Monday, October 8, 2012
On the other hand, I'd never even heard of Arak, Son of Thunder when it debuted in September 1981. Amusingly, the comic was created by Roy Thomas (along with Ernesto Colón), creator of the aforementioned Savage Sword of Conan and there's a superficial similarity between the two comics. Both feature clever, muscular wanderers who have adventures in an ancient/medieval world. The similarities largely end there, though. Whereas Savage Sword is set in the fictitious prehistorical world of the Hyborian Age, Arak takes place in the real world of the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Admittedly, this "real" world is a legendary one, replete with magic, monsters, and Charlemagne's paladins, but it wasn't wholly imaginary in nature, even if it did play fast and loose with history in the interests of a good story.
Arak's "gimmick" was that its titular character was an American Indian (from a fictitious East Coast tribe) cast adrift in a canoe as a child -- by his father, the thunder god, He-No -- and then picked up and raised by Vikings. Though his real name was Bright-Sky-After-Storm, the Vikings renamed him Erik, which he mispronounced as Arak, giving rise to his nom de guerre. As recounted in the first issue of his comic, Arak spends his early life raiding with his adoptive people, becoming a great warrior, especially skilled with the axe and the bow. During a raid on a monastery, the Vikings find themselves attacked by a monstrous serpent sent by the sorceress Angelica of Albracca (who becomes the comic's primary antagonist). Arak slays the serpent by means of a hammer-shaped cross, leading one of the surviving monks to opine that Arak has a divine mission. Arak himself wonders what god it was, if any, who aided his victory and sets off to find his destiny.
From then on, Arak wanders, for a time settling in one place, but eventually moving on as he continues his personal quest to discover the truth about himself and his dimly-remembered past a continent away. For most of the early issues, Arak is in Frankland, as part of the court of Charlemagne, fighting side by side with his famous paladins against a variety of magical and mundane foes. Among the paladins was the female warrior Bradamante, whose daughter, Valda, is a powerful fighter in her own right, as well as the eventual love interest of Arak. In time, Arak moves on from Frankland and has adventures all across the Old World, meeting both historical personages and mythological monsters. It is my understanding that he eventually returned to North America to be reunited with the tribe of his birth before the comic ended its run in 1985.
Arak, Son of Thunder appealed to me back in college for the same reasons it does now: it's a fun take on historical fantasy with a twist. Certainly it's not very plausible historically but then neither are the tales of Conan. Still, I think Roy Thomas did a terrific job with the comic, presenting both a world and a protagonist worth reading about. It's also a good model for historical fantasy gaming, something I find myself pondering quite regularly. I have no idea how hard it is to find copies of the comic nowadays (I last saw them in the early '90s), but, if you ever come across them, they're worth a read.