Review by Frank Plowright
Has it really been over thirty years since the Mercenary was first sighted flying across his dinosaur infested world? It was quite the landmark of its early 1980s era, showcasing the wonder of representational artwork, drawing on both classical painting and Frank Frazetta.
The initial pages seem influenced by Arzach as the mercenary serenely heads between mountains toward a distant tower saddled on a flying dinosaur. It’s an effective homage that also comprehensively establishes the scene. Vicente Segrelles sets his stories in a mist-shrouded area high in the Himalayas lost to time, where giant saurians are a constant danger, yet man also exists amid complex minaret towers and vast bridges spanning even vaster chasms. The Mercenary has no other name, but his warrior’s skills and ingenuity ensure employment wherever he finds himself. Here it’s on two rescue missions of women held for ransom.
Time has a caught up with Segrelles regarding a couple of matters. While still looking very good, the years have diminished some of the wonder of Segrelles’ art. When it comes to painted naturalism he’s no longer the only game in town, and the heroic poses have a slight stiffness to them. The wonder of the imagination and the landscapes still astonish, however, and Segrelles pulls off the trick of the impressive individual images flowing together into a single cohesive story, to this day often a problem for artists producing painted graphic novels.
In the welcome supplementary material fleshing out the 2017 edition Segrelles provides plenty of notes, essays, explanations and preparatory work. He only briefly addresses what since the original publication has become a more controversial issue. Sword and Sorcery is a predominantly male fantasy genre, and among its genre tropes are an abundance of naked and subservient women, and so it is throughout The Mercenary. The objectification is very apparent, notwithstanding the classical tradition of painting the nude figure, the purpose here is titillation and in the 21st century it will offend more than it did in the 1980s.
The notes also explain the segmented nature of the story, confirming that its two pieces stitched together. Already a known painter before moving into comics, Segrelles produced the self-contained opening pages as a sample, and had to complete the remainder when a graphic novel was commissioned.
Minor picking at matters shouldn’t derail the overall quality. Any editor today would be stunned if presented with the opening six pages as samples from an unknown artist, yet this is very much a trial run, successfully establishing a world that would come to be explored with greater facility over successive volumes. NBM’s reissue program has done Segrelles proud, presenting uniform clothbound hardcover editions with the sharper art reproduction afforded by digital technology, and revised translations providing a more coherent read. In an era when four issues of a superhero title cobbled together sell at over $20, a list price of $17.99 for the lavish presentation is some bargain. The Formula is next. In the 19s0s that was combined with ‘The Cult of Sacred Fire’ in a paperback edition.