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.         


  1. I didn't pull many punches on my blog. I felt stolen from for half a year when PJM took his gf on holiday right after funds went through. Felt like they had bagged the loot then trickled out the project on a shoestring as a Sunday night project. So production time, badge art and the ludicrous so called book plate. Yuck. I quite liked the GN itself. Was just too little too late with bottom of the range extras.

  2. According to Steve Jackson himself, the original novel never received much promotion or publicity either so history seems to have repeated itself.

    Since he signed copies of the GN, I can only assume he approved of the art but then again, we also have to assume he approved of the disastrous art re-do in the recent FF re-prints.

    Going by your post here, this new adaptation doesn't seem to have been worth the wait. It also seems redundant since the novel was already heavily illustrated by the great Russ Nicholson.

    By the way, wasn't Steve Jackson supposed to be writing a new FF adventure ?

    It now appears that Ian Livingstone has yet another FF book due out in September but there is no sign of a Jackson book so what's going on there ?