Back in the 1990s, British-born comic book creator, Barry Windsor-Smith tried a bold experiment. Fed up with both the 'work-for-hire' contracts that enable comic book publishers to profit vastly from the gross exploitation of artists and writers, and with the limitations of genre comic books produced largely for pubescent boys, he struck a deal with Dark Horse Comics to produce a full-colour, large-format magazine, printed on high-quality paper. It was called 'Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller.' It included three ongoing series; 'Freebooters,' based around an ageing barbarian hero of legend, now running a bar and building a beer gut; 'Young Gods & Friends,' based around a feisty, rather foul-mouthed goddess called Adastra who switches between delivering pizzas in New York and upsetting things in the realm of the gods; and 'Paradoxman,' a sci-fi thriller. His idea was to take graphic storytelling beyond its usual, restricted market into a broader readership. Sadly, B W-S's experience with Dark Horse replicated Jack Kirby's experience with DC Comics when he tried to do exactly the same thing in the 1970s with his magazines, 'In the Days of the Mob' and Spirit World. The suits and accountants who call the shots in comics had no faith in the product and therefore failed to promote it, thereby guaranteeing its failure. Kirby's experiments lasted only a single issue each, B W-S's at least managed nine issues. Now for the bright side: Gary Groth's Fantagraphics Press has gathered together all the published 'Freebooters' stories, adding those prepared for what would have been issues 10 and 11, plus new introductory and linking texts from Barry Windsor-Smith, and printed them all in this large-format, full-colour hardback book. Because of their lack of promotion and subsequent low sales, the original 'Storyteller' magazines are now quite hard to find. I've been looking for about five years and have only managed to find six out of the nine, so this handsome reprint is my first opportunity to read the whole story as far as it went. This is great, since I now see how each section was cleverly constructed to tell us more about each of the main characters as well as the many entertaining subsidiary players, while also beginning to build what was intended to be the first major story arc. And very engaging characters they are too. As said, the central character is a semi-retired barbarian hero running to seed, but still fondly recalled as Axus the Great by the community he saved from destruction in his swash-buckling youth. His support crew includes former comrades from his barbarian days, with whom he still occasionally indulges in drunken escapades; a troupe of hostesses who work in his bar; an Italian chef who mangles the English language; and a rather effete minstrel. Windsor-Smith renders them all much more sympathetic and likeable than my brief description possibly could. The big problem is, as you may have guessed by now, that what we have here is just the beginning of what was intended to be a lengthy ongoing saga that was cut off before it had much of a chance to develop. In fact, what we have is about the first third of the first story arc. Windsor-Smith was offered the opportunity to continue the tale, but only if he reduced it to the standard comic book format, something he was unwilling to do. He was also offered the opportunity to complete the first story arc briefly for this hardback collection. Again, he was unwilling, because he felt it was impossible to reduce the scale of the epic he had intended to fit within the required page limit. What we have here, then, is an unfinished tale, albeit one told with great panache and a fair amount of humour. Interspersed with the story itself is another, equally engaging, story, that of Barry Windsor-Smith's struggles with the comic book industry in general, and with Dark Horse in particular (referred to as the Original Publisher, or OP). This reveals yet another case of creative talent being, well, screwed over, by an industry whose base line is, and always has been, making money rather than fostering or rewarding talent and that has, as a result, suffered decades of stagnation in which the same stories featuring the same characters are essentially repeated again and again, only with the art and writing getting a little worse each time. Windsor-Smith deserves respect for trying to do something different and, based on this story-so-far, something that could have stood comfortably, proudly even, alongside the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock or any of the other stars of fantasy literature. A fan-favourite artist since the late 60s, Windsor-Smith is probably best know for his work for Marvel Comics, including The Savage Sword of Conan and his telling of Wolverine's origins in Wolverine: Weapon X.
4 people found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?