Beowulf: Dragon Slayer #1-6
"The Curse of Castle Hrothgar"/"Slave Maid of Satan!"/"Man-Apes and Magic!"/"Valley in the Shadow of Death!"/"Chariots of the Stars!"/"Labyrinth of the Grotto Minotaur!"
Written by Michael Uslan
Illustrated by Ricardo Villamonte
Layouts by Rick Estrada (issue #6)
Inked by Liz Safian (issue #6)
Lettering and coloring uncredited
Beowulf was part of a line of adventure comics launched in the DC Explosion of the mid-'70s. That line gave us some memorable gems, like Stalker and Warlord. It also gave us some terrible turkeys like Claw the Unconquered. Unfortunately, Beowulf has more in common with Claw than Stalker...
Part of the problem is that Beowulf doesn't know what it wants to be. The first eight pages of issue #1 closely parallel the poem - and then Beowulf is joined by Nan-Zee, a bikini-clad warrior woman. Ultimately, Beowulf and his crew go on an Argonaut-style voyage to exitic locations, where they're pitted against pygmies, giant snakes, the lost tribes of Israel, Dracula, Incan druids, Erich von Daniken's ancient astronauts, the minotaur, and Satan. In fact, the only monster they don't fight is Grendel - the two of them meet for three pages in issue #4, and that's it.
Writer Michael Uslan can't seem to make up his mind whether this series is serious or campy - some sequences are presented as straight action or horror, but others are compeltely undermined by the sheer ludicrousness of their premises (Incan druids?). When all is said and done, it's hard to take the series as anything other than camp, thanks to pages like this one from issue #6...
Prose doen't get purpler than that. Unfortunately, we never got to see Grendel vs. Dracula, as issue #6 is the last issue of the series.
Artistically speaking, the series is... interesting. Ricardo Villamonte's art is uneven, to say the least. Sometimes you get pages like this one from issue #3, where Beowulf confronts the Black Viper...
This is an absolutely incredible sequence. Your eye is instantly grabbed by the the yellow banner across the top of the page, and then pulled down by the vertical columns to the slithering figure of the serpent. The serpent's sinuous curves lead you to Beowulf, who holds your attention because he's the only spot of warm color on the page. Then the downward thrust of his leg propels you to the second panel, whose gentle curves (coupled with Beowulf's rolling motion) lead you to the third panel. The only problematic element is the third panel, which essentially a recapsulation of the second panel and contains a number of compositional elements that interrupt the flow of the action.
What's especially striking is Villamonte's spotting of detail. There are few specifics in this panel - a few items in the foreground and a handful of skulls in the background - but careful placement of these details allows Villamonte to suggest the presence of more detail with a few brushstrokes. This, in turn, alows him to leave a large diagonal stripe of negative space between Beowulf and the serpent, and it's this blank area that becomes the focal point of the entire composition. Had this space been filled with meticulously-rendered skulls the panel would seem too cluttered and the impact of the composition would be diluted.
It's hard to believe that the same person is responsible for this sequence from issue #4...
Terrible, isn't it? While very active, the composition is terrible, the drawing is rushed, the detailing is random and the color is atrocious. Alas, it's these two panels that set the tone for the series - page after page of mediocre scribbling, broken up by a few panels of some of the finest fantasy illustration you'll ever see.
So why the huge quality differential? Did Villamonte labor so long on some pages that he was forced to crank out the rest? Were the inferior pages the work of assistants? Were the superior pages swiped from other fantasy art? I have no way of knowing - but if you've got the explanation, I'd love to hear it.
So is it worth it to grab a spotty series, just for a few amazing pages? Sure it is. I spent about 50 cents an issue for the entire series, and you probably won't have to pay much more - it's not like you're competing with thousands of other Ricardo Villamonte completists.