On Sundays, Felan profiles his favourite comics and graphic novels from across the diverse medium’s history.
Mike Mignola is best known for his fantastic work on Hellboy, but there are some other gems in his oeuvre that are less well-known. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a sword-and-sorcery adventure mini-series featuring two of the most iconic (although these days perhaps a bit obscure) characters in fantasy literature. The titular Fafhrd and Mouser were created by Fritz Lieber in the 1930s and starred in in a wide range of short stories published right up until the late 1980s. This comic book version, written in 1991 by Howard Chaykin with pencils by Mignola, inks by Al Williamson, and fantastic colours by Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh, adapts seven of these stories.
Written in the same era as the grittier but equally influential Conan the Barbarian stories, Lieber’s imaginary world originates and formalizes many of the tropes of the fantasy genre (and of any number of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns), including the archetypes of the Northman and the rogue, the typical sprawling, dangerous fantasy city and the practically mandatory Thieves Guild. The series traces the many and varied exploits of Fafhrd, a towering barbarian hailing from the frozen North, and the Gray Mouser, a small, stealthy and streetwise rogue. Both now make their living as petty thieves and adventurers. Fafhrd and Mouser are freelancers, unsanctioned by the Thieves Guild, and so are constantly on the run from or directly confronting the supposedly noble organization and its dark secrets. One of the best things about Lieber’s stories is the fast-paced, theatrical dialogue between the two rogues (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), and the comic book translates this beautifully, with interlocking speech bubbles filling every available space around Mignola’s subtly evocative and finely detailed sword fights and rooftop chases.
This particular brand of fantasy is more indebted to swashbuckling tales of adventure than to the epics of Homer or Wagner (or Tolkien for that matter) – Fafhrd and Mouser mostly spend their time pursuing personal revenge and monetary gain, getting into trouble rather than attempting to save the world from certain doom. Although the comic is hugely charismatic and entertaining, it also depicts a very serious and dangerous environment in which witty banter is a defensive mechanism for coping with a chaotic lifestyle with no certainties. The stories take place in a wide range of settings, but the comic begins in the city of Lankhmar, and returns there intermittently. The sprawling metropolis is perfectly rendered by Mignola, Williamson and Van Valkenburgh, all sagging rooftops, shadowed alleys and crumbling archways. There is a sense in the story that all roads lead inevitably to wonderous, horrible Lankhmar, no matter how much distance our heroes put between them as they visit exotic, faraway places. All in all, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a hugely satisfying book for any fan of fantasy comics, that brings artistic and narrative nuance (not to mention a wry sense of humour) to a genre that all too often collapses into its own self-seriousness.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser was originally published by Epic Comics, and is now available as a trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics. You can find more information here: http://www.darkhorse.com/Books/10-686/Fafhrd-and-the-Gray-Mouser
BONUS: You can also spot Fafhrd and Mouser in a cameo role in Fables, which has previously been featured on TBR!