I'm weak. Weak, I say.
Well, now that that's done, we can turn our attention to the subject of today's review/screed/mockery, Camelot 3000 by co-writers and artists Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland, embellishers Bruce D. Patterson and Terry Austin, and colourist Tatjana Wood. And letterer John Costanza, can't forget him. "Based on material by Sir Thomas Mallory."
To explain why that last sentence is something of a semantic minefield: the legends of King Arthur are derived from a percolating brew of mythology and history. They are commonly said (by folks such as Jerry Bruckheimer) to have been inspired by a real person, possibly a Roman lord, who lived in England sometime after the fall of Rome and the withdrawal of troops, when England was falling into chaos. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Bruckheimer isn't right about everything. (Yes, I know. The truth hurts.) In fact, the groundwork for the Arthurian legends dates back to Celtic myth from long, long before the Romans ever arrived in England; among other things, the Arthurian knights are Christianizations of ancient Celtic deities and pagan heroes.
Somehow (probably not too strangely, given the fact that, y'know, all civilization had been eradicated by the invading hordes) this stuff got mixed up with history, until it was filtered through a series of authors many centuries later. One of them was Mr. Mallory, who more or less gave us the modern form of the legends-though let's just say the different versions don't always agree. I mean, if you thought the Marvel universe continuity was bad…
Oh yes, comics. That's the reason we're here, isn't it?
Well, guess what, there's another historical preface here, and it's the same one you read about every time anyone mentions Camelot 3K: it was the first comic created specifically for the "direct market", in other words, made to be bought up in bulk and sold by comic book stores. This was a wonderful system that worked with no problems whatsoever until the dark hordes of Image comics sent everything spiraling into the gutter circa 1994.
Oh, I'm so not going to get into that.
Anyway, the reason people focus on the direct market thing in relation to Camelot 3K is that there's not really all that much else that makes it truly special. Don't get me wrong, they certainly TRY to give it another "grabby" element-on which more later-and Don and Maggie Thompson, editors of Comics Buyer's Guide, claim in their introduction that it was the first comic maxi-series. I'm really quite alarmed by the fact that the editors of Comics Buyer's Guide have apparently never heard of Watchmen (which predates C3K by 2 years), but somehow that's not as bad as Barr claiming in the forward that "Since my writing of the series…I have come to be regarded as something of an expert on the Arthurian mythos…" Yes, I'm sure you blew them away in the halls of Academia with this one, Mike.
So, I admit I was feeling a little grumpy towards this series from the beginning, but this column is supposed to be about measured and rational reviews of comics, so…
Oh, no, wait. This column is more about me making unfairly snarky comments about old comics that don't deserve it.
OK, let's get to it!
Anyway, it's England, 3000 A. D. and the aliens are here to kill us all. Tom Prentice, a young man of around 22, is one whose family is killed in the destruction. Stumbling away from the wreckage, pursued by aliens, Tom finds himself at Glastonbury Tor, one of many places said to be the resting place of King Arthur. And in fact, deep in the catacombs, Tom finds his way blocked by a sarcophagus bearing a legend that Tom-who, ever so fortunately, is an expert in Latin and Medieval Studies-translates as "Here lies the renowned King Arthur, the once and future king." At the moment, Tom has more important things on his mind-or so he thinks, until a bearded, crowned figure rises from the tomb, intoning, "How long? How many nights has slept Arthur Pendragon, King of Britain, Lord of the Roman Empire?"
Tom presumably is too distracted to point out that this guy's either a little confused as to the relationship between Britain and the Roman Empire, or claiming a hell of a lot more authority than he actually has. Arthur's a little disoriented by the amount of time that's passed, but he knew it was going to be a while before the seemingly fatal blow dealt to him in the battle for Camelot would be healed, and within moments he's making mincemeat out of the alien pursuers. He even manages to figure out, and use, one of the alien's own ray-guns against him in the space of about five minutes. Oh, and in case you're wondering, Tom is also capable of speaking Medieval Latin, so he understands everything Arthur is saying, even if he does think the guy's a kook. Man, seems like fears about dropping test scores are unfounded, since in the future folks in their early 20s will apparently have instant practical knowledge of how to communicate with a man from 2500 years ago.
Regardless, one thing that isn't in dispute is that this is a good guy to have around during an alien attack, so Tom, after an initial hesitation, forms an alliance with Art. The two of them commandeer a spaceship (again, Arthur seems to immediately get the hang of technology that's futuristic by even our standards-geez, there's a reason this guy was the greatest king of England!) and it's off to lay the groundwork for what's to come.
Meanwhile, we're introduced to some other folks living elsewhere on the globe. One is Jules Futrelle, apparently the richest man in the world, and a key figure in the anti-Alien resistance movement. This is because, for whatever reason, the aliens have decided to ignore France.
Oh, man, there are SO many jokes I could make here, but all the French people I've ever met, including my sister's boyfriend, have actually been really nice and not stereotypical at all, so I'll leave it be. Anyway, the aliens' attentions are focused, primarily, on England, so the French are happy to sit on the other side of the channel, yelling, "I wave my private parts at your aunties! Your mother was a hampster, and your father smelt of elderberries!". (Monty Python Joke #1.)
Back to Arthur and Tom. Tom's giving some exposition to Art about how Earth wasn't in such great shape even before the aliens arrived; for one thing, space exploration had halted and Earth was growing culturally stagnant; for another, as we'll soon see, most of Earth's governments seem to be either paralyzed bureaucracies or dictatorships, and sometimes both. Yep, must be an 80s comic. The point of all this is that England and Earth at large are desperately in need of…a HERO!!
Arthur certainly wastes no time in kicking things into action. His first stop is Stonehenge, where, we learn, Merlin was imprisoned lo these many centuries ago. Rocks are split, a heavy metal album cover comes to life, and Merlin is once again free. (You always have to wonder why Arthur never did that BEFORE his entire kingdom crumbled to dust the first time around…) With the magician joining them, the trio are able to teleport to the next port of call: Salisbury Down, now the site of a Nuclear Power plant. It is here that the Lady of the Lake still holds Arthur's fabled blade, Excalibur, in her keeping, so we get the nifty image of the famous arm-and-sword rising from a cooling tank. However, Merlin knows the importance of keeping to a script, so the sword is whisked away immediately…
…To the UN, where the various members are engaged in the kind of satirical bickering we've come to expect from anyone who ever includes the UN as a plot point in their story. You'd swear this comic was written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Anyhoo, their comical ineffectiveness is rudely interrupted by a stone peak and an anvil with a sword stuck into it suddenly rising from the floor.
We're now told that, around the globe, people witness this miraculous event and feel the stirrings of…something. Presumably a desire for liberty and heroism and all that junk. Yes, and the best way to bring freedom to our beleaguered globe is to…crown someone KING! Yes, that'll work!
Anyway, the crowds-within the space of a few minutes, apparently-now turn pretty violent, and the paramilitary forces are forced to unleash the "Neo-men"-gigantic, zombie-like brutes who are genetically mutated from criminals and "undesirables", and who don't particularly distinguish between rioters and peaceful protesters. Sounds like certain aspects of law enforcement haven't changed much in 3000 years.
Arthur arrives and starts kicking some ass, taking down a Neo-man all by his lonesome, a feat which the world apparently watches in awe. Arthur then strides into the UN floor (apparently without having any issues with security) and, with the entire world watching, rehashes his childhood trick of pulling the sword out of the stone. The UN is not too taken with all this, since, as we all know, supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!
Actually, Merl, I'm not sure you can hold that against Arthur. The reincarnation/awakened memories angle is one of the more frustrating aspects of this book, precisely because it's so potentially interesting. Obviously it provides a nifty metaphor for the comics' major theme, which is that of greatness returning to a thoroughly mediocre world in times of crisis, and in at least one case it provides some heavy-duty dramatic angst (boy, does it ever). But it does raise some major questions, questions which the narrative itself does nothing to downplay even as it fails to resolve them.
Let's look at Acton. When Arthur lays eyes on her, he immediately recognizes her as Guinevere, his former wife and queen consort, and after some initial resistance, a good hard smacker on her lips recalls her buried memories of who she is. From this point on, she, like all the reincarnated knights, goes by her old name of Guinevere. (Um, that is, she's named Guinevere. The others aren't.)
This raises some sticky questions. The former, knightly persona is held to be "more important" than their current life-while the knights obviously retain their knowledge and memories from their current lives, they essentially revert back to their former selves, up to and including going by their archaic names rather than their modern ones. The zeal with which they take to being superpowered, futuristic knights frankly seems a bit creepy-almost as if they've been "possessed". Only occasionally do the knight's prior lives (in their current incarnation, that is) make an impact on their newfound sword-swingin' lifestyle, and yet the comic resolutely refuses to deal with the issues that it raises in this regard.
For example, Acton-now-Guinevere is never seen again acting as Commander of the Earth defense forces (not that she did all that much before anyway); it's possible she tendered her resignation, but we didn't get to see it. Nor did she apparently have any family, friends, or other obligations-she just leaps into being Mrs. Arthur again with no hesitation. It's obvious Barr and Bolland were using the reincarnation bit as a plot device, when it could have been used as a source of drama. And in the one case where it DOES lead to some dramatic conflict, it's totally rife with plot holes.
Let's pick up the pace a little, and meet the remaining Knights.
Sir Kay is a two-bit swindler named Martins, who's rescued by Arthur just before he's turned into an organ bank by some goons to whom he owes money. Sir Percival is an unnamed convict who Guinevere is unable to rescue before he's turned into a troll-like Neo-man-but sheer force of will and memory prevail, and despite his diminished mental capacity, he rallies to Gwen's side. Galahad is, rather bizarrely, a feudal samurai-yes, apparently they have samurai, complete with archaic armour, in the 30th century-who's master was killed in the alien attack; Lancelot (who was his father in their prior life, you may recall) convinces him to serve a new master instead of committing seppuku. Sir Gawain is a gentleman from South Africa, who rather abruptly earns the wrath of his family by heading off with Merlin.
And then there's Sir Tristan…who Tom catches up with at a wedding chapel in Alberta. Turns out Tristan has been reincarnated in the body of the bride, Amber March, who immediately sends her fiancé, a war hero named Owen McAllister, packing. Since her final words to him are "I'm not the woman you thought I was," and she immediately trims her hair into a very butch mid-80s 'do, the subtext is not too difficult to figure out. But don't worry, Barr and Bolland will make it plenty explicit later on.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, Tristan is the exception to the reincarnation rule I was mentioning earlier. She will spend much of the story moping about having been reincarnated in the body of a woman, as if it was absolutely the worst fate that could have befallen her-despite the fact that one of her own teammates is stuck as a trollish subhuman, and you don't hear him complaining! Well, OK, that's because he can't talk. Still, Tristan gets really annoying. I mean, OK, fine, you're a chick now. Disorienting, sure. But surely, so is suddenly being called into action 2500 years after you died, and no one seems to have a problem with that aspect. Besides, she's been a woman for a couple of decades now before she ever remembered being a reincarnated mythological hero, surely she'd be, y'know, used to it by now? This is the kind of plot inconsistency I was talking about.
Certainly Arthur doesn't seem to be very interested in putting them in their place. Instead, he's crowning himself king of the frickin' universe up on New Camelot, and sitting around toasting and boasting in true medieval fashion. Despite this marked lack of action on his part, Art and his crew are instantly hugely popular with the beleaguered masses, who start to hold massive pro-Arthur rallies, apparently demanding that he be legitimately appointed supreme ruler of Earth. But the evil, evil UN, led by the foppish security director Jordan Matthew, is already conspiring to stamp out this threat to their authority. I swear to God, this comic is the primary inspiration for George W. Bush's foreign policy.
What follows is the first real battle for the newly-assembled knights, and it's just a haze of confusing motivation. Gwen, lounging on her bed in a sexy dress during the attack (?) decides that it's OK *now* to make contact with the organization that she completely abandoned a few days ago and try and call off the attack. But there's foul play afoot, as the UED hadn't actually sent the attacking ships-they're actually a squadron of Morgaliens in disguise, led by Tristan/Amber's jilted ex-fiance, and secretly ordered by Matthews (who, quel surprise, is in collusion with Mogan le Fay). The knights acquit themselves nicely, with Gawain getting pissed off that the UED forces are here giving him grief while aliens rampage across the globe (hey, it's about someone time brought that up) and Tristan rather cold-bloodedly executing her former lover. That dude-slash-chick has issues, man.
And Tristan continues to whine about being trapped in a female body, in a subplot that's given way too much space. The whining is heightened by Merlin's refusal to do anything about it. Now, since Merlin is (apparently) the one behind the whole reincarnation jazz, you can hardly blame Tristan for being pissed off: everyone else got a body pretty much like the one they had 2500 years ago (to the extent that Arthur, you'll recall, immediately recognized Gwen), except for Gawain and Galahad switching ethnicities, and Percival being mutated. But Tristan did get kinda hosed-assuming it really is that big a deal for her-for no apparent reason except dramatic tension. This is heightened by the arrival of another reincarnation, Tristan's lover Isolde, in the body of the fashion victim Claire Locklyn. SHE doesn't seem to have even the slightest hesitation about her former lover's gender switch, so I'm really not sure why it bothers Tristan so much. I mean, come on, dude, just chill out and enjoy some girl-on-girl action!
Meanwhile, Morgan and Jordan continue to scheme and plot, and the rest of the knights (including Tom Prentice, who started out as the hero and has become utterly useless) do pretty much nothing for several issues.
Finally, the Arthurian plot begins to repeat itself when Merlin is kidnapped by Morgan's demoness henchgirl Nyneve, the knights go on a quest for the Holy Grail (and Percival finds it in a nifty completion of his arc) and yet another reincarnated figure from their time pops up…
It's worth noting that the art improves quite a bit as the series wends its way onwards; it develops a lot of nice grit and detail to the inking that I prefer to the flatter look of the earlier issues.
When all is said and done, C3K is hamstrung by its somewhat laughable attempts at "relevance" and "satire"…the twin bete noires of comics up into the present day. I'm not saying comics can't achieve these things, it's just that, historically, trying to force them into the framework of an over-the-top SF action romp of the kind that comics are forever associated with is often a bad idea. This comic takes itself so darn seriously-it's got all the angst of a Marvel comic combined with the dystopian faux-punk attitude of 2000 AD, but it's not able to carry off either as well as it wants to.
Actually, I could forgive all that if the plot wasn't such an astonishing mass of plot holes and tonal misjudgements. I've already commented at length on the Tristan thing-it's clear the writers were thinking, "A lesbian subplot! It's edgy AND sexy! Let's devote more pages to it!" But they get it way out of balance, turning Tristan into virtually the second lead after Arthur. This is especially annoying considering how some characters-especially token black guy Gawain and token Asian Galahad-are virtually ignored for long stretches of time. It's a real shame, because when Barr and Bolland focus on reworking Arthurian mythology, they create some really memorable scenes and characters-the resolution of the Grail quest is nicely done, as I've mentioned, and some of the villain's plots are intriguing. Plus, Arthur is just a flat-out cool character. He's pretty much what you'd expect, in a good way: noble, brave, kindly, wise, and completely unflappable. He manages to retain a fundamental dignity even in the bizarre world he's been thrust into (and in the face of some of the goofier aspects of being in an 80s comic).
And when all is said and done, this IS a comic about the Knights of the Round Table fighting space aliens, which really ought to be enough for anyone. So, good work, Camelot 3000: because of you, Earth and the direct market is saved!
Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.
RETURN TO PHANTASMIC TALES
Phantasmic Tales is hosted on Keenspace, a free webhosting and site automation service for webcomics.