Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Here's my review of the rather excellent comic collection, 'Orc Stain', written and illustrated by the multi-talented James Stokoe. Great stuff!

Front cover art for the collection by James Stokoe.
Orc Stain Volume #1 is a a 168 page collection, written and illustrated by James Stokoe, and published by Image Comics. Collecting the first five issues of the ongoing series of the same name, the story takes place in a fantasy setting, in a world overrun by hordes of fractious orcs. Immediately chafing at any sort of authority, drawn to looting and 'punch-ups', the orcish horde is divided into many different factions, and may declare 'Poxa-Gronka' (an all out war of revenge against any orc that has slighted the individual) at a moment's notice. Knowing that the orcs are divided in nature, the rest of the world has fortified themselves behind strong walls, and have bided their time, hoping for the hordes to eventually kill themselves off. The strategy, while not a winning one, has admittedly kept the other races from being swallowed up. Unfortunately for them, this is all about to change...

Interior art by James Stokoe.

A new force has risen in the far south, and the self-appointed Orc Tzar has managed to do what none of his predecessors have ever managed... Namely, to unite a great number of the various factions of orcs into a cohesive army, growing in number by the day. His goal is to unite the whole of orcdom, and rule over the entire world as lord and master, but first he needs to claim an elusive treasure to seal his mastery of the world. As his fractious hordes decimate city after city, he finally comes across an aged seer, who relates to the Tzar a prophecy... That, although possessing the location and the land that the treasure is contained within, the Orc Tzar lacks the key to open the treasure's prison. The key to obtaining what he seeks is a one-eyed orc, currently abroad in the realm, who also will become the Tzar's nemesis. Cursing all prophecies, the maddened orc rips her head from her shoulders, and sends his most trusted agents out into the world to gather all of the one-eyed orcs that they can find. One way or another, he will find the key that he needs, and he WILL become ruler over all of the realm.

Interior art by James Stokoe.

Into this mess of a world steps the rather literally named One Eye, an orc whose utmost talent is being to crack any puzzle, any prison, with but a blow of his hammer. With his single eye, he can see the various lines that tie physical objects together, and identify the true weak spot of the structure. A wanderer, who values loot more than fame won in battle, and the vengeance that is the price of fame, One-Eye is a most singular orc. One that seems to almost grasp the difference between right-and-wrong (gasp!), and as such, someone that stands apart from the large amount of his species. Initially, he is introduced as searching for loot, with his newly acquired (untrustworthy) partner, Pointy Face. After he is double-crossed by his partner, and sentenced by the local orc hetman to have his gronch (An orc's junk, part trophy, part coinage. It is what it is...) chopped off to pay his debt, One Eye uses his talent to escape, pay back his duplicitous partner, and ingratiate himself with the aforementioned hetman. Unfortunately, by not killing Pointy Face, he opens himself up to the vendetta of the Poxa-Gronka, and unknowingly plays right into the hands of the Orc-Czars agents, who eventually capture him and haul him off to meet his fate. One-Eye's future doesn't seem so bright, does it? Add in a pissed off swamp rumba, Pointy Face following close behind and swearing to cut off his gronch, and the challenge of the ultimate heist, and all bets are off on his ability to remain among the living...

One-Eye reflecting on orcish society. Interior art by James Stokoe.

James Stokoe's original idea for this story came about after a long conversation, with a number friends, about the rather one-sided portrayal of orcs in The Lord of the Rings series. His thoughts drifted across such concepts as, do the orcish hordes only act as they do because they know nothing else, and if there was a different path revealed to them, would the orcs embrace this new way of living?
Is their way of life more of an issue of the environment that they exist in, one in which there is no other demonstrable alternative path to take, or are they inherently evil beings? Out of this conversation came the original 10 page short which, eventually, morphed into this excellent ongoing series.

Art by James Stokoe.

Stokoe's story of a decidedly odd orc, one that seems to have developed a rudimentary moral code of conduct, who shuns the never ending brutish cycle of his fellow orcs, is a great deal of fun. On another level, it is also quite thought provoking, as One-Eye is basically a stranger in a strange land, a man (orc) who can see in a land of the blind. The story is full of action, dark humor (you have no idea how many times I laughed out loud while reading this), and more action than you can shake a gronch at (yes, I went there)! Double and triple-crosses are abundant, the story is rife with mysterious undercurrents, and you get to see orcs behaving as only orcs can... What's not to like, I ask you?

Art by James Stokoe.

One-Eye is the central character of the story, but supporting characters, and antagonistic ones, such as a sociopathic swamp rumba, the local bad man (orc), Pointy Face, and the mysterious would be emperor, the Orc Tzar, are not given short shrift. The characters grow into themselves as the story moves along, as Stokoe builds on their inherent personality traits, expanding on the depth and breadth of each of his main players. As the story progresses, the setting also expands, as the author continues to open up his unique world. Shifting between multiple character's perspectives, the pace varies between the dynamic and a more moderate flow, as it accommodates itself to the overall needs of the plot. All in all, some very good stuff,

Art by James Stokoe (magnificent, isn't it).

Let's get to the artwork, shall we? Stokoe employs a highly intricate style, both in his character work and, especially, in his detailed and crowded background art. While being uniquely his own, a point of reference for readers would be a number of the artists of Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine, especially later works by Jean Giraud and the works of Philippe Druillet. The exquisite detail is highly appreciated, and is what drew me to this release, initially. Stokoe's depiction of the action is equally intricate, and flows along organically. His panel placement and overall layout of the story is inspired, while the outre colors of the release dazzle the reader's eye. Really outstanding work, which ranks up there with some of the best work by Giraud, Druillet, Corben, and Nino. Absolutely love it...

Interior art by James Stokoe.

When it comes down to it, this is a highly original, well executed fantasy collection, with both story and art working at a higher level. Stokoe's tale of an outcast in a world that he did not make, or ask to be a part of, resonates on many different levels. Humorous, action-packed, and a entertaining read, Orc Stain has become one of my favorite fantasy comics, and one of my favorite comics, period. Just don't let the kids get a copy, as there is a decent amount of nudity, violence, and gronch chopping. Highly recommended to adults of all stripe, and I hope you enjoy this release as much as I did. Happy reading! You can pick up the release here. Swing by and pick up a copy of this excellent release!

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