Marada the She-Wolf, recollected and remastered by Titan Comics this year, is an episodic sword-and-sorcery adventure tale, distinguished from similar comics by John Bolton’s gorgeous artwork. Originally published in Epic Illustrated, Marvel Comics’ non-CCA approved, mid-80s magazine, Marada has the blood and sex (or, at least, intimations of sex) that are sometimes synonymous with “mature” comics, but it’s neither arty nor entertainingly trashy. At its best Marada is well-plotted, with beautifully realized action sequences and a warm mother-daughter bond; at its worst, it’s a Robert E. Howard riff that wishes to subvert patriarchy while perversely reinforcing it.
Written by Chris Claremont, who largely defined X-Men comics for the past 30 years and wrote or co-wrote some of the best-loved superhero epics, including “Days of Future Past” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Marada concerns the titular heroine, a once-fearsome warrior and the granddaughter of Julius Caesar, found in hiding by a former ally, Donal MacLlyanllwyr, who is surprised to find her weak and cowed. Marada eventually reveals that she was raped by a demon summoned by a wizard, her essence sapped and turned against her in the form of a ghoulish clone, who kills Donal and kidnaps his daughter, Arianrhod. Marada takes up her sword again to take rescue Arianrhod and take revenge on her assailants, and then bring the girl safely back home. Along the way the pair are rescued – then hunted – by a warrior queen, spend time with pirates, and encounter a wizard who woos Marada while plotting to betray her.
The focus on female characters and brisk plotting are hallmarks of Claremont’s writing – as are the caption-dense panels and wordy dialogue, though Claremont’s tendency to overwrite suits fantasy comics better than superhero comics. More noteworthy is his precise characterization. Marada is fierce in battle, but also funny at times, even slightly giddy as she falls for Jaffar, and Arianrhod enters the story as a typically naive sidekick, but becomes more confident over time; even the pirate, Taric Redhand, is more dynamic than you’d expect in a story like this. That said, the antagonists, with the exception of Ashake (who makes a less than subtle pass at Marada in one of the story’s best moments) are decidedly one-note, made interesting only by John Bolton’s designs and exquisite choreography.
And Bolton, who I first encountered when he drew the first book of The Books of Magic, is definitely the draw here. His linework is soft, and when paired with dark shading makes figures seem to emerge gradually from backgrounds, airy but rich with detail. When originally serialized, his Marada art was black and white, but after some resistance he colored the pages for a subsequent collected edition. The original pages (some are reprinted in the introduction to Titan’s reissue) are striking and spare, but the colored art is moodier, and better establishes the fantastic elements of the world. The finished pages almost feel painted, but I suspect it’s colored pencil, or something like it. I wonder how much of the “remastering” claimed on the back cover involves touching up color choices, a common practice in the reissue market that elicits mixed responses from readers and critics.
But unlike some painterly comic art, which can be stiff and overly posed, Bolton’s action sequences are kinetic. The figures curve and bend to imply movement, along with precisely rendered arcs of blood. Marada’s duel with the demon Y’garron is particularly balletic, with each panel capturing the exact moment in a parry or thrust that suggests just enough of the movements before and after, so that the sequence feels fully animated.
So, there’s a lot to like about Marada. But it’s also a comic about a “strong female character” who does most of her fighting in a thong, and whose story is initiated by rape. For all the action and brutality that’s intended to signify that Marada isn’t a helpless waif in need of a male hero to rescue or complete her, her adventures are still circumscribed by male desire. Even her historic parentage – repeated throughout each episode like a mantra – binds Marada’s specialness to a male figure. I want to assume that the bizarre panel in the middle of her duel with Y’garron (her rapist, incidentally) where a wizard summons up a flower that distracts and dazes Marada is either a weird narrative misstep or my misinterpreting the dialogue (the art is vague as to what’s actually going on) but it unfortunately meshes with the book’s approach to its central character.
Marada is nowhere near as backwards in it’s gender politics as most contemporary mainstream comics, but there’s something particularly galling about a book that seems to take pride in featuring a female lead making similar missteps. Perhaps in the context of its original publishing Marada counts as a step in the right direction, but to this modern reader it’s a well-intentioned misfire. Still, the art is gorgeous and the plot, when it sticks to Marada and Arianrhod’s road trip bonding, is light fun. Hopefully Titan will continue to acquire the republishing rights to other critically celebrated but less visible Epic Illustrated stories.
Similar Reads: Any of a wide variety of Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja comics, including the two current series written by Brian Wood and Gail Simone, respectively; Northlanders by Brian Wood and various artists