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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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02/07/2006 Archived Entry: "Graphic novel review: The Freebooters"

The Freebooters
by Barry Windsor-Smith
Fantagraphics Books

review by Tom Good

Barry Windsor-Smith, who worked on the Conan comic in the 1970s, later created a tale of another legendary warrior named Axus. Axus, who once saved the city of Shahariza from the demon Ammon-Gra, is past his prime -- a washed-up hero who has put on some weight and spends his time drinking at the Peacock tavern. A young man named Aran arrives in town to warn of a terrible new danger, but is Axus up to the task of saving the world again?

Windsor-Smith uses language to great comic effect in The Freebooters. The story is full of people who speak with odd accents and broken English. Aran attempts to use sign language to explain his dire prophecy to a deaf girl, but his incompentent translations convince her that he is a comedian. In another scene during a bar fight, a tough guy exclaims, "Ert rerp yert lerm frerm lerm fer thert!" It may require a bit of effort on the part of the reader to decode this silly dialect (translation: "I'll rip you limb from limb for that!"), but that is all part of the fun. And though it is forbidden on penalty of death to utter the name "Ammon-Gra," everyone seems to say it all the time, often followed by "oops!"

The story also makes fun of some of the conventions of comic books, such as floating boxes full of narrative explanation. Here, the narration appears in the pretentious prose of a scribe who records Axus' story. "Alert, the dynamic freebooter crouched low into the shadows, his steel glistening." Of course this is exactly the type of description that should not be necessary in a visual medium like comics, and these writings are even funnier because they do not match what is really happening, but are merely absurd exaggerations. We even see the first draft being revised in place, as in: "Queen Isandra and her 'sisters of doom' girded their lions loins for our full frontal attack!"

Though The Freebooters is a parody, the characters quickly become convincingly three-dimensional. It reminds me of Cerebus, which also started out as a kind of parody of Conan in its early issues, then evolved into a story with complex characters and psychological depth. But unlike the long-running Cerebus, which had 300 issues, The Freebooters appeared in the magazine Barry Windsor-Smith: STORYTELLER, which ran for only nine issues. Because of this, the story ends without a satisfying conclusion.

It is a shame that this series did not find the commercial success it deserves. I finished this book still eager for more Axus stories, and wondered what it might have become after 20 or 50 installments. The book is an oversize, hardcover volume with full color pages on high-quality paper, and it makes a great "coffee table book" for comic fans. Recommended.

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