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Can Vermithrax Pejorative, a great dragon from a non-great dragon movie, make a dragon comic great? – Marvel Super Special #20, “Dragonslayer”

March 9, 2013

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A number of years ago I was over at a friend’s house and he and I were going through his DVDs, deciding which we’d watch as we guzzled a case of beer. I found one that was still in the plastic wrapping: Reign of Fire. “How come this one isn’t open?” I asked. “Just haven’t got around to watching it,” he answered. There followed a discussion on the checkered history of dragon movies, a genre with plentiful lows and scant, negligible narrative highs. We both agreed that neither one of us had ever seen a great dragon movie. So we popped in that Reign of Fire DVD, a fresh field for both of us, and settled into comfy chairs to swill brews and eat crap, each hoping against hope that we would be transported by the dragon-battling hijinks of pre-Batman Christian Bale and post-playing-bongos-while-naked-high-and-sweaty Matthew McConaughey.

My friend passed out half-way through — whether from boredom, booze, or over-consumption of nacho cheese, I never knew. I made it all the way to the roll of the credits. And at the end of that day, we had still never seen a great dragon movie.

The point of this wandering opening — other than to zing the underwhelming Reign ten years on — is that dragons are rarely done right. Which, by implication, sweeps 1981’s Dragonslayer into that dismissal.

But this isn’t to say that Dragonslayer doesn’t have a good dragon. In fact, its dragon borders on the spectacular. The improbably and gloriously named Vermithrax Pejorative (I mean, really) looks great and moves great in that old-timey stop-motion sort of way, and the life-sized models, with rubber and air bladders and multiple controllers, give her a degree of reality because — guess what? — they’re real. When she rears up to breathe/belch/vomit fire, it looks like a biological function of this dreadful species. Her tremendous reveal in her lake of fire lair plays beautifully, whether accompanied by dopey music or not. And it needs to be said again: her name is Vermithrax Pejorative. Is there an Oscar for best name? Shouldn’t there be?

Yet the movie around her isn’t all that. Peter MacNicol, though capable (and made famous by his odd Ghostbusters II museum curator), is too small a peg on which to hang sweeping fantasy. Stage actress Caitlin Clarke is pretty, medieval page boy hairstyle and all, but she’s not enough to raise the romance beyond the genre mean. Ralph Richardson, bless him, isn’t Alec Guinness. And Dragonslayer lacks that final, determining mark of greatness: being greater than the sum of its parts. It has a great dragon, but it’s not a great dragon movie. Yes, in the years since its release, Dragonslayer has accrued that hard to define, harder to predict “cult classic” moniker. Yes, the film makes some bold moves, including the death of one character — one kind of character — that you don’t see all that much in fantasy. It was edgy for a Disney film. People who like the genre seem to go for it. Hell, I we all have our weaknesses — I love Krull for God’s sake. But no amount of amulets, dead mentors or imperilled princesses can pull Dragonslayer up.

Dragonslayer is not considered great in this dojo.

But Vermithrax. Dear, sweet Vermithrax. She’s magnificent. Which begs the question as we look at her through our comic book prism: Is she as beautiful on the page as she is in motion?

The Marvel Super Special adaptation of Dragonslayer, scripted by Denny O’Neil, pencilled (and colored) by Marie Severin and inked by John Tartaglione, follows most of the film’s beats, and is heavy on the Pejorative. Which is good, because GAH HERE SHE IS:

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For those unfamiliar with the plot, here’s the Cliffs Notes outline: There’s a kingdom where an uneasy truce exists between the people and a dragon. They provide her with human sacrifices (bound to a pole like Fay Wray in King Kong) chosen by lottery, and in return she doesn’t roast villages (normally). A square deal. A wizard’s assistant, a young man named Galen, takes up his master’s mantle when the latter suddenly dies, and resolves to put a stop to this never-ending cycle of death by chance. Along the way he’s aided by Valerian, a young woman masquerading as a young man, and he’s opposed by the king and others clinging to the status quo. Things go all haywire about halfway through, and all agreements, and many enmities, go out the window.

When Galen enters Vermithrax’s realm, he finds her brood, which he immediately hacks up with the special spear that gives the whole enterprise its name. And that leads to this:

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Let’s review: this punk mucks up an agreement bargained long before (granted, under duress), invades Vermithrax’s lair, skewers her kids, and, for the cherry on top, hops onto her neck with murderous intent (Dracocide?). And we’re supposed to hate her? Even if we can ignore the fact that she’s the most compelling character in the whole story?

Ironically, the dragonslayer doesn’t do a lot of dragon slaying, and the film’s denouement features a back-from-the-dead return, which feels a bit like Ben Kenobi coming back at the end of Star Wars and, instead of being a voice in Luke’s head, delivering the Death Star coup de grace himself. It’s disappointing on film, and it’s disappointing on paper. And, unfortunately, it’s all to clear that a great dragon from the not great dragon movie cannot make a great dragon comic book.

Yet Vermithrax. She will never be forgotten. Her design, with a slim, wormy body, leather wings and horns and spines poking out all over, is the very definition of what this mythical, inarticulate beast should be. He body and face say it all. The artwork in the adaptation (which verges into garish Prince Valiant territory at times, abandoning the bleak Welsh greys of the film) doesn’t quite capture the Vermithrax’s majesty. Following the adaptation there are the usual behind the scenes articles, and, no surprise, much of the text here focuses on the dragon star, a mixture of model work and animation from the fine folks at Industrial Light & Magic — before computers and their generic CGI peeled the “special” from effects. This two-page spread, though dark and apparently shot through a purple washcloth (it’s actually easier to make out thanks to the bright light of a desktop scanner), represents the full majesty of the 1981 film’s practical effects dragon porn:

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The adaptation was also published both as two regular-sized comics and in the rarely used/defunct paperback novel format. The only selling point for any of them? Ms. Pejorative. A standard for dragon-lovers anywhere, her glorious name even found its way into the current onscreen standard-bearer for mythical fire-breathers, Game of Thrones. Though I’ve still yet to see a great dragon movie, thanks to Dragonslayer we’ve met perhaps the greatest movie dragon, and the Super Special at least renews the acquaintance.

Maybe Smaug will knock her off her throne this December, but the first Hobbit invites only skepticism on that count.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2014 5:54 pm

    I’ve seen the dragon Smaug on the new “Hobbit” movie and I must say I was a little disappointed, It looks too “animated” his neck seems too long, like a snake, it just looks too… civilized…. not rough and wild like a dragon should be, like the dragon in this movie “DragonSlayer”. Maybe in the sequel when we actually see Smaug attacking the town as oppose to just talking… we’ll see a Dragon worthy of it’s name. Call me a Purist but I don’t think a Dragon should talk or hoard gold, a Dragon is a beast, like a lion, who is good at only one thing, destroy towns and eat people…

  2. Warden of the North permalink
    February 10, 2014 9:20 pm

    Make I direct your attention to How to Train Your Dragon. Not the wild beast you are looking for but a great movie centered on dragons. Sapphira was pretty in eragon (great book terrible movie) I think you are right on Smaug. I get a nerdgasm from awesome dragons but he didn’t do it for me. If you want the beast you mentioned Game of Thrones, Drogon, though not fully grown, looks f****** bad*** in the upcoming season 4.

  3. Alberich permalink
    February 13, 2014 2:01 am

    I see both Smaug and Vermithrax walk with front feet attached to their wings, and maybe the one owes to the other. But I think this new Smaug compares well…the big thing is, he’s scary.

  4. Lindsey permalink
    June 29, 2016 6:45 pm

    To say that the 1981 movie Dragon Slayer was, “non-great”, is just low-brow and naive. The statement, non-great, places a facet of your taste in fantasy in an uneducated light. Did you know that George R. R. Martin cited Dragon Slayer as one of his top 10 favorite fantasy films? http://www.geeksofdoom.com/2011/04/16/game-of-thrones-author-george-r-r-martins-top-ten-favorite-fantasy-movies

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