J.R.R Tolkien: The True Lord of the Rings
Orbit: J.R.R Tolkien - The True Lord of the Rings. Brian McCarthy, Michael Lent, Luis Chichon. Comic book/biography. Bluewater Productions, 2012. $3.99 softcover (sold exclusively in comic book shops); $1.99 for Amazon Kindle. 28 pp.
Reviewed by Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:9 (#361) in August 2012.]
Comics as an art form have been offering new and very often different approaches to storytelling for many decades now. Their mixture of a graphic account with text would seem uniquely suited to portray the interesting life of J.R.R. Tolkien; however, it is all about walking a very fine line between the advantages of the medium — and its obvious disadvantages. J.R.R. Tolkien: The True Lord of the Rings is the first major attempt of this kind.
Bluewater Comics: Orbit published this comic in 2012. It was written by Brian McCarthy and Michael Lent. The tasks of the penciler, colorer and letterer were taken over by Louis Chichón. It is being sold for $3.99; its 28 pages are comprised of one title page (displaying a Tolkien portrait), one page of publishing information, four pages of advertisement and twenty-two pages of actual story.
Judging a graphics style is inherently difficult. I have been strongly influenced by French and Belgian artists in my youth (Goscinny’s and Uderzo’s Asterix; Charlier’s and Giraud’s Blueberry; Craenhals’s Chevalier Ardent; Charlier’s and Hubinon’s Redbeard — and one exception: Foster’s Prince Valiant) and by rather comical and non-realist elements in recent years (Bone, Calvin & Hobbes or web comics like Dominic Deegan.) Therefore, my heart did not go out easily to this particular coloring and style.
Flashbacks in the storyline are done in greyish, dark and earthen tones, distinguishing them easily from the ongoing story. All other colors tend to be quite naturalistic. The painting style might be called ‘early impressionist’ — all figures and objects are clearly discernible but with blurred edges and limited details. The text is set in square (background story) or round (dialogue) balloons and clearly readable with a non-serif font face.
All in all, the graphics are a suitable setting for the life of an author and academic born at the end of the 19th century and living well into the 20th. The painting quality is high from end-to-end with a certain inclination to over-simplification and using alienation effects spoofing either characters or scenes.
Writing style and content
The obvious advantage of comics as a medium is their interpretation of a particular topic in aesthetic terms. It can be highly illuminating and gripping, offering an unusual visual approach. However, its limitations concerning the amount of written information available become very clear on these 22 pages.
All the text is by necessity short. Clear-cut lines offer the most essential pieces of information and are enhanced by quotes from Tolkien’s and other works, making them easily accessible and enjoyable. No major mistakes are made, although a few smaller ones crop up, especially spelling mistakes. Unfortunately, due to its limited space this comic can only provide a very rough outline of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life which I would call appropriate to its task — offering people an easy and quick access to this fascinating author’s life. However, it is by no means an in-depth storyline; it barely scratches the surface.
The title page particularly exasperated me with its subtitle: “The True Lord of the Rings.” The question is whether there is or are “true Lords” of this particular kind. It is highly misleading to call Tolkien this and I am very surprised to find this un-Tolkienian blunder right up front.
It is also rather irritating to find the story continually switching between present and past tense; there is nothing wrong in enlivening the story but there should be some regularity when it comes to the choice of tense.
On page 16, with the lines “writing gave his troubled mind a way to cope with the horror of combat” (referring to World War I) a dark figure in red outline bearing a sword is wearing a black cloak with a red swastika on its chest; I think this is a particularly confusing choice of imagery at this point.
Lúthien is not blonde but this is, of course, a lesser mistake in the grand scheme of things. Surprising, though, is page 21, where a quote is attributed to Tolkien which — as far as I can tell — it is not: “I dislike allegory wherever I smell it. The Great War showed me enough horrors to fill my books. The second war only confirmed human barbarism, it didn’t introduce it.” Up to this point all quotes are taken from the Letters or Carpenter’s biography without any such changes.
An overall evaluation
A review of this comic will inevitably fall short depending on your point of view. For me as a Tolkienist it is, based on its content, perfectly useless, as it does not even contain the short chronology of events in the life of Tolkien to its full extent — in fact, the events depicted in the comic make it fairly clear that this is the basis for the storyline. No other works or events find their way in between these pages. It sounds and looks odd where it deviates from Carpenter’s list, i.e., when artist and writer chose to use their artistic freedom instead of sticking to the well-known story. Bluewater has been publishing many of these genre comic book biographies in recent years; Tolkien is just one volume like any other.
However, if you judge it from the point of view of people who are just becoming interested in Tolkien’s life and works it might be a good and easy read without too much demand on the reader’s attention. Its pleasant graphics and clear-cut layout make it easy to follow and it should appeal to everyone wishing to have a quick look at who this ‘Tolkien fella’ might be.
Reviewed by Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles