by John Davey
from Elric: The Eternal Champion Collection,
graphic adaptations by James Cawthorn and Philippe Druillet,
(contains some illustrations & captions not included in that volume)
ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ — proud prince of ruins, kinslayer — call him what you will. He remains, together with maybe Jerry Cornelius, Michael Moorcock’s most enduring, if not always most endearing, character.
Elric began life sixty years ago, in response to a request from John Carnell, editor of Science Fantasy magazine, for a series akin to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. What Carnell received, while steeped in sword-and-sorcery images, was something quite different. All in all, nine Elric novellas appeared in Science Fantasy between June 1961 and April 1964.
Strictly speaking, the first artistic depiction of the character to be published was by Brian Lewis for the front cover of Science Fantasy No. 47, in which Elric made his very first appearance in ‘The Dreaming City’, where he is described as:
“… tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and, for an obscure reason, affected the dress of a Southern barbarian. He had long, knee-length boots of soft doe-leather, a breastplate of strangely wrought silver, a jerkin of chequered blue-and-white linen, britches of scarlet wool and a cloak of rustling green velvet. At his hip rested his runesword of black iron — the feared Stormbringer, forged by ancient and alien sorcery.
“His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasised the fact that he did not belong in any company — that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear — for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him.
“Elric, last lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source”.
Lewis’s painting, however, looked rather more like a Roman centurion than any image of the Melnibonéan that has come to be recognised in the years since then.
For some considerable time before Elric’s initial appearances in Science Fantasy, Michael Moorcock and artist James Cawthorn had been collaborating on textual and visual concepts for the series. Cawthorn provided two cover illustrations for that magazine (Nos 55 & 63), both of which far more represented the character as envisaged by its creator, and he later depicted the definitive Elric portrait for the first edition of Moorcock’s Stormbringer (Herbert Jenkins, 1965). He went on to produce cover artwork for The Sleeping Sorceress (New English Library, 1971) and The Jade Man’s Eyes (Unicorn, 1973), as well as various other volumes’ interior illustrations and a number of maps of the Young Kingdoms of Elric’s world.
In 1976, Cawthorn was approached by fledgling publishers Savoy Books to produce the definitive graphic adaptation of Stormbringer. Scaled down from its original slim but massively outsized format, it is that version which comprises one half of this Michael Moorcock Library volume. It remains perhaps somewhat more flawed than definitive, but still features some astonishing full-page and double-spread images, all in glorious black and white. In James Cawthorn: The Man And His Art (Jayde Design, 2018), Savoy co-founder David Britton wrote that:
“Through no fault of Jim’s own, Stormbringer, the book which started Savoy, was a great disappointment, because it wasn’t the book we expected. If you look at the first five pages — which took Jim over a month to draw — it is fine-quality illustration. But what followed these was rushed.
“When we mooted a contract with Oliver Caldecott to distribute it (Oliver had left Penguin to start Wildwood House), Oliver said he would, so long as we “had it ready in two months’ time”. We relayed this to Jim, and he said yes, but he had to really rush off the remaining pages. We had put an impossible time stricture on him. I knew at the time that we shouldn’t have done that, for it later had disastrous consequences, in that the experience, I think, put a psychological barrier between Jim doing Elric again.
“Looking back, we were unrealistic in our expectations. Jim didn’t really know who we were — we had no track record. We paid him a small goodwill payment, but it certainly was an uneconomic project from his point of view.
“He was the original Elric illustrator, the very best Elric illustrator, born to draw Elric. We all anticipated that, sometime in the future, he would do the definitive Elric graphic novel. But when I approached him to re-do and expand Stormbringer at a more leisurely pace some years later, he found it impossible to do.
“To lose Jim’s portrayal of Elric was tragic. What could have been a book comparable to Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan — that most perfect collaboration between artist and writer that there has ever been, Tenniel and Carroll notwithstanding — became a rushed, half-formed work. source”.
Cawthorn did in fact revisit the project anew, several times throughout his later career, but (as Britton suggests above) never felt able — physically or emotionally — to do justice to the source material.
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Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the other half of this volume also had a somewhat chequered history, a saga complex enough to rival Elric’s own.
Elric: The Return To Melniboné is a stunning showcase for the artwork of Philippe Druillet, beginning life in 1966 as double-spread colour illustrations for the only issue of a French magazine, Moi Aussi, with text by Maxim Jakubowski. In 1969, Druillet illustrated an Éditions OPTA omnibus called Elric Le Necromancien, and in 1972 some of this (plus new) artwork was collected in a twenty-one-piece portfolio as La Saga D’Elric Le Necromancien, this time with text by Michel Demuth.
When, a year later, the portfolio was reprinted and bound (minus one piece) in Britain by Unicorn, as Elric: The Return To Melnibone (sic) — text by Moorcock — it ran into some complicated copyright difficulties, and it was finally agreed to allow the small print run to expire, never to be reprinted.
Then in 1993, both Moorcock and Druillet were guests at a writers’ and artists’ convention in St. Malo, France. Following the success of their attendance there, it became possible to obtain their joint permission for the book to be made available again as Elric: The Return To Melniboné (Jayde Design, 1997), restoring its original black-and-white format (the 1973 edition having been printed in a rather lurid and of-its-time, near-fluorescent purple).
If it can be said of James Cawthorn that his was the definitive portrait of Elric, then a similar argument should be made for Philippe Druillet’s depiction of Melniboné, capturing the capital city of Imrryr in all of its decadence, grandeur and perversity.
Like Cawthorn, Druillet also produced his own map of the Young Kingdoms (or ‘Jeunes Royaumes’) which came as a loose-leaf insert with OPTA’s Elric Le Necromancien, and during the twenty-four-year moratorium between editions of Elric: The Return… he incorporated many of his Melnibonéan illustrations into other works such as Yragaël (1974) and Urm Le Fou (1975) working again with Michel Demuth.
* * *
So if James Cawthorn and Philippe Druillet produced between them the ultimate Elric of Melniboné, then who else of note has depicted the albino prince and his ruins over the years?
The first to do so within comics was Barry Smith, in Conan The Barbarian Nos 14 & 15 (Marvel, 1972), two issues in which Elric and Conan join forces in an adventure actually plotted by Moorcock and Cawthorn but written by Roy Thomas (about whom more later). Sadly, Smith’s portrayal of Elric suffered from being based on flawed cover illustrations by Jack Gaughan for American editions of The Stealer Of Souls and Stormbringer (both Lancer, 1967) in which the character is seen sporting some rather unbecoming conical headgear.
Next up was ‘The Fall Of The Dreaming City’ in Elric No. 1 (Windy City, 1973), adapted by Steven Grant and John Adkins Richardson. That was followed in 1975 by a portfolio simply called Elric by Howard V. Chaykin, who would later collaborate with Moorcock on The Swords Of Heaven, The Flowers Of Hell (1979).
In 1976, Star*Reach No. 6 featured ‘Elric: Prisoner Of Pan Tang’ by Eric Kimball and Robert Gould. The latter would go on to become a key Elric cover artist, with work featured on four volumes of The Elric Saga (Doubleday/S.F.B.C., 1984–2005), The Revenge Of The Rose (Grafton, 1991), the omnibuses Elric Of Melniboné and Stormbringer (Millennium, 1993), and American editions of the most recent Elric trilogy, The Dreamthief’s Daughter, The Skrayling Tree and The White Wolf’s Son (Warner, 2001–’05).
When Elric’s adventures were recompiled, retitled and/or revised for DAW Books in 1976/’77, in order to bring older elements in line with the developing series, the six paperback covers featured artwork by Michael Whelan, whose Elric is seen by some as perhaps overly muscle-bound but by others as near-quintessential. Later Ace/Berkley paperbacks of these six volumes bore new covers by Robert Gould, after Whelan had added a seventh for DAW’s 1985 edition of the collection Elric At The End Of Time. Connections between the two artists do not end there, as Gould and Whelan also illustrated separate limited-edition hardcovers of Elric Of Melniboné and The Vanishing Tower (respectively, Blue Star and Archival, 1977 & ’81).
In 1979, Heavy Metal Nos 5 & 7 featured Elric Of Melniboné, adapted by Frank Brunner, which would also appear in Star*Reach Greatest Hits alongside Kimball & Gould’s ‘Prisoner Of Pan Tang’. Brunner — whose Melnibonéan architecture borrowed heavily from Druillet’s — went on to produce the portfolio Stormbringer: The World Of Elric (Schanes & Schanes, 1982).
* * *
Which brings us neatly up to the 1980s and back to Roy Thomas, writer of Marvel’s Elric-meets-Conan strip (in 1972).
In 1980, Epic Illustrated Nos 3 & 4 featured ‘The Dreaming City’, written by Thomas with artwork by P. Craig Russell. They followed this in issue No. 14 with ‘While The Gods Laugh’ in 1982, the same year that Marvel published both parts of ‘The Dreaming City’ in a single volume. In 1983, Epic Illustrated No. 20 featured ‘Elric: A New Look’ by Robert Gould, and Roy Thomas began adapting the entire six-volume Elric saga in collaboration with artists P. Craig Russell and Michael T. Gilbert, beginning with Elric Of Melniboné (Pacific, 1983/’84).
First Publishing then took over the reins, with Roy Thomas as the only constant adapter for The Sailor On The Seas Of Fate (1985/’86, with Michael T. Gilbert & George Freeman), The Weird Of The White Wolf (1986/’87, with Russell, Gilbert & Freeman), The Vanishing Tower (1987/’88, with Jan Duursema) and The Bane Of The Black Sword (1988/’89, with Mark Pacella, Nicholas Koenig, Mary Mitchell & Eric Vincent).
The sixth and final volume, Stormbringer, did not appear until some years later, adapted solely by P. Craig Russell for Dark Horse/Topps in 1997, itself preceded in ’96 by Russell’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman short story, ‘One Life – Furnished In Early Moorcock’.
A last item from the 1980s, deserving of a mention, is a lavishly illustrated, outsized edition of the Moorcock novella, Elric At The End Of Time (Paper Tiger, 1987), with artwork by Rodney Matthews.
* * *
In 1995, Mojo Press published Weird Business, a weighty collection of short graphic adaptations including the Elric story, ‘Jesting With Chaos’, adapted by Franz Henkel, Shea Anton Pensa and Ted Naifeh.
Then in 1997 Moorcock began scripting his own strips for the first time in many years with Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse (twelve issues, Helix/D.C., 1997/’98), comprising three interlinked adventures all by different artists, ‘Moonbeams And Roses’ (with Walter Simonson), ‘The Metatemporal Detective’ (with Mark Reeve) and ‘Duke Elric’ (with John Ridgway). Moorcock would later join forces again with Simonson (& Steve Oliff) for Elric: The Making Of A Sorcerer (four issues, D.C., 2004–’06).
So, to conclude this short history of Elric and the Artists, let us end by mentioning the two most recent, substantial additions to the canon, namely the wholly original (i.e. not adapted) twelve-issue Elric: The Balance Lost by Chris Roberson and Francesco Biagini (BOOM! Studios, 2011/’12) and an ongoing French series comprising (thus far) Elric: Le Trône De Rubis, Elric: Stormbringer and Elric: Le Loup Blanc (Glénat, 2103–’17), variously adapted by Julien Blondel, Didier Poli, Robin Recht, Jean Bastide, Jean-Luc Cano and Julien Telo.
These last three hardcover volumes perhaps come closest to emulating what was described earlier herein as the “decadence, grandeur and perversity” of Philippe Druillet’s depictions of Melniboné.
As to whether or not some, all or none of the aforementioned artists has ever come close to rivalling Cawthorn’s Elric…? Well — a whole sixty glorious years after the character’s very first appearance in print — that is entirely for readers of this unique and exceptionally welcome addition to Titan’s Michael Moorcock Library to decide.
— John Davey,