thrift store finds: the horns of elfland

A rather terrific find this week at St. Vincent de Paul: The Horns of Elfland by Charles Vess, published by Archival Press in 1979.

I’m most familiar with Vess through his comic collaborations with writer (and friend of my classroom!) Neil Gaiman. The duo have had a storied working relationship covering a variety of projects, but they are perhaps best known as collaborators on issue #19 of DC Comics’ series The Sandman. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a very “meta” take on one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, as the performance of said play is seen through the eyes of the actual fantasy creatures the Bard captures in his writing

The Sandman #19 was nominated for and won a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991. This is a singular honor, in that the folks who hand out the World Fantasy Award immediately amended the rules after Vess & Gaiman’s win. Comic books became no longer eligible for the Best Short Story award. Kind of a bummer overall, but a cool footnote for both creators.

I wasn’t sure WHAT I had found when I laid hands on The Horns of Elfland. The book is done in black and white, and divided into three parts. The first and the third are illustrated stories titled The Shadow Witch and The Fiddler and the Swan. The middle tale,The Demon Sword, is presented as a comic.

Clearly Vess has a rooting interest in the world of fantasy. The delicate, otherworldly nature of Charles Vess’ drawings reflect a love of the genre. His inks are mind-bendingly precise and wonderful to look at. His drawings has always put me in mind of my favorite children’s book illustrators, John R. Neill, illustrator of most of Frank L. Baum’s Oz series of children’s books.

It’s good stuff… however I’ll betray a bias and say I’ve never found Vess’ work to be the best fit for an immersive storytelling experience, especially in comics. I’m afraid that will come off as a dig, but I do not mean it as such- Vess is so very good that I often find myself giving his art more scrutiny than any story he is illustrating! Vess packs so much intricate detail into his illustrations, it is as though they are stories unto themselves. For me, it’s like I go down the rabbit hole of being so hung up on how beautiful the artwork is that, when it’s in comic form, I lose track of the story. I have the same problem with Geoff Darrow’s artwork.

My personal preference for Vess’ talents are when he acts as an illustrator rather than a comic storyteller. His most recent collaboration with Gaiman, Stardust, is a great example of the type of work of Vess’ that I absolutely love.

Alright, so let’s talk about the book at hand. I’ll start with The Demon Sword, as it’s the subject of the cover of the book. The Demon Sword is easily my least favorite of the trinity of tales presented here. Vess is a gifted artist and a versatile storyteller… but I am guessing that Sword is one of his earliest comic efforts. It is as beautifully rendered as anything in the book and there are also some wonderful ideas presented here. The story plays equally as a morality tale and a riff on Sleeping Beauty. I love these scenes that illustrate the blight on the country after the titular sword is presented to the king.

Still, The Demon Sword is awkward more often than not. Looking at these pages, the story would work nicely without any of the dialogue or captions. Like this panel:

Does the story really need that caption at the bottom? Not at all… it’s already been made quite clear that the witch is a bad customer, someone you don’t want to mess with. As it stands, captions like these seem like they were written around the story, rather than as an organic part of the whole. You cannot deny Vess’ storytelling acumen; he uses the medium well as an artist. The words just seem stilted to me. It is important to knot this is clearly a “first step” for the artist in the medium, so it’s kind of weird to be “reviewing” it in such a way. He gets a lot better.

I feel much better in saying how much I enjoyed the two prose stories. I liked them quite a bit more than the comic- Vess’ writing feels far less constrained in The Shadow Witch and The Fiddler and the Swan. The Fiddler and the Swan in particular is an artistic tour de force, with some mind-blowingly detailed renderings. Look at the first page… and apologies for the camera phone picture, I didn’t want to bend the book by slapping it on the scanner. It wouldn’t have fit on there anyway.

…and the third!

So gorgeous! The stories themselves are lovely too- a fair mix of fairy tale tropes in retold somewhat new ways. Again, I’m mindful of this being on of Vess’ first published works (at least as far as I can tell from the scant information I could find about the book online) but regardless, this was a cool find.

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