Review | Orcs: Forged for War

Orcs: Forged for WarCreating comics is a very tricky business. It has as many pitfalls and traps for the unwary who venture into the industry as I’m sure the publishing business does. Getting the right artist to match the writer and the genre is vital. Not only because it has to be a truly collaborate process, but if one of the elements is not working, the whole will suffer as everything is on the page. With a novel the author spins their magic to help you conjure up the visuals in your mind, but with comics there is less tell and a lot more show. That’s a roundabout way of me saying that I thought this was fun, but there were a few problems and it didn’t really gel as a whole.

I’ve not read any of the Orcs novels by Stan Nicholls but I am aware of them and I like the idea of writing from the perspective of other side. Lord of the Rings from the viewpoint of the Orcs, as it were, where they have their own culture and expanding society, only to have a rag-tag group of rebels, haunted trees that walk like Triffids, and creepy albino immortals start killing them. Or something like that. I’ve seen Joe Flood’s art before and it’s fair to say it has a cartoon style, and indeed, he describes himself in his own biography as a cartoonist. So that is not a negative comment in the slightest and he graduated from the prestigious New York school for Visual Arts in cartooning. His artwork is very clear and tight, the bright colours really help bring it to life and he does an incredibly good job with making all of the Orcs in the squad look different. However, I don’t think his art is a good fit for the story. The genre itself is another issue which I will come back to.

As I mentioned I’ve not read any other work by Nicholls but I would assume the themes in his Orcs books are fairly adult, given the content of this story. That’s the first problem. If this was an all ages comic, one aimed at a young audience, but it was also written in such a way that adults would also enjoy it (like a Pixar film where there are little nods and jokes for grown ups) then the art style would be perfect. However this story has lots of brutal violence and a sadistic villain who tortures people on the page, and it quickly became very clear to me that this was intended as a story for adults. As I mentioned the artwork is quite bright and colourful, which made it even more jarring with the wholesale murder, impaling, dismembering and so on. I would not feel comfortable giving this comic to anyone less than a teenager because of what is shown (hearts being ripped out for example), not implied, referred to or mentioned in passing.

Using more cartoony and less detailed or photo-realistic artwork in comics for an adult audience is not a new approach, but personally it pulls me out of the story and I find it extremely jarring. I have more trouble believing and buying into what I am seeing and therefore I’m unable to connect to the characters or their experiences. Powers by Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming is another example, a very adult (violence, swearing, sex) comic about cops tackling superheroes in a world where people with powers are common. There again, I really like the stories but I’ve always struggled with the visual side of Powers because of its quite blocky simplistic art style, which is why I think I might enjoy the TV series (if it goes beyond a pilot) a lot more than the comic.

Fantasy comics in general are not that popular in comparison to other genres, such as superheroes, crime, horror and so on. There are some characters that are worldwide household names, like Conan or Red Sonja, who have been able to sustain an ongoing fantasy comic for decades. But in comparison to other genres fantasy comics are few and far between. DC comics recently dipped their mainstream toe back into the fantasy comic book waters with Demon Knights, written by Paul Cornell, which mixes DC fantasy characters with figures from medieval folklore. That’s one comic out of 52 new ongoing monthly titles. They also have one western comic too, which shows you how popular that genre is as well.

The story itself in Orcs: Forged for War was interesting and I enjoyed seeing events from the viewpoint of the Orcs where their world is being invaded and polluted by humans. The magic is being leached out of the world because of the destruction and it has become a war for survival. I really liked the fact that the Orc squad were infantry. They were essentially front line squaddies who are not told why, the orders come from the top and they are only told what they need to know. They are expected to follow orders but when those orders don’t make sense, seem unnecessarily risky and dangerous, it makes for some interesting storytelling.

For fans of Nicholl’s Orcs books this is a great addition and for those unfamiliar with his work you can read it without feeling as if you are missing out. If the artwork aspect doesn’t bother you then I think you will enjoy this a great deal, but for me the different creative aspects didn’t gel together well on this comic book.