A review of “Beyond: The Quest for Meadan”

A review:

Beyond: The Quest for Meadan 2015 (SC TPB) 64 pages

Written by Richard Comely, Jacqueline St. Aubin, Jean-Claude St. Aubin. Illustrated by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, George Freeman.

This collection includes new material, plus reprints stories originally published in Captain Canuck (1st series) #9-12, 14

The comic book medium is full of sagas that get resolved in somewhat compromised circumstances. Perhaps the creative team departs a story in mid stream, leaving it for another writer to bring it to a resolution (perhaps with only the vaguest idea where the original writer had been headed) — or perhaps the dangling threads of a cancelled series are tied up in an entirely different character’s comic.

Which brings us to…Beyond!

Okay, not exactly up there in the annals of “unfinished classics,” perhaps. Beyond was a sword & sorcery series occupying the back pages of the Canadian super hero comic, Captain Canuck, toward the end of that series’ early 1980s run. In a deliberate contrast to the super hero/sci-fi flavour of the lead series, Beyond was Hugh Fantasy and its serialized saga was left unfinished by Captain Canuck’s then-cancelation.

Jump ahead over thirty years and Captain Canuck himself has been revived by Chapterhouse Comics, a Canadian comic book publisher attempting to shoulder its way into the market with a multitude of titles and properties. A multitude which includes this graphic novel/TPB — Beyond: The Quest for Meadan — which collects the original chapters from Captain Canuck, an unpublished instalment intended for Captain Canuck’s 15th issue…and 15 brand new pages to wrap up the storyline.

Now before I get into the proper review, I should provide full disclosure. Reading the collection’s introduction by writer Richard Comely, I came upon a weirdly familiar passage — and then I realized it was familiar because I wrote it! Yup! I’m quoted in the book (from an entry on Beyond I wrote for my Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). Talk about…surreal. (Occasionally people have cited me in on-line articles, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been quoted in print before).

Anyhoo…onward…

Beyond stands as a mixed bag — both in terms of the original material, and in terms of this collection. For one thing, you have to consider it in terms of its original presentation as a short back up series. Beyond was a quirky and impressive tour de force of imagination — not just in terms of super hero comics, but even in comparison to the (few) fantasy comics around at the time (such as Conan, Doug Moench’s Weirdworld stories, and a few others). However collected here it can feel a bit abrupt at times — with sometimes clumsily expositional dialogue as it rushes breathlessly from one plot twist to another. It’s best read like a collection of some old newspaper adventure strip, recognizing the goal was just to keep the pages flipping. (It’s good they maintained the original chapter breaks rather than editing them into a seamless “graphic novel,” as it reminds the reader the story was meant to unfold episodically).

Beyond threw together errant knights, pan-like goat men, armoured pig-men (called, appropriately, pigmees), evil wizards, man-eating giants, and other bizarre creatures, told with a mixture of serious drama and tongue-in-cheek silliness, of action-adventure heroics and fairytale logic (including characters undergoing mysterious metamorphoses). It was Lord of the Rings by way of Alice in Wonderland.

The saga begins abruptly with the village of Meadan swallowed by mysterious darkness, leaving only three survivors: Lady Elodil, the beautiful, strong-willed lady warrior — interesting both in (A) that she’s a fighter at a time when fantasy heroines tended either to be damsels in distress or, on the opposite extreme, hyper-aggressive she-devils-with-a-sword and (B) she’s a black woman in a genre not exactly known for racial diversity; Fen, a more demure girl; and Rion, the cynical pan-like goat man. And they immediately encounter the wise dwarf Sanydynar and the knight, Sir Brant — the latter struck blind by the same evil that stole the trio’s village. The five set off to confront Ghi-Baal, the evil wizard responsible for their misfortunes.

And it just gets weirder from there.

Visually I can’t say enough about the original chapters. Drawn by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, whose contribution to the main Captain Canuck series was mostly as inker, colourist, letterer, etc., on Beyond he showed he was no slouch with a pencil…nor in the imagination department. And versatile, to boot. St. Aubin was there for the heroic archetypes of Sir Brant and Lady Elodil…and the whimsy of snail men and weird monsters…and the intersection of the two with the pigmees who somehow managed to be comically absurd and yet also serious and expressive. (And there was even an unusual hyper-realism to some of it: Brant, with his salad-bowl haircut, bristly mustache, and finely rendered armour and mail, looked like he’d actually stepped out of the Middle Ages rather than being re-conceived for contemporary fashions). And all of it was set against this fantasy landscape (I’ve often said that visuals are more important to creating mood in fantasy comics than in conventional super hero comics). And there was some interesting composition — such as the landscape broken across multiple panels that opens chapter two, to the stylish arrangement detailing Brant and Elodil’s almost-kiss in chapter four, to the way the pages are broken into two parallel sequences in chapter three. Sometimes short-chapter comics encourage narrative experimentation to make the most of the fewer pages, such as is seen most famously in Will Eisner’s the Spirit or Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter.

And let’s not forget the rich colour. Sure, it can seem a bit muddy in spots (especially in this reprinting) but it was ground-breaking stuff at the time. Go ahead, compare and contrast it with any Marvel or DC comic from that era and you’ll see what I mean.

But over-praising a story can be just as damning as criticizing it (by raising expectations too high). So I reiterate the series had its short-comings, too — at least in part a result of trying to cram a lot into limited pages.

There’s also a big problem, not with the original stories — but with how Chapterhouse has represented them. Namely: pages are missing from the original stories! The final two pages are missing from the opening chapter (which as it was only eight pages to begin with means 25% has been cut!). This is the most glaring omission as it makes for a confusing cut to chapter two — it also loses, arguably, an important line in defining the relationships when Sanydynar remarks the mismatched group is meshing together like a team. Page 6 is missing from chapter two — its omission hurts the flow of the story less, but it was a nice action page establishing Lady Elodil as Sir Brant’s equal in a fight. And the last page is missing from chapter four — a revelatory splash page where we first see Vertibas (a character for whom they had been questing). Why these pages were cut — I don’t know. Was it an editorial decision? (If so, they were poor ones) Was it simply goofs in assembling the pages for reprinting? Or were they cut for space consideration? (The TPB includes house ads, character profiles, and a map…most of which could’ve been cut to allow for more story pages). Given this was a collection some 35 years in the making, and its success (or failure) would determine whether new adventures of Beyond get the greenlight, you’d think they’d take a bit more care.

Anyway, on with my review of the material itself…

The original Beyond saga stopped in mid-plot — with one chapter completed but unpublished, and the rest of the story unwritten. Now, decades later that lost chapter has been included, plus with a brand new 15 page conclusion written by Richard Comely and illustrated by George Freeman.

Unfortunately, this is where things get problematic. Both men have a legitimate claim to the series — Comely scripted the first few chapters, and Freeman acted as editor. But I think there’s no doubt St. Aubin was a driving creative force (and his wife, Jacqueline, assumed the scripting from Comely). But neither of the St. Aubins seem to be involved with these new pages. And the original story was conceived over three decades ago anyway. In short: I suspect Comely & Freeman might be coming at the material with only a vague memory of what was intended originally.

At least it feels that way. The story moves in directions that don’t entirely seem consistent with what went before. And instead of keeping the focus on this intimate little band, the story expands to make it part of some bigger conflict of armies (perhaps to give the climax more of an epic feel). Conversely, maybe Comely & Freeman did remember where the story was headed…and maybe are cramming material into their fifteen pages that was meant to be developed over more pages (in chapter six, a passing reference is made to a missing good wizard named Argos — yet they find him with little effort in the concluding section).

And by the end, it feels like some things aren’t really explained. I wonder if that’s because they wanted to leave things still dangling for a sequel. Or maybe I’m just dense. In the end Rion says he still doesn’t understand why they were spared when Meadan vanished and is cryptically told: “You haven’t figured that out yet?” I can’t decide if that was supposed to be enigmatic or whether they assumed the explanation was obvious.

Plus Freeman’s art lacks the dynamic composition of St. Aubin’s pages (Freeman using a lot of medium and long shots). That may be due to trying to cram a lot into the limited pages — or possibly a stylistic choice, perhaps aiming for the reserved elegance of someone like P. Craig Russell. I mean, it’s still attractive work (I am, after all, in general a George Freeman fan).

The result is a mixed bag. The new conclusion at least allows the story to be a story (no one would’ve reprinted it as an “unfinished saga”). But after over three decades, it can feel a bit disappointing. But this is hardly unique to Beyond. As I began this review saying: there’s a long history of this in comics, often to equally mixed effects (an example that jumps to mind is Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes brilliantly enigmatic Omega the Unknown given a fairly conventional conclusion penned by Steven Grant; or even Jack Kirby’s attempted conclusion to his own New Gods saga 15 years later with the Hunger Dogs).

And maybe I bring that three decade baggage with me. To a modern reader, reading this for the first time as a single volume, it’s an enjoyable romp full of whimsy and imagination. And while I may quibble about the climax — it’s certainly briskly-paced and with lots of action. And it’s probably especially fun for younger readers, the saga having a pleasing “All-Ages” vibe.

SPOILER TIME: Mostly I write reviews for people who haven’t read a book (but are thinking about it) but equally I like to expound on things for those as have read it, and are interested in someone else’s take. So I just wanted to comment on the “new” ending to the saga and the choices Comely et al made and how they line up with what was implied before.

For one thing, chapter three seems to end with the pigmees breaking with Ghi-Baal, hinting at complications to come…but for the conclusion the pigmees are once again loyal to Ghi-Baal. Meanwhile Sanydynar is revealed to be a villain in disguise, which was certainly foreshadowed in earlier chapters. However I wonder if the original plan was to have him be revealed as Ghi-Baal himself, rather than as simply someone working for Ghi-Baal (the incongruous shadow Sanydynar casts — page 3, panel 3, chapt. six — looks like Ghi-Baal’s silhouette). Which might have made for a better revelation (rather than throwing in a whole new element in the climax). A mystery throughout the saga is why Ghi-Baal targeted Meadan in the first place…the implication being there was something significant about the town; a theory further reinforced by Ghi-Baal’s seeming fixation on capturing Elodil, Fen and Rion (townfolk) but seeming to have less interest in Sir Brant (a passer-by). And given Fen’s mysterious metamorphoses, and Elodil’s equally unexplained manifestation (though it’s unclear from the visuals if she changes, or she animates inanimate objects) I wondered if the point would be the town was some wellspring of magical energy that Ghi-Baal was trying to tap — perhaps he had to eliminate the town in order to access its magic, but so long as anyone from the town was free, they would inherit the energy (hence why Fen and Elodil suddenly find themselves exhibiting magical abilities they didn’t previously possess). And despite the romantic tension hinted at between Elodil and Brant, nothing comes of it in the end. All of this is neither here nor there. Just me idly musing on ways the story could’ve gone (and might well have been intended to go, if not for the unintended three decade hiatus).

END SPOILERS.

I should just throw in a personal plug. Part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my graphic novel review website) is also for a bit of self-promotion. I’ve put together a few collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m thinking if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of Beyond (a Captain Canuck back up feature) you might be the sort of person interested in my stories. So — plug, plug. I put the collections together but have had some curious and weird reactions to them. This included a Canadian comic book publisher who expressed interest in publishing my stories and with whom I traded e-mails for months, the editor repeatedly assuring me they were definitely going to publish them…until it became obvious to me that nothing was going to happen (and I still don’t know what was going on behind-the-scenes). Anyway, I’m still trying to reach that magic sales number where people start posting reviews (’cause I’m really interested in knowing how people react to the stories). Anyway…that’s me throwing in a little “ad” for my books.

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