Tag Archives: comic book

Unwanted Undead Adventurer

I follow a few ongoing manga series on Comixology—Delicious in Dungeon, Made in Abyss, Goblin Slayer. Ubel Blatt, though that is finished and I am way behind. Berserk, though that comes out so infrequently it is hard to think about as following. As you can probably see, I have a type: occidentalist fantasy, often influenced (perhaps self-consciously) by tabletop roleplaying tropes. Last time I signed in, I noticed this new series in my recommendations—The Undead Unwanted Adventurer—and it seemed to hit a number of those notes so I decided to give it a try. As it turns out, it is something like lighthearted Dark Souls pseudo fan fic, which has the potential to be, ahem, exactly my sort of thing. In terms of common manga genres: shounen isekai, leaning seinen, with a bit of harem going on, though though the isekai aspect is a rebirth rather than a transportation. (This post mostly avoids plot spoilers, apart from the initial event alluded to in the manga title, but it does contain some minor setting spoilers. Also, for the panel excerpts, keep in mind you should read from right to left.)

First, let’s get the judgments out of the way. This is a smaller-scale, more niche offering than some of the other series listed above. Nakasone’s art is pleasant enough, but lacks the precision and emotion of Miura’s work on Berserk, the richness and complexity of Nihei’s work on Blame!, or the saturated lightness of Tsukushi’s work on Made in Abyss. Comparisons with such accomplished artists may be unfair, but I want to set expectations. Further, the best art in The Undead Unwanted Adventurer is probably in the fan service panels—more on that below. The writing, as well, is good enough to get the story across, but otherwise unremarkable. The story began as a light novel in Japan, before spawning a manga manifestation, and the light novel medium is comparable in some ways with “young adult” fiction in the Western market. So, what we are left with is a story that will rise and fall based on the world building and manipulation of genre touchstones, and how it rewards or surprises reader expectations. Overall, the series kept me curious and entertained enough to plow through the three available volumes in a matter of days.

A common aspect of this subgenre is in-world justification or representation of RPG game elements. This can be crude—such as the magical HUD that characters consult in Rise of the Shield Hero—or clever—such as the “adventure sheet” adventurer guild registration form in Goblin Slayer. When done well, such aspects can suggest ways to connect game elements to setting elements. There is a kind of appreciation seeing in-setting explanations for something like a the Monster Manual hierarchy of undead, or similar game artifacts. Undead Adventurer has a lot of this, including different kinds of “mana” (roughly corresponding to character classes), adventurer guild ranking with exams, mega-dungeon exploration serving almost as borderlands industry, and so forth.

About the harem thing. Our protagonist is a largely misunderstood and unappreciated loner who, throughout the course of adventures, accumulates a number of mostly female sidekicks. Our hero has the opportunity to save or otherwise assist these supporting characters, who come to appreciate his quirks and become fiercely loyal. Sound familiar? (I am somewhat surprised that I was unable to find an overly specific subgenre term for this dynamic given how common it is, but here we are.) This sort of escapism can range from playful wish-fulfillment to bitter resentment, and Unwanted Undead Adventurer lands firmly in the range of playful for me, though it occasionally deserves some eye-roll.

One of the most enjoyable qualities of occidentalist manga in this vein, for me at least, is seeing the common tropes generally taken seriously rather than constantly subverted, but also filtered through the lens of another culture, or idiosyncrasies of a particular creator, which lends novelty and the occasional (but regular) instance of surprising, substantial deviations from common expectations. For example, orcs in the world of the Undead Adventurer are brutish, pig-faced humanoids—that all seem to be terrifying giants, hunted because the flesh of orcs is particularly savory. Recognizable, but warped, and somewhat ghoulish. Perhaps this is a way to approximate the New Sincerity turn, but in genre fantasy, for those of us that grow bored of constant genre irony and deconstruction?

(Panels excerpted here are an assortment from volumes 1 through 3.)

Helheim class and review

2015-05-09 17.15.51 helheimIt is hard to say too much about Helheim without spoiling the story, so I will keep this brief. First, I liked it. It is a relatively self-contained story with an engaging, vaguely Norse setting that focuses on an undead warrior and some witches. (What more could you want?) The art is a bit photoshop for my taste (flat in both color and line), but it gets the story across just fine and has some creative character visuals. The setup would work nicely for a small faction-based overland adventure. The depiction of the supernatural is good too; recognizable but not cliche. Overall, recommended.

You can get it at Comixology, and notably the publisher has enabled DRM-free access to PDF and CBZ formats. Just checking that, it looks like there is a followup series, Brides of Helheim, but the collected edition is not out yet and I have not read it. Helheim is by Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones. You can find more info about Cullen Bunn at his site. He’s also behind The Sixth Gun.

Here is a PDF version of the class detailed below.

Helheim class

  • HD, attack, save, and XP as fighter
  • Benefits: toughness (damage reduction), body augmentation, undeath
  • Drawbacks: recovery and charisma loss, stench, no missile weapons

A helheim is a zombie raised from the body of a hero or person with otherwise exceptional will. Such zombies are often employed by witches as enforcers of curses or avengers. Sometimes, the witch’s necromancy is not sufficient to fully dominate the creature, however, and the helheim becomes free.

Toughness: Helheims ignore 3 points of damage from mundane weapons, including claws and teeth. Each time a helheim suffers damage, they lose one point of charisma permanently. These points never return, and represent the descent of the helheim into a mass of patchwork, stitched flesh.

Augmentation: As helheims grow in power, they may incorporate body parts from defeated foes. For each experience level, a helheim can incorporate one special body part. Such parts may be added or replaced during downtime with surgery, but only from fresh bodies slain by the helheim’s own hand in combat. The remains of an execution will not do, being tainted by passivity and oppression, the qualities most inimical to a zombie-creature’s autonomy. Incorporated parts may grant additional capabilities. For example, a harpy’s wings might grant awkward flight. Actual abilities may be less literal, however, as negotiated between player and referee. Any powers granted should be determined with an eye toward maintaining future challenge within the game.

Undeath: Helheims do not need to eat or breathe, but they must periodically fall into reverie, much like sleep, to retain their humanity. Otherwise, the helheim will slip back into a partially catatonic state waiting for necromantic commands.

Recovery: Helheims do not recover as normal. Instead, damaged limbs or body parts must be physically stitched back together or replaced. Any necromancer or mundane surgeon can accomplish this task, but a helheim may not repair themselves without assistance.

Stench: The stink of the grave is never entirely absent from a helheim, as the zombie body is continually rotting from the flux of necromantic energy. This stench makes it impossible for a helheim to surprise enemies with a sense of smell unless chaotic circumstances would make such senses useless.

Weapons: For all their great strength, a helheim’s motor control and visual acuity are crude. Though they can use thrown weapons such as daggers and small axes, they cannot effectively use missile weapons. Beyond several hundred feet their undead eyes perceive only a phantasmagoric riot of swampy color.

The helheim class is suitable either for new first level characters or as an option for deceased player characters raised from the dead.

2015-05-09 17.26.06 helheim

Biological imagination

Orc Stain is a book by James Stokoe put out by Image Comics during the period from 2010 to 2012. There were only seven issues, and the story was left unfinished. Thank Pearce for drawing my attention to this during some G+ conversation about comics. Though this post is image-heavy, I have barely scratched the surface. Similar quality can be found on average at least every second or third page.

There is so much raw creativity here it is hard to know where to start. The protagonist orc One-Eye has a knack with a hammer. He can see faults in just about anything, and knows exactly where to hit and with how much force in order to make something fall apart.

2014-11-26 18.08.42 orc stain

The detail work is amazing (pencil example from the author’s blog). The entire series is cast in a distinctive green, purple, magenta, red palette which is like seeing the world through a bruise-tinted lens.

2014-11-04 20.22.07 orc stain

The best part though? It is the amoebic, organic quality to everything. This extends from the depiction of tools and technology to the texture of everyday objects. Birds are axes. Safes live. An orcish telephone is a person strung up like a puppet who transmits information over cables by twitching (or something).

2014-11-04 17.37.23 orc stain

2014-11-04 20.21.14 orc stain

The raw and sometimes gory action goes down smoothly because of the humor. This is no grimdark mire. Similarly with sexuality. The orcs have love nymphs in bondage and their currency uses petrified genitalia. That’s right, there is plenty of orc dick to be seen here and the funny thing is that it’s so skillfully woven into the setting, story, and humor that it doesn’t seem excessive or out of place. When you read it, it’s just like: yup, orcs.

2014-11-04 17.45.30 orc stain

2014-11-04 17.46.26 orc stain

2014-11-05 11.47.47 orc stain

Bowie the poison thrower (clearly played by Helena Bonham Carter)

2014-11-05 11.48.05 orc stain

Though the series is premised on inverting fantasy cliches, it does not accomplish this by presenting traditionally monstrous creatures as misunderstood and unfairly vilified, as is often done. Orcish culture as shown is rather terrible, but amusingly and endearingly so, even when (sometimes especially when) it veers off into absurd cruelty and ultra-violence.

2014-11-26 18.18.07 orc stain

On Twitter, on November 15th of this year, the author wrote that he had finally finished inking issue 8, so it looks like there is hope that Orc Stain has not been completely abandoned, though it probably makes sense to calibrate expectations due to the rate of release so far.

2014-11-26 18.06.35 orc stain

You can buy issues digitally from Comixology, which is what I did. Because of the Image policy on DRM, this also means that you get unencumbered PDF versions in addition to the “guided view” feature available in their native reader (which is quite nice).

Highly recommended if you like anything you have seen here even a little bit.

New 52 Wonder Woman

Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman

Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman

The most recent revamp of Wonder Woman is one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve come across in a while. It reads like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman by way of Image’s recent Saga. I first noticed the series because of this fantastic cover (issue 24, october 2013), and promptly burned through the first three collected volumes on Comixology in two days. It is, so far, the only comic other than Rat Queens that I have considered buying individual issues of as they come out, rather than waiting for the inevitable compilations.

There is a kind of Lichtensteinian feeling to the art that is reminiscent of some stylized comic golden age, but it also feels recent and fresh (I think this is because of the color and writing). The character designs are also continuously enjoyable. I found myself looking forward to how each of the Olympians would be realized (the only one that I didn’t really care for was Poseidon). For a flagship book, there is a surprising amount of graphic violence, including a horse’s head being severed with a centaur’s upper body erupting from the hole, and Diana’s arms drenched to the elbow in blood from combat. That said, it somehow manages to avoid seeming gratuitous and instead supports a sense of mythological seriousness. In fact, I would say that the art by Cliff Chiang is almost without misstep. The work by Tony Akins (issue 13, 14, and 17, at least) is not as successful for me, and Goran Sudzuka does the penciling for some of the newer issues that I haven’t gotten to yet, and so can’t speak to, but overall the art situation is pretty amazing.

The story itself does not read like a superhero book, which to me is a positive. I have warmed slightly to the superhero genre, but in general I prefer other types of story. As I mentioned above, Gaiman’s Sandman is actually the first thing that I though of when reading through the recent Wonder Woman. This is the story of the interactions of cosmic personalities, many of which are not clearly heroes of villains (though Apollo serves as a main villain proxy to some extent). Like the Olympians of mythology, the dominant feature of most of these characters is a sort of myopic selfishness coupled with tremendous power. There’s also some situational humor that I appreciate (mostly involving Hera).

I will leave you with a few image selections. All images are scaled screen captures from the digital Comixology compilations.

Cliff Chiang's Hades

Cliff Chiang’s Hades

Cliff Chiang's Hera

Cliff Chiang’s Hera

Wonder Woman with a Lara Croft Vibe

Wonder Woman with a Lara Croft Vibe

Rat Queens

Image from Rat Queens Issue 1

Picture from Rat Queens Issue 1

I would describe Rat Queens as an irreverent fantasy pastiche that self-consciously recruits the tropes of fantasy RPGs. It’s also a lot of fun.

Image digital comics also seem to be available DRM-free, and in many different formats, which is nice. I didn’t know that before, and it might get me to buy single issues of Prophet and Saga, too.

Thanks to Brianna for originally mentioning this on Google Plus, and Logan for reminding me about it.


From the blurb:

Born of the stars, nurtured on pagan blood, Castle Ragemoor exerts its will over any hapless mortal who dares set foot within its living walls! Fortress … sentinel … guardian … prison! Those who oppose it, it kills! Those it would enslave, it drives insane!

Seriously, a comic about a living castle drawn by the great Richard Corben that is equal parts Gormenghast and Lovecraft? Get out of my head! Do I really need to write anything further? I want to write up a mega-dungeon inspired by this and run it right now.

Note that Corben’s art is wonderfully adult-oriented (that is, potentially NSFW).

I read the hardcover compilation of the first four issues, which I believe encompasses the entire story (I don’t think more issues are coming). It is a quick read, and I’m sure I will return to it many times.


Ragemoor — preview image from darkhorse.com

Planet Hulk

After starting to follow people in the OSR, I’ve begun to pick up a comic book now and then. I saw Planet Hulk mentioned over at Sword & Shield a number of months ago. The premise is more or less Hulk as John Carter or Hulk as He-Man. The Hulk’s friends trick him into going to another planet (because they think he is too dangerous on Earth) but the shuttle navigation messes up and he ends up on this savage Barsoom-like world instead of the idyllic planet they had originally selected. There is also an animated movie (which I have not seen). In the afterword, the genesis of the idea is described as Hulk + battle axe + alien planet, which is a pretty accurate description of the end product.

There are plenty of Hulkish themes present which work pretty well in the context of Planet Hulk. Normal people need “monsters” to save them when they are in danger, but when civilization returns, they turn on the monsters. What if the Hulk was in a world where his anger was a gift rather than a curse? There are parasitic space zombies called spikes which could work well in a tabletop game.

This is not so much a story as a pastiche of ancient Rome, Spartacus, Barsoom, Conan, and Hulk. The plot is very simple, and most of the characters other than Hulk don’t seem to have any motivation. Who is the Red King and why does he like to don power armor and fry his subjects? It is not explained; he is merely a cookie-cutter despot. There are some great cover illustrations, like this one:

How about these dudes as red elves of Areon?

Also, the back of the trade paperback edition has something like a gazetteer of the planet Sakaar. There are descriptions of the major areas, characters, and some maps (one of the land and another of the capital city). One could easily base a pretty interesting campaign on this material.