May 28, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Camelot 3000


Camelot 3000, by Mike W. Barr and the incomparable Brian Bolland, is a very important tome in the history of comics. It was, among other things, the first comic book maxi-series. Mini-series (usually four-issue long comics) were quite common back then, but Camelot 3000 was the first one to run TWELVE issues long with a definitive ending, inspiring such works as Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and more.. It was also the first mainstream comic book to be targeted directly to adults, with themes such as sex (straight, lesbian, and even transgender) dominating much of the story. And since it was such a risky venture, it is the first comic book to be sold to the direct market. For those of you for whom that means nothing, bear in mind that comics were sold on newsstands then, and printed on low quality paper.Cheap products are easy for newsstands; that means they get to buy about twice as much of the products they expect to sell, and then they return what's left to the producer. But for a riskier product like Camelot 3000 at the time, which was printed on high quality paper, they had to buy exactly how much they expected to buy, and they had to sell them all. So this comic gave way to the rise of the direct market and the proliferation of comic book stores all around the world. Whether or not this was a good thing is up for debate.

But there, due solely to what Camelot 3000 stood for, Mike Barr and Brian Bolland's work is, from a pure academic and historical standpoint, worth reading. So much so that they came out with a deluxe edition a few years back, all oversized and recolored, with Bolland drawing a new cover:


So what about the story? Camelot 3000 is also interesting in that it claims to be the first story ever that tells of the return of King Arthur Pendragon. I don't know how true that is, since it's possible that there have been stories tackling the subject in the centuries after the Arthurian Legend was popularized, but aside from this and the later episodes of Gargoyles, I sure can't remember anything else Arthur's return was portrayed in.

So in the year 3000, Arthur gets awakened by the young Tom Prentice because the world is in danger from a bunch of aliens. So he finds Merlin, re-arms himself with Excalibur, his sword, and then Merlin sends out a call to Arthur's knights, including Guinevere, who are all reincarnated in various bodies.


One thing that stands out to me looking at that pin-up is the sheer political correctness of the lineup. There's a Japanese guy, who, in the year 3000, still dresses up as a samurai, a black guy, and two women (one of whom has the soul of a man). There are a couple of fascinating reincarnations, one of them being Sir Percival's being a Neo-Man, which is year 3000-speak for brainless, violence-causing brute.

But actually, what fascinates me most is, despite the diversity of this lineup, Queen Guinevere is still a Caucasian woman (although a strong-willed one as opposed to a damsel; gotta keep up with the times, natch), and Arthur's number one knight, Lancelot, is still a white Frenchman. It's fascinating how progressiveness has to start from the fringes.

This story's also kind of hokey, in that there are aliens from a tenth planet from the sun. But once you get past that (and admittedly, it's a huge thing to try to get past), it really is worth reading.

Another thing that strikes out at me is how rushed the story feels. One has to keep in mind that this was done in 1982, well before manga invaded Western comics and popularized decompression, or the act of stretching scenes and stories out for maximum emotional effect (sometimes to a fault), so for the most part, this is a very plot-driven comic without much focus on the emotion (which is too bad, because the emotion would have been plentiful if they chose to go with it). For example, here's Guinevere and Lancelot meeting each other outside.


The story then cuts to Arthur's reactions to this everlasting affair, with Merlin dispensing some advice. This lasts about two pages. The next time we see Guinevere and Lancelot, they're already doing this:


Later on, they get punished for their adultery, and by the very next issue/chapter, they're forgiven, and the whole subplot is barely mentioned again, except a few times en passant.

As another example, the aforementioned reincarnation of Sir Percival into a Neo-Man is interesting, since Sir Percival was the purest of Arthur's knights, and was actually the one who saw the Holy Grail in the original tales. Unfortunately, there's no development on this twist, no real insight into Percival's thoughts or emotion, and so that entire subplot feels completely superfluous. A shame, really, since it had so much potential.

What ends up being the heart of the story, then, isn't the eternal love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, but the subplot of Sir Tristan, who was reincarnated as a woman. And his/her lover, Isolde, was also reincarnated as a woman, and Tristan simply can't handle it:


Bolland draws the hell out of this subplot, really packing the emotion in. Tristan and Isolde want to be together, but Tristan won't have any of it, since she can't be satisfied with Isolde getting any less than she deserves, and Tristan believes that to be a man. Isolde doesn't care.

And meanwhile, everyman Tom Prentice, who really functions as our eyes into the story, wants Tristan to accept that she's a woman, because of what he wants:


For a book that was targeted at adults, it's this subplot that really pushed the envelope. Sure, there's the adultery theme between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, but I just don't think it was all that well executed. The subplot of Sir Tristan's though is more rewarding, because of the emotion packed into it and all its implications. If Tristan goes with Isolde, we get a consensual lesbian relationship. If Tristan goes with Tom, we get a trans-gender relationship. Either way, in 1982, it was unheard of, and the torture in Tristan's face each time was perfect.

But that's not surprising, because this is, after all, Brian Bolland. Bolland, who's not known for doing interior art, is another reason for any comic collector to get this book. Renowned for his technical savvy and attention to detail, I don't think anyone can deny just how good this guy is.


In addition to expressing emotion whenever the script called for it (unfortunately, not that often), Bolland was able to convey action:

Pin-ups, without sacrificing storytelling, and money shots:



And, well, detail. Look at that grail!



Although I do think that for the most part, Camelot 3000 felt like a failure in terms of being written for adults (again, with the exception of the Tristan subplot), it was enjoyable enough and the artwork was fantastic. If you try reading it without any expectations, without any thought as to how it was "marketed for adults," you may be able to get past the 1980s syndrome in which everything looks like it was made as one big advertisement for toys:



Once you can get past that, you can enjoy it for what it is: an entertaining, adventurous romp, and a benchmark in the history of comics.

Well worth reading, for both historical and artistic purposes. And narratively, there are some brief shining moments in it as well.

2 comments:

ike said...

I'm selling a complete set! :P

Great stuff, great read.

Brian Bolland rarely makes interior pages, and now all his work is digital.

Duy said...

Indeed, folks. Ike is selling a complete set of the originals for 1,200 pesos. All in great condition. If you want it, message him or me.

Ike, Bolland's work is all digital? Even the covers now?

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