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The Last Voyage of Sindbad

The Last Voyage of Sindbad, or the One Thousand and Second Night

Appeared in The Last Voyage of Sindbad (1988).

The publication of this volume marks the reissue of a work that had become a classic almost since its very first appearance in June of 1978 in the pages of Heavy Metal. The story – which ran in installments in the magazine until July of 1979 – was later collected into a paperbound volume and released by the ill-starred Heavy Metal Books under the title New Tales of the Arabian Nights; as such it has been tightly out of print for the last seven years. It is therefore a notable publishing event to see this famous work made available again to Richard Corben’s many fans and to all lovers of high-quality comic stories.

Ever since they became available in translation to western amateurs, The Arabian Nights have enjoyed long-lasting favor with literate readers and the general public alike; and there has been many an attempt to append an additional night to the fabled thousand and one of Scheherazade (or Shahrazad in the authors’ spelling). The heady perfume of these oriental tales – long appreciated by fanciers of the baroque, the occult, and the fantastic-could not have failed to impress such a fantasy-oriented artist as Corben; he conceived the initial idea and turned to his habitual scriptwriter and accomplice, Jan Strnad, for the full fleshing out of the plot. Working in tandem they have developed an almost seamless narrative which looks and reads and feels as if it had come from the imagination, the pen, and the brush of a single author. This is not the least of its achievements, but it is hardly the only one.

When dealing with oriental themes, the temptation has always been for artists and writers to slip into the bazaar imagery of camel caravans, black tents, and slave markets. While allowing for an occasional lapse (always minor) Corben and Strnad have remained astonishingly faithful to the spirit of the original tales, and motivations, incidents, even dialogue, sound plausible, almost inevitable, in the light of the previous one thousand and one tales: In this spirit the retelling – in a mode at once respectful and ironic – of the fable about the genie’s wife and her 570 lovers as prologue to the main narrative sets up the wider framework for the whole fabulous enterprise, an enterprise in which strands from the Rubaiyat and even the Kama-Sutra are woven into the fabric of the Arabian tales, opening up the reader’s eye and the reader’s mind to ever more shimmering oriental vistas.

And thus Princess Scheherazade (I prefer the traditional spelling) spins out one final tale, not for the ears of her love-wary husband, but for the benefit of her lovelorn sister Dunyazad – another ironic twist – the tale of the aging Sindbad and his last quest, not for wealth this time, not for adventure alone, but for love and for redemption (a Christian shaft aimed squarely at the heart of Islam). To find and reclaim his loyal wife Zulaykha, whom out of boredom and weariness he has spurned and abused, the legendary sailor will embark on a new, land-locked voyage, a horrifying and harrowing journey, compared to which his previous expeditions look like pleasure outings. His plans wrecked, his companions exterminated, his body emaciated, his mind reeling, Sindbad is left to face the dark forces of evil alone, with his wits and Allah’s mercifulness as his only support.

The Land of the Jinns in the depths of which Sindbad warily adventures is filled with perils and traps which the astute reader will recognize as familiar to the tales, but which Strnad and Corben are able to present in a new context calculated to bring out the artist’s best: the multiple and lightning-fast tranformations – of friendly guides into frightful monsters, of scheming genies into alluring sirens – the sudden appearance of mythical beasts, the intervention of distant and powerful deities, all are ideally suited to Corben’s flair for the unusual, the unexpected, the uncanny. That the Land of the Jinns can also serve as metaphor for blind fate and human struggle, and its dangers appear as the nightmare extensions of life’s chanciness, is not lost on the authors; and the frequent utterances of “Bismallah!” (Allah willing) from the lips of the sailor and his companions are so many .hints to the reader. But while his companions, men of common clay, surrender to fate, Sindbad, the hero, knows that fate is only of the moment, and by resisting boxes, call for skills of execution and presentation of the highest order: Corben rises to the occasion with seemingly effortless mastery in a succession of visual tours de force that display the multifaceted talents of an artist at the apex of his powers. Not only is the artwork up to everything that his fans have come to expect from Corben: fine draftsmanship, evocativeness of tone and color, attention to detail, faultless airbrushing, and a sure sense of design, but the artist seems to be inspired by his subject to go beyond even his own high aspirations. This is apparent first of all in the care he takes in the layout of his pages, which are conceived to fit the mood or the action of the narrative at any given moment: No two pages exactly broken down in the same pattern; instead the design is made to conform to rhythm and the inner logic of the action at hand: The more convulsive the goings-on the more chaotic the layout. The more symmetrical grid patterns are reserved for moments of relative pause, while violent incidents are inscribed in wildly irregular constructions of overlapping panels, splash pages being reserved for climaxes. Panoramas abound: Horizontal to detail singular combat, vertical to survey a complex situation. Page after page, one discovers subtleties of design that lead the eye to move further on into the story and the mind to delve deeper into its meaning.

The imagery of course comes straight out of the source of the tales: Corben cannot but feel at home with the giants, ogres, monsters, and winged creatures that populate this nightmare land. The illustrations, while they owe some of their inspiration to Maxfield Parrish’s treatment of similar subjects, are made Corben’s own through an expressionistic use of color and a native elegance tinged with earthy saltiness. The faces – notably those of Sind bad, of his bosom friend Judar, and of his female companion Akissa – are archetypal, yet with enough individuality in them to easily distinguish the· characters from the “central casting” method of physiognomy used by too many other comic-book artists. Best of all, they are highly expressive, and in close-ups provide a focus for the reader’s eye after a surfeit of violent happenings. Here, perhaps better than in any of his other works, the artist makes almost musical use of visual counterpointing, as in the admirable page showing Sindbad, Judar and Akissa laying plans for their expedition, where the play on the protagonists’ faces seems to foreshadow the fate of the enterprise.

Most of the action in The Last Voyage of Sind bad takes place in exteriors, from the teeming streets of Baghdad to the burning sands of the desert, and this gives Corben full freedom to display his opulent sense of the spectacular. The spectacle is mostly one of action, derringdo, battle, and destruction: Sex, so prevalent in so many of Corben’s stories, though hardly absent in this one, is strangely subdued, and at times sublimated, leaving the tale open almost exclusively to adventure. And what adventure it is! Its twists and turns roll, thunder and burst into coruscating tableaux, which merge into sequence after dizzying sequence. There is the terrifying first appearance of the evil genie Al-Ra ‘ad al-Kasif; Sind bad’s breathtaking fight with the dragon, oddly reminiscent of the novels of chivalry and the early Prince Valiant; the wrath of Zu’l Janahayn, king of kings of the genies, and his destruction of Ketra, in a fate worthy of Old Testament retribution. Highly charged as these are, they pale in comparison with the two most stunning episodes of the tale: the battle against the host of the living dead mounted on their no less spectral winged horses, and Sindbad ‘s ultimate confrontation with Al-Ra’ad. At the end of this last ordeal the reader is left no less exhausted than the victorious hero.

Equal praise must be given here to Jan Strnad, who not only provided the underpinning on which the story’s authenticity ultimately rests, but also fleshed out the characters in a way that makes them human as well as heroic, and above all preserved the tone of these ancient legends. Over the evocative text there waft all the perfumes of Arabia and the hot, enervating wind of the desert.

In his introduction to the first edition Harlan Ellison called the New Tales of the Arabian Nights a work of art, while others (such as Dennis Wepman in Historia de los Comics) have called it Corben’s artistic high point. But let us set aside all preconceptions, and simply savor the graphic and narrative feast, of which Richard Corben, Jan Strnad (and Catalan Communications) invites us to partake.

Maurice Hom
New York City
October 1987

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Created: January 11, 2020. Last updated: January 11, 2020 at 19:00 pm

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