A review a day: <i>Orc Stain</i> volume 1

Why did I skip this when it came out in single issues? Your guess is as good as mine!

I remember when Orc Stain #1 was solicited. I don't love fantasy, and the fact that "orc" was in the title didn't fill me with confidence. I had heard of James Stokoe, but I hadn't seen any of his art, so I foolishly passed on it. Then I started seeing his art, including his Galactus story in Strange Tales, and I realized that I should probably rectify passing on this. I picked up the trade of the first five issues (issue #6 should be out any time now), and I am ready to testify to Orc Stain's awesomeness. Image publishes this book, and the trade is $17.99 and well worth it!

The story is simple: Orcs in the south are organizing under a tzar, spreading their "stain" everywhere. Orcs are not generally good at building polity, so the fact that the tzar has managed to create an army is somewhat alarming.

In the north, an orc called "One-Eye" (orcs don't get names) is out hunting for tribute for the local boss of Skrubtown, the Norman. He's screwed over by another orc, gets in trouble with that orc when he gets revenge, and ends up being pursued by southern orcs who are collecting all one-eyed orcs for some reason. He meets up with Bowie, a "swamp ramba" - basically an apothecary - who tries to sell him to the southern orcs but then rescues him when the southern orcs take him without paying. Mayhem ensues!

Yes, it's a fairly crazy plot, even though it's perfectly easy to follow. A few things make the book genuinely superb, though. First, Stokoe does a nice job with One-Eye and Bowie, even though she falls under the Pop Culture Pseudo-Rubric of "Don't trust the woman" - the first chance she gets, she sells One-Eye to his pursuers. But she's still an interesting character, as is the hero. One-Eye is unlike other orcs, who exist simply to hunt and kill and screw. He's a bit more philosophical and clever and less inclined to brawl. His eye allows him to see the flaws in everything, so that he can crack a safe with one hammer blow and do nasty damage to other orcs by tapping the right spot on their bodies. He uses his brains more than he uses his fists, and this makes him an anomaly among the orcs and a nifty character for Stokoe to use. Bowie is different from the very few other females in the book, too - we see one early on and it's implied that females are basically whores for the orcs, but Bowie lives out in the swamp and is a genius with regard to poisons and potions. She holds her own against the orcs sent to retrieve One-Eye and has a grand time taking her revenge against them, and Stokoe clearly has fun with her as well.

This is less a fantasy epic and more like a caper story, as One-Eye and Bowie both use guile to get what they want, and while a battle is brewing (in the form of the tzar and his army heading north), Stokoe does a good job making this exciting on a smaller scale so it doesn't overwhelm the reader, which his art threatens to do.

Before I get to the art, though, another refreshing part of the book is Stokoe's attitude toward, well, genitalia. Specifically male genitalia. I always chuckle when "mature" books still shy away from showing dick, mainly because I do believe there's a deep, abiding, and possibly unrealized fear among straight men that seeing someone else's penis will somehow make you gay. Stokoe has no such problems, as penises are everywhere in this book - orc society is actually based on penises, as the orcs lop off penises of other orcs to show their superiority to them and use dried slices of penis as currency - Stokoe even has a primer at the end about how to make orc coins. The amount of dick in this book is almost surreal, and I loved it - Stokoe is even able to make me a bit squeamish when the orcs speak of chopping off another's penis, and there's a wonderfully hilarious scene between One-Eye and the orc who stole his coins, Pointyface, where One-Eye gets revenge in a truly twisted fashion. This refreshing attitude toward penises is part of the entire feel of the book - the orcs are almost uncivilized, and there is absolutely no privacy in this world. It's no wonder genitalia isn't private - why should it be?

Of course, Stokoe's art is another reason this book works so well (and also a reason I fear the series will never finish, as I can't imagine how long it takes him to do even a page of it). I imagine that a lot of people saw Stokoe's art for the first time on the Galactus story in Strange Tales II recently, but he's been working like this for a while (even posting a ton of pages of one of his unfinished graphic novels on-line), and it's really amazing.

Of course, the first thing you notice is the incredible detail on every page - One-Eye's world is vivid and almost overripe, bursting with life in every corner. Everything is alive, too - the safe One-Eye cracks, a can of liquid he drinks, the weapons the orcs use - it's weird and fascinating and just a part of the entire tableau. His sense of design is astonishing, too. Everything belongs in the panel, even background details, and Stokoe creates all these odd creatures from scratch but shows how they function and what their use is. The orcs' dress is impressive, too - very much influenced by their penis-based culture, with lots of interesting codpieces to signify their power and (presumably) sexual prowess. We don't see a lot of the southern orcs, but Stokoe does a fine job contrasting their more obsequious and even venal society with the slightly more obstreperous northerners - with very little prompting, we can understand why the southerners would rally around an emperor while the northerners would resist such concentration of power. The southern orcs are more ostentatious, while Skrubtown in the north looks almost Protestant in comparison. Bowie and her bower are wonderfully designed, with not necessarily a feminine touch as much as a more witchy aspect, befitting her status. Her headdress/pet, Zazu, is another nice addition - he looks like a muppet but is apparently really nasty, and I'm sure Stokoe will show him in action soon enough (well, more action - he does a bit in this volume). Even minor details of the art, like the smoke, is done well and feels completely part of this alien world. Stokoe has taken his time creating this place, and he immerses us completely in it, which helps sell the odd story even more.

I really hope Stokoe can continue to bring issues out in a somewhat timely fashion (the book is already behind, so I'm not holding my breath), because Orc Stain is a blast of comics awesomeness. It's exciting, funny, violent, vulgar, and absolutely gorgeous. I'm going to start buying the singles to do my small part to help Stokoe continue his wacky story. I encourage you to do the same!

Tomorrow: A gothic/comedic/religious/horror comic! How fun!

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