Monday, February 21, 2011

Review - Orc Stain Vol. 1

Orc Stain Vol. 1
By James Stokoe
Published By Image; $17.99 US
Collects Orc Stain #s 1-5

As unlikely as it may seem for a comic book blogger to have enjoyed teenage years that were anything other than a rock ‘n’ roll fable, the better part of my 15th and 16th years’ Friday nights were spent playing Dungeons & Dragons at the Studio of Bridge & Games in Schenectady. Our group enjoyed a number of truly corny inside jokes. When our adventurers traveled in the wilderness and our dungeonmaster Ren announced “Night falls,” we would make a communal “THUMP” noise. Our characters would camp, occasionally there’d be a quick dust-up in the night with wandering goblins or something along those lines, and eventually Ren would announce “Dawn breaks!” We all celebrated this by collectively making a sound like glass shattering.

And believe it or not, I'm fairly certain at least one guy in our group had lost his virginity at this point. No, I have no idea how, I just heard it might have happened.

One of our favorite weekly rituals was a short song we always found an excuse to sing, no matter what was going on in the game. I don’t know where it came from – if someone in the group came up with it or if it was something that had floated in from another game – but we called it the Orc Marching Song:

We’re gonna rape,
Pillage and burn!
We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn!
Eat babies!

We’re gonna rape,
Rape and rape !
We’re gonna rape, rape, rape and rape!
Make babies!

Okay, writing that out makes it seem more offensive than I thought it was at the time.

I couldn’t keep that song out of my head as I read James Stokoe’s first Orc Stain trade collection, and I guess that makes sense. In his afterword, Stokoe explains Orc Stain was conceived after an argument he had with a friend about the orcs of Lord of the Rings. Stokoe writes, “I was under the impression that you didn’t get a reasonable explanation as to why the orcs were so utterly evil and amoral. They just were and the plot went on.”

Stokoe’s response was to create the wildly colorful and deliciousy brutal world of Orc Stain: a world that makes sense of the orcs and where no one but orcs make sense. It’s a world where living things take on the roles of inanimate objects – like a massive bear-like creature with a safe carved out of his belly; a battle axe with eyes whose beak acts as the blade; or a hot-air balloon held in place by a massive, veined stalk that looks suspiciously gronch-like (gronch = orc dick) – and so accomplishing mundane tasks necessitate the torture and slaughter of innocent beasts. The orc economy is literally dependent on violence as the orc currency – coins called chits – are made from diced up orc genitalia (in fact Stokoe provides a disturbing guide on how to make chits from orc cock in the back).

Like the masses of nameless orcs in Lord of the Rings and other fantasy series, the other orcs of Orc Stain are born without names to differentiate themselves. The most noteworthy orcs are given numbers after they die which are carved into massive totems in the shapes of their heads. Orcs do tend to earn names by reputation, and Orc Stain opens with one such bastard, The Orctzar, whose influence spreads as he conquers more lands and unites more orcs under one banner than any other chieftain in history. Like any orc, he just wants more, and a seer tells him to accomplish this he needs the “one-eyed orc.”

Enter One-Eye, an orc with the uncanny ability – like Thor, and yet very much not like Thor – to accomplish just about anything with the stroke of hammer. A safecracker by trade, One-Eye can hit a structure in just the right spot to bring it crashing down around his enemies’ ears or he can tap an orc in just the right vein to make his limbs pop off. Though he’s no angel, One-Eye isn’t as ruthless a bastard as most of his orc brethren. He steals and he kills and he maims, but mostly for necessity or vengeance rather than the pure sadism that drives his fellow orcs. One-Eye doesn’t know why some particularly menacing orcs from the southern jungles are hunting him and rounding up every one-eyed orc they can find, but he's eventually captured about brought to a city built around a Godzilla-sized, spider-like beast dug out of the side of a mountain.

It’s a darkly humorous fantasy adventure, and the star here is Stokoe’s art. I’m kind of at a loss to describe it. It puts me in mind of some of the more fantasy-flavored psychedelic rock album covers, but darker in content; like if a Grateful Dead poster had a nightmare. It’s amazing stuff, and rather than trying and failing to describe it any more precisely, I’d advise you to just run a Google Image search on “Orc Stain” (but if you do, no BS, in most likelihood you will buy the trade – consider yourself warned).

If there’s any weakness to Orc Stain Vol. 1, it’s that the ending doesn’t necessarily feel like the ending of a storyline, but I don’t count that as a fault. Orc Stain is meant to be read issue-by-issue. Stokoe isn’t writing “for the trade.” And that’s fine by me. If I could afford to pick up single issues, Orc Stain would be at the top of my pull list. Though the trade certainly doesn’t suck, as evidenced by how quickly Amazon ran out of copies almost as soon as the collection was released.

A while back I made the pledge to review every single trade in my collection before allowing myself to buy another. Orc Stain is both one of the reasons why I want to race like mad to finish reviewing all my trades and one of the things that may tempt me to break that pledge; if I do break the pledge, there’s a damn good chance it will be the release of Orc Stain’s second volume that makes me do it.

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