Comics You Should Own flashback – Camelot 3000
Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr (writer), Brian Bolland (penciller), Bruce Patterson (inker, issues #1-6), Dick Giordano (inker, issue #6), Terry Austin (inker, issues #7-12), John Costanza (letterer), and Tatjana Wood (colorist).
DC, 12 issues (#1-12), cover dated December 1982 – April 1985.
Some minor SPOILERS below, but of course, if you know the Arthurian legends, I can’t really spoil it all that much!
There’s quite a bit wrong with Camelot 3000. If this is a series that you should own (and it is), then I have to point out the warts, of which there are many. First, it’s horribly dated. It takes place in the year 3000, but readers should forget that as quickly as possible and pretend that it takes place only a few years after it was published. It doesn’t really matter when it takes place, after all. Barr is writing a thinly veiled political commentary about Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov (or whoever was running the Politburo in those days), and I don’t even think he believed that a thousand years in the future the United States and the US.S.R. and China would still be the political powers in the world. Barr doesn’t even try to make the politics reflect what would happen in a thousand years. This is politics, early-1980s style.
Second, it cribs a lot from the legends of King Arthur. Obviously, it’s meant to, but it does get kind of annoying. We’re just waiting for Modred to show up, so when he does, it’s not really that big a surprise. There’s nothing wrong with settling comfortably into stories that we know so well, but the biggest sub-plot in the Arthurian legends – the love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere – doesn’t get any different treatment. The three characters are puppets, moving through their roles with too much familiarity. Only in the love triangle, though – other than that, they show a lot of different personality than what we expect. When it comes to doing something new with the famous betrayal, however, Barr fails.
The last thing the series does poorly is break new ground. This ties in with the retelling of the Arthurian legend that Barr is going for. We know, to some degree, where the story is going, but we’re fine with it with regard to the Arthur stuff. It’s in the science fiction arena that Camelot 3000 is weak. If you think too much about it, the story falls apart. A tenth planet that no one discovered by the year 3000? We’ve already found planets in other galaxies, less than 30 years after the story was published. The aliens are, predictably, bipedal insect-like things. Of course there’s a scene with a giant queen pumping out eggs. It’s a bit frustrating.
Ah, but I come to praise Camelot 3000, not to bury it. Sure, there’s a lot that is laughable about this series. Usually when I look at Comics You Should Own, the comics are somehow weightier or more groundbreaking than this. That’s not the case with this title. This is simply high adventure and grand soap opera done well. If you ignore the goofy aspects of it, you can enjoy it for what it is: a story of heroism against huge odds, with plenty of very nice character moments. Barr is the kind of writer who excels at relationships – witness his work on The Maze Agency, Batman and the Outsiders, and Detective Comics (among other things). The action in Camelot 3000 is well done and pulls you breathlessly along, and Barr does a good job of making sure that each issue is action-packed, but what really makes this a wonderful book is that every character – even the minor ones – is fleshed out nicely and relates to the other characters realistically. Even a character like Merlin, who might be expected to be too far above “regular” folk for us to relate to, gets good development and gains some humanity. And, of course, there’s the art.
First, a brief overview of the story. It’s the year 3000, and aliens have invaded the Earth. The defenses of the Earth are weak, and the three main powers – the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and China – are working with Jordan Matthew, the United Nations Security Director, to hold onto power and defeat the aliens. Unbeknownst to the superpowers, Matthew is working closely with Morgan Le Fay, who has lived through the millennia and is now ruling the aliens with an iron fist. Meanwhile, Tom Prentice, the son of two archaeologists who are excavating Glastonbury Tor, flees to the dig when his parents are killed trying to escape London. He discovers the tomb of King Arthur and wakes him up. The classic King-Under-The-Mountain theme rears its head here. Arthur brings Merlin back and tries to retrieve Excalibur, but first he has to pull it from the stone again. When he does this, the souls of his most loyal knights are released and inhabit several people around the world. This is the first indication that Barr is crafting a very interesting story – the souls inhabit Joan Acton (Guinevere), the commander of the Earth Defense Forces; Jules Futrelle (Lancelot), a rich Frenchman who is helping the British evacuate the islands; a low-life in Chicago (Kay); a genetically-altered Neo-Man (Percival), who has been turned into a huge, mindless hulk-type creature; a Japanese samurai (Galahad); a black man from South Africa (Gawain); and Amber March, who is about to marry a war hero in Calgary but dumps him when she becomes the reincarnation of Sir Tristan. Of course, the fact that a man’s soul is inhabiting a woman’s body causes problems, and Amber/Tristan becomes one of Barr’s most interesting characters.
The story follows a somewhat standard arc: the knights are initially hailed as heroes, much to the chagrin of the world leaders, who begin plotting against them. They actually fight back successfully, something the Earth forces haven’t been able to do, which makes the population happy. They become celebrities, and Arthur celebrates by marrying Guinevere, so that when she inevitably falls into Lancelot’s arms, it will actually be adultery. She does, and Arthur banishes them from court. Meanwhile, Morgan Le Fay tempts Tristan by saying she can change her back into a man, which becomes more of a temptation when Isolde is reincarnated – as a woman, naturally. Someone betrays the Round Table, Tom gets horribly wounded saving Arthur’s life, but luckily, in Arthurian legend, something exists that heals all wounds – the Holy Grail! So the knights go on a Grail Quest, retrieve the Grail, save Tom’s life, but then lose the Grail to Jordan Matthew, who, it turns out, is actually the reincarnation of Modred, King Arthur’s bastard son. In the endgame, the knights travel to the tenth planet to confront Morgan Le Fay and Modred, and an apocalyptic battle ensues, which much heroic sacrifice.
I don’t mean to dismiss the story. It’s an adventure story of the kind we used to see in comics, but don’t much anymore because we’re all too “grown up.” It’s swashbuckling – Kurt Wagner wouldn’t be out of place in this book. There is, however, quite a great deal that IS “grown up” in this book, and that’s what makes this a memorable title. Arthur’s anachronistic attitudes form part of the interest in the book. He doesn’t understand the politics of the world in which he has awoken, and he cuts through the bullshit as much as he cuts through the aliens and their hardware. He understands the appeal of celebrity and playing politics, but he wonders why the aliens have been allowed to run roughshod over the Earth. He is a blunt object in a world of soft corners, and it’s interesting to watch him move through it.
The sub-plot with Tristan and Isolde is by far the most fascinating. We aren’t really apprised of the attitudes toward homosexuality in the 31st century, but it doesn’t seem to be that big an issue, especially the female kind (it’s a comic book, so of course the readers will be okay with hot girl-on-girl action!). However, Tristan is a product of the Middle Ages, and her love for Isolde is wrong in her eyes (of course, Barr doesn’t delve too much into the actual sexual attitudes of women in the Middle Ages, but that’s because this is a comic book and not an in-depth historical treatise). Morgan Le Fay tempts Tristan, and Tristan considers it because her love for Isolde is so great. She also becomes the object of affection of Tom Prentice, but rejects him because she doesn’t see herself as female. She dresses in men’s clothing, she insists the knights call her “Sir” Tristan, and she agonizes over her choices and what she should do. We first see her leaving her fiancé, Owen McCallister, because she comes to the realization that she is, in fact, Sir Tristan. Owen refuses to let her go, however, and becomes a recurring thorn in the side of the knights. She rebuffs Tom, even though he is never anything but kind to her. It’s interesting because Tom himself cannot understand what she has become, and although he tries to be sympathetic, he doesn’t act all that nobly either. Finally, Tristan rejects Morgan Le Fay’s offer, but still thinks about how she can become a man again. At the end, she accepts her lot in life and embraces Isolde. Her arc is the heart of the book, because it shows how these knights must adjust in a world they don’t recognize with attitudes they don’t necessarily accept. Tristan has to learn how to live in a world that has changed dramatically, and she must grow up a little and realize that the surface doesn’t matter. Tom has to realize this as well, and his development is part of Tristan’s arc. He sees her as an object, even if he feels affection for her, and can’t understand why she won’t just be a girl that he can rescue. Tristan is female, but also a knight, and until she reconciles both sides of her soul she can’t be happy. Lancelot and Guinevere find happiness with each other, but they were always destined to be together, and the other knights find happiness in their own ways but don’t really grow as characters. Only Tristan and Tom become better people through the trials they endure.
Tom Prentice is our stand-in for the series. He’s Everyman, and we see the heroes through his eyes. He stumbles across Arthur’s grave and wakes him up, he gets the crush on Tristan and must overcome it, he acts as the conscience of Lancelot when Arthur’s best friend is contemplating picking up his romance with Guinevere, he saves Arthur’s life and is gravely wounded in the process, and he grows up the most in the series. We need someone like Tom, because the problem with grand adventures is that most of the people engaging in them are unrelatable to us little people (just ask George Lucas, who had Han Solo in the first trilogy but no one like that in the second one). We see him at the beginning as a scared boy, running from the burning wreckage of his car and the corpses of his parents, and through the series he becomes the moral center of the story and, at the end, a crucial part of the rebuilding of Earth. As with Tristan, his story is much more interesting than the overarching adventure, because his development as a person is part of what we all go through – most of us will not fly to a tenth planet and battle aliens and sorceresses in our lives, but we will have crushes on the wrong people and stand up to people who do the wrong things (well, we should do that last bit when it comes up).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art. It’s Brian Bolland, for crying out loud! Bolland has done very little interior work in the United States – in the letters column someone mentions his work on Green Lantern, but since this series, I think his only interior work is The Killing Joke [Edit: Since I wrote this, he did a story in the Fables graphic novel, but it doesn't really count too much, as it was, I think, two pages long]. He’s done covers aplenty, of course, and for most newer comic book fans, that and the Batman book is their only exposure to his art. That’s a shame, because his art in this book is spectacular. Bolland and Kevin Maguire are perhaps the two best artists ever in depicting facial expressions, and Bolland is called on to draw a lot of them, and he does his usual stellar job. His art complements Barr’s story very well – often Barr simply allows Bolland to show his characters’ emotions through the drawing instead of telling us about it, which is of course the best way to utilize the medium. Whether it’s Arthur eavesdropping on Lancelot and Guinevere and showing the pain in his face, or the exertion in the king’s face when he uses Excalibur to chop through the wing of an alien’s vessel, or even Tom sucking on his thumb when he cuts it practicing with his sword, the characters’ faces are beautifully rendered. The rest of the art is wonderful, too. Bolland draws everything with incredible detail (probably the reason why the book’s schedule slipped late in the run and possibly why he doesn’t do interiors more often) and never cuts corners. As an example – the last page of issue 11, when Owen, back from the dead and horribly mutated, wraps a tentacle around Tristan’s neck and begins to choke her. Bolland draws each line in the hair of the characters, the rough gloves of Tristan, the mutated body of Owen, the lines in his face as he smiles in triumph, and the horror in Tristan’s face as she loses breath. In the final issue, Bolland draws each alien (the many hundreds of them) with incredible detail, in an age before Photoshopping and other tricks artists use today. The death of Modred is an amazing full-page drawing with Arthur’s enemy in the center, exploding into a skeleton (each bone drawn particularly) and Merlin behind him screaming in pain (Arthur threw Modred into Merlin’s prison to free him, but it’s not a pleasant process for the wizard). Finally, when the knights are trying to escape from Morgan Le Fay’s citadel, they fight aliens and more of Morgan’s mutated creatures, and Bolland draws each of them with unique features. It’s a marvel of detail and craftsmanship, and it’s a huge part of why this is such an excellent comic book.
Camelot 3000 is significant in that it was a major move by DC into the world of creator-owned, self-contained titles. Barr and Bolland owned the rights to the series, and they could do whatever they wanted with the characters. The early 1980s began what I like to call the Golden Age Of Comics, which we’re still in today, because of the creator-owned movement, which began gaining steam in these years. DC and Marvel, showing remarkable foresight, began allowing their creators more freedom at this time, with Marvel’s Epic line and series like this from DC. Camelot 3000 stands as a seminal work in this new wave, and showcases an underrated writer and an infrequent interior artist at their height. Although I have some issues with the series, it stands as a brilliant adventure of a kind we used to see in comics but don’t so often anymore. It’s a magnificent work of art. It’s been collected in trade paperback (recently we got a nice hardcover version), so look for it in that form or pick up the twelve issues relatively cheap. It’s not like people are breaking into comic book stores to get this!
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