Thursday, September 10, 2020


The rise of fantasy as a popular literary genre can probably be traced to two roughly contemporaneous events: the release of the unauthorized Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings in 1965 and the release of the Lancer Conan series the following year. Together, these books introduced a new generation to concepts and ideas that have since become commonplace in present day popular culture. 

That's why it's no wonder that American comic books quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started introducing fantasy heroes and titles. An early example was Nightmaster, who first appeared in Showcase #82 (May 1969), Unlike many of other DC's efforts, which were quite obviously attempts to match the success of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian, which launched in October 1970, Nightmaster was clearly his own thing. Created by Denny O'Neil and initially drawn by Bernie Wrightson, co-creator of Swamp Thing (and Maryland homeboy), Nightmaster appeared in only three issues before becoming a footnote in comics history (though the character has apparently reappeared several times since the 1990s).

The comic tells the story of Jim Rook, the lead singer and guitarist of a band called The Electrics, and his girlfriend, Janet. After a successful concert, a trio of hecklers(?) – it's not really clear who they are – burst into his dressing room and began harassing Janet. Jim confronts them and a fistfight ensues.

From the vantage point of 2020, it's a peculiar sequence of panels. Clearly, O'Neil was trying to capture something of the clash between Middle America and the burgeoning counter-culture of the late '60s, but it comes across as ... off somehow, but perhaps I am missing something crucial here. 

Long-hair he may be, but Jim Rook is no wimp. He bests all three of his attackers and leaves them lying on the floor. He and Janet then set off, eventually coming upon a strange storefront they've never seen before. The store is called Oblivion, Inc. and, curious, they open the door and step inside. Not long thereafter, Jim and Janet find themselves surrounded by a weird energy.
Jim is separated from Janet and in a place that makes no sense. He begins to think he's died and gone to hell. That's all before he runs into a strange little man who says his name is King Zolto and Rook is in the land of Myrra, another world "that exists in the space occupied by Earth, but on a separate spiritual plane." Zolto adds that he has brought Jim to Myrra by means of magic, because he has need of him.
Using a mystic gem, Jim learns that he is the descendant of the ancient warrior Nacht, who once wielded the Sword of Night before being betrayed and vanishing from Myrra. Zolto hopes that Jim will take up the Sword of Night and use it against the evil warlocks who threaten the world. Naturally, he answers Zolto's call and takes his first steps toward become the hero Nightmaster.

Like a lot of comics from its era, Nightmaster is very peculiar. It's trying very hard to tap into psychedelia while at the same time recalling ancient myths and legends. The result is occasionally trippy but mostly fairly generic. It probably doesn't help that the story really needed visuals on par with Ditko's Dr Strange and that the dialogue is simultaneously too faux highfalutin and too pedestrian. That's unfortunate, because, as I never tire of saying, I have a soft spot for stories about Earthlings transported to other worlds. That's a fine basis for a continuing fantasy series in my opinion. Still, comics like these are foundational to understanding the cultural moment out of which Dungeons & Dragons sprang and thus should be celebrated.


  1. >I have a soft spot for stories about Earthlings transported to other worlds.

    As do I, provided one refers to such genre fiction as "portal fantasy" and not with the execrable term borrowed from manga, "isekai".

  2. There is a lot of very good Japanese portal fantasy though, both in comics and in their pulp novels♥