Gabriel Rodríguez’s Sword of Ages is a new series from IDW, a neo-peplum comic that combines the sword and planet genre with Arthurian legend. Sword of Ages tells a variation of the origin of the fabled Excalibur by placing the story on a different planet (portrayed as being littered with both ancient and futuristic ruins) and concerns the heroine Avalon, who has been raised by tigers and trained by monks. The first issue sees Avalon part from her tiger family to travel with Merlin (blue-skinned in this incarnation) and his black bird Nikola to rendezvous with a team of other adventurers (Trystan, Lancer Benveek, and Gawyn) and gain an audience with the serpentine Guardian of the Sacred Lake. En route, Avalon and company thwart a band of Planet of the Apes-esque slavers and free their prisoners, which introduces Captain Janek, the supposed law and order of the region.
Avalon’s origins are slightly ambiguous, overtly said by her tiger family that she is from the stars, but heavily hinted that she is related to space-faring humans in the issue’s prologue. Avalon not being native to the planet she is on echoes standard sword and planet genre conventions in which the hero is typically from another planet themselves, as with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars which sees Earthling John Carter on Mars/Barsoom and Lin Carter’s Jandar of Callisto, which sees Jonathan Dark transported to the Jupiter moon of Callisto from Earth. Her skilled use of the sword and the planet’s seeming amalgamation of Bronze Age and sparingly shown high-tech also provide sword and planet genre highlights, a genre that has fallen out of favor.
Though she is the central character, Avalon’s personality and how she operates is not spoon fed via narration in the debut issue; that task is left to the readers to deduce from her on-page actions.The fight sequence with the slavers is certainly a centerpiece of the series, designed to lure in and solidify new readers, while showing off Avalon’s combat prowess. Avalon’s personality and what she might stand for is inferred from her actions; she frees the slaves, but does not provide them safe passage. In addition, she rattles off a list of accomplishments in order to impress the adventurers she meets, but even such a list is veneer in that all of her accomplishments have been under training and teaching conditions. What she is, however, is not sexualized as most women in the sword and sorcery genres are, with loincloths and chainmail bikinis. She’s portrayed in a somewhat tribal or barbaric fashion, but fully clothed in a tunic and pants.
Aside from introducing Avalon, the first issue of Sword of Ages has the task of introducing the supporting characters, as well as laying the ground rules of how the world works. The cast of characters certainly appears interesting (blue-skinned Merlin, talking tigers, etc.). The sudden influx of new characters may seem daunting to a reader, but multi-colored speech/thought bubbles help guide who is talking. The planet the story takes place on, though barren, is rendered gorgeous and vivid as can be, especially due to the colors by Lovern Kindzierski. The titular sword, heavily hinted to be Excalibur from the various interviews and promotional paratexts leading up to the launch of Sword of Ages, looks to be divinely crafted, with the pages it appears on looking mystic, cosmic, alien, yet colorful.
Though the sword and planet genre has not been popular for quite some time, Rodríguez’s take on the subject matter is extremely refreshing, and perhaps provides some inspirational seeds to others to help resurrect it. Re-appropriating the Arthurian legend of Excalibur to another planet provides a unique twist to the tale. Many attempts to do something unique to the tale end up failing and even becoming insulting to the subject matter. (See Transformers: The Last Knight for a recent example of this failure with the source material.) The cast of characters and a new world to explore are all introduced with hints of familiarity, yet unique on their own right. Sword of Ages and Avalon’s heroine’s journey look to be off to a promising start.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.