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Camelot 3000

It’s hard to try and evaluate a piece of artwork outside of its time. One can’t take Impressionist art and truly appreciate the ground it broke when simply looking at it; you have to understand the revolution of thought behind the artistic movement. You need to know that the use of bright color, the want to convey emotion and feeling more than realism, were antithetical to the general artistic school of thought of that time period. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is just another painting unless you know that it is his transition from impressionism to expressionism, and what those terms mean in turn.

I bring all this up because I’m having some difficulty with an old piece of art, namely Camelot 3000.

Originally published in 1982, being released in issues over following years, and being first collected in 1988, Camelot 3000 was something of a marvel in its time. It was the first maxi-series. What has become common enough in the industry, Neil Gaiman and J. Michael Straczynski’s recent works for Marvel come to mind, the maxi-series started with these original twelve issues. Also, this comic penned by Mike Barr and Brian Bolland was one of the first mainstream comics that featured adult themes conveying sex and nudity to the reader, all long before DC started their Vertigo imprint.

The introduction to the graphic novel mentions all of this and more in fine detail, and after reading it, I can honestly say that it must have been brilliant for its time. But the question that plagues me is, is it any good now?

Camelot 3000 is one of the world’s best stories told again and with a twist. In the year 3000, the earth is under attack from an unknown and dangerously advanced race of aliens, and the world isn’t doing overly well. The governments of the world are in varying states of panic, and England is quickly becoming rubble. As a young man named Tom attempts to escape the oncoming alien horde, he takes shelter in an excavation site near Glastonbury Tor. When he gets inside he finds what the modern world has been looking for since the legends began: the final resting place of Arthur Pendragon, High King of All Britain. Expecting an imposter’s corpse, Tom opens the grave and lo, there did come a king.

Arthur awakes into a world far different from his own, but much alike in that the ways of war are desperately needed against the alien hordes. Lacking any direction in this new world, Arthur seeks to gather his knights to him once again, and the aid and counsel of his teacher Merlin. Little does Arthur know that a malevolent force from his distant past has survived just as he has and even now plots his destruction.

There’s a million and one interpretations of the Arthur mythology, and Barr and Bolland seem to stick rather closely to the more publicly known elements of the story, using the knights that people know from the various plays, books, and History Channel specials about Camelot (think Lancelot, Gawain, Tristan, etc.).

The problem with this is that those who don’t have at least a smattering of background in Arthur studies will be very much lost during some parts of the book. For instance, you might know that Arthur and Morgan LeFay were enemies, but do you know why? The comic never goes into great detail about the animosity existing between the characters, or between Merlin and the witch Nyneve (also called Nymue depending on your sourcebook) for that matter, which kind of leaves the motivations of the characters ambiguous.

This also may be the shortest maxi-series I’ve ever read, and it has nothing to do with page count. The story reads very quickly at times, easily transitioning from one part of the story to another. It’s never really jarring, so it’s not a problem for the book. It’s just odd. This was written before the likes of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch made entire pages devoid of dialogue balloons, and Camelot contains plenty of text. I was expecting to slog through the thing, but I ended up going through at an easy pace. The story flowed rather well.

I was impressed by the content of the story, much so with the subplot involving Sir Tristan’s transformation into a woman. Barr and Bolland actually explore the feelings of a man trapped in a woman’s body, of the idea and problems that arise in heterosexual and homosexual relationships concerning this kind of gender identity crisis. For 1982, when “gay” was still ridiculously taboo, this went rather far toward being progressive in the way it portrayed Tristan’s gender confusion. You just didn’t see this kind of thing in the mainstream comics back then, and I’m impressed by its handling and inclusion.

The artwork is what really dates the piece, and has me cringing at times. More than one person is wearing a white suit coat, women sport ridiculously gaudy outfits, and more than one character can be seen trying to pull off the “punk” look of a Mohawk. Despite the dated style of clothing and some of the architecture, Bolland is a damn good artist and knew how to draw detailed and engaging backgrounds, environments, and even has an eye for character design, giving each knight a small amount of visual personality. He has a bold and realistic style that bends towards a mix of Dave Gibbons and Barry Windsor-Smith, using good facial expression and detail in his characters, as well as the rest of the scenery.

Ultimately, this is an adventure book for the fans of the Arthur Myth, as well as for the general reader with a fancy for knights, lizard-like aliens, and devil-born magicians. I managed to find a copy of the 312 page graphic novel for cheap, and I’m honestly not sure you can still buy it from the distributor. (DC does not have it listed in their current catalog, but Amazon claims to have it in stock. -- editor) Your best bet might be eBay, but remember your local comic shops have back issue bins and overstock to get rid of. I think the total retail is around $15, which is not bad for the amount of story you get. But only buy this if you have a great love of the Round Table and can catch all the references, or if Arthur has always interested you.

For its time, it was a breakthrough. Now, it’s just a good comic.

Camelot 3000

Robert Sparling

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