Retroview: Black Dragon

In 1985, Marvel (through their mature-audience "Epic Comics" line) published a six-issue limited series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton titled "The Black Dragon". A "historic fantasy" set in medieval Europe, it was an unusual offering in a super-hero-crowded market. Claremont himself, of course, was best known as the genius behind the enormously successful "Uncanny X-Men", and has likely been responsible for more comics sold than any other individual in history.

On his web site, Claremont says that he is "especially proud" of his creator-owned "The Black Dragon", so when I encountered several issues of it in the Great Random Comics Pile, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at why that might be.

blackdragon-2-cover.jpgThe creative team on "The Black Dragon" boasted not only the multiple-award-winning Claremont, but the equally illustrious John Bolton. No, not the walrus-mustachioed US Ambassador to the UN, but the English artist of the same name. You can tell from the cover of issue number 2 (left) that Bolton is a master of the horror genre, and it's when the story shifts to the supernatural that the comic really comes to life.

Unfortunately, those elements are too few and far between. I really struggled with reading this series, and I've been hard pressed to understand why I don't like it very much. I'm a huge fantasy fan, and (obviously) love comics, so this certainly seems to be a natural fit. But the whole project just doesn't work for me.

I think it starts with the uneasy balance between Claremont's very ambitious script and Bolton's panel layout. Take a look at this sample:


The mass of words running across the top seems to physically weigh the panels down, almost threatening to crush the figures below them. Compounding the problem is Bolton's "Prince Valiant" style of art on the project. The detail of the figures ought to contrast nicely with the plain pastel backgrounds, but instead it just makes them seem even more static and lifeless. There's so much going on in the detail of the figures, from the beautiful chain mail to the horse's mane to the smoldering embers of the fire that, combined with the huge amount of text, it just wears me out looking at it.

Even in the strongest parts of the series, when fantastic or horrific elements come into play, that same sense of lifelessness pervades:


As odd as this sounds, I think the main problem is that you're almost always at chest- or eye-level with the characters in the panel. It makes you feel like you're just standing there watching, instead of being an active participant in the action. For my money, the ability to change the "camera angle" is one of the strongest weapons in an artist's arsenal, and yet Bolton has pretty much surrendered it.

I also find Bolton's inking distracting. Sometimes, like in the undead ghouls dragging James Dunreith into their underground grave, it's really strong and helps support the action. But much more often, his thin and reedy lines and excessive hatching weaken the figures instead. Here, for instance, the lead female character Ellianne DeValere speaks, again under threat of assault by excessive word balloonage:


The pastel gradient background combines with the uniformly thin lineart on her face to make her seem washed-out and ethereal. Sometimes that technique works, as when Bolton is illustrating the action in the world of faerie:


But when applied to the very realistic figures of the "real" world, the technique clashes with the high level of detail to create a confusing, frustrating muddle. The coloring contributes to that muddled muddiness, living in subdued earth tones and pastels. Combined with the static figure posing, the hatchy inking, the lack of differentiation in camera angles, and the mass of details, I'm left a bit dizzy.

Clearly, Claremont and Bolton were going for a very grounded, believable setting here. I can see that they wanted to produce a story that was believably set in the actual world, with the fantastic elements becoming thus much more powerful. But rather than enhancing the tale they're telling, that approach instead betrays it. The result is that most unfortunate word a creator can hear -- it's boring. Reading each page quickly became a chore, and not in the same satisfying, that-was-worth-the-effort sense you get from reading the original "Lord of the Rings", either, but rather in that "My English teacher made me read this and I hate it" kind of way.

"The Black Dragon" fails to use the most powerful aspects of the comics genre to help tell Claremont's story, and the result is a muddled mixture of too much novel and not enough graphic that leaves me feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. I hate to deliver a bad review, even twenty years after the fact and to such a distinguished duo, but I really didn't care for this series at all.

(All images and text are from "The Black Dragon" series, ©1985, Chris Claremont and John Bolton, published by Marvel Comics Group.)

4 Responses to Retroview: Black Dragon

  1. The Imp says:

    While I agree with you in some respects, especially the poor layout of the word bubbles, overall I’ve got to disagree. I was 13 when this series came out, and it was actually one of the first comics that I eagerly awaited for every issue to hit the stands (the first was Moore’s Swamp Thing).

    Maybe it’s just because it was a breath of fresh air in a market that seemed to think Conan was the end-all and be-all of the fantasy comic genre, and maybe it wasn’t actually all that special, but it left an idelible mark on me. Black Dragon was one of the formative influences of my teen years, and I can still see glimpses of its power influencing my own work today.

    And come on, ya gotta love those undead nuns… 😀

  2. Jeff Hebert says:

    Thanks for the input, Imp, I’m very glad to hear from someone who read it when it came out. I do get the sense that it had to be appreciated in its time to come across as well as it needs to. Maybe it’s just that 20 years of development have come through that makes me a bit askew on this one.

  3. The Imp says:

    Now I wanna read it again. Unfortunately, my copies burned up in a car fire a few years back. 🙁 (Don’t ask.)

    Maybe I’ll take a jaunt over to Amazon and see if anyone’s selling…

  4. William Petree says:

    I’m not sure if this will even reach you, or if you even remember your critique, but I must show my appreciation for your coverage of this work. Something made me think of this the other night, why I have no idea. I couldn’t even remember the proper name of the comic. What I couldn’t forget was the way the story line became so dark, with the main knight and a maiden being bewitched and turning into dragons after much horniness. I was eleven when it came out, and after being completely mortified, I then felt a sort of possessiveness towards The Black Knight, a secret between the author, the artist, and myself. I really dug the gritty luminosity of the art, and the word balloons were no worse than those of Prince Valiant.