Prior to picking up Sword of Sorcery #0, I knew nothing about Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, because when it debuted in 1983, I was a 12-year-old human being with a limited, allowance-based income, and a penis. With comics 60 cents a piece and three bucks to spend on them, I wasn’t gonna drop coin on a books meant to empower the very people giving me boners just by being around and then laughing when I got one. Besides, despite being a geek since it was a word used to describe a filthy hobo who bites the heads off chickens in a freakshow, I have never been a swords and sorcery kind of fan. I grew up on comic books, The Six Million Dollar Man and Star Wars; I had no need or time for some blonde with a sword and magical powers. Not when I had access to Luke Skywalker. Wait, something there’s not quite right…
Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that, for me, Amethyst is a completely new character. And while I recognize that I, a 40-something guy, am not necessarily the target audience for Amethyst, I thought it was okay. It accomplished a lot in 20 pages, introducing the protagonist and doing a decent job humanizing the character and telling us her background, and explaining how what appears to be a reasonably typical teenaged girl might survive in a hostile environment like Gemworld… even including the gang bang scene. Maybe I should’ve been reading this book when I was twelve… but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Amy Winston is a typical high school girl with typical high school problems: trouble making friends, trouble relating with her mother, and trouble training daily with medieval weapons. She breaks up the monotony by interrupting and disrupting teen gang date rapes, and by following her mother through portals created by half-million dollar giant amethysts to a world where not only do iPhones not apparently work, but where a man with a working flashlight would rule decisively as a Master Magician if it weren’t for the actual master magicians running around.
Look, what we have here is an old-school, normal-teenager-is-actually-the-chosen-one story. It’s a standard Joseph Campbell monomyth story; a normal person called to adventure in a supernatural world, so we’ve got the Call to Adventure out of the way and the Road of Trials starting out, all in an economical 20 pages. And Amy is a likable enough character; sure, she’s ground down from moving all the time, but she comes to the aid of even mild acquaintances in need, and she’s not doing meth or banging bikers like Fox News tells me all the teenaged girls are doing. Amy’s mother also comes across as sympathetic, although the whole constant moving and non-stop sword training come across as a little paranoid – the antagonist, Lady Mordiel, is in Gemworld after all, and there’s no indication in this issue that she could easily track Amy and her mother Gracie… and I find it a bit difficult to believe that, during 13 years of public school, no teacher ever called Child Services after, say, Amy turned in a crayon drawing of “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” featuring her mother hitting her with a sword.
Otherwise, the whole thing generally hangs together… with the possible exception of the attempted gang rape scene. Which is, admittedly a little dark for a book that was originally meant to be entertainment for young girls back in the 80s. And which is a scene which has outraged some people, like Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims, but which I generally don’t have much of a problem with. Sure, it’s dark, but it solves a particular storytelling problem, which is to show that Amy is capable of handling herself against multiple assailants even before she’s taken to Gemworld. There are only a few ways to present that in 20 pages, and even fewer available to a teenaged girl in a rural area. What’re they gonna do, have Amy break up a bank robbery? Bust up a carjacking? Not bloody likely. In fact, the only other story option I can think of that allows a teenager to take on multiple attackers that makes any sense is to bust up a school shooting, and if you think this scene is dark, remember that it sure as hell could be a hell of a lot worse.
There’s the further argument that a scene like that is a hell of a thing to include in a comic that is about to have a DC Nation short based on the main character and aimed squarely at children. And there’s a point there that makes a certain amount of sense… except if you’re gonna make that argument, you need to point out what we’ve been drunkenly pointing out for months here at the Crisis On Infinite Midlives Home Office: that DC Nation has been airing shorts of Animal Man since January – shorts showing Animal Man as a goofball who saves animals instead of people and voiced by Weird Al Yankovic – while the Animal Man comic features Buddy Baker and his pre-teen daughter messing with The Rot and assorted dead things. I’m not arguing that two wrongs make a right here, I’m just pointing out that there’s a precedent to this kind of thing. And since writer Christy Marx has gone on record saying that she wrote Amethyst with no knowledge that the short was being produced, and for an older audience, this scene is a hell of a thing to hold against Marx or her story.
Frankly, if you want to condemn the scene, do it because of everything in this book – including the magic – it’s the least Goddamned believable. A jock and his buddies are gonna commit felony forcible rape in a public place after one of them is publicly heard inviting the intended victim to the scene of the crime? I realize that there are a million dumb assholes committing terrible crimes out in the world, but these guys take stupidity to a truly exquisite level. So let’s be clear: while I didn’t like the scene, I understand what it was there for, and I certainly didn’t find it as reprehensible as some people are calling it.
Story aside, the one thing you’ve gotta like about the Amethyst story is Aaron Lopresti’s art. His stuff has a Bronze Age look to my eye; he reminds me a bit of George Perez or Jim Aparo, with a slightly less detailed line. His figures are realistic (human being realistic, not superhero comic realistic), his faces are expressive, and nothing appears to be overly stylized. Just about all the panels are backgrounded, and with detail that looks realistic, which sounds like a small detail, but which could prove to be crucially important in a book where a regular person is submersed in a world of magic; the initial realism helps sell me the magic of Gemworld. The coloring by Hi-Fi takes care of all the shadow effects, and gives the book a hand-painted, three-dimensional look, even though it was probably all done in Photoshop. The overall look is really damn good.
Look, I said right out of the gate that I have no history with the Amethyst character, and not much of a feel for sword and sorcery stories. So unless this story hit the high, fine levels of George R. R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire novels have really been the only traditional fantasy novels I’ve gotten through – Lord of The Rings included – it simply wasn’t gonna set my world on fire. However, I found the characters pretty engaging, and overall I thought it was okay, which is about as high a praise I can lay on a book that I am not predisposed to like at all. Yes, that one scene is problematic, but I can accept that it is included for a reason, and it shouldn’t be enough to allow anyone older than, say, 13 to be deterred from reading it. If you like swords-n-shit fantasy, you should give it a chance. If you don’t? Well, okay is still only okay, and maybe you want to spend your allowance on something else. Back in the early 80s, I passed over Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld in favor of a book with Robin, Starfire and Speedy. That’s still good for kids, right?