by Robert Greenberger
In the 1970s and 1980s, Chris Claremont couldn’t write fast enough to satisfy his readership as his take on the uncanny mutants made X-Men a major seller for Marvel. He showed deft humor and action in his run on Marvel Team-Up and gave us buddy comedy with Power Man and Iron Fist. But, Chris aspired to write other types of stories, other genres, and needed an outlet. Thankfully, Marvel had exactly what he needed.
Claremont partnered with English artist John Bolton for a story that was to feature Robert E. Howard’s female swordswoman and an extremely popular character at the time. “I met John through Ralph [Macchio], while he was doing ‘Kull of Valusia’,” Claremont told me this month. “The pages came in and we’d go, ‘god this is great!’ The opportunity came up for a Red Sonja story which I pitched to John while I was in the UK. While we finished it, Marvel lost the license for Conan and Red Sonja and there we were with a fully completed book and no home.
“Jim Shooter did one of those things that is very rarely mentioned when talking about him. Man, he really is a decent honorable person. Archie Goodwin suggested we redo the story for Epic Illustrated, buy the story back from Marvel, retool it, and sell it as our own work. I went in and pitched it to Jim and he just said, ‘To hell with it.’ He just signed it over to us which was incredibly magnanimous and brilliant.”
Not that people today remember it, but Marada the She-Wolf was a welcome addition to the world of sword and sorcery. Thankfully, Titan Books remembered and is releasing the first collection of the complete Marada in a handsome hardcover. It will reprint the three stories including one that has never before been collected and it will act as a showcase for Bolton’s gorgeous linework and color.
When the character could no longer operate in Cimmeria, Claremont hit on ancient Rome as an interesting venue and we met this descendent of Caesar. “John and I sat down and restructured it, changing the costume slightly, and we were off and running. Rome was my idea, because I liked the idea of doing something set in the last century BC, first century AD, a time of transition. It made a lot of sense since the world as we understood was in a rich, unknown space. Caesar had encountered a lot of it in Gaul and England to the north; you had the expansion out through the Middle East out to what had been the Persian Empire and the vast expanse of the Caucuses above it. For me it worked as a world where the intersection of a lot of rich, transitional territory,” the writer said.
While Claremont is a well-known veteran comics writer, Bolton is perhaps less known which is a shame since he is one of the most versatile and talented talents at work these last few decades.
Bolton attended East Ham Technical College, obtaining a degree in graphics and design, and only then discovered comics. He began drawing features for Look In, The House of Hammer and the legendary Warrior before being hired for American comics. Ralph Macchio lured him over to Marvel where he made his American drawing Kull for Epic Comics. After Sonja became Marada, the pair also collaborated on 1985’s Black Dragon, another creator-owned project. The duo then produced interstitial stories to fill in gaps during the reprinting of the X-Men run in X-Men Classic.
Marada and her colleague, the princess Arianrod, face court politics, supernatural intrigue and the occasional demon. She has a reputation for never having been bester by man, woman, or demon. Claremont helped earn his rep as a strong writer of female characters with Marada and her handling of the sexual politics of the Roman era. According to Simyon Ashrandiar, “She has powers both temporal and arcane, though she knows it not”.
Claremont said the mail was very positive back then so they had no “problem whatsoever conceiving and selling the two follow-up stories: her encounter with the Queen and the journey from Alexandria to Rome where she finds herself involved with surprisingly finding Arabian Knights resembling pirates. My hope was to close out the arc with her coming into the Coliseum and looking back on it, outdoing Gladiator before the film was conceived of.”
Bolton doesn’t like to repeat himself and has continued to challenge himself elsewhere but both relish the chance to have the material back in print. It languished until a publisher, in this case Nick Landau at Titan, saw the potential audience for this classic sword and sorcery tale.
Personally, I’m delighted to have something so wonderful to look at back in print.