In the 1970s, DC Comics and Marvel Comics dominated the comic retail world through nationally distributed newsstand sales. I remember well the joy of walking into the corner store and perusing the comic rack. However, as the decade progressed, the direct market grew, as specialized comic book shop stores began to propagate across North America. Hand-in-hand with this growth came new publishers with new material, new formats and new deals for creators. One of the first of these new publishers actually began as a mail-order company, grew to become a distributor, and then made the leap into the unknown by becoming an actual comic book publisher. That company was Pacific Comics.
The owners of Pacific Comics, the brothers Schanes (Bill and Steve), used their extensive contacts to land some high-calibre comic book talent to help launch their publishing venture[i]. The first was arguably the biggest name in comics – Jack Kirby – who wrote and drew Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and published it under the Pacific Comics label. Anyone who has read this series can attest that this was not some of King Kirby’s best work, though. Fortunately, other talent followed, including the creators of the comics this article is actually about: Elric.
Elric is the story of the last Emperor of Melniboné, an empire long in decline. Elric’s destiny is to be entangled within the plots and contrivances of the Lords of Chaos while fighting for his crown against the wicked ambitions of his cousin, and to ultimately search for the Black Sword, Stormbringer. It is a tale of epic fantasy whose protagonist is a drug user who is neither a force for good nor evil, driven by motives different from our own and bred into his character by his upbringing in an alien environment from our own. It is more than the standard Hero-With-A-Bigass-Sword fantasy fare, and I highly advise anyone who enjoys fantasy who has never before heard of this series to find Moorcock’s original books: they are classics!
Elric was published in 1983-1984 near the end of Pacific Comics’ run as an independent comic book publisher. It was based on Michael Moorcock’s 1972 story, Elric of Melniboné, adapted for comic book format by Roy Thomas and illustrated by P. Craig Russell and Michael T. Gilbert. The creative team of Thomas and Russell had collaborated on Elric projects before this one, with the 1982 Marvel Comics story The Dreaming City (found in Marvel Graphic Novel #2) and again with While Gods Laugh (in Epic Illustrated #14), and they were aptly suited for working on the larger six-issue Elric adaptation. Thomas’ ability to draw out the key elements of Moorcock’s work while preserving his overall linguistic style was an integral reason why the series was (and still is!) such a joy to read. Thomas himself explained his process as:
I’ve never been one of that school who believes an adapter is under some sort of pressure to “improve” an already splendid original, or to prove that he is the true genius and has made a saleable piece of work out of a pile of junk. I leave that to the moguls of TV and movies, omniscient in their insecurities.[ii]
Even more important to a comic book is its look, as it has always been a very visual creative medium. Of course, the artistry of P. Craig Russell and Michael T. Gilbert did not disappoint. The dreamlike imagery breathed otherworldly life into the page, vividly portraying Elric’s decadent world and the strange entities that he interacted with.
As good as the art was, by issue three its quality seemed to improve, due to a change in the comic’s production. The previous two issues were done in “an accepted, fast, and relatively inexpensive way to color a story.”[iii] The originals were copied, and then colored, but the black color was not reproduced exactly, causing the art of the copies to look less crisp than the originals. The new method was called the “Grey Line” method, which reproduced the black lines as faint grey lines during the copying process. This resulted in a much better quality artwork once colored. Even more interesting, Pacific Comics changed their production of Elric once more by issue four. The process was improved again by changing the copy method from the “reflective” method to a “laser scan” method, which in turn improved the white spaces in the artwork. [iv] It was unusual for a comic book publisher to incur more expense mid-stream of a series in the name of quality, and to do it twice within the space of two issues was exceptional.
So how did Elric fare within the comic book industry? There was quite a “buzz” at the time within comic shops and direct distributors for this comic series. I grabbed it as soon as I saw the art and was enthralled. Others were too, according to Mike Friedrich, Elric’s editor:
The retailers and distributors report to us that Elric is one of the best-selling new titles released in the last year…”[v]
David Scroggy [Pacific Comics’ Editor in Chief] tells us that Elric garners the most mail of any PC title – and they’ve got some pretty good ones…[vi]
The comic was successful enough that plans were made to continue the comic through another story arc, with issue seven being announced, albeit coming two months later to give the team time to rest. However, Pacific Comics did not publish another Elric story under their label after issue six. Why?
The answer was simple: by the time the creative team was ready to start up again, Pacific Comics was already going out of business. By September 1984, the Schanes signed over control of their company to a liquidation company, and Pacific Comics ceased to exist.[vii] The publication rights for Michael Moorcock’s’ Elric universe were picked up by First Comics, who kept the creative team of Roy Thomas and Michael T. Gilbert together for their June, 1985 to June, 1986 seven issue story arc, Sailor on the Sea of Fate.
Elric has continued to find a comic book audience over the years, with the most recent being BOOM! Studios’ Elric: The Balance Lost. Yet Pacific Comics’ Elric series remains my favourite comic book adaptation of Moorcock’s albino anti-hero. Perhaps it is because of Russell and Gilbert’s amazing art outclassed much of the standard super-hero fare I read at the time; perhaps it was because the series represented my first taste of what the direct market and indie publishing could offer. Regardless, the six issues have followed me wherever I’ve moved in the past 28 (!) years, and remain some of my favourite comics in my collection to this very day. If you have the opportunity to pick up this six issue run, do it! You won’t regret it!
[i] Elric #2, Mike Friedrich Editorial
[ii] Elric #2, “ET CETERA…” column by Roy Thomas
[iii] Elric #3, Mike Friedrich Editorial
[iv] Elric #4, note in the Letters column
[v] Elric #5, Mike Friedrich, Editorial
[vi] Elric #5, Mick Friedrich, Editorial