Tuesday 26 February 2019

You Are The Hero Part 2


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When the second part of Jon Green’s definitive history of FF was announced eyebrows were raised as to exactly what content it would offer. The amount of new material that had appeared under the FF banner between the first volume’s release in 2014 and the second instalment’s announcement in 2017 was hardly going to fill a pamphlet, let alone another weighty book, but, in spite of the potential scarcity of content, YATH2 funded in under 24 hours on Kickstarter meaning fans had faith that this was going to be a worthwhile project either way. Mirroring the format and release gambit of the first YATH, YATH2 is a deluxe oversized coffee table book that was finally unveiled at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 on 2nd September 2017.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is that it is rather thinner than YATH, clocking in at 90 pages shorter than the first book. The second thing that strikes you is that, on beginning to read it, in the first seven pages of text alone, the first YATH is name-checked six times and, after 10 pages the YATH-mentioning count has rocketed to 15 times! I’m not sure the first YATH needs quite this much plugging as I would imagine that most readers of the second Part will have read the first.

So, exactly how are the pages of Part 2 filled? The opening Chapter covers FF conventions and those in the know will quickly observe that there have been very few events dedicated solely to FF. In fact, there had been all of two up to the point this book was written: Fighting Fantasy Day in 1985, and Fighting Fantasy Fest in 2014. Is this really a Chapter’s-worth of events? It is not easy finding people who were at FF Day but one does get interviewed and, due to the limited amount of available information on that event, the 1985 gathering in Manchester gets just half a page of coverage. This is a shame as I’m sure most fans would appreciate more detail on this convention (well, I would anyway) which few of us were able to attend and which has largely been consigned to history. Its inclusion is definitely of interest as I doubt many people are even aware that it took place but a bit more research and information would have made this seem less like a starter course to whet our appetites for the rest of this Chapter which, in a heavy imbalance of content, offers us six pages about FFF in 2014. Admittedly the 2014 convention is in more recent memory, but this section goes into unnecessary depth in what is a blow-by-blow account that pushes the envelope in terms of valuable material and a point is already being stretched in content terms as soon as YATH2 begins.

Chapter 2, covering writers, looks more promising though as it begins by profiling Keith P Phillips in what is an adjunct offering material missing from the first YATH. Even though Phillips only wrote one FF book it is a highly-respected, if brain-meltingly hard, outing and it is interesting to get an insight into Phillips’ thought processes behind the book as well as submission practice at Puffin at the time. As Phillips is a lesser-known FF author it is nice to see him getting decent column space and his input is well worth reading. Second up is Kieran Fanning (who?) I’ve never heard of him but apparently he is a successful current children’s author so there is no real reason why I would have, to be honest. But, why is he even in here? He seems to be more interested in Choose Your Own Adventure and Way Of The Tiger than FF (yes, I know they are gamebooks, but this is the history of FF, right?) and he only makes mention of one FF book. Indeed, most of his interview is just him plugging his own fiction. Tenuous and of little value. Next we get Garth Nix, the man who wrote the science fiction short story Sam, Cars And The Cuckoo printed in Warlock #2. It is fascinating to have such an obscure contributor to FF history covered and it is good to see such depth being gone into to make sure everyone involved in FF history is included in the story, no matter how small a contribution they may have made. However, he literally says of his “brief association with FF”: “I’m not sure it has had any particular influence [on my career]”. Er, Ok, moving on then lol. Nix does tell us the story of the creation of his Warlock short subject though and focus on tiny details in FF history is always welcome. The remainder of Chapter 2 then proceeds to give an update (the first genuinely new “sequel” material in YATH2) on Arion Games’ latest AFF products (and there are plenty of them to cover) plus it provides information on the French iteration of AFF (Défis Fantastiques: le jeu de rôle) including a beautiful full-page colour image of a dragon by Malcolm Barter which is otherwise exclusive to the French AFF edition and in doing this YATH2 showcases an example of generally localised art to a wider audience, rather than all its full-page art plates just being familiar UK cover images, which would have been an easy (but less appealing to the hunter of surprise new material) win.

In a natural progression from a Chapter on authors, the next Chapter discusses artists. As with the previous Chapter, this section begins with another supplementary piece to the first YATH, this time profiling Geoff Senior. Sadly, this Senior coverage says very little of consequence other than a general potted career summary in five (somewhat short) paragraphs. We then get just over three pages about Stephen Player and I must admit to becoming concerned that, as he illustrated Green’s Stormslayer, this section might lurch into JG talking about himself which was a major gripe I had with the first YATH. Thankfully, this does not happen but, instead, the book heads off on a drastic tangent that goes into way too much depth about Player’s SFU Fantasy Art course students and their FF-based (or, more to the point, Stephen Player-based) artwork. I’m not convinced that this is of any real value other than to fill pages. That said, there are some impressive pieces in this section, especially Ron Monaoi’s full-page Yeti Attack which would not be out of place in Caverns Of The Snow Witch. Following on from some random art students, we get a section on aspiring FF-influenced artists, including the work of the excellent Alex Siddy whose digital Bloodbeast image and a very different, far more visceral and horror-filled monochrome alternate Temple Of Terror cover reimagining, are very impressive, and he is brave to successfully rethink the work of two of FF’s greatest artists (Iain McCaig and Chris Achilleos). He also contributes a nice Zagor/mountain illustration prepared especially for this book. Following this we get a brief comment on fans’ tattoos which is a nice inclusion, even if I doubt it really offers anything other than demonstrating fan obsession mixed with just how much FF imagery means to the fans. Finally, this Chapter concludes with Chris Achilleos talking us through the creative stages that produced his newly-commissioned YATH2 cover art. Whilst it is fascinating to see how a master works, the resultant cover is awful with its overuse of purple (for some reason) and its figures that have nothing of the brilliance that was a trademark of Achilleos’ art in the past. I honestly cannot believe that this is by the same artist who produced some of the greatest fantasy art of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Is the YATH2 cover his worst work ever? Probably, yes.

To continue the art theme, Chapter 4 looks at that staple of fantasy gaming, mini figures. Covering the rarely-seen range of plastic FF minis is a good inclusion and could prompt collecting opportunities for those who are not aware of this range’s existence (assembling a complete set is a major achievement as these figures are very rare) and we even get an interview with their sculptor. Next comes a few sentences on the six generic plastic minis that came with the WOFM boardgame, followed by two slightly longer paragraphs about the Legend Of Zagor boardgame figures (admittedly there are a whole lot more of them!) which do at least include four recognised FF player characters and the Zagor Demon himself, rather than just being six random fantasy figures as with the WOFM minis. I feel obliged to mention that my Scriptarium Yaztromo mini is also included here and I’m pleased to see this as it gives a spotlight to the very talented Steven Leicester’s figure painting skills. A really fascinating inclusion in this Chapter is an actual photograph of the near-legendary FF Battlegame 3D dungeon pieces – surely a collecting Holy Grail for even the most hardcore collector. A necessary inclusion is a section on the creation of Otherworld Miniatures’ white metal Zagor figure (of FFF fame) and we get thorough coverage of the design and development that went into producing this item. Sticking with the “FFF minis” theme, next up are the yet to commercially materialise, but very impressive, Pure Evil Miniatures range of resin figures that were seen in tantalising prototype form at FFF. The entire range is pictured, including some previously unseen minis based on monsters from The Port Of Peril. This gives hope that there is still activity in the range and that we may still see these on sale one day. From official figures, we then move into the world of fandom modelling and this section is a real revelation. It’s not often considered that fan art is anything other than traditional drawing and painting, but the showcasing of talented fans’ modelling work (mostly scratch-built which is a skill that I envy) is a really good inclusion. Amongst the fantastic work on display is a stunning paintjob on a mini perfectly recreating the complex John Blanche colouring on the Slime Eater from the cover of Khare, as well as Johan Tieldow’s highly original Zanbar Bone PEZ dispenser! Indeed, Johan has created a whole series of clay sculptures and drawings of Zanbar and those included here are just the tip of the iceberg of another very talented FF fan artist’s work.

Moving on from visual art, Chapter 5 covers the rather less obvious subject of FF-influenced music, something I would imagine is news to most FF fans. In reality, this Chapter shows FF’s influences on obscure unsigned and/or self-releasing bands, plus Steve Jackson’s occasionally-performing R&B covers outfit (of which there are many video clips on YouTube). No-one massively famous then, but this is a very off-the-wall topic to include and shows an out-of-the-box thinking in the way this book has been put together. Also featured are the composers of the soundtracks to Tin Man and inkle’s FF apps, coverage of which is as thorough as is needed for such a peripheral subject.

Whilst the first five Chapters of YATH2 cover a good variety of FF-related areas and are certainly worth reading (if only once in many cases), the actual amount of focussed material is rather sparse. In saying this, I mean that the bulk of the subject matter is either fandom or random stuff that would otherwise be ignorable and would be unlikely to have made the cut for the first YATH (eg: app soundtrack composers, authors who might have vague memories of having once have read a FF book, etc), even stretching the point to 3rd parties influenced by art courses taught by a FF artist. Yes, it’s all FF-influenced but how far can you pull the connecting threads before they become so thinly-stretched that they break and all we are left with is the sound of the bottom of an already thoroughly-scoured barrel being scraped? Much of this just seems to almost be ads for interested parties’ work.

If you have stuck with the rather inconsistent programme for the first five Chapters you are then in for what seems to be a much more relevant sixth Chapter all about Fighting Fantazine, the by all intents and purposes official fanzine and successor (in content, style and presentation) to Warlock magazine. This section seems much more worthwhile than the previous five (bar the useful Keith Phillips appendix) and means that 74 pages into YATH2 we are finally getting material worthy of the first YATH volume. The whole history of the ‘zine is covered, including interviews with all the major protagonists, a lengthy section giving insight into how the selection and refining of the all-important mini-FF that each issue features functions, and finally a critical discussion of the ‘zine’s main editors’ views on the best of the bunch of those mini-FFs. I found it quite amusing that there is a brief teaser nod to my own contribution (Sister Angela’s Veil) that had just gone through the finalisation process for inclusion in the then-imminent issue number 16. This chapter is thus far the most focussed and relevant by a long way and does not suffer the problems that the previous Chapters did whereby you are sifting through general fandom bumpf trying to pick out a few gems of chronicle-worthy content.

After a strong Chapter 6 we get what is effectively a Kickstarter contractual obligation covering collectors. The two big guns are profiled (Jamie Fry and Steven Dean) and we get to see and hear about some juicy titbits of their collections, as well as Jamie Fry’s essential, meticulously-researched and exhaustive work that is the FF Collector’s Guide getting mentioned. In a similar vein, the well-known FF art collector Pat Robinson shows us his spectacular and authoritative collection of cover art originals (his hallway walls are to die for) and the full-page rendering of Terry Oakes’ wonderful cover from The Rings Of Kether is a glorious inclusion. The fourth and final collector we hear from is the less-known Teofilo Hurtado who gives us a welcome overview of the Spanish FF market, although quite why he submitted such an awkward-looking photo of himself I have no idea! Incidentally, to get a full-page profile of you and your collection in YATH2 required you to back at a whopping £500 level. Was it worth it? I guess they must have thought so but you could get some fantastically-rare items for your collection with that kind of money. This Chapter is surely just a vanity piece for the four contributors and is of rather less interest to anyone who is not them, even if there are some lesser-known rarities mentioned. Kickstarter obligation aside, this Chapter can pretty much be ignored bar the big Kether cover image.

A dramatic change in relevance comes with Chapter 8. This Chapter is much more substantial in terms of content and thoroughness than any preceding it, discussing as it does video game and app adaptations. The first YATH documented all of the computer/video game releases from the 1980s ZX Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/Amstrad through to the early 2000s versions, but this Chapter offers an actual update and is only the second of these in YATH2 (after the AFF update roundup in Chapter 2). Coverage of inkle’s huge and sprawling Sorcery apps is very long and in considerable depth, followed by an equally if not even more thorough look at Tin Man’s sublime Windows version of WOFM. What follows is an unexpected look at Dave Sharrock’s labour of love Minecraft recreation of Allansia (the existence of which has to be news to most of us) and then comes similarly in-depth discussion of Nomad Games’ fun diversion that is FF Legends. The only weak part of this Chapter is the final brief section on how other game designs may have been influenced by FF which seems to be an unnecessary tagged-on piece more in the style of earlier Chapters’ vaguely relevant material. Otherwise this is the best Chapter yet by far in terms of true relevance.

Indeed, YATH2 remains on track with the next rather longer Chapter detailing comic books and graphic novels. We all loved Lew Stringer’s Derek The Troll from Warlock (and later White Dwarf) magazine and this character is up for discussion first, primarily through the recent collected single volume GN that Stringer published. Andi Ewington’s excellent Freeway Fighter comic series then follows including a fascinating insight into everyone involved’s creative processes from the obvious ones of author and artist through to the less generally familiar role of Titan Comics’ commissioning editor. There is even an appropriate tribute to the late Kevin Bulmer who drew the internal art for the original source gamebook. This section does contain a few spoilers (especially where the comic sits in the timeline compared to the gamebook) but this hardly matters and does not detract from an excellent bit of coverage. It is great to see all of the cover variants for all four issues in one place (this is also handy for working out if you are missing any) although I’m not convinced that four paragraphs should have been given over to an online review as this is not really of much use as it goes against the objective chronicle approach of the YATH books. The third part of Chapter 9 is inevitably dedicated to the controversial and somewhat lacklustre The Trolltooth Wars GN. Again, coverage is very thorough, especially of the creative processes involved as well as the sheer logistics of attempting an indie project like this without the support of a publisher, and I’m very pleased that Green interrogates the ridiculously long delay issue which soured this project for so many Kickstarter backers. The reasons given by PJ Montgomery make sense, it’s just a shame we never got given this explanation during the KS campaign. I would have liked to have seen a balance in the number of full-page plates from both Freeway Fighter and The Trolltooth Wars in this Chapter as the inferior Trolltooth Wars artwork gets rather more page-space than the much better Simon Coleby art from Freeway Fighter, but that is just my own taste. As someone who has been reading comic books for almost as long as I have gamebooks, this Chapter is very worthwhile and quite fascinating regardless of my personal views of the actual comics in question. The Trolltooth Wars Kickstarter fiasco needed documenting and it is done very well and not to the detriment of also covering the artistic and practical aspects. Avoiding the KS subject would have seemed like a cop-out, but focussing on that alone would have been unfair and unbalanced. Freeway Fighter was far easier to document as there are no metaphorical clouds over its development. If anything, Chapter 9 trumps Chapter 8 for me in terms of its quality, but that is just because I am more interested in comics than in video games.

Chapter 10 is odd. It is not immediately obvious how television and FF could be connected enough to warrant an entire Chapter being dedicated to this subject and I find this section to be clutching at straws for content. Many fans are aware that WOFM was profiled on The Book Tower in the early-‘80s (the footage is possibly lost from the archives due to junking if I understand correctly) and this program gets only a short paragraph by definition as few can have seen this clip, or will recall it in much detail, if they have. There is a very tenuous Ben Elton section mostly about D&D (the only proper FF association being when Elton plays The Forest Of Doom on-screen at one point), but the next section covering the BBC’s highly imaginative Skill, Stamina And Luck interactive documentary from a few years ago is much more relevant and I’m glad that this brilliant creation is not forgotten. Sadly, the rest of this Chapter is of little real value as we get told about a FF question (literally just one question!)  that appeared on the excruciating quiz show Only Connect and a Brazilian chat show that Ian Livingstone was invited to appear on. I do wonder whether YATH3 will feature the brief snippet from 24 Hours In A&E last year where a patient is playing Stormslayer for a few seconds in a Waiting Room? Given the threadbare material in this Chapter I suspect it probably will qualify for the next book!

Moving swiftly on from the pointless Chapter 10, Chapter 11 gives the necessary update to the previous book’s update (ahem) on Jackson and Livingstone’s post-FF activities including the little-known Sorcery-themed cocktails that were served at inkle’s Sorcery 4 launch party (another nice obscure detail worth documenting). As he tends to be more obviously active, Livingstone gets the balance of coverage and I am particularly struck by the sheer passion he expresses in his interview here regarding the educational prospects and potential of video games. There is a nice long spotlight on recent convention activity in Brazil (perhaps that’s why the previous Chapter randomly included the Brazilian chat show bit then?) including a particularly important section about the Daielyn Cris custom City Of Thieves design project that she presented to IL. This obviously led to the disastrous Indiegogo campaign to fund a grossly-overpriced and rather ludicrously over-engineered special edition deluxe hardback City Of Thieves but this definitely needed including in YATH2 (and I’m glad it was) as no FF fan is likely to forget that laughing-stock in a hurry!

Obviously, the story of what FF’s two creators did next would be incomplete without documenting the new Scholastic printings and Chapter 12 is given over to this subject. There is a wealth of useful information in this Chapter including the shortlist of titles for what would eventually see the light of day as The Port Of Peril as well as it being pleasing to me personally to see James Aukett’s Beer-O events get mentioned as they are popular gatherings and he puts a lot of work into planning them. And why are they mentioned? Because it was at one of these that the discussion was had about what title that book should be given. The ins-and-outs of how the Scholastic deal came about are covered and The Port Of Peril is inevitably the centre-piece to this subject, including the (accidental) naming of the guilty party who clearly failed to do a decent job of playtesting it (in fact, it is retrospectively quite hilarious how much credence this person appears to put into being thorough in editing these books!) For anyone who hadn’t already noticed it, the Salamonis typo on the new Leo Hartas Allansia map is noted too. As YATH2 has not shied away from controversial subjects (The Trolltooth Wars GN delay, the uber-deluxe City Of Thieves debacle) there was no question of the emotive topic of the new art coming up and, again, this is sensitively treated when it could so easily have become sensationalist. In brief, fan reaction and Scholastic’s justification are both discussed as needed. New cover artist Robert Ball gets his say on the concept and thinking behind the new covers and we get a full-page plate of the alternate proposed cover for The Port Of Peril which I personally prefer as it contains much more horror but it was probably too scary for today’s pc brigade to approve. This Chapter also covers the most polemic subject of all and the one everyone quickly raises when the Scholastic series is mentioned and that is Vlado Krizan’s incompetent internal art. Abomination that Krizan’s art is, this time, and probably wisely, Green avoids the backlash bloodbath that it got from the fanbase and this section is mercifully brief being just a quick analysis of how Krizan worked on his pieces. Finally, it is hinted at that Jackson might be convinced to write another FF and we get his explanation of why he suddenly stepped away from writing FF books the first time around. Again, this is useful historical detail.

YATH2 is a companion piece, not a sequel to the first book. Yes, there are necessary updates, but this is more of a book about fandom activity than the first, which was very much an in-depth chronicle of FF and its creators. The two books complement each other well in this sense but YATH2 is much more of a niche piece, barring the sections that give genuine updates to the FF story. It is certainly rather less essential than YATH unless fandom really interests you. It is also rather shorter and sparser on actual valid content as opposed to discussing sometimes irrelevant people who admit to not really being influenced by FF but seem to have been included anyway. Green writes in his easily accessible journalistic style as before and this book can be read through in one or two sittings with no problems. The irritating tendency Green had in the first YATH to draw the narrative round to himself as much as possible is noticeably (and mercifully) absent this time around and he has clearly responded to readers’ reaction. As with the first book, the main text is punctuated by boxes containing FF trivia which are often fascinating to read. It is good too that supplementary material missing from the first books is added (Phillips, Senior) to continue the thoroughness of approach. If I have one major criticism it would be (other than the semi-relevant nature of much of what is discussed) that this book is riddled with typos and grammatical errors and some sentences are awkward or make little sense as a result. For example we are told that we are getting “insightful, riveting insights” (I’d be surprised to read an insight lacking in insght!) and the comment in the section about FFF that tells us that “Steven Dean going away with not the … Deathtrap Dungeon swords” is gibberish. An interesting undercurrent that runs throughout this book is the way that Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig and John Blanche are clearly considered by anyone who expresses a view on the subject to be peoples’ favourite FF artists (I’d cite the first two, but would also add Alan Langford and Martin McKenna for internal work, Gary Mayes for sci-fi, and Chris Achilleos for covers) and I’m surprised that Achilleos is not up there in the FF consciousness in the same way. Perhaps it was because he was responsible for the terrible cover on this book? Unappealing cover aside, there is some essential information within (especially the updates), but the amount of fandom filler does become a minefield for the reader to navigate whilst not letting this overshadow the genuinely excellent sections that this book has in parts. Overall, this is a very mixed bag and the first YATH was miles better.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Steve Jackson's The Trolltooth Wars


PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Mention this graphic novel adaptation of Steve Jackson’s 1989 book of the same name to most FF fans who were involved in the funding and they are far more likely to talk about the shambolic Kickstarter campaign that led to its creation than the GN itself. Mention it to anyone who did not support the Kickstarter and they will probably look at you blankly and start Googling how to buy a copy. We will discuss the thorny subject of the Kickstarter later, but the apparent lack of awareness of the GN beyond that project has made it something of an obscurity in the fan community, a problem which is not helped by the relative lack of distribution outlets where it can be purchased - as a privately-published title it’s essentially only available from its own Bigcartel website, anyone who backed the KS at the retail levels (which amounts to all of ONE backer who pledged for 10 copies), plus I’ve seen it in Travelling Man in Leeds…. Oh, and, several of the KS backers sold their copies peer-to-peer fairly quickly so not even all the backers have a copy anymore. A year after its Summer 2017 release, it would be further overshadowed by the far better-promoted (and distributed) Freeway Fighter comic book published by Titan Comics (which was also better-received as it didn’t overrun its original release schedule by 18 months like The Trolltooth Wars did!)

So, was it worth waiting all that extra time for? Firstly, let’s get something clear: I love the original novel. Granted, it isn’t as dark and brooding as its superior sequel Demonstealer, but it is so bursting with exactly what FF fans want (ie lots of FF exploitation) that it’s hard not to find the source book thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that it brings four popular FF NPCs all together in one place (Zagor, Balthus Dire, Zharradan Marr, and Yaztromo) adds to the appeal, plus the original novel is jam-packed with FF lore and background detail, including the clarification of a few logic question marks that you find yourself pondering over after playing some of the earlier books (especially The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and The Citadel Of Chaos). There is a lot going on in the source book and it is by necessity fast-paced as it switches the action between Balthus and Zharradan’s machinations and plans for war, battle scenes/massacres, and Chadda Darkmane’s adventures from Salamonis to the Galleykeep via Yaztromo’s tower and Firetop Mountain. Jackson’s book is quite cinematic in its approach and Montgomery’s GN tries to emulate this with frequent scene shifts, often from one page to the next, which can make it seem a bit all over the place (especially if you aren’t familiar with the Jackson novel). For this reason, you do have to concentrate on the headers that sometimes set the location and/or rely on the illustrations to give you an idea of where any particular page of action is taking place, or maybe even use the characters as the only way to keep up. In places this is executed well, especially one particular page where we see Balthus and Zharradan plotting similar things, one on the left of the page, the other on the right, leading to them both announcing the same thing in the final plate. In other places, it just gets muddled and you find yourself referring back to the Jackson novel to untangle what is going on. Don’t get me wrong, by no means is the GN complicated, the problem lies in the necessity of adapting a novel into a GN as huge amounts of scene-setting text in a novel can be condensed down to one single image in a GN. Indeed, entire chapters of the Jackson novel are often reduced down to just one or two pages of this GN which is why it seems to flit about between people and places so much. Essentially, all the core plot from the novel is there, it’s mainly the asides and little cameos from the book that are missing from the GN (eg: the elf fight in the Fatted Pig, Calorne Manitus’ explanation of why Shazaar is so bizarre, etc), but curiously Chadda Darkmane’s key motivation is also entirely excised, that being the concept of Amanour. In the original novel, Darkmane is out for himself and agrees to take on King Salamon’s commission so as to increase his Amanour (ie kudos), whereas in the GN he comes across as rather more honourable as he accepts the mission purely for the honour of serving his King. These two things are very different. In the novel Darkmane often seems self-possessed and driven by Amanour to the point of being quite obnoxious, whereas the GN presents him as a far more courtly hero in the classic sense. This does create a very different feel to the piece and makes you rather more sympathetic towards Darkmane and makes you be more forgiving about his attitude towards things like sorcery and the Cherva’s obsessive vegetarianism than you are when reading the novel, but it also makes him seem like a bit of a goody-goody wuss. Given that Darkmane is the YOU of the piece though, I do wonder why he accepted the mission in the GN version – there is no apparent reward of any kind (not even money), so why root for him? Actually, Balthus or Zharradan seems far more worthy of the reader’s support in the GN version, especially Balthus who is the underdog for much of the story (as he is in the Jackson novel) and who isn’t presented as especially evil in the GN. Zharradan is clearly the bad guy in this version. Even Zagor seems more sympathetic and easy to get on-side this time around, whereas in the novel he is still basically psychotic.

A key part of the source book is the wealth of lore presented in long contextual asides. Almost all of this is missing from the GN, bar that which is totally essential to following the basic plot ie the link between the Demonic Three and Volgera Darkstorm, and Marr’s background with the women of Dree. Interestingly, this latter item is actually lifted from Creature Of Havoc, rather than The Trolltooth Wars, but it greatly helps us to understand Marr as a character as well as how mharranga fits into the plot (even if its use is muddied in the GN and amounts to a handful of plates again). The same happens when Balthus takes his two cunnelwort trips – in the novel this is fully explained whereas in the GN it is, again, reduced to a handful of plates and makes rather less sense. I would imagine that, without being familiar with the original novel, all of the cunnelwort/Sorq/Ganjee plot elements would be missed and/or confusing if you only read the GN and, as cunnelwort is the primary plot maguffin and the cause of the titular wars, this is a massive issue.

So, with Amanour completely removed and cunnelwort reduced to playing a bit part, what is left of any substance in the GN version? The answer is the build up to and skirmishes of the Trolltooth Wars themselves, and Darkmane’s mission to try to manipulate the wars to avoid Salamonis being swallowed-up by them (in other words, the action). Yes, these are huge parts of the original novel, but the subtleties and the real underlying plot drivers are all missing from the GN, thus presenting the story as basically a territory war with a concerned bystander. As a plot summary, the GN is fine, especially if you haven’t read the original book (think film adaptation vs source book and you have the right idea), but as an adaptation I’m not convinced that the GN really offers much. The reason the subsequent Freeway Fighter GN seemed to work better was that it was new material rather than a reduction to the bare bones of existing material, which is where The Trolltooth Wars GN falls down. Admittedly, it makes for a fast-moving and tight GN, but then the source book is also tight and fast-moving, but still manages to offer far more in terms of lore and colourful expansion.

I do find myself wondering what, other than distilling and summarising the plot, Montgomery actually did when he put this together. Rather handily, the answer is in the supplementary material in the back of the GN, where he explains what goes into adapting a novel into a graphic novel. This is an interesting insight into the process involved and does help explain why so much of the book was excised for those who aren’t regular readers of the GN medium. However, I have read many novel-based GNs that do manage to incorporate all the background in one way or another so it’s a shame this could not have somehow happened with Montgomery’s version, notwithstanding the restrictions of time, art budget, and the practicality of having a two-inch thick GN as the finished product. On the subject of size, it has to be said that I was surprised to see just how small the finished GN is. Most trade paperback GNs are roughly A4-sized, but The Trolltooth Wars is closer to oversized A5 and is disappointingly small. The art plates are not in any way reduced though which is good to see, instead the overall effect is less impactful than it could have been had it been larger format, and we lose a whole load of textual substance.

The subject of Gavin Mitchell’s art is probably an even bigger issue than Montgomery’s plot distillation. The best comparison I can come up with is that Mitchell’s art looks like it is straight out of a Cartoon Network animation (The Clone Wars in particular springs to mind) and I really hate CN-style art with its elongated human forms and eggtimer-shaped heads with clothes made up of angular shapes that don’t look anything like as organic as they should. Russ Nicholson drew the internal art for the original Chadda Darkmane novels and, to my eye, it was perfect: his Chadda Darkmane is rough-looking and holds himself in a suitably cock-sure manner; Balthus is as he was in The Citadel Of Chaos – dark and sinister yet obviously human; Zagor is the Zagor from WOFM – tall, macabre, and literally crackling with sorcerous energy; the sorq are bizarre and electrical, whilst the ganjees are terrifying disjointed heads… the list goes on. Sadly, Mitchell’s art does not come anywhere near Nicholson’s interpretations: Chadda is far less grizzled and is almost cheerful-looking; Balthus and Marr look like the overly-chiseled victims of too much plastic surgery whilst having the sunken dead eyes of a chronic crack user; Zagor looks manic in old man form and is just the purple version of Balthus and Marr in true form (indeed, Mitchell’s Marr is just his Balthus but in green and with pointy ears); the sorq look like aerodactyl from Pokemon and the ganjees just look risible… basically, Mitchell’s art, for the most part, trivialises the tone of the piece and makes every character (human or monster) look cute and cartoonish. The worst portrayal by far though for me is that of Jamut Mantrapper – he is supposed to be a shifty sword for hire but Mitchell’s version looks like a happy-go-lucky Walter Raleigh-esque dandy. To avoid this being a complete hatchet job of Mitchell’s art, his landscapes, buildings, and cityscapes are actually very well rendered: the Dark Tower is suitably sinister in silhouette, Salamonis is the pretty utopia I always thought it should be (pre-Gates Of Death murder labyrinth, that is), and he draws day and night scenes very effectively. It’s a shame then that his character illustrations are so awful. In fact, some of his character drawings have genuinely bizarre inclusions. For example, why does the dead Sea Ogre need to have pubes (also, is it supposed to be female)? And, why does every human have excessively-pronounced cheek bones that make it look like they have two-storey faces? I can only imagine just how much better this would all have looked had Russ Nicholson illustrated this GN instead.

As is often the case in GNs, the eagle-eyed will spot several easter eggs drawn into the illustrations and there is some fun to be had searching for these here (which also draws your eyes away from the crappy human images and gives you a reason to revisit the GN once you’ve read it). It is nice to see that Balthus Dire has Emmanuel’s original CoC cover art on his study wall, and Zagor has the map of his Firetop Mountain dungeon domain on his study wall too. Moreover though, Yaztromo’s study is an absolute Aladdin’s Cave of easter eggs including the small tree in glass dome that the Cherva fiddles with in the source book (although this cameo is not in the GN), a price list featuring a Net of Entanglement and Armband of Strength (from The Forest Of Doom), the Deathtrap Dungeon video game skull logo in a mirror, and, more bizarrely, the Great A’Tuin from Discworld is hanging from the ceiling for some reason. I may be stretching a point here but I’m pretty sure that Prince Vultan of the Birdmen (“Gordon’s Alive!”) from Flash Gordon is sat at a table in the Fatted Pig, as is at least one of the Kickstarter backers who were willing to fork out a minimum of £400 to be drawn into the book (I believe seven backers should be in there somewhere, if the number of backers at the relevant levels is any indication). I’m sure there are other visual easter eggs that I haven’t found too, but these are just the ones I’ve noticed.

Neatly, not only are there visual easter eggs in this GN, there are also a few textual ones too. When he first reveals himself in all his youthful sorcerer glory, Zagor utters the words “Who dares challenge me?” from the Legend Of Zagor board game, on first encountering the sleeping orc guard Mantrapper uses the immortal “Test Your Luck” line, and Darkmane closes the entire GN with the wry aside to camera of “I suppose my adventure is over”. These are all nice inclusions that give the FF fan something to feel warm and cosy about and they really do draw the GN into the cannon and make it feel like some decent effort has gone into this aspect. It is also worth mentioning the closing coda back in Yaztromo’s tower that is not in the original novel. This coda is not literally lifted from the second novel Demonstealer, instead it paraphrases the opening part of it, but it does act as a potential segue into a GN adaptation of Demonstealer that may or may not ever happen, plus it conclusively tells us that Darkmane is still alive in the real world rather than ending on Titan’s version of Mount Olympus like the TW novel does, thus rounding the story off nicely. Curiously, the bomb explosion countdown element that makes the end of the original book so gripping is missing from the GN which just leaves Darkmane needing to grab and smash Marr’s mirror, resulting in a final showdown almost completely devoid of any tension. Incidentally, the bridge between the human and Godly planes after Darkmane sacrifices himself is depicted by a couple of blank white pages, something which caused considerable confusion amongst readers when the GN first appeared, as several people thought this was a printing error rather than a plot device!

Some might say that they would rather have a book full of blank white pages than Gavin Mitchell’s poor attempts at emulating Russ Nicholson (and Ian Miller in the case of Zharradan Marr) but a further appendix offers us some alternate art plates by other artists, including Forest Of Doom’s Malcolm Barter. I pulled no punches in my criticisms of his art in FoD but, to be fair to MB, it was completed in a very short turnaround time and is not representative of his skill as an artist. His black and white Yaztromo in the TW appendix definitely does do Barter justice however and is easily the best bit of art anywhere in this GN – Barter even succeeds in making Yaztromo look wise (as he should be) rather than cute and cartoonish like he is elsewhere in the GN and in Bill Huston’s version in Temple Of Terror. The other additional illustrations we are offered are Balthus Dire vs Darkmane by Dean Beattie (his characters are better-rendered and more sinister than Mitchell’s but there is far too much iodine yellow-red for my liking), and Darkmane and the Chervah by Anastasia Catris (which looks like something out of Sylvanian Families and the less said about it the better, quite frankly).

These extra art plates were also given away in A4 print format as Kickstarter backer rewards (along with a couple of other images from the book) which is handy for anyone who wants to frame Malcom Barter’s fabulous Yaztromo picture and put it on their wall. Backers also received, depending on the level, four badges and a numbered bookplate. Also, if you were one of the wealthy few who backed at the “draw me into a picture somewhere” level you would also receive a print of the plate that you are in (I wonder if Brian Blessed was one of these ref. Prince Vultan lol) and a sketch of yourself in costume. The four badges are a mixed bag: three are small coloured button badges with rough silhouettes representing the three factions in the GN (Balthus, Marr, and Salamonis) that could be easily for pennies by anyone with a 1980s badge-making machine and are hardly worth a second look; what is very nice though is the enamel FF logo-shaped badge that was added as an extra to atone for the delay in the project being delivered. As for the bookplate, this is little more than a small piece of card with the arms of Salamonis on it and a small number out of 200 written on it in pen. A vote was held on the KS page which ended in the bookplates being supplied loose and, although they were meant to each be signed by Steve Jackson, something went awry and instead the books themselves were signed by SJ, along with the promised signatures of PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell. The whole numbering out of 200 idea went down the pan too when less than 40 backers plumped for the bookplate levels so I assume only about 40 numbered examples exist rather than 200 (which makes them rarer, I suppose). Some backers also backed to have a little Mitchell thumbnail drawn in the frontispiece of their books which is a nice unique piece and, oddly, his art looks better when it is not coloured if this small insight is anything to go by. Sadly, whilst all these little collectables (of varying qualities) were included, the actual packaging used to send out rewards was nothing more than a flimsy C4 card mailer which meant that the books got jostled about inside (as they are smaller than A4) and many arrived with spine bumps or worse damage, something else that did not go down well with backers. If we add this onto the biggest problem with the KS campaign which was very poor and infrequent communication from Montgomery and the project over-running its original deadline by 18 months with very few credible explanations, then ultimately it is hard to see the overall project as anything other than a disappointment, especially as the GN itself is a watered-down version of the novel with very inferior and unsuitable artwork.

As a standalone graphic novel, I don’t think The Trolltooth Wars works particularly well. Too much material that helps the source book flow and make sense is missing and there is far too much condensing of plot elements into too few pages per episode to really be satisfying. The exclusion of the underlying plot driver of Amanour is an own goal that turns Darkmane from a selfish egomaniac anti-hero into a sort of poncy Knight of King Salamon’s Round Table figure whilst the bomb-less ending is lacking any real sense of peril. The power of cunnelwort is easily missed but should really be key to the whole story. Of the Demonic Three, only Marr really seems threatening, whereas all three are equally bad news in the Jackson book (and we know they are anyway from playing the gamebooks they feature in!) Gavin Mitchell’s art is terrible and, to my eye, presents the characters (both NPCs and creatures) from Allansia in completely the wrong light. To exacerbate the situation, anyone who got this GN on the back of the Kickstarter campaign was so fed up with it all that, by the time the GN was supplied, I doubt anyone really cared much anymore and I for one had long since lost interest by the time it turned up. And this is a shame because, at face value, this is actually quite a nice little (emphasis on the word “little”) GN in spite of its flaws and distillation of the plot. It does not take long (maybe 30-45 minutes) to read it and, in isolation, is a fun enough read. However, as the original novel is a hundred times better, makes more sense, and needs to be read too to avoid the GN being confusing and jumbled, you have to wonder whether anyone really needs this. Read the Jackson book first then, if you want to find out what the simplified Cartoon Network abridgement might be like, try the GN.