence (1928 - 2003). Especially in the early books, Lawrence painted some fantastic visuals, be it characters, monsters or locations, putting to life the sometimes very unusual ideas put forth by the writers (there have been many writers, more on them later). Some of the ideas I first found in Storm I later saw in other fantasy and science fiction books and movies; other ideas were reworked from other genres into Lawrence's operatic vision. Each album (or book, whatever you want to call it - a slim graphic novel) presented new adventures, new and exciting locations and foes, each image hand painted to give it a fantastic look. That look, by the way, was already presented in Lawrence's previous series of scifi/fantasy, which perhaps is better known - The Rise and the Fall of the Trigan Empire, basically a mash-up of Flash Gordan, the history of the Roman Empire, and the seeds of creativity that would later blossom fully in Storm.

My first encounter with Storm and Ember came when I was around eight years old or so, when I was given as a Christmas present, the seventh story in the saga, the album The Legend of Yggdrasil. The cover artwork blew my mind - what was this? A big freaking dinosaur-guy against some half-naked fellow, both with swords. David vs Goliath. The story was fascinating and brutal (perhaps too brutal for an impressionable eight-year old) and of course I now needed to get my hands on the six previous stories that had been published, because I didn't really understand how this all hung together.
There was time travel, swords but also firearms, certainly obscure language, arresting images, a seemingly complex back story I had to figure out, and in the end, the story also touched me emotionally.
Since then, I have been a fan of this series; it has changed a whole lot going forward, to the point that the most recent works feel like a different series using the same characters - the stories are the visions of several different writers, but they all manage to capture that which makes it so entertaining and above all, original (mostly in how the series mixes things up - some of the stories are really unoriginal in concept, but shine in execution - for example, the book I read last night is basically "Ember gets kidnapped, Storm must free her", a classic damsel-in-distress story (and not the first, unfortunately for Ember), but the way it's packaged in vivid creative ideas makes it stand out none the less).

Eventually, as I got my claws on the previous books and began collecting the series from book 8 and onward, I got the full story, and have been reading it ever since. Because the series is hand-painted, image by image, new books weren't published that often and I was able to keep up even after I left the fatherland behind. Many set pieces in my tabletop role-playing game campaigns have been borrowed from this series, and I once developed a space fantasy setting mixing up Storm with Star Wars which was quite fun for all involved (I believe).

The first book in the series was written all the way back in 1978, though an English publication wasn't published until 1982. The book is The Deep World, and is the first of nine books taking place in a far future, with astronaut Storm, lost in the red storms of Jupiter, returns to a forever changed Earth. In the sense that in this first book, Storm is a character from our near future ending up in our far future, the story is closer to science fiction than the space fantasy the series would later evolve into (by book ten, you will most likely have forgotten that Storm is a guy from Earth but for a few comments here and there). However, the far future of the Earth is one of barbarism and violence and sunken sea levels and the changes to the world are so radical it might as well have been a different planet. Still, I find it an inspired story. And the artwork takes it all to another level, of course.

So, the 21st century astronaut Storm appropriately ends up in the biggest storm of the solar system - the Great Red Spot on Jupiter - and when he comes home, Earth is but a barbaric primitive place, with some remains of its high tech past. Storm has ended up millions of years in the future, and is quickly captured by primitive sword-wielding barbarians and thrown in a dungeon. Here he finds another prisoner, Ember. Together they escape and end up in an underground power station which Storm recognizes as a relic of the past. He manages to get it running, which results in the seas being pumped back up from below, destroying the barbarians on their heels and leaving Storm and Ember to sail on a float into the horizon and further adventures. A simple story on the face of it, the genius lies in the way the story manages to sell its concept, and the many neat details that make the unusual setting come to life - such as the winged spiders. I still shiver as I think of them. It certainly isn't the best Storm story, but it sets up the next eight stories. Most Storm stories in this first cycle (later named The Chronicles of the Deep World) are self-contained, but books 4,5, and 6 can be seen as a trilogy.

One of my favorite Storm stories is book two, The Last Fighter (1979). I have read that one many times. It was the first Storm adventure written by the Dutch Martin Lodewijk, who would return to become the series' only writer for books 10 - 23 (or thereabouts). He is the most creatively mad of the Storm writers (and I mean that in a good way) although I guess he had to rein himself in here, when Storm is still on Earth. While the deluge Storm caused at the end of book two returned the seas to Earth, the Earth as he knew it is still a long forgotten memory and he has to get used to a lot of strange stuff. The Last Fighter runs a little closer to a traditional epic fantasy tale than science fiction, as Storm and Ember are picked up by a traveling circus where Storm is forced to become a gladiator. He can't refuse, as they put this terrible creature on his back. The creature has two powerful claw-like protrusions; if Storm so much as tries to think about escaping, snap and his head goes off. Such a neat little concept right there, which terrified me as a young one, obviously. And so Storm becomes a fighter, and later it is revealed that the caravan master has a specific plan - only the best fighters are allowed to enter an ancient dungeon (which is actually a stranded starship from the past - another neat detail) - each year, fighters are sent into the starship to try and conquer it, but so far none have returned. So what you get is basically a dungeon adventure, but with a twist. The story also allows for Storm to get into the starship with a group of other fighters, taking on that "fellowship" feel of high fantasy. All the while, Ember remains a prisoner so Storm doesn't think of running away. And she's being kept in a cage above a monster buried in the sand, predating the Sarlacc of Return of the Jedi as a concept by five years - only in The Last Fighter, the buried monster is actually the face of a giant man, hungry for flesh. There are so many neat ideas dressing up the basic plot, I still enjoy reading this tale (although, as I have aged quite a bit since I first read it, it doesn't awe as much these days). Most arresting image in this epic tale is the skeletal plain outside the starship - an endless waste of bones through which Storm and his companions must navigate before even reaching their destination. If you want to check out Storm and see if you're captivated by it, try The Last Fighter. If you like it, you'll like the rest. If you don't, I don't think it's worth bothering with Storm's adventures (even though the later adventures are radically different in many ways).

In the third story, The People of the Desert, Storm and Ember are once again captured - Storm is trying to make a sense of the world he has come to, and is still rather naive and not the hero he eventually turns into, and so he gets easily captured - this time to become workers in a strange mine out in the most glaring, harsh desert you can imagine. A plot involving almost Nazi-like experiments in creating an '├╝bermensch', bandits who have maintained and control flying vehicles from the distant past, salt storms and eventually Storm and Ember coming out as victors, flying off into the sunset on a speeder bike-like vehicle makes for another intriguing reading experience.

The next three books in the series - The Green Hell (featuring a disturbing jungle setting with an interesting frontier town nestled against a cliff), The Battle for Earth (taking the series back to a more science fiction-like approach) and The Secret of the Nitron Rays are one continuous tale in which Storm discovers that the reason Earth has been set back to barbarism is because humanity was attacked by a superior otherworldly race, the blue-skinned Azurians. Over the course of these three stories, Storm and Ember discover how the Azurians have kept humans down on a primitive level while they ruled the Earth as the overlords - and how, through Storm's knowledge of technology, humans can finally fight back and eventually oust the Azurians. It is a trilogy again full of weird ideas but with a more focused plot, eventually taking Storm to the Nitron Mines on the Moon where the fate of mankind will be decided.

I liked these three tales well enough, and I remember finding some of it scary even. There are some neat ideas, some provocative, and some predictable. It is not the strongest story line of the series, but it does answer the questions that have been unanswered since book one. The story takes the concept of low technology versus high technology and lets low technology win, just like the Ewoks bested the Emperor's best legions on the forest moon of Endor back in the day - only in Storm it is a more believable reversal of fortunes.

Which brings me back to book seven, The Legend of Yggdrasil, with which I began this series of comic books that have continued to inspire me. Storm, who has been looking for a way to get back to his own time, finally manages to get himself back to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter (by way of capturing the space-travel technology of the Azurians in book six), where he attempts to get back in time - only to be sent even further into the future (thus leaving behind the setting of books 1-6 in one quick stroke), the future where dinosaur men rule the Earth. Again, Storm and Ember must fight seemingly impossible odds. They learn of a device Storm might use to correct his time traveling mistakes, located on the south pole, and the book ends with the pair going there to find it.

Book eight, City of the Damned, featuring a stunning cover painting in true Frazetta-style, sees Storm and Ember approaching a massive, mushroom-shaped city on Antarctica, where new and strange mysteries await. Inside the city, a rot has corrupted it, effectively dividing the city in a dark and a light side. In this book Storm learns that a great tragedy befell the Earth right after he left his time. He still wants to go home though - his homesickness is strong - but as the city is assaulted he finally comes to realize that if he wants to live, he must accept living in the far, far future. He has Ember at his side, though.

In the book, the pair have to navigate the corrupt, dark part of town and here they encounter a number of disturbing obstacles, such as the grasping hands seen on the cover to the left, and a Darth Vader-like armored knight whose sword sheds bubbles containing flesh-eating monsters (told you it's pretty wild).

The ninth book is the final book in The Chronicles of the Deep World, the last story to be Earthbound so to speak - The Creeping Death (though a more accurate translation of the original title would have been The Slumbering Death if you ask me) is an adventure that takes Storm and Ember to what looks like Latin America for an adventure involving rivaling Aztec-like brothers and the reactivation of ancient nuclear missiles of terrifying size and power. With this novel, the quality of the artwork took a dip for some reason, and it would never reach the same heights as books seven and eight again.

With book ten, Martin Lodewijk became the permanent writer for Don Lawrence's Storm, and together they decided to move Storm and Ember off far future Earth (or the Deep World) and to a setting entirely of their own devising; the spectacularly creative, bizarre and sinister multiverse where the living planet Pandarve takes center stage, giving this new collection of tales The Chronicles of Pandarve. Storm has been discovered by the illustrious theocrat of Pandarve, Marduk. Because of Storm's time travels, Marduk takes a great interest in the former astronaut, and using some sort of intergalactic tractor beam he beams Storm and Ember to Pandarve - and the most creatively unique tales can start.

Each entry in The Chronicles of Pandarve, from book 10 and still going on today (albeit with new artists and recently also new writers), is a veritable explosion of quirky ideas covering relatively straight-forward plots. I'm not going to detail each and every book because this post is long enough as is, but it has to be said that at first I didn't really like this new direction, and only later have I warmed to it as I began to enjoy the weirdness of the setting. The duo of Storm and Ember becomes a trio in book 10 when the red-skinned warrior Nomad joins the group, and he has remained part of the story lines since. Several other characters (mostly enemies) make several appearances as well, giving all the Pandarve-set stories more unity than the first nine tales.

Among the strange, but cool ideas thrown around in these tales are lava-sailing steamboats, the aspect of a god taking on the likeness of Alice (from Alice in Wonderland), a journey through a mathematically created Death Star-like planetoid where Storm encounters Virgil (from Dante's Inferno) and an upside-down city (among many other things), synthetic ring worlds, gladiator-like games to the death fought on randomly sliding pillars, space with air in it (allowing sailing boats to move between planets), space whales, wind surfing on mountains so tall they jut into space, Eternal Princes kept alive by brain coral, a circus train running wild through a world that loops on itself, a robot human rights activist, battling the subconscious of a god-planet, and much and more. I could go on about all the ideas packed into these 50-page albums. One fun little detail is how Storm's introduction of the game of chess is transforming the culture of Pandarve and the nearby planets (including Eriban, a planet shaped like a crystal).

While the artwork has diminished and the stories in the most recent albums feel a bit more stale (how many more times can Ember be captured?) I'm still buying them, perhaps out of misguided loyalty, but also to spot any new fun ideas and concepts. The two albums I read yesterday, The Red Trail and The Mutineers of Anchor both felt very "safe" - in one, Storm is captured, in the other Ember - but there was still much fun to find within, like roller coaster-like launch pads for ancient machines that shoot you into a windswept ravine, a city seemingly made out of piping and tubes, and a "beggar assassin" on Storm's trail, but at the same time this series seems to need an injection of new plot threads and story lines.

All right, time for some finishing touches in my preparations for this weekend's epic tabletop role playing game session. The story that we began in 2005 is beginning to come together, and while the end is not in sight yet, at least a few plot threads might just finally get tied up. Have a nice weekend.


  1. Well, there are a few moments where the 'damsel-in-distress' role is reversed and Ember must save Storm. ("The People of the Desert", "The Legend of Yggdrasil", "City of the Damned", "The Seven of Aromater"... perhaps "The Return of the Red Prince" counts as well when Ember, thanks to the Sign of the Pearl, becomes Nomad himself, while Storm and the real Nomad are still imprisoned.)

  2. A lot of memory! I painfully searched this comic books (I read them in my childhood, 40 years ago). That time they were translated into Indonesian language and were bundled into weekly magazine with other comics. I had lost all the copies. Does anybody know how to get their complete English translation, PDF maybe?

  3. Anthony, you're absolutely right :) It's so refreshing to see I'm not the only one who has read STORM.

    ChengCie Luo, they are out there (the PDFs).

    1. Although I can't remember at the moment whether they were in English or Dutch.

  4. Well, I found this blog because I googled on Don Lawrence / Storm / Roodhaar / Ember.
    To help ChengCie Luo out: There are only four episodes in English to be found online:
    #1 - The Deep World
    #2 - The Last Fighter
    #10 - The Pirates of Pandarve
    #15 - The Living Planet

  5. But those who are rich can buy all stories in English over here: