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River of Blood (review)

Writer : Sean Fahey

Artist : Carlos Trigo

Colorist : Jok

Letterer : Kel Nuttal

Black Jack Press, 2021

Sword and sorcery is a subgenre of fantasy. The main rules, which are not always to be followed blindly in every little detail, are the presence of blood, that is, a kind of violence that puts the physical prowess of the main protagonist at the forefront, a lack of creatures such as elves and dwarves, an abundance of monsters which dwell in the dark recesses of the earth, and magic, usually (although not exclusively) employed by evil wizards. The paradigm of this subgenre, and perhaps one of its best specimen story-wise, is Robert Howard’s Conan, the Cimmerian spawned by a feverish night during which he supposedly told his creator to write a story about him before dawn, the payment for failure being Howard’s head being beheaded by an axe (or a sword, I cannot recall properly). There is little denying, then, that sword and sorcery is not the usual product of fantasy we have come to expect thanks to the works of Tolkien and his peers.

River of Blood, a complete story by writer Sean Fahey and artist Carlos Trigo, is part and parcel of this pulp heritage, moving deftly between evil presences and dismemberment. A band of mercenaries, coming from the North (that is, North Europe) escape from Byzantium to find themselves on a quest to free a village from the curse of vampiric monsters.

Yet, the structure is less straightforward as parts of the tale are spent giving us a more extensive presentation of the characters. This decision allows for a better appreciation of the mercenaries, as by fleshing them out the writer and the artist make sure we are given enough time to understand them more properly. The end result is such that each of them is more than a simple replaceable grunt; round-shaped as they are, it is easier to see them as human beings, thus managing to overcome part of the the limitations of the subgenre – a lack of a deeper analysis of the psyches of the characters.

Reading this book to find an essay on the inner mechanisms of the human creature, anyway, would be quite misleading. The main goal of the adventure being told here is that of entertainment, and from this point of view the book manages to fulfil our expectations. As a tribute to the pulp magazines of the ‘20s and ‘30s, just as of many a B-movie, the comic unfolds in such a way that reading it becomes a pleasure on different levels. There is little denying, for instance, that the world building, with its medieval setting, mixes real life and imagination, so that we can recognize what is (or rather, was) part of our world. Yet it is rewritten and reshaped in such a deft way that it manages to serve its purpose without diminishing its overall effect. In other words, if there is a dialogue between reality and fiction, Messrs Fahey and Trigo contextualize it as part of the history of the pulp subgenre.

There is, perhaps, too strong a tinge of ideology at work. There is evil, there is good, and there is a fight between them. Although Mr Fahey usually steers away from giving us a straight dichotomy, there appears, from time to time, a necessity to divide the world into two blocks, whereas part of the appeal of the original pulp writers was their presenting protagonists who were either anti-heroes (Howard) or innocent bystanders (Lovecraft), both part of the universal nullity of mankind. More August Derleth, we are led to believe, than proper Lovecraft. Whether this might be a problem or not as ever depends on the tastes and the cultural background of the reader.

This comic, then, should not just be read as a story in itself, rather as a homage to the imagination of Howard, Lovecraft, and many other writers and artists who have given life to the world of sword and sorcery and the world of cosmic horror. If something lurks inside the belly of a village, or stalks the night of snowy riverbanks, it all owes a debt of gratitude to what came before. By recognizing the importance of its tradition the comic book is granted the chance of creating its own experience. The dialogue between past and present, the main idea at the centre of the adventure, smiles, takes our hand, and leads us to rejoicing with the creators every time we manage to recognize the zeitgeist from which it originates.

We interviewed Mr Fahey about the comic:

1) You state that one of the writers who inspired you is Robert E. Howard. The book, indeed, belongs to the sub-genre of sword and sorcery. Could you tell us, then, how such inspiration is structured? Is it just about the main story, for instance, or is it also about the characters populating it, the way they talk and the way they act? Is it just Conan, or is it also Kull, Solomon Kane and Howard’s horror stories about the Cthulhu mythos?

SF: First off, Guido, I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here. World Comic Book Review, and you in particular, have both been great friends of the small press and indie publishers for a long time. It is a genuine pleasure to be speaking with you.

To answer your first question, “The River of Blood” draws from a number of diverse influences. Robert E. Howard is an important influence on the book, but, as you note, he is just one of many. The works of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter, Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” “The Icelandic Sagas,” Michael Crichton’s “Eaters of the Dead,” Mike Mignola’s “Baltimore” series, the CW’s “Supernatural” and Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of MacBeth” each also had a profound influence on “The River of Blood.” Generally speaking, what these works have in common is that they follow ordinary men and women pitted against extraordinary – in some cases, otherworldly – circumstances. Their strength comes entirely from their own grit, determination and moral fiber. That’s what gets them through their journey. That is how they overcome their challenges. Those kinds of stories, and those kinds of characters, appeal to me.

2) Another inspiration is the celebrated H. P. Lovecraft. The main antagonist, for instance, prays to divinities that see men as insects, creatures which lie on the lower stratum of the universe. Would you say that this cosmic insignificance of man shaped part of your story, or did you try to subvert this Lovecraftian topos by adding a more proactive stance? If we take Conan into consideration, for instance, we know that the main “religious” idea is that of man, although he recognizes his insignificance, fighting to find his place in the universe.

SF: As you note, the Lovecraftian element of this story is the “cosmic horror” element. This idea that there are dark forces in the universe that are much older than man, that are (at least superficially) far more powerful than man, and that – at best – are agnostic to man’s existence. What is most appealing to me about “cosmic horror” is the resilience some character’s display in the face of this “knowledge.” Weaker and self-centered men are driven insane by this knowledge. Conversely, men of character have their resolve strengthened by their willingness to stare it right in the face. Think of the final scene of True Detective: Rust and Marty talking while looking at the handful of stars that penetrate the vast night sky. “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light is winning.” If that doesn’t give you courage, I don’t know what will. So, I think you are correct in noting that my interpretation of “cosmic horror” is somewhat atypical in that I focus on men and women who are resolute in the face of this horror. They are – as you say – fighting to find a place, to find meaning, in their universe. They’re not bystanders.

3) There is no clear division between good and evil in your book, at least regarding the world your characters live in. I’ll try to rephrase it more properly: some of your characters do show a clear idea of what being “good” means, some, on the other hand, lie inside what we might call a “grey area”, others are “evil” (they enjoy hurting others for the sake of it or for personal purposes), yet the universe they inhabit does not seem to be exactly divided into two parts, one belonging to idea of good and the other to the idea of evil. The general feeling is that people here are trying to survive. Could we say that this, once again, is due to your sources of inspiration? What about you, then, what is your stance in this respect, that is, what kind of universe is the one you created for this adventure? Is it really a universe where there is no clear division between good and evil, or is it one where such division exists, it is just that men (and other creatures) do not seem to fully accept it?

SF: My own personal belief – and the moral landscape of “The River of Blood” — is that there is “good” in the universe and there is “evil” in the universe. There is a clear division. It’s not “all relative.” The “journey” for several of the characters in the book is to discover what side of the moral fence they stand on. Unfortunately, as you infer, many people struggle just to put food on the table and stay warm. They’re just trying to make it to the next day, to survive. That said, many more people, those with the luxury of extra time and money, are just amusing themselves to death. They don’t think about the larger consequences of their decisions. They’re bystanders. One of the themes of “The River of Blood” is that by not choosing a side – by remaining indifferent and on the sidelines – you are, in fact, choosing a side. Indifference allows evil to thrive.

4) History and fantasy are mixed, here. Howard tried to steer as far away from our reality as he deemed possible (concerning Conan, that is), Lovecraft decided the setting of his stories would be his own present, while what you are giving us is reality being reshaped by imagination. How free did you feel during the creative process, and how much did you decide had to stay close to reality?

SF: I wanted the story to feel “grounded,” because I wanted the characters and the tension to be as relatable as possible. We’re all afraid of the unknown. We’re all afraid of being called a “coward.” We all want to be considered by our friends as being “good in a fight,” so to speak. So, I wanted the world the characters inhabited to feel “relatable” to allow the themes of the book to better resonate. That said, this is not historical fiction. So, though the story has historical underpinnings, and even features historical characters (Basil II was the Emperor of Byzantium, and his personal bodyguard were mercenaries from medieval Russia and Scandinavia), those underpinnings are primarily foundational, they are the foundation upon which the pulp fantasy and horror elements are built. There’re many ways to write fantasy and horror. For me though, as a writer and a reader, I find the emotions and themes more impactful if I have at least one foot firmly grounded in the world the characters inhabit.

5) Is there going to be a follow-up? The way the book ends seems to hint that the story might go on (in quite an interesting direction, if I may say so). What are your plans, if we may ask?

SF: There are plans for some of these characters to appear in future books. I’ll just leave it at that for right now. As for “what’s next” from Black Jack Press? I just completed the first draft of “Devil Country,” our next graphic novel. “Devil Country” is a Weird War story that takes place in North Africa in 1942. It centers on a team of British commandos that are part of the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service who get trapped in an underground tomb, in a remote part of the Egyptian desert, during a violent sandstorm. Needless to say, they’re not alone down there. At its core, the book is about human grit, determination and perseverance in the face of mounting tension and pressure. I describe it as Ben McIntyre’s “Rogue Heroes” meets John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” I’m consolidating notes now from the various colleagues I sent the script to, and we should be hiring an artist sometime in early 2022.