Comic review: Sword & Sorcery #0


September 25, 2012 by Julia

I haven’t gone to a comic store on Wednesday for new comic release day for a decade.   I read X-Men and some of the related titles through sometime in 2002, but I gave up American comics when I realized that the art was so clearly inferior to the various manga I was reading at the time.  Even when I married an American comics fanboy, we still bought graphic novel collections instead of individual issues.  But, after reading an interview with Christy Marx, the writer of Amethyst, I decided to give Sword & Sorcery #0 a shot, largely because it sounds like something I would read if it were a novel.  I’ve never purchased a DC title before, and the only one I have ever even read was Watchmen, so it was pretty exciting for me.

While I was at the comic store, I discovered that Marvel just started another Gambit title, so I HAD to buy issue #1.  Then I discovered that APPARENTLY Marvel sent the new Uncanny X-Force team to the Age of Apocalypse, which resulted in an Age of Apocalypse title.  Seriously.  I bought issue #1 of that as well, but this post is just about Sword & Sorcery.

(please do not continue reading if you do not want to see spoilers for Amethyst or Beowulf)

Sword & Sorcery contains two stories, Amethyst and Beowulf.  Amethyst is a reboot of a 12-issue “maxi-series” from the 80s and its assorted sequels.  The plot is pretty simple:  high-schooler Amy Winston, who has spent her entire life moving from place to place with her single mother, discovers that she is actually a princess from Nillaa, aka Gemworld.  Issue #0 introduces Amy, her mother Gracie, and Gracie’s sister Mordiel, although you don’t discover Gracie/Graciel’s relationship with Mordiel until later on.

The issue begins with some snooty high school girls talking about how they won’t invite Amy or social outcast Beryl (“Berry”) to a party, which is a pretty quick way to characterize people.  I guess I can’t consider it a shortcut, since Berry might only have been there to help characterize Amy anyway (but you never know, since she does have that gemstone-themed name…).  But anyway, Amy sees a football player hitting on Berry and setting up a date for later that night, before we cut to Amy’s mom Gracie working at a local diner, where she mentions that it’s her daughter’s birthday.

That night, Amy complains to her mother because they never live in one place long enough for her to make friends, and reminds her mother that she promised to take Amy to their real home when she turned 17.  Gracie acknowledges this, but simply tells her daughter to “practice,” which entails sword fighting.  Understandably, this was not a good time to make Amy feel even more like a “freak,” so Amy stomps away to go to the football game like a normal high school student.  You can probably guess what happens here, though:  she runs into the football player and some of his sketchy friends trying to rape Berry.  Amy promptly kicks their asses, but Berry inexplicably yells, “Don’t touch me!  Stay away!” and runs away while some shady person wearing a cloak and smoking a cigarette watches the whole thing from the bleachers (???).  I hope Berry shows up for at least one more scene, because I want to know what the hell was going on there.

In the meantime, we cut to House Amethyst in Nillaa, where Mordiel, who is the leader of  the Amethyst bloodline, is inspecting a young girl brought to her by one of her soldiers.  After confirming that the girl must have House Amethyst blood because she has gorgeous blonde hair, Mordiel activates a large . . . amethyst? and sucks the life energy out of the girl, apparently killing her (since she tells the soldier to pay a blood price to her family.

Back in our world, it turns out that the creepy wannabe rapists have well-connected fathers, so Gracie runs off into the mountains with Amy, leaving their trailer and most of their possessions behind.  In Nillaa, Mordiel mentions that she has soldiers stationed at all the points where Graciel could enter, although when Graciel and Amy DO show up, they are greeted by Graciel’s allies.  Both women magically transform into blondes with purple armor as soon as they pass though the portal, and while Graciel catches up with her old friends and Amy wonders where the heck she is, all hell breaks loose as they are attacked by Mordiel’s soldiers.  Amy grabs her sword and attacks . . . and we cut to the mountain where Graciel left the portal crystal, which is discovered by a random blonde dude right before the issue ends.  (like I said above, I don’t read DC, so I didn’t recognize him–I thought John Constantine looked like Keanu Reeves, but apparently not)  I’m going to throw this out there right now, I suspect that Constantine was Creepy Bleachers Dude.  I know, that’s exactly the kind of DEEP ANALYSIS you have come to expect from me, right?

My first reaction to Amethyst was that I really liked it.  I read this sort of “young girl with dull or difficult life discovers that she is magical, a princess, or both” story all the time, and it’s one of my favorite tropes.  Did I mention that I fully admit to reading fiction for escapist purposes?  Anyway, without having read the original Amethyst, which is apparently for a younger crowd, I liked the tone of the story.  The beginning was a bit stereotypical in how it characterized Amy and Berry (Mean girls?  Been there, done that), but I was impressed in general by how much characterization was crammed into a little over half an issue.  Obviously Amy is the kind of person who will befriend the class outcast or beat the crap out of wannabe rapists after a football game–duh, she’s the heroine.  It wasn’t overbearing and preachy, though, just Amy doing her thing.  The secrecy hanging over Amy’s past was well-developed, and I really got a sense of how frustrating it must have been to have heard “I’ll tell you on your seventeenth birthday” for seventeen years.

Yes, yes, if I can link to several entries at TV Tropes (and I could have thrown more in there, to be honest), perhaps it’s derivative–and it is, I won’t deny it.  Everything that happens, save the Constantine cameo at the end, is expected.  But you know what?  I don’t care, because I enjoyed it.  I LIKE those tropes, for one.  Also, the story is very tight, and I can see that there is a reason for each scene.  I saw enough of Amy to like her already, so I care about what happens to her in future issues, but there is still mystery there, because she will clearly have some growing up to do.  I’m VERY interested in the political intrigue in Nillaa, because I’m a sucker for things like that.  Mordiel straight-up killing an innocent teenager in the first issue tells me that this won’t be all sugar and sparkles and rainbows . . .

I haven’t even addressed the art yet, which was REALLY good.  I was honesty surprised, since crappy art is the entire reason I gave up American comics for a decade. The action scenes felt dynamic, and I am kind of in love with the coloring and shading.  I like the use of completely different color palettes to distinguish between our world and Nillaa, and I want to add that the architectural and background art was also good, and I suspect this series is going to be filled with costume designs that I want to own.

I only have one real complaint, and it wasn’t even about the story itself.  In the back of the issue, there is a summary of Amethyst.  This summary gives more information about Nillaa than the story itself does, about which I am conflicted (If we’re going to find out later, why tell us now?  Why not put it in the story?  But maybe it’s a good thing they avoided burying us in paragraphs of exposition?).  More importantly, however, did ANYONE edit this thing?  Here is a scan:

The first spelling error I saw was “comin” instead of “coming” (which completely discounts the iffy grammar and sentence construction issues, but that is nitpicky), but then–check out how often the bloodline is called “Amythest!”  I see the unconscious problem there, what with the main character’s name being Amy and all, but COME ON.  One typo is one thing, but to make the same mistake multiple times?  I truly hope these mistakes will be fixed by next month, or I will have serious doubts about the future of the series, simply because the editors are either too busy to pay attention to it, or simply don’t care.  I would expect a flawless issue #0, though, given how important it is to make a good impression on readers.

Beowulf being in Sword & Sorcery wasn’t really important to me, since I bought it to read about a girl who discovers she is a secret magic princess, but since I paid for the whole thing, I read Beowulf.  It wasn’t terrible, but I’m not sure where it is going, especially in the context of me really liking the original Beowulf epic poem.  In a nutshell, the DC version starts with teenage Wiglaf and a band of warriors searching for the legendary warrior Beowulf because the evil Grendel keeps attacking Hrothgar’s hall during the nightly feast.  You’d think that’s just telling the story, but NOT REALLY, because this takes place . . . in the future.  Yup.  Really.  I think Beowulf is some kind of genetically modified killing machine or something, but why he was locked away in a bunker is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, once Beowulf wakes up, he slaughters everyone but Wiglaf (you know, for fun), and the two set out for the Danelaw.  As much as I have loved Beowulf since I first read it in 7th grade, I’m not a fan of stories that are graphically violent.  The original Beowulf is lyrical and epic, and I can handle that . . . I don’t do as well with spurts of blood after someone has been decapitated.  I don’t watch horror movies either, just so you know.

But speaking of that, if you want to sell Amethyst to teenage girls, is Beowulf REALLY the best choice to stick in the same comic?  There was nothing very objectionable in Amethyst (Mordiel’s murder of the girl is only shown as a burst of light and smoke–I had to re-read it to understand that the girl had vanished), although I would make sure my daughter was old enough to process the attempted rape (there is no nudity, the scene is short, and rape is never mentioned, just some allusions).  It provides a good teaching moment as well, because you can talk to your child about NOT wandering around behind the bleachers with dudes who have never spoken to them before inviting them back there.  But decapitation with blood everywhere?  That’s a whole different story (literally and figuratively).  Also, even if you take parents out of the equation, some girls may not even want to look at that at all, which may prevent them from buying the title in the first place.  I don’t know, it doesn’t offend me, I’m just not sure it was the best marketing choice DC could have made.

To wrap up, I will continue buying Sword & Sorcery for the time being, so expect more reviews.  If you read it, what did you think?  Now that you know one of my favorite genre tropes, do you have anything else to recommend to me?

EDIT: Apparently the rape scene had a stronger effect on other people than it did me (I think because other people expected an all-ages comic, and I didn’t).  Also, apparently in the ten years I haven’t been reading many American comics, rape became the go-to plot device, which is more than a little weird.  Check out this review for a longer discussion of why the rape scene may not be appropriate–and I agree that it absolutely is NOT appropriate for all ages, but Christy Marx has already said that she was targeting the comic at older teen girls, and that the DC Nation cartoon targets a different audience (which seems really dumb on the part of DC, but that’s a different discussion), so I just wasn’t surprised.  In the end, though, I am reading it for me and I can handle attempted rape scenes.  The caveat is that if Marx continues to rely on rape as a plot device, I’m going to conclude that she is a one-note author and stop reading.  I really hope that doesn’t happen, though, because I’m enjoying the story so far.


5 thoughts on “Comic review: Sword & Sorcery #0

  1. Ish says:

    I picked up Sword and Sorcery #0 late yesterday, and have so far only read the Amethyst half of the book. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to seeing future issues… the attempted rape didn’t bother me in the least — sexual assaults do happen and seeing our heroine quickly and effortlessly kick the ass of three or four athletes is an effective way of establishing that she’s not only a tough and skilled fighter, but also that she’s the heroic sort. Increasing Amy’s “coming of age” age from 13 (in the original) to 17 (new) is also a clever move — it let’s her make more adult decisions, handle more adult concerns, and makes the book feel less “ponies and princesses” and more, well, “sword and sorcery.”

    I also picked up the New 52 Batgirl collected hardcover. I’ll have my full review sometime this weekend.

    • Julia says:

      I completely agree about the age–as an adult, I appreciate that she can address things that are more intense than if this story were geared toward younger girls.

      I do see the issue that people have with the rape scene, in that it shrinks the potential audience, especially when younger girls may try to read the title after watching the tv show (the last thing DC should want to be doing is pissing off parents who thought they were buying a comic about princesses and ponies based on the tv show storyline, and ended up with attempted rape). But, on the other hand, shouldn’t parents be doing their research before buying things anyway? They won’t–if even geeks can’t do their research to see that this was never meant to be an all-ages title, I can’t expect parents to do the same–but it would solve the problem.

      What ages would you let YOUR daughters read Amethyst? And after you read Beowulf, what is your thought on Beowulf vs. the rape scene? As someone who was once a teenage girl, I would be more turned off from the book by gruesome decapitations than an attempted rape scene, but you’re a parent of daughters, so maybe we have different perspectives.

      • Ish says:

        According to DC Comics rating system, a T – TEEN book like this is “Appropriate for readers age 12 and older[,]” because it “[m]ay contain mild violence, language and/or suggestive themes.” Which I would say is spot on for the Amethyst half of the book, the violence is certainly stronger than you would get in an “E – EVERYONE” book, there is harsh language but no profanity that I can recall, and the attempted rape is more suugestive than explict… it’s clear that the boys intend something bad to happen to Berry but that it is rape is left wholly for the reader to fill-in. I’d file that one under what TVTropes labels as an “adult fear.” I think that the rating is spot-on, and wouldn’t hesitate to let my daughters read the Amethyst half of the book if they were 12+, and would probably let a 10-12 year old read it (depending on the kid in question).

        The Beowulf half of the book… well… my reaction was pretty much the same as yours. I found it enjoyable enough on its own merits, but the shift in tone and style was so abrupt asto give me mental whiplash. DC’s internal rating system as a T+ – TEEN PLUS rating that warns about “moderate violence” and “graphic imagery,” these titles are suggested for readers age 15 and older. If it were up to me, I’d have slapped a T+ rating on the book just because of the Beowulf bits; Again 15 and older seems fine, with slightly younger kids beng okay on a case-by-case basis.

        My daughters are age six and three at present and thanks to the wonders of Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, are getting into superheroes for the first time (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes being the current favorite… Not much DC on these services yet.). As the older one is also learning how to read, I’ve picked up several Early Reader books with Justice League and Avengers characters. The action in the books would be mild to boring by Sesame Street standards, but the cartoon gets a little more intense… more like the G.I. Joe or Transformers cartoons of my youth than the santized and fluffy Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues that they had been watching. I think this is good — at least for the eldest one — as I think she should watch and read stories with actual conflicts, real stakes, and even situations where the heroes are put into peril or loose a fight (Only to recover in Part II, of course!). Yes, yes, Good always triumphs over Evil in these stories; Yes, the Bad Guys are always Card Carrying Villains that call themselved the “Masters of Evil” or “Evil Mutants” without irony; Yes, no one dies and injuries are always bloodless… but I want G.I. Joe not Platoon.

        I don’t want to expose my daughters at their present age to the sorts of things found in either Amethyst or Beowulf, and certainly not in more mature titles like Batman or Sandman. But, they’re six and three, not thirteen and ten. Come back to me in a decade and I’m sure to have a different answer.

        The most important thing, I think, is for me as a parent to pay attention to what they’re reading. Sword of Sorcery #0 is, what, 40 pages long? Flip through it for four seconds at the newstand before you hand it to your second-grader, you don’t need to read each panel to notice the gore in Beowulf.

  2. Ish says:

    Also a character by the name of Emmy, a younger sister of Princess Emerald of Gemworld, was a major supporting character in the original Amethyst Princess of Gemworld comics in `84 and `85. Emmy, Emmy-rald, Emerald… Giddit? Ah, the joys of 1980s character naming conventions.

    Minor spoiler alert, but when Amy and Berry first meet in Sword and Sorcery #0, Amy makes a point to say she likes the name Beryl and that beryls are a type of emerald. This might be a truly clever bit of reinvention of the character…

    • Julia says:

      I noticed the Beryl reference (which I immediately got because of Sailor Moon), but I didn’t know about Emmy, since I never read the original story. Interesting . . . I was kind of wondering if she would stick around or if she was only there to provide Amy with a reason to kick ass.

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