Despite being a big fan of sword and sorcery comics and Mike Grell's writing, I have yet to read a single issue of the first series of Warlord. Indeed, the first issue of this - the fourth Warlord Series - marked the first time I ever opened up any Warlord book Mike Grell had written. I have no excuse for this, save that all of the many classic series I have meant to pick up "some day" fell by the wayside when I started tracking down all the parts of my collection I had to sell off during the years spent trying to find a real job after getting my librarian degree.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I did read the first issue of Bruce Jones' attempt to revive Warlord a few years ago and the less said about that book, the better.)
I mention all this to so that I can further explain the rather unique perspective that I have upon Warlord. Because while I am broadly familiar with the character of Travis Morgan, his companions and Skartaris from the Green Arrow series, I have found out, in reading more about the series, how woefully ignorant I am regarding the exact details and unique history of the characters.
Case in point; I made mention of Travis Morgan's bard Tinder in my review of the second issue of this series. I took an immediate liking to the character, having a fondness for bards when I play Dungeons and Dragons and Tinder being a prime example of one who does not fit the tights-wearing, lute-strumming buffoon stereotype most people associate with the word "bard". I didn't know until I started doing some research into the first series that Tinder is the long lost son of Travis Morgan and his queen Tara but that both parents (and possibly Tinder himself) are ignorant of their relation to one another.
This marks the one flaw I see in the writing of this series; Grell seems to assume some passing familiarity with the characters right at the gate. Grell does not fully explain who Travis Morgan is and how he came to be Warlord of a city in a mystical land until the second issue. This is potentially fatal in these days when some readers are increasingly reluctant to give even a new TV series a shot past the first episode, even in a series which is reknowned for being mysterious.
Still, it is a credit to Grell's writing that he can create a fantasy story that is engaging to those even those readers who have no desire to dig into the mythology of an established series once exposed to it. Every issue thus far is written in such a manner that even if we do not know the full history of what has come before, we can still enjoy the action put before us now. I won't say it wasn't a little confusing getting a handle on things at first. But the third issue gave us enough action to keep things interesting and the fourth issue gave us some much needed clarification as the two seemingly independent story-lines met up.
For those who are as confused as I was, here's a quick summation of the action and players thus far.
An paleontologist named Alysha finds a perfectly preserved dinosaur body frozen in an icy cave in Tibet. She takes a sample of her discovery to Dr. Kate Archer, another paleontologist who confirms her findings. Together they go to Ned Hawkins - a daredevil playboy millionaire - who agrees to finance an expedition to Tibet. Hawkins comes along on the expedition along with Ewan McBane - a filmmaker Hawkins want to film their findings.
They manage to find the cave but are quickly attacked by the Chinese soldiers, who have set up camp near the cave. The resulting fire-fight traps the party in the cave, where they discover a glowing portal.
Cut to Skartaris and the city of Shamballah, where refugees from the nearby nation of Kiro are arriving in great numbers. Travis Morgan, Warlord of Shamballah and his wife, Queen Tara, talk with the refugees and listen to their tales of a new god and his queen, who kill from a distance with magic. Morgan examines the wound of one man who survived this "magic" attack and immediately recognizes his injuries as a bullet wound.
After briefly consulting with his daughter, the sorceress Jennifer Morgan, Travis Morgan goes off to scout ahead with his companion, the cat/woman Shakira. Also along for the ride is Tinder - a bard who serves in the Warlord's court, who is determined to get some new stories to tell.
On the road to Kiro, they stumble across a band of slavers. Warlord recognizes one of their captives as Machiste; king of Kiro and a long-time friend of Warlord. Tinder insists that they must go and warn the nearby villagers of the approaching slavers but Morgan will not abandon his friend for the sake of strangers. Tinder rides off alone to warn the peasants as Warlord and Shakira attack the slavers. They free Machiste, who tells Morgan that this new God and his Queen have kidnapped his wife - the swordswoman/archeologist Mariah.
In another part of the jungle, a wounded Tinder crosses paths with Alysha. The two save each others' lives - he by saving her from a dinosaur and she by tending his wounds after he collapses. The two trade stories, with Alysha saying that what is happening with the New God is all her fault for having brought him to Skartaris in the first place.
The three warriors agree to go after Tinder, before making further plans to fight this new God. They stumble across another group of refugees, who tell the them that Tinder saved them from the slavers, holding them off before being shot with an arrow and falling off a cliff. Not knowing that Tinder survived the fall, Morgan morns the loss of the idealistic young bard and vows to finish the battle he started.
Cut to The Shadow Lands, where we find that the New God and his Queen are - surprise! - Ned Hawkins and Kate Archer, who are using Mariah's talents as an archeologist to translate various writings in the hopes of gaining access to the near-magical technology of Atlantis. McBane is still here, filming the whole thing - now documenting Hawkins rise to be ruler of the world.
Morgan, Machiste and Shakira attack in this moment but are quickly overpowered by the magic Hawkins now wields. Shakira manages to shape-change into a cat and get away, while Morgan and Machiste are captured. Shakira finds Tinder and Alysha at nearby village and the three plot how to best rescue their friends.
With the help of McBane, who - witnessing the further madness of Hawkins and Archer - decides he can no longer just be a spectator, the three succeed in freeing Warlord and Machiste. Knowing they will need the weapons of Earth to counter Hawkins and his guns, Morgan plans to return to the surface world to get what they need as he sends Machiste to summon Tara and her armies.
A nice, rich story and one I suggest that you all read in full.
If the story can be said to be rich, then the artwork may put you diabetics out there into sugar shock. Both Joe Prado (artist on Issues 1, 2 and part of 4) and Chad Hardin (artist on Issues 3 and part of 4) do an amazing job depicting the rich vibrancy of Skartaris and the power contained within each character. Indeed, I didn't even notice that there was more than one artist working on the series until Issue 4 where both artists took separate parts of the story.
The book also features three inkers, for some reason, which may account for why some of the scenes appear to be darker than others. Still, considering that these scenes take place in the Shadow Lands or within a similarly dark setting, these differences can probably be written off as artistic differences and not stylistic clashes.
All in all, I would not only recommend this book to any fan of high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery comics - I would recommend it to anyone looking for a comic beyond the usual capes-and-tights stories. Be sure to get all four issues, though - you'll get into it a lot easier if you have all the chapters handy at once.