Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" by Howard Chaykin, Mike Mignola and Al Williamson

   Despite my negative review of Fritz Leiber's "The Sadness of the Executioner" at the beginning of the year, I am a big fan of his two rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  They walk their own, often jovial, path through the corridors of S&S.  While moments of pathos and melancholy run through some of their adventures, mostly there's displays of cunning, high and low, witty badinage and lots of derring-do.  Twenty years ago several of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's tales received comic book treatment from the combined talents of Howard Chaykin,  Mike Mignola and Al Williamson.  
  In his great introduction, Howard Chaykin notes, what really triggered his love for the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories was his coming to believe they were S&S written for people who loved crime fiction.  Furthermore, Lankhmar was really "after all is said and done,...an only slightly more fantastical Manhattan - or at least the city south of 14th Street, circa 1935".  I don't know if that was Leiber's intention but I love the idea.  As a native New Yorker I can definitely see the conflation Chaykin sees between the Lower East Side's narrow streets, churches and synagogues and Lankhmar's Cheap Street and temples to the Gods of Lankhmar and in Lankhmar.  Despite the fantastic trappings, many of the stories could easily be converted to guns & trenchcoat stories.
   Chaykin also points out that like many archetypal New Yorkers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are immigrants who became the archetypal Lankhmarians.  More than the people born there they become woven into the fabric of the Lankhmar.  No matter how disgusted or fed they become up with the city, they find themselves drawn back by the pull of her, their greatest mistress.   
   Apparently, Chaykin did a monthly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser comic in the seventies.  He admits to not being satisfied with it.  In 1991 Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy and BPRD (I'm a BIG fan.  As I'm writing this I'm actually wearing a BPRD t-shirt) got the go-ahead from Marvel's Epic Comics line to illustrate his own Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.  Chaykin, who was already working on another project with Mignola, found out and asked if he could write the book.  He said yes and that was that (well, I don't know where Al Williamson fits in and neither Mignola nor Chaykin mention where he came in).
   In 2007 Dark Horse Comics collected the seven stories Mignola and Chaykin chose to adapt and collected them.  Back then it went for about twenty bucks.  It only took a quick flip of the pages for me to peel the bills out of my wallet.  That means I liked it.
   The selections made by Mignola and Chaykin are mostly from among the jewels of Leiber's Nehwon stories. The book opens with "Ill Met in Lankhmar", detailing how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser become boon companions.  It's followed by "The Circle Curse" and "The Howling Tower", adventures that occur during their journey to escape that darkness the city of Lankhmar had become for them at the end of "Ill Met".  On their way out of the city they meet the two wizards, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face who will become mentors and taskmasters for the heroes in later tales.
   The next three stories take place after Fafhrd and Mouser's return to Lankhmar.  First is "The Price of Pain Ease" wherein our heroes steal a house and rob the Death of Nehwon.  It's followed by "The Bazaar of the Bizarre".  Fafhrd, at the direction of both Ningauble and Sheelba must save Lankhmar, the Gray Mouser and all of Nehwon from the depredations of evil merchants from another dimension.
   The final story set in Lankhmar is "Lean Times in Lankhmar".  Almost like a couple drifting apart, Fafhrd and Mouser go their separate ways.  Fafhrd ends up aiding a priest of Issek of the Jug and Mouser ends up an enforcer and collector for a mobster.  Conflict between the two is soon inevitable.
  The collection ends with "While the Sea-King's Away".  Following the claims of a legend, Fafhrd is determined to find the lair of the Sea-King on the one day he leaves home and leaves behind his concubines to find lovers of their own.
   So those are the stories.  Any S&S fan's probably read them several times.  Was there really any need for comic versions of them?  I don't know if there's a need but I'm sure glad I spent my money on the collection.
   Not to take anything away from Chaykin's adaptations, but they work as well as they do because of their fidelity to Leiber's original stories.  Lots of Leiber's fun prose falls to the wayside, particularly, of course, the descriptive portions.  Some plots elements, such as the Street of the Gods and the proving ground it serves for up-and-coming deities, didn't survive the adaptation process.  I suspect a familiarity with the original stories helps in reading the comic, but still, Chaykin does them justice.
   What makes the book a keeper is the art and inking provided by Mignola and Williamson.  Their presentation of the city of Lankhmar is a perfect blend of the high and low.  As bright and shiny as the city can be, it's layered with grime and weathered by time.  Every bejeweled noble striding down the avenue is countered by a beggar scuttling along an alley.  It's all drawn with tremendous, often tawdry, detail.  Mignola's art is not quite as distinctive as his later Hellboy work, but it's still terrific.  While the colors are bright in a few appropriate scenes, more often the palette is muted and dark and perfectly suited to showing the daily struggle to survive Lankhmar's mean streets.
   I bought the collection new for about twenty bucks.  Now through the magic of Amazon you can have it for under a buck and quarter plus the usual $3.99 shipping.


  1. Man, these were 20 years ago? Of course they were and I'm getting old.

    Anyway, great adaptations they are indeed.

    1. I'm glad I only found them recently. I really don't need anything else making me feel older.

  2. I enjoyed the collection very much-and being a big Hellboy/BPRD fan I agree Mignola's art has only improved, but is still wonderful.

    1. The art is great throughout but I admit I sort of prefer the more "Mignollaly" cover style.