REVIEW: Orc Stain

Created, written and drawn by James Stokoe.

Image Comics, 2010.

I can think of few books that match Orc Stain in the sheer level of raw creativity, fun, perversity, and originality. Stokoe has embarked on a program of world building worthy of an off-duty cultural anthropologist competing in a science fiction/fantasy pitch contest where the ideas are so daring they cannot be implemented in a medium other than an independent comic book (albeit one published and distributed by Image).

Orc Stain is the story of a lowly orc named “One Eye” who has a talent for being able to see the structural weakness in any container, building or edifice. Whether this ability is supernatural or is based on more normal perceptions is not really explained in the first volume. What it does do is allow him to do something which other orcs are not very good at: figure out solutions to problems that do not involve punching or stabbing.

The book constructs orc culture along the lines of Lord of the Rings, but only to a point. Orcs are born parentless and nameless spawn. Great orc warlords receive names (and numbers) that adorn their stone tombs, but such titles are earned from deeds. Walking around names are based on an orc’s visible physical attributes, such as our protagonist’s lack of an eye, earning him the title “One Eye”.  Stokoe points out in the afterword how this idea germinated from a conversation about the orcs in Lord of the Rings. Orcs in those books were just an evil force in opposition to all other matters of goodness in Tolkien’s world. Stokoe took the orc as a product of an orcish culture and developed a whole set of behaviors, politics, economy, and aesthetics to make his characters actors in a fascinating world that is full of perverse humor and over-the-top violence. That makes the book not for everyone. Those interested in a well-thought-out world building cultural construct book that is for everyone should read Larry Marder’s Beanworld, a great book that is less openly transgressive.

What are some of the things that are not for everyone? Well, orc economics are based on the collection of gronchs – severed genitals of other orcs. These are worn on an orc’s belt as a sign of wealth and prestige, and when dried are skinned and sliced into coins called “chits”. This is orc money and to an orc his own gronch is everything and a bag full of other some other guy’s dried gronch is everything as well. The book is also violent in an absurd splatter slapstick kind of way, so you definitely might want to keep it away from the kiddies. Hand this to wives and girlfriends only if you know they can handle it.

The gronch is only the most visibly outre part of the tale. There are also some original ideas in this book that are based purely on organic manipulations and uses of the natural (fantasy) world. There is a telegraph communication system set up between orc dancers who are connected over remote distances by wires and communicate messages through body movements. Of course this refined use of communication is used by orcish warlords to convey lengthy honorific titles in the process of ritual ass-kissing. There are symbiotic spy crabs which fuse with the brains of their orc keepers to provide espionage surveillance. Countless other marvels of various bizarre creatures are used as technology in this world. David Cronenberg must have been more than a little influence here.

Stokoe’s art is what elevates this work to a thing of greatness. His art has a Jeff Darrow quality to it in the fine rendering. Crowd scenes are populated with a great expanse of characters. Individual character designs are graphically intricate with large amounts of individual body adornments. There are not any really visually simple characters, but these are not gaudy pouch-encumbered early-1990s comic book characters. The visual design fills in nicely with the orc culture that is developed. Individualism is embodied in an orc physically, not only in their contentious (though stupid) behavior. Maybe this is something that develops from their intense need to have some purpose in a life that comes from being nameless spawn?

The coloring also need to be noted. Stokoe did the coloring (and lettering) as well. Some readers might be turned off by the unclear separations at work. The coloring is gradiented in ways that are positively psychedelic. While the effects are not day-glowingly garish, the effect lends to textures and shadows in a way that furthers the unearthly palette of tones. I cannot speak for everyone, but in my opinion the effect was great and I enjoyed it.

I found this book to be a real treat. It was funny, twisted and beautiful in artistic execution. The book may be considered juvenile by some audiences, and I have no real defense against that criticism except to say that, though the specifics of some themes may be based in some gross-out humor, their usage is integral to the internal logics of how orc culture functions in the book. Orc Stain is a book that presents orc culture in a way that is so well-thought-out and detailed that it would make a cultural anthropologist proud.

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I have a master's degree in anthropology and do contract archaeology (in season) in the Midwest United States. The rest of the time I have a flunky job at a major retailer that keeps me in health insurance. I am married and have a cat named Odin.

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