Admittedly, I’m not a close follower of the mainstream comics scene and so can’t speak with any authority on what may or may not be happening in it now, but unless there’s been some sort of below-the-radar (like, way below-the-radar) resurgence of which I’m entirely unaware, it’s safe to say that the “swords and sandals” genre reached its apex in this little medium we all love (most of the time) back in the 1970s, when a bevy of four-color “floppies” and full-sized black and white magazines regaled readers month in and month out with the exploits of Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror, and too many also-ran imitators to count. As newsstand distribution gave way to the direct market, though, super-hero readers found their tastes increasingly catered to while fans of Robert E. Howard-esque fantasy were nudged further and further to the sidelines, ultimately being relegated to “afterthought” status.
I’ve heard that Conan is back at Marvel these days after a long hiatus that saw the character wandering through a series of smaller publishers, but his exploits appear to be confined to only standard-format comic books now, with the “mature readers” (as in, they can show boobs and butts) B&W mag apparently a thing of the past — and while that probably makes all kinds of sense from a financial and commercial perspective, it still leaves the grizzled nostalgist out in the cold, stuck poring over dusty back issue bins to find PG-13- and R-rated tales of the Hyperborean Age. Or does it?
Art abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does, so leave it to our always-intrepid friends at Strangers Fanzine to fill this particular one with the late-2021 release of cartoonist Brian McCray’s Krania, a magazine-formatted collection of short-form yarns centered around the exploits of a female barbarian warrior that hews a fine line between respectful homage and revisionist re-interpretation with just enough wink-and-nod pastiche thrown in to keep readers who find this sort of crap inherently ridiculous (I’ll take the fifth on whether or not that includes me) reasonably amused and enthralled, as well. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff by any means, but it’s not designed to be : McCray has set himself a fairly specific task with this project, and he proceeds to tackle it with energy and aplomb.
All of which is to say, don’t expect anything particularly taxing here, but do expect to be entertained. McCray’s cartooning is solid, stylish, and dynamic — his villainous creatures are imaginatively designed, his protagonist looks like a tough warrior woman should, and his fight scenes are fluidly paced with the appropriate emphasis given to impact in relation to action. He’s not overly concerned with details, relying on what appears to be the digital equivalent of zip-a-tone to do a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard, but he’s got all the basics of composition down pat and isn’t afraid to get creative with perspective and placement. Throw in a smattering of entirely unsubtle hat-tips to Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, and it’s awfully hard not to like what’s being served up here.
Okay, in fairness, this is about as self-aware a comic as you’re likely to find, but it doesn’t approach its subject matter with an eye toward narratively “cashing in” on easily-arrived-at irony — rather, as the title of this review suggests, there is some delicious (if obvious) subversion going on here with regards to traditional gender roles in so-called “heroic fantasy” that’s probably long (as in decades) overdue. I get the feeling McCray has plenty to say, but that he would rather say it through his stories than in his stories, and if that sounds like a distinction without a difference on its face, rest assured that if you decide to take the plunge and read this book — as well you should — you’ll understand what I’m (perhaps clumsily) getting at more or less immediately.
Count me in as a believer in what McCray is doing here, then, and also as someone who will almost certainly be on the lookout for more of his stuff. And if I were an actual fan of this genre, who knows? I’d have probably enjoyed this comic even more than I did — which, in case you hadn’t sussed it out already, was quite a bit indeed.
Krania is available for $10.00 from Strangers Fanzine at https://strangerspublishing.com/products/krania
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