Comic review: Tales of Telguuth by Steve Moore and various

Last year, influential British comics writer Steve Moore passed away. Moore was famously an editor and prominent contributor to the Fortean Times and a significant contributor to Doctor Who Magazine, Warrior, and 2000 AD, creating such memorable characters as Axel Pressbutton and Absolom Daak – Dalek Killer, as well as Tharg’s Future Shocks, the series of 2000 AD one-off stories that have long been a testing ground for new writers and artists. He was a mentor and good friend of Alan Moore (no relation), probably the most famous and influential comic writer of all time.

One of Moore’s favourite creations was Tales of Telguuth, an anthology series set on a chaotic planet near the centre of the galaxy for 2000 AD, heavily influenced by the work of Clark Ashton Smith. From what I can gather, Smith was a good friend and collaborator of HP Lovecraft, and wrote the kind of stories Lovecraft would have written if Lovecraft had talent.

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Rebellion has recently published a complete collection of the Telguuth stories. This is stated to be a tribute, though Rebellion has in the past been a little shady with their properties and how they treat the creators, and it’s not hard to miss the implication that this was put together to capitalise on the death of the writer. On the other hand, the infamously prickly and bombastic Alan Moore wrote an introduction praising Steve’s work, wherein he even talks about Steve’s post-retirement Telguuth prose stories, so whatever the motivation, it does appear to be respectful.

The stories herein are set on the planet Telguuth. Telguuth is situated at the hub of a galaxy sort of implied to be our own; its location, far from the rim, results in large amounts of magic flowing through, which gives rise to a bizarre, diverse, patchwork world of all manner of wizards, animals, plants, demons, and monsters. Each story is pretty much self-contained; with the exception of “The Transfiguration of Tisro Karnak”, which revisits the surviving characters from “Men of Snakewood”, there are no recurring characters, and what continuity does exist between stories is limited to off-hand mentions of the events in various cities, most notably Teekar-Tanlan, the city of wizards, which starts off mighty, is later burned down, and subsequently rebuilt.

The stories are very short, normally no more than five pages long. As such, Tales of Telguuth is a concept that really works best as part of a weekly comic anthology rather than the single, monolithic volume under consideration here.

The first story, “A Little Knowledge”, which is also one of the best, establishes the pattern that almost all these stories will adhere to: a sorceror summons a demon and promises his body after death in exchange for knowledge about Telguuth and the universe; in an impressive display of genre savviness, defines ‘death’ such that being murdered will render the agreement null and void. The demon accepts, but still finds a loophole with which he turns the tables on the sorceror, takes his body, and embarks on a murder spree – all while remaining true to the letter of their agreement.

And this is how the majority of stories go down – a (hero, wizard, criminal) seeks (justice, knowledge, power) by (unorthodox, arcane, blasphemous) means, only for karma to catch up and deliver some sort of ironic death. Karma here is not always precise or fair; many stories simply end with everybody dying as a result of the protagonist trying to do good, and two end with some force about to start killing everybody on Telguuth.

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As you may have gathered, Telguuth is not a nice planet to live on. It isn’t as horrendously bleak and grimdark as A Song of Ice and Fire or Berserk, but it is a world where in general, evil men reign over good, cruel kings fight other cruel kings, and even in stories where good wins out, such as “To Become a God”, “Holding the Fort”, and arguably “One Cold Winter Night…”, evil only loses because good adopts deceptive and violent tactics and B) usually seeks to preserve the current situation rather than to change anything.

But that’s not to say evil fares well. Most of these stories’ protagonists are at best morally dubious, and almost all come to a gruesome and usually ironic end. Indeed, those who manage to survive and thrive on Telguuth are not the best or the worst, the more altruistic or vicious, but simply those who wish to preserve the status quo.

The portrayal of women is a cause for concern. I’d be tempted to say that I’m don’t want to make this a feminist think, but it turns out I’m a feminist after all, so I’ll just come out and say that these comics are not particularly feminist-friendly. There are barely any women to be seen (though they do become more frequent in the last few), and when women do appear, it is almost exclusively in some sort of sexual context intended to titillate the presumed heterosexual male reader. Case in point…

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OK, that’s the worst example for clothing, but this lady also displays considerably more agency than many of the other women, and is at least wearing something. Frequently, when women do appear, they are nothing more than partly-dressed furniture intended to make the dominant man look good by having a couple of babes waiting on him. When they do take action, it’s primarily in a sexual context, and the reaction from the men tends to be “Not now woman, can’t you see I’m trying to advance the plot?”

This is especially irritating in light of the fact that Nikolai Dante had been running in 2000 AD for several years before Tales of Telguuth first appeared, and it has many more women in much more significant roles, and is far more even-handed in its expression of the various genders’ sexualities.

To make things more frustrating, Moore is clearly capable of writing good female characters. Lornella in “Uhuros the Horrendous”, Zanisha in “One Cold Winter Night…”, and in her own way Lura in “The Caverns of Garnek-Spay” are all strong women who don’t rely on sexuality, and the rest of the stories could have used more like them. (Two of them do die horrible deaths, but then so does everyone else on Telguuth, so at least there’s no discrimination there). Alas, even in “Holding the Fort”, which is set in an all-woman outpost of a matriarchal state, the women’s beauty and sexuality is of much greater importance to the story than their ability to fight off the invading army.

The blame for this cannot be laid entirely with Moore. Sure, his scripts to sexualise women to an annoying extent, but Alan’s foreword describes how Steve’s scripts were quite sparse with description, and the artists were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and draw the most incredible and exotic things they could. Hence, Arlella up there, and the wenches in “The Colossal Wealth of Karn Foul-Eye”, and Lazalla Zal’s nudity in “The Eternal Bliss of Zebba Horath”, are likely to be primarily the result of the artist drawing what he likes rather than any explicity instruction from the writer.

Speaking of the artwork, it is one of the collection’s great strength. There are 12 artists featured here, and all turn in very strong, detailed, beautiful work. Even Clint Langley’s work, despite its heavy use of CGI and photography, still has a clarity and sense of motion that is often missing in his more recent efforts. Paul Johnson turns in gorgeously lush and colourful panels, while Siku paints in both a solid, realistic style and a more flat, fluid, cartoony one. Seriously, “The Hunting of the Veks” literally comes right before “The Vileness of Scromyx”, but you would never think they were from the same artist. Siku’s stories up to “The Hunting of the Veks” are done in a British oil painting style strongly influenced by the art of Colin MacNeill, while those afterwards have more of a watercolour look and display the earliest hints of manga influence on Siku’s art.

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For my overall thoughts, it might be best to compare comics to meal courses. A 3riller is an appetiser – something light, tasty, and fine for what it is, but small and meant to get you in the mood for something substantial. V for Vendetta is a main course – heavy, substantial, and standalone. Something like Sailor Moon or Tokyo Mew Mew might be desert – light, sweet, and make you feel good in small doses.

In this analogy, Tales of Telguuth is a selection of snacks. Small and enjoyable individually, but not meant to make up a meal. If you get this, don’t read it in a couple of sittings like I did; it’s best to read no more than one or two stories on a given day, as an accompaniment to whatever else you’re reading. These stories may be like snacks, but they might also be thought of as spice that is dull on its own, but enhances the flavour of other stories and is in turn improved by tasting other flavours between spice sessions.

As for the quality, while the stories are a tad repetitive, this can be ameliorated by pacing yourself and reading other things in the meantime. There is a lot of inventiveness on play, with a lot of twisted imagination put into the various locations on Telguuth. Portrayal of women aside, the storytelling in individual strips is consistently strong and tight, and even when you can see the twist coming from the start, the journey there is always entertaining, and at the very least enjoyable to look at. The artists all bring their A games and conjure some truly spectacular imagery.

All in all, whether you enjoy this depends on your appetite for spread-out darkness and cynicism, and whether you think these qualities written on 176 gorgeous fantasy painting is worth €28.30/£18.99.

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