If there is any objection to be made, it is in the sheer number of characters. An entire orc warband is named, though fortunately only a few are important enough to need to keep track of. In this, though, the character design excels. Each orc has a distinctive facial shape which easily seperates them from the other orcs, even though they are all clearly similar creatures. The distinctive faces are extremely helpful to the reader, and they are very expressive, easily getting across the pain, anger or (rarely) happiness that each character feels.
The tone of the work is as dark as the shadowy artwork might suggest. It is a very unglamorous look at war. Battles are slaughters, with almost no extended clashes or duels: a single opening is death, and the orcs are simply better at killing than most of the people they meet. They are savage, but not much more than anyone else in the comic. The comic takes place in the midst of a long and bloody war between two religious groups, neither of which is particularly nice. There are the “Unis”, a group of monotheist humans led by a very Puritan fellow who preaches putting even women and children to the sword so that they don’t doom the next generation to heresy. And then there are the “Manis”, polytheists apparently led by a woman who routinely rips people’s hearts out and believes the word ‘mercy’ is meaningless. The orcs fight on the side of the Manis, as do many other nonhumans, called the Elder Races, but they don’t seem to enjoy it much.
Indeed, their status as grunts with little stake in the outcome of the war and little say in anything is a strong part of what makes them work so well. They are brutal fighters, more than capable of driving an axe through a man’s skull and more than happy to do it, but they aren’t anywhere near as nasty as their leaders. They care for each other (barring interpersonal troubles), are kinder than quite a lot of the people around them when not in battle and at least seem to realize that the war is increasingly pointless. But they’re just the grunts, so they can’t stop it and they can’t stop fighting. All they can do is obey their orders, because that’s what orcs do.
Now, not everything is perfect. it is never really explained how certain things work. For example, it’s never entirely clear why the Manis’ sorceress leader rips out hearts in bizarre half-naked rituals. However, these facts are easily ignored--they’re not vital to the story, and anything that is vital is generally explained by what is going on or, at worst, a small narration box. There are one or two scenes that don’t seem, on first glance, to fit as well into the story, but they don’t interrupt the story’s flow and are interesting enough to not be a bother despite feeling a little out of place.
TL;DR I highly recommend Orcs: Forged For War to any fan of the Orcs book series, as well as to anyone interested in a dark and savage world from a grunt’s view. There are some flaws, but the amazing art and strong sense of mood carry the work easily despite them.
Orcs: Forged For War is based on the Orcs series by Stan Nicholls with art by Joe Flood and published by First Second Books. You can pick it up at your local comic book shop or support Spandexless by buying it in our web store.
A review copy of Orcs: Forged For War was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.
Joshua Krutt has a degree in General Studies with a focus in Information Science and Anthropology, and is looking to get a degree on Library Science. This translates, roughly, to “enjoys researching things too much.” He’s a fan of comics (usually webcomics) and graphic novels. He is also a fan of tabletop RPGs. He hopes to one day be an author of some kind; he’s not picky about the industry.