From 2000-2003, CrossGen was the most exciting publisher in the field of comic books. By the end of their first year, CrossGen had leaped over scores of independent companies to become the fifth largest publisher in the country. By their third year, they had passed Image and were challenging Dark Horse for number three. And then it all fell apart and the company folded in 2004. But for a while, CrossGen was the company with the bulk of the buzz. They were trying new things that are now taken for granted- like a comprehensive trade paperback collection. And they were jumping into new genres with titles like Sojourn, the fantasy epic that also happened to be CrossGen’s best-selling title.
What made Sojourn so successful? Two things: filling the right niche, and Greg
Land. To understand the first, you need
to know a little bit about comic book theory. In his pivotal book “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud spent some
time explaining the issue of genres in the marketplace. At one point, comic books encompassed all of
the genres, which he represented with the letters A through Z. However, some of those genres were more
successful than others so the publishers and the retailers began to concentrate
on the most successful ones. That meant
that the other genres, D through Z, fell to the wayside. Readers of those other genres- though not as
numerous as fans of genres A through C- were abandoned by the market. Eventually the comic book marketplace had
evolved until it was only catering fans of one genre, A. The publishers knew that they needed to reach
out to fans of other genres, but the question remained how to reach out to fans
of genre B when your audience is comprised entirely of fans of genre A. Scott McCloud posited that the solution was
to make books that were AB, crosses between the successful genre and the
outreach genre. And that’s exactly what
CrossGen was trying to do. They entered
into fantasy and sci-fi, mystery and kung fu, but always with enough of the trappings
of superheroes that it would still appeal to the audience that already
Sojourn was one of the most successful books of this type. It was positioned as a bridge book. It served to introduce comic book fans to fantasy and fantasy fans to comic books. That did mean that it wasn’t the most original or innovative fantasy epic on the market. Hardcore fantasy fans dismissed it as derivative. And it was- Sojourn was the typical fantasy epic, with species straight out of the Lord of the Rings- but it was supposed to be. It was the introductory fantasy epic, not the masters-level opus. And while it may not have been the most original fantasy epic when compared to novels, it was also the only fantasy epic in comics. Sojourn was similarly dismissed by hardcore comic book fans. After all, Sojourn wasn’t exactly at the cutting edge of comics. But it wasn’t supposed to be. Sojourn was going off in a different direction, trying to attract fantasy fans to a new medium. And in that, it was successful. Sojourn wasn’t a book for everyone. But it perfectly filled the niche that it was designed to fill, bridging the gap between comic books and fantasy.
Of course, the plan is only part of Sojourn’s success. The other part is obvious even to the untrained eye. It’s artist Greg Land. Land had built up a small fan following while working on Birds of Prey and Nightwing for DC. Indeed, I was already aware of him and excited that he had signed at CrossGen. But his work on Sojourn catapulted Greg Land to the top of the class. His women were breathtakingly beautiful. His orcs had all the texture of real beings and his dragons looked like living, breathing creatures. And did I mention that his women were breathtakingly beautiful? Sojourn may have been the right genre at the right time, but Greg Land’s art was the real star of the show.
Prequel and Issues 1-6
The Prequel is a great set-up for the rest of the story. It gives us the historical situation that makes an epic fantasy epic in the first place. It tells the story of Mordath, a human who allied with the orcs of Grimbor to conquer all of the five lands. It tells the story of the other races who banded together to oppose Mordath, and of Ayden the hero who finally defeated him. It ends three hundred years later as two mysterious strangers resurrect the tyrant. It was a great issue, especially for those who were already fans of CrossGen’s universe. We knew of one villain who had a sigil, the CrossGen symbol of power- Uncle Ilahn in Meridian but he was opposed by his own niece, Sephie, who was becoming a powerful hero. This would be the first title in which the sigil would be entirely on the side of evil. That would make the odds overwhelmingly against the hero of the tale.
We meet that hero in the first arc. Her name is Arwyn. She used to be a member of royal archers. But in the first issue, Mordath’s armies destroy her hometown and her family, wiping out what they think is the last resistance to Mordath’s rule. However, that very act causes Arwyn to vow vengeance. In the first story, she picks up two unlikely allies. The first is Neven, a mystical stranger who offers her the use of Ayden’s bow for her quest. The other is Gareth, a rogue she meets while trying to escape from Mordath’s dungeon.
Looking back, the first story isn’t that special. It is a fairly standard by-the-numbers fantasy epic. We have a hero. She’s given a quest, a sidekick and a mystical adviser. But what makes it work is that we know the impossibility of the task. The real question isn’t whether or not Arwyn can complete her quest. The real question is whether or not she can defeat the undefeatable.
Issues 7-12: A
With the second story, Arwyn and Gareth begin to pursue her
quest. At Neven’s insistence, Arwyn is
tasked with gathering the five fragments of the arrow that Ayden used to defeat
Mordath three hundred years earlier. These five fragments have been scattered to the five lands and reuniting
them is supposedly the only way to defeat the resurrected Mordath. Arwyn and Gareth set out to find the closest
fragment in Middelyn.
Along the way, they’re waylaid by a pretty woman who happens
to be a dragon. This is the point for me
at which the story begins to get good. Arwyn doesn’t simply fight the dragon for the fragment and then move on
to the next stage of her quest, as we might expect. No, Arwyn tries to circumvent the quest. She makes a deal with the dragon. She’ll give the dragon Ayden’s bow, a very
valuable treasure and currently the key to her quest, if the dragon will defeat
Mordath for her. With that deal, writer
Ron Marz shows us that Sojourn isn’t going to be the straightforward fantasy
epic that we’d been expecting. He also
gives Greg Land the opportunity to draw a gorgeous battle in which the dragon
attacks Mordath’s fortress.
The new plan doesn’t actually work. Mordath defeats the dragon. Chastened, Arwyn and Gareth retrieve the first fragment from the dragon’s horde and resume the quest but not before getting a scolding from Neven in issue 12.
Issues 13-18: The Winged Cliffs of Ankhara
The second arc ended with a done-in-one issue in which Neven
confronted Arwyn concerning her resolve for the quest. This third arc opens with another done-in-one
issue. However, this issue doesn’t focus
on Arwyn. Rather, it focuses on Bohr,
the orc captain who has been given the task of recapturing Arwyn. Bohr takes a break from his pursuit in order
to go home for the death of his mother. This is the second time that Ron Marz has shown us that he’s not going
to play be all of the rules. Bohr
becomes a sympathetic character, even as he resumes his pursuit of our hero.
The bulk of the third arc takes place in the land of Ankhara.. This land is populated by a race of winged Nubians. The Ankharans are fiercely independent and have been resisting Mordath’s rule. Arwyn and Gareth find themselves caught up in the resistance. At first, Arwyn resists joining the resistance. She wants to find the fragment and get on with her quest. She’s done denying her destiny, especially after Neven’s lecture in issue 12. But Gareth reminds her that her destiny is in opposing Mordath, not just in completing the quest. They determine to further the rebellion, which leads to a pair of unexpected outcomes. One, Arwyn’s role in the rebellion leads her to discovering the second fragment of Ayden’s arrow, which is good for her. Two, Gareth is captured by Bohr and thrown off of a cliff, which is bad for him.
Sojourn seems to be getting better and better. This third arc is even better than the second, which was in turn even better than the first. Greg Land’s art is getting better as well. His orcs are developing even greater individuality and emotion. Plus, with this arc, he gets to draw a host of muscular men and beautiful women as the story includes both Ankharan warriors and a royal harem. As for the story, Gareth’s apparent death gives it a gravitas that we hadn’t felt before.