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Whichever Spaniard first coined that proverb really had no idea. I am busy with at least three devils, with the potential for more depending on how you count them. Although Beowulf is an aglæca rather than a feond. Not that either word has a specific meaning which can be pinned to the paper. The term aglæca applies to Grendel as well as Beowulf; does it mean monster, or hero, or something in between? Does it refer to ferocity? Does the application to Beowulf make him monstrous? The application to Grendel make him heroic? Robinson once got irritated at this conversation, stating that the word meant something like ‘troubler, vexer’.1

At this point I want the adjective applied to the poem Beowulf. It is certainly vexing, troubling- and monstrous. Writing a commentary on only a handful of lines I already want to borrow Unferth’s sword and hack away at the sodding thing. I cannot imagine the heart-strength and mind-ferocity that it takes scholars to spend their careers studying this impressive piece of verse.

At some point I lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about. Oh! Why I am behind on blogging. The reason is simple: I am busy. All those devils which trouble me, the chief of whom is not named Beowulf, but ‘procrastination.’ A lot less heroic, that one. So while we wait for me to have some spare time:

Those of you with some northern European language skills may like to try your hands at this runic puzzle over at the Omniglot blog. I have not studied runes enough to be able to tell, offhand, the difference between the Elder and Younger Futharks, let alone transcribe or translate from them. Worse, I suspect that this may well be Tolkein’s Cirth runic system. Anyone want a challenge?

Evan Dahm, creator of the brilliant webcomics Rice Boy and Order of Tales, has commented on his tumblr that he would love to do a comic biography set in our period:

I’d like to do something (though it would probably be more historical fiction than biography) about a monk during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, or about a viking living in the midst of Scandinavia’s conversion to Christianity, or about someone during the Reconquista in Spain. These are all ideas I’ve worked on a bit but don’t have time for! I’m really interested in how individuals cope with these big cultural paradigm shifts, and I’m interested in religion, as a complete outsider to it.

While his work-to-date is psychedelic fantasy rather than historical fiction, I know that Dahm would more than merely do these ideas credit: his take on these would be incredible. A number of medieval themes are discernable in his work; the fall and inheritance of empire, the weakening grasp of ancient, isolationist powers, the problems of religious power.2 The Iconoclasm is a topic I would particularly like to see rendered in comic form; a text-as-images discussing the forbidding of religious imagery during the wounded trashings of an empire being pounded from without? Yes please. Dahm is a dab hand at allowing silent images form scenes (spoiler) in his comic work. He could do amazing things.

I wish I had more time and energy to devote to discussing this. In the meantime, what piece of history would you like to see rendered in comic form?

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I want a pet manticore. I never knew that about myself until I first encountered Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, but it’s true. The webcomic’s protagonist, Skittles, is just too damn adorable for words. Oh, there are those -such as the authors- who will argue that the actual protagonist is the eponymous Darwin, but they are wrong. Skittles is the true hero of the piece- who is it that adorns the banner? That’s right. Darwin’s tale of woe is just a framing mechanism, used by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan to situate Skitíls saga fegursturs in a manner to which modern audiences may relate.

The Darwin Carmichael of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell1 is cursed to Hell. I guess you can get that from the title. It turns out that his karma is out of balance thanks to an incident in his wayward youth involving a babysitting gig, a punk girlfriend, and an unstable high chair. The story of the webcomic has us witnessing Darwin’s shitty job, his best friends, the stoner angels crashing on his couch -and his pet Skittles, the true hero of the story- as he half-heartedly attempts to rectify his error and save his soul from eternal damnation.

If this sounds like a bad White Wolf adaption, you couldn’t be more wrong. DCiGtH2 brings the serious occasionally, but for the most part the ‘comic is hilarious with the occasional side note toward adorable. The clash of the everyday New York life with some of the more bizarre creatures of mythology provides endless opportunities for humour. Like all good works of fantasy, much of the funny is satire directed at modern life. Hipsters take it in the teeth, as does urban development, and the sexism inherent in art.

As mentioned, Skittles steals rightfully claims the spotlight. A two thousand year old manticore with the heart of a thirteen year old girl and the eyes of a despairing puppy, the plotlines dominated by him never fail to bring a smile to my face. Whether it is his birthday party (revealing that most mythological critters are adolescent girls at heart), or the crayon episodes detailing the adventures with his previous owners, his tales are hilarious and sweet in equal measure. For all my jesting about him being the true hero of the piece, I actually suspect his role is critical. The little guy frolicked alongside Christ, Oscar Wilde, and Joan of Arc, among others. These are important figures in literature and history, and all of them faced severe trials of faith and spirit in their time. Is it a coincidence that Skittles is now companion and friend to Darwin Carmichael, Damned? I doubt it.

I will freely admit that I am drawn to DCiGtH because of the mythological content. I am a fantasy fan of long standing, having grown up on Greek myths and King Arthur and studying, you know- medieval history and literatures. The concept of ancient deities waiting bars, citizens balancing karmic checkbooks, and mermaid artists with their own tank (how does she get around?) appeals to  my very bones. I am particularly pleased that Jordan and Goldstein include elements of Christian mythology in their tale; the stoner angels and their demonic dealer are a nice touch. Too often these sorts of stories are hesitant to treat all mythologies as equal.

Of course I could not go without mentioning the jokes levelled at atheists! The fanatical, proselytising street atheists of DCiGtH make me walk the streets with a giant grin for days every time they make their appearance. The joke works on several levels, which I am not standing here to discuss, and each of them makes me smile. The fanatical Einstein lookalike who briefly deconverts the angels; the grouchy street preacher who gets annoyed when he is mocked. Pure comedy gold.

I have to confess that when DC3 started I was not sure where it was going. The art looked occasionally awkward in the first few strips, I was not sure of the plotline, and I thought Skittles was grating. I know! I was so wrong– I must repent. These issues resolved themselves rapidly, demonstrating that they were just the bumps every new webcomic must endure before it can get great. The art has improved while retaining Goldstein’s style of clear lines and simple colours, and the writing has become clear and sharp. The result may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste -some people just don’t like nice things- but it is a good piece of work.

Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell has become one of my favourite ‘comics over the year and change it has been running. The updates are regular, there is a cast page, an about page- all the minimum standards a modern webcomic ought to have. It is difficult for my native perfectionism to rise up and find nits at which I may pick in Goldstein and Jordan’s work. This is pleasing, because it is such fine work. Wholesome and fun, funny and engaging, DCiGtH is realistic myth-fantasy about a manticore named Skittles and a boy named Darwin at the highest levels. You owe it to yourself to have a read.

Full Disclosure: I’ve known Jenn Jordan on the internet for a while. She blogs at Per Omnia Saecula where she watches bad medieval movies so we don’t have to, and is generally awesome. Plus, the DCiGtH creators are offering a t-shirt as a prize to people who say nice things about them, so.

1. There has to be a better shorthand than DCiGtH for that.
2. There must be.
3. See, this one doesn’t work because it looks like that famous comic company.

Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew

By the time I had finished the second paragraph of the first page, a pleasantly warm feeling had spread through my belly and I had a broad smile on my face. Ursula Vernon’s Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of A (Somewhat) Brave Shrew (2008) is the most charming book I can ever remember reading. It is warm and nice and funny and smart.

I wish it had existed when I was around eight or so. I am torn between pleasure that it now exists for today’s children and jealousy that I can only appreciate it as an adult. It has all the charming gentleness of the best parts of The Hobbit mixed with wit akin to Terry Pratchett. It has an adorable protagonist and gorgeous scenery and lovely artwork.

The scenery of Nurk is spectacular. I think the tree of fish is my favourite image, but we also have walls of giant mushrooms, a court of shimmering dragonflies, and bright clean socks. Tying the fantastic and rich world our tiny hero is cast into is a slender thread of common-sense, jointly narrated by Nurk and his heroic grandmother Surka who offers such semi-literate gems as this:

a tRUe aDvEnTuRer nEeDs a keeN WiT, a sTout HeARt, and a stRonG bLAdDeR. Dumb LUck cAn sTAnD in FoR thE WiT aNd THe heARt, bUT i’vE NEveR yEt FouND a GOod sUBstiTutE foR thE BLaDdER.

The Tree of Salmon

The pacing is perfect. Nurk, our reluctant shrew hero, receives a mysterious letter and things step along from there as he goes through his small acts of bravery moving on up to an awesome climax. Vernon never wastes a word and employs adorable poetic techniques (watch the alliteration and repetition) to ensure that the smile I had from the first page remained though the whole book.

I hate to trot out tired clichés, but that ‘book for the whole family’ thing is completely true for Nurk. Read this to your small children. After you have bought it for your selfish, childfree self you should have children so you can read Nurk to them.

Ursula Vernon is an award-winning comic book author, children’s book author, illustrator, artist, and a creator of some truly bizarre things. She has a website, is the author of the webcomic Digger and blogs mostly at Bark Like a Fish, Damnit!

Medieval literature crops up in the oddest places, sometimes blended strangely with newer fictions. The 2007 movie Pathfinder, by way of example, combines elements of Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða with the traditional Hollywood trope of a white hero leading the natives oppressed by his own people to victory. The combination of these fictions resulted -in that case- a terrible movie made palatable only by the sheer ridiculosity of the viking helmets the antagonists wear into battle.1

The illustrated prose novel Cðulhuviða (Larry Holderfield, 2007) is also a genre-blending work, with the difference that it is quite good. Originally released in weekly episodes as the only linoblock webcomic on the ‘net, Cðulhuviða combines Norse and Lovecraftian myth in a retelling of Thor’s battle against the Serpent encircling the world: now revealed as Cthulhu.

Just studyin'; ignore the tentacle...

From Chapter I

Cðulhuviða purports to be a translation of an account ‘mouldering in the archives’ at St John’s University in Newfoundland- a translation compiled, of course, by a graduate of Miskatonic University. Holderfield does a good job of mimicking the style of nineteenth century scholars, whose translations had a lamentable tendency to veer slightly from the main text. There is a wonderful nod to this in the penultimate chapter, where our author wanders completely from his text upon a scholarly digression of his own.

Occasionally Cðulhuviða does feel slightly off; at times the the text does not feel very ‘Norse’. In the main, this can be put down to an error in ‘translation’. For example, the opening paragraph reads:

In the year 1000, as the Christians measure time, the old ways were being forgotten. Norway and Iceland had converted to Christianity and only the western lands of Greenland, Markland and Vinland remained true to Asgard.

All the Norse sagas we have are thoroughly Christianised; it damages suspension of disbelief to accept that this one manuscript is somehow from the perspective of nostalgic Norse pagans. On the other hand, this is a Lovecraftian work as well as a Norse, and this is a regular theme in the Cthulhu mythos. Furthermore, the ‘translator’ of the text is at least sympathetic with pagan mythology, and it would not surprise me if he had adjusted his translation accordingly.

The beautiful artwork makes up for any such nitpicking, and Cðulhuviða is worth looking at for these alone. The linocuts range from landscapes to bulls bellowing at the heavens, to great tentacled maws rising from the depths. Holderfield has managed to convey the ice-coated north and the bleak horror that awaits all mankind within a few slices of a knife and some ink. The imperfections that necessarily come with such serve only to improve the experience.

Cðulhuviða is certainly worth your time. It does not do anything particularly exciting or new with the Norse half of its fusion, but we are talking about an illustrated prose work that involves Cthulhu wrestling Thor. The fact that the linocuts are beautiful or that Holderfield has mimicked nineteenth century scholarship wonderfully are immaterial. Here we have a work that presents Thor wrestling Cthulhu.

You can read Cðulhuviða as it was originally released at UpDown Studio.

It is available for purchase in both hard and electronic copy from Lulu.

Full disclosure: Larry Holderfield provided me with a free .pdf copy of Cðulhuviða about a million years ago in order to review it. It took me long enough, but here we go. I also have a short story in his soon-to-be-published anthology A Child’s Guide to Teasing Bees.

1. Also, Karl Urban takes his clothes off.

May 2018
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