Review: Orc Stain Volume 1, by James Stokoe


Orc Stain: Volume 1
By  James Stokoe
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Chris Eng

Perspective. It’s the thing missing from 99% of fantasy stories out there.

Blah blah blah, quest. Blah blah blah, magic item. Blah blah blah, kill some orcs. Why? Because the quest is sacred, the items are magic and the orcs are evil. ‘Nuff said. Except it’s not enough. Not really.

For starters, what specifically is so evil about the orcs? They’re an advanced civilization with their own politics and art forms. They have their own culture. So why is it never shown?

James Stokoe, to his credit, has answered those questions in Orc Stain. As the story of One Eye, an orc thief of no small skill, Orc Stain covers a remarkable amount of ground not so much in its story, but in its attention to detail in world-building. The orcs we are introduced to are in line with our general expectations (they’re murderous, unsavory creatures bound to clan life), but the breadth of detail is something wholly unique. One Eye is a safe-cracker, but the safes he cracks aren’t just safes, they’re living creatures that people store things inside (and maul people if they set off the alarm). Weapons aren’t necessarily objects; they can be animals (disgruntled animals complaining about their lives, wryly evoking The Flintstones).

But while the setting is essential to conveying orc society, it is Stokoe’s art that binds the package into a cohesive unit. The biological components of orcish culture feel like they’d be at home in a Johji Manabe series, and the artistic tone carries the same heightened surreality as the better fantasy stories from the early days of Heavy Metal. It’s the colouring that allows the book to shine, however. Beyond bright, Orc Stain is out-and-out garish, using a pallette which suggests nothing so much as bruising and unhealthy bodily fluids. It’s a comic which refuses to let itself fade into the background. It demands your constant attention and once it has it, it cements its hold over you with Stokoe’s Geoff Darrow-esque devotion to minutia. Never content to render backgrounds with a few airy lines, Stokoe continually bombards the reader with hyper-realized deep focus pieces, many of them double-page spreads.

And while I haven’t put much weight on it thus far, Orc Stain‘s story is simple but flows well. It would be more enjoyable for you to discover on your own than it would be for me to describe it, but here’s some hints: BETRAYALS! VENDETTAS! CONQUEST! WITCHES! and PROPHECIES! The action scenes are fast-paced and compelling, the talky scenes are informative, and as a whole it’s cleverly executed.

Through the combination of its writing, the originality of the world, and the uniqueness of Stokoe’s art, Orc Stain has established itself as essential reading for fantasy fans and put paid to the idea that orcs as a cohesive race are nothing more than arrow and axe fodder for elves and dwarves. It will also fill you in on everything you ever wanted to know about orc gronches but were afraid to ask. Yes, they’re exactly what you think they are.

Read the first chapter of ORC STAIN free online at: