This review first appeared in The Morpheus Tales Supplement #17.
At bottom, Orc Stain reads like dad fantasy ripped straight from the classic Heavy Metal numbers, but creator James Stokoe heaps on so much eccentricity with such flair that the formula reads fresh for the first time since the 1980s. While this series rejuvenates lowbrow fantasy in comics, Orc Stain has so far—seven issues in—missed its chance to grow up.
Stokoe’s cartooning crosses the styles of Jamie Hewlett and Jhonen Vasquez. His line work suits the frenzied world of Orc Stain just fine, but the more striking visual element is the unique pallet, which breaks every rule of colour theory, but still pleases the eye.
While Orc Stain’s focus on the titular race of green-skinned barbarians might seem restrictive, the variety Stokoe teases from his orcs adds richness to the series. On top of that, Orc Stain’s bestiary would make Dr. Seuss blush, with creatures both cute and foul employed in biopunk animals-as-appliances routines that the censors would never have let slip on The Flintstones.
The series portrays the orcs’ factious society from the monocular perspective of One-Eye, a slight orc with the power to sense the weak spot in any object. He uses this gift to disintegrate almost anything with just a tap from his claw-hammer, an ability that aids him well in looting. A standout supporting character is the maniacal nymph Bowie, a femme fatale adept at the black art of poison concoction.
The series holds little in common with the revisionism en vogue in fantasy literature this past while. While social fantasist works such as Kirill Eskov’s The Last Ringbearer have recast those bastards of Tolkien’s imagination as noble savages forced to struggle against human imperialism to protect their way of life, Stokoe makes no such apologies for his orcs. One-Eye excepted, they are all just brutes, happy to castrate for currency, enslave nymphs for sex, and wipe out civilizations for kicks.
As a matter of course, the book satirizes militarism, as orcs have always caricatured chauvinists, but does so for laughs rather than to make any serious point. When One-Eye thinks back to the campaign that soured him on warfare, and the narrative flashes back to a fantasy pastiche of Vietnam, the response is a chuckle at the sight gag rather than a furrowed brow at the social commentary. Although this flippancy detracts from the intellectual worth of the series, the raw entertainment value remains high.