Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
Howard Chaykin, Mike Mignola, Al Williamson
It’s rare that a comic book adaptation of anything is worth reading, let alone reviewing, but that’s not the case here. In fact, it’s practically a crime that Chaykin and Mignola’s take on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser has been out of print for over a decade. This collection does an excellent job of translating science fiction and fantasy master craftsman Fritz Leiber’s most famous creations—and the unique flavor and wit of his stories—into comic form.
Let’s get one thing straight: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are not a Dungeons and Dragons spinoff, as most who saw me reading the book seemed to think. If anything, the reverse is true. In fact, Leiber’s unlikely duo of the huge (and big-hearted) barbarian Fafhrd and the smaller, tricksier thief Mouser helped to create the sword and sorcery (a term Leiber himself coined) genre that eventually spawned the role-playing game industry. The first story about the pair, Two Sought Adventure, came out in the pulp magazine Unknown in 1939, and the last nearly 50 years later, in 1988.
Leiber’s series lasted so long and remains so readable today because he produced what even the most famous of his pulp contempories (Lovecraft, Howard, Smith) mostly didn’t: quirky, clever, urbane, funny, and well written stories. Howard Chaykin does Leiber’s work justice in a skillful adaptation stripped down to the essentials: the pair’s great friendship, recklessness, sense of humor and lust for life (and strong drink, brawling, and dancing girls, obviously—they are pulp heroes, after all).
Chaykin gives the book a good mix of action (battles galore), horror (Mouser and Fafhrd battling ghost wolves in a shared, drug-induced nightmare as the wounds they take appear on their sleeping bodies) and humor (my own favorite throwaway bit: the duo falling out over how to spell Fafhrd’s name). Among the seven stories Chaykin picked are some of Leiber’s best (and most satyrical), including Bazaar of the Bizarre (a parable about the dangers of greed in which the Devourers, “the most accomplished merchants in all the universe—so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash” play on the thieving Mouser’s worst failing, and he has to be rescued by Fafhrd) and Lean Times in Lankhmar (in which Fafhrd’s incipient streak of romanticism leads him to find religion and, perhaps, to become the embodiment of a god—until Mouser rescues him, that is).
Not every story in the collection is a classic, however. In order to preserve some semblance of the narrative flow between the best stories in Leiber’s collections, Chaykin inevitably had to pick some that simply weren’t as strong. While these stories don’t impress in the same way as the better ones do, they do help the hold the collection together as a single, relatively coherent narrative.
The other thing that holds the book together is Mike Mignola’s rich, atmospheric, and, at times, quite funny art. Mignola, who according to the afterwards in the book, had really been struggling to find his way as an artist up to this point, clearly began to hit his stride with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. While he hadn’t yet reached the sort of idiosyncratic stylization of his later Hellboy style (which you can see on the cover of the book, which looks to have been drawn much later, for this collection), he’s already drawing in a less realistic, more graphical and sometimes even cartoony style that matches Leiber’s wit admirably.
That’s not to say that there aren’t effective action scenes, or eerie scenes of dark horror, but Mignola gets as much mileage out of the pair’s humorous moments, such as Fafhrd carrying an enraged Mouser under his arm like a child, or the deluded Mouser struggling against Fafhrd’s grip as he attempts to kiss a giant spider he believes is a houri.
Better than the action, however, is the overall look of the book. Chaykin may have had to leave out most of Leiber’s descriptions of “The City of the Seven Score Thousand Smokes,” Lankhmar, to life, but Mignola’s pencils (with inks by Al Williamson) more than make up for the omission. Leiber’s city, according to Chaykin’s introduction, is based on “an only slightly more fantastical Manhattan–or at least the city south of 14th Street, circa 1935;” Mignola’s take is dark, gloomy, and beautiful—a convincing fantasy metropolis despite the relatively few pages dedicated to it. It’s also full of little tongue-in-cheek jokes like “one way” street signs and, “no pandering,” no soliciting” and even “don’t even think of conjuring here” signs. Mignola delivers admirably in the stories that aren’t set in Lankhmar, too, but, just as these aren’t the best written stories in the collection (or in Leiber’s original series) neither are they the most entertainingly drawn.
It seems clear that Chaykin and Mignola had planned more than the four issues that the series eventually ran; the adaptation ends unsatisfyingly and abruptly in the middle of what corresponds to the third of Leiber’s seven collections of stories about the two friends, leaving them floating in a tiny sailboat in the middle of the ocean. If you know the books, you’ll wish that Chaykin and Mignola had spent more time on the better stories and thrown continuity out the window. There are many, many other excellent stories that could have filled out the book. And even if you don’t know the stories but simply appreciate superior pulp fantasy, you’ll be sad at how the collection peters out. Not to worry; DH Press (Dark Horse’s imprint) is in the process of republishing the original books. Pick them up to see just how well Chaykin and Mignola translated the master fantasist’s works into graphical form.