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Friday, May 12, 2017

Panel Vision - Camelot 3000

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Every culture has a handful of fundamental tales that are forever retold, decade-to-decade.  In the Western canon, one such tale is the story of King Arthur, a romantic fiction theoretically based on the deeds of a real man in the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of organized, European civilization.   Every decade since the dawn of modern pop culture has had its own take on the Arthur myth- 1953’s straightforward adventure film Knights of the Round Table, 1967’s musical Camelot was so popular the mythology became intertwined with the Kennedy administration. 

1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail brought ‘70s cynicism and satire to the material while 1981’s Excalibur afforded the legend the scale and pageantry of a blockbuster epic.  In 1995 First Knight doubled down on a romantic vision of King Arthur, and in 2004 we got an ostensibly more realistic version of the story with King Arthur.  Now, on the eve of the 2010’s take on the classic legend, I thought I’d look back on my favorite retelling of the classic tale, a piece of high-concept weirdness from 1983 entitled Camelot 3000. 

In 1983 DC Comics was on shaky ground.  The ‘70s had been an unfortunate time for them where they lost a lot of their market share to Marvel’s rising popularity.  They’d tried to compete with Marvel but only ended up over-extending themselves with a lot of books that weren’t selling, leading to a mass cancelation in 1978.  By 1983 they’d recovered and were looking for ways to compete but the reboot of 1986 wasn’t that far off, and you could feel its jaws slowly closing around the DCU. 

The big issue that had been plaguing DC was a difficulty connecting with aging readers.  Marvel had solved this problem by just creating new characters in new genres and folding them into the main Marvel universe, like the Tomb of Dracula horror stories or the Conan barbarian fantasy stuff.  DC eventually followed suit, but for the longest time, they decided on a different tract- creating stories in these new genres that were completely separate from the main continuity.  That’s how you got sci-fi dystopia stuff like OMAC or Kamandi, political satire like Prez, or the science fantasy epic that is Camelot 3000. 

As the name suggests, the series is set in the far off year of 3000AD, though that’s kind of over selling the situation.  Despite taking place 1000 years in the future the world of 3000 isn’t that visually different from the futures of Judge Dredd or Blade Runner.  There are flying cars and super-dense techno-cities but nothing that would actually imply 1000s of years of technological advancement.  

That’s actually a big problem for the citizens of the year 3000 as insectoid alien monsters from a mysterious 10th planet of our solar system have invaded them.  The alien monsters have set-up a beachhead in the UK, slaughtering everything they meet when a young man on the run from a patrol stumbles upon the grave of King Arthur- who rises once more in his nation’s time of greatest need. 

See, this isn’t fully a re-imagining of the Arthurian myth so much as it is a sequel to it, in which Arthur returns from death to defend England and the world from the alien menace.  Calling upon Merlin for help, Arthur seeks out the reincarnated versions of his knights and sets up shop in a humongous asteroid compound he dubs New Camelot. 

Together, the group works to defeat the alien menace, discover the true origin of the threat, and bring freedom and hope back to a world crushed under the heel of stagnation and oppression.  However, that plot does end up mirroring particular elements of the Arthurian myth but reworks them in a nice way so as to afford the proceedings a bit more weight and character. 

A big part of this is in the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.  Despite the two remembering their past lives and knowing the mistakes they’ve made they end up back together again, only now it has that added weight of personal history behind it.  There’s a lot in this story about fate, personal identity, and how bound we are to our own destiny. 

For all the knights they have to address the question of who they are now and whether they can have a new life in this new world outside of their old identity.  For instance, Sir Percival is reincarnated as the hulking, genetically modified monster called a Neo-Man, creatures used for law enforcement by the powers that be of Earth.  Percival’s arc for the story is about reasserting his identity and eventually becoming worthy enough to rediscover the Holy Grail, proving his own humanity in a world where it was stripped away from him.

Where this shines through the clearest is the story of Sir Tristan, which is rife with trans narrative overtones.  Sir Tristan’s story is that he’s reborn into a body of a woman, so his major arc is about getting people to accept and recognize that he’s a man.  I don’t think this was intended to be a trans narrative at the time, but it’s got a lot of scenes that parallel the experience, like Tristan’s struggle to get people to refer to him with the proper pronouns and acknowledge his masculinity. 

It’s a fascinating and progressive story, especially for 1983, even if it was an unintentional element.  They don’t even end with some cop-out of Tristan “embracing his new life” or anything, despite nudging along a possible romance with new character Tom throughout the story.  Instead, Tristan discovers his wife Isolde has also been reborn, still as a woman, and just ends up getting together with her though it’s unclear if the technology for him to transition later. 

Even though I doubt Tristan’s arc was meant to be an explicitly trans narrative, though writer Mike W. Barr was definitely a more progressive voice in his long career in comics, it is a defiant rejection of the rigid ideas of gender that ties into how much Camelot 3000 is a fusion of the '70s and ‘80s elements.  The whole book is clearly trying to ride the science fantasy wave kicked off by Star Wars, but it’s firmly couched in the visual language and ideas of the 1970s, especially the glam and prog rock scenes.  

The concept of “King Arthur in space” is a pretty evergreen idea but instead of doing a version grounded in heavy metal or even Lucas-exploitation the visual of Camelot 3000 look like a blend of ‘70s B-movie dystopia and psychedelic rock covers.  The whole thing looks like Logan’s Run took place on any of the album covers from the band Yes.  

That extends to the characters too, with their costumes taking greater inspiration from Ziggy Stardust or KISS.  There’s also a seriously ‘70s hard-edged cynicism to the stuff around Arthur and his knights.  The King may be good, but the Earth he’s come to is corrupt and dystopian, with the world’s 4 rulers presented as ugly caricatures of humanity. 

A lot of the success here is owed to the artwork team: Brian Bolland on pencils, Bruce Patterson and Terry Austin on ink, and Tatjana Wood on colors.  Together they have an incredible grasp of the comic book medium, and the entire series is lavishly produced.  The visuals and aesthetic may come from ‘70s high concept weirdness, but the execution has the blockbuster sheen and size of the ‘80s.  The scale of the comic is easily its greatest feature, consistently maintaining this grand full vision of the characters or the various weird landscapes and setting. 

The pages never feel empty or like they lack for texture, with a lot of the credit going to Patterson and Austin for giving the visuals such firm definition.  As usual, though, it’s the colorist that’s Camelot 3000’s secret weapon.  Tatjana Wood’s colors elevate every page of this comic to an instant classic, with a blend of warm tones that never feel as garish as they easily could have.  The whole production is a powerhouse effort from everyone involved, and you can feel the hard work and expertise put into every panel. 

To date Camelot 3000 has yet to migrate into the broader DC canon, never appearing in any adaptations or as a part of any of the various DC reboots.  I’m honestly kind of surprised this series is as buried as it is in the backlog of DC history given how much it was ahead of both its time and ours.  I mean, trans representation in comics today is still very lackluster, and visibility for trans men is even worse so it seems like something DC would have more stock in promoting as opposed to contemporaries like Lords of the Ultra-Realm. 

Still, perhaps its progressive nature stranded it too ahead of its own time.  Reportedly DC got a lot of letters from confused or upset parents over the books queer content, which is unfortunately all too believable.  This was still well before the likes of Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, or Killing Joke publicly launched comics into the “not for kids anymore” realm, so parents looking over the “King Arthur with laser guns” book and getting stressed over gender struggles seems par for the course.  Even so, DC has released the book in paperback and hardcover and you can buy the whole thing on Comixology- highly recommended.    

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