Feature: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Reviews 

Mignolaversity: “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” Omnibus

By and | June 3rd, 2024
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

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We’re looking back at a classic today, Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola’s 1991 adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, as well as the 1973 adaptations, collection together in a new omnibus from Dark Horse Comics. Just so you know, there are a few spoilers ahead.

Cover by Mike Mignola
with Dave Stewart
Created by Fritz Leiber
Written by Howard Chaykin (1991); Dennis O’Neil, and George Alec Effinger (1973)
Penciled by Mike Mignola (1991); Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Jim Starlin (1973)
Inked by Al Williamson (1991); Howard Chaykin, Crusty Bunkers, Walter Simonson, and Al Milgrom (1973)
Colored by Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh (1991)
Lettered by Bill Oakley and Michael Heisler (1991)

Fritz Leiber ranks among the giants of fantasy and science fiction visionaries, capturing multiple Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards and influencing a generation of writers. And his most renowned creations are the swashbuckling Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Collected here are adaptations of some of the finest of these tales—including the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning “Ill Met in Lankhmar”—by comics legends Howard Chaykin, Mike Mignola, Dennis O’Neil, Al Williamson, and more. Join the hulking barbarian and the diminutive rogue as they battle swordsmen, necromancers, and flagons of strong drink!

Mark Tweedale: This omnibus collects two distinct adaptations of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The first is the 1991 adaptation written by Howard Chaykin and drawn by Mike Mignola, originally published by Epic Comics. The second is the 1973 adaptation primarily written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Howard Chaykin, originally published by DC. The book opens with an introduction from Howard Chaykin in which he discusses how he came aboard the ’91 adaptation in part because he wanted to do it properly, feeling that the ’73 version missed the mark.

Upon reading this, I decided to buck the order this collection presents the stories, choosing to start with the ’73 material instead. And I can see why Dark Horse chose to collect them this way. Mike Mignola describes his work on “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” as the best thing he did prior to “Hellboy,” and I’d wager most readers are picking up this collection for the ’91 adaptation, so Dark Horse is just simply putting its best foot forward. That said, I’m glad I read the stories the other way around. There’s something fascinating about seeing the evolution of these characters in comics, the commonalities between these two eras and the stark differences.

Greg Matiasevich: Fascinating is right. The marketplaces these comics were made for could hardly be more different to each other, and having them share the same characters and basic setting makes comparing and contrasting a really fun exercise. The 1973 comics were published on newsstands and in drug stores as another attempt by DC to expand their line beyond superheroes, but they still had cape comics DNA. Fafhrd and Mouser’s clothes, for example, are treated like superhero costumes, staying the same from issue-to-issue for easy identification. Mouser’s clothes obviously have to be gray colored. Marvel’s contemporaneous “Conan the Barbarian” series kicked off the comics’ sword-and-sorcery craze these comics were literally named after, and their scripts lean into Roy Thomas’s territory of making you feel like you’re reading the prose stories AND a comic simultaneously. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find them fun at times (particularly the two Walt Simonson issues), but Chaykin isn’t wrong when he says they missed the mark, and I think the constraints of their publishing era had a lot to do with that.

Fast forward almost twenty years and it’s a completely different story—even when adapting the same story! Marvel/Epic knew these comics were going straight to specialty shops (and possibly some type of collection) so they released them as four “prestige format” issues with better paper stock and color reproduction (think “The Dark Knight Returns” format).

They saw this as the “peak TV” of fantasy comics at the time, so they cast a creative team that could pull off such a feat, and got the hell out of their way. From giving Mignola the space to play with mood and pacing, to giving Van Valkenburgh a format better suited for her less saturated color choices, to a whole host of other reasons we’ll surely get to in a second, I agree these later adaptations are the best foot forward for these stories.

Continued below

Mark: Going into this collection, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is how it has so much stuff that’s typical of Mignola and also so much that’s not. And that makes sense, since Fritz Leiber is one of Mignola’s influences on his “Hellboy” work, so when you look at ‘The Howling Tower’ on just a plot level, it feels like Mignola’s kind of material. But it’s also so much chattier than anything Mignola’s done since ‘Seed of Destruction.’ I actually really enjoyed seeing how his art played off Leiber and Chaykin’s dialogue. There’s a necessary playfulness to it.

It’s definitely a shift from the dialogue in the ’73 version, which seemingly kept the protracted qualities of the prose while exorcizing much of Leiber’s humor. In the case of Leiber’s “The Price of Pain-Ease,” the story was adapted in both 1973 and 1991, so there are the same plot beats in both, and comparing them we can really see the drastically different focus. Take this scene, when Fafhrd and Mouser see one of Duke Danius’s houses. . .

That panel from the ’73 version is literally the only external view of the building we ever see and it’s buried in the panel’s composition. Without the dialogue, its significance can’t be read through the imagery. In the ’91 version, the house is showcased. The panels with Fafhrd and Mouser emphasize shadows, it puts them behind bars, there’s a stark color contrast between their panels and the panel with the house—they are of different worlds. The pertinent plot points and character beats read even without dialogue.

But then if we take a macro view of the story, while the essential plot beats are all there, the ’73 version removed the character motivations. Things happen, but they read like a disconnected string of events. When Fafhrd and Mouser start fighting each other in the final sequence, it feels like ten-year-old kids fighting for the fun of it, because that’s the game they’re currently playing. And when Duke Danius shows up, it’s just a coincidence that it’s the guy whose place they were squatting in. “The Price of Pain-Ease” is about death and it culminates with all the central characters fighting over Death’s mask, but the ’73 adaptation removes anything relating to death other than the mask itself, essentially turning it into a MacGuffin instead of a focal object connected to the story’s primary themes.

The ’91 version, clearly written for a more mature audience, doesn’t have to jettison the story’s mature themes. I feel it’s the kind of adaptation the ’73 version would not have been allowed to be.

Greg: Going back to your Mignola/Leiber comment, I think Mignola (and Chaykin) was such an fan of Leiber because his approach to fantasy mirrored both of their own tendencies to mix it with other genres, or at least not lose oneself in the otherworldliness of the thing. Chaykin mentions as much in his introduction, that Leiber gave Fahfrd and Mouser stories the zip and zing of noir fiction completely missing from the Robert E. Howard vein of fantasy. So when adapting these stories in ’73 for a “Conan”-influenced market, that incongruity would obviously be the first thing to go.

And since this was aimed at a younger audience, it doesn’t surprise me too much that the whole being-haunted-by-ghosts-of-former-lovers thing was dropped. Although given Fahfrd’s on-panel “love ’em and leave ’em” admission, maybe O’Neil dropped it as much for being too much of a backstory complication for these two characters’ first appearance?

The ’73 version of “The Price of Pain-Ease” isn’t bad, necessarily, but the ’91 just feels like a more measured story. With the plot point of their lost loves added back in, combined with more page real estate to work with, Chaykin and Mignola get to show us Fahfrd and Mouser’s character differences and similarities in how they deal with those visitations through parallel narrative beats, which I very much enjoyed.

Mark: That wasn’t just a nice bit of storytelling, but a great way to show character through similarities and contrasts.

Greg:Overall, I feel the ’91 series gives the reader more story pieces for them to get satisfaction putting together themselves, whereas the ’73 was just giving readers a finished product. Sure the latter would be fun to have, the former is more fun in the long run because you built the experience yourself from better pieces. Does that make any sense? (Also, the ’91 version has them stealing a house. Stealing, as in removing from one location and taking to another something that is not yours, AN ENTIRE HOUSE! Fantastic; no notes.)

Continued below

Mark: I totally agree. If the reader hadn’t figured out the tone the series was going for by that point, stealing an entire house really hammers it home. And, of course, you’re absolutely correct about how the ’73 version has to function as if every issue is someone’s first issue. The stories stand completely alone with virtually no connective tissue.

That said, I like how the ’91 version can reference itself to show change. Mouser and Fafhrd are allowed to change their clothes… or even remove them—Mouser can do a scene without any pants. And we’re also allowed to revisit the familiar locations in Lankhmar, and thanks to Mignola using the same panel compositions, the reader experiences that familiarity right alongside our leads. The city has a real presence in the story, with different parts having distinct characters.

The second panel emphasizing Vlana’s absence years later

Greg: Not to suggest he’s lost a step or anything, but do you think 2024 Mignola would be able to sell Lankhmar-as-distinct-setting as well as 1991 Mignola does? The younger artist feels set on delineating and establishing, whereas present-day Mignola is more comfortable suggesting and inferring. It may be busier and less striking, but it gives me as a reader more to sink my teeth into, visually.

Around the water cooler, I refer to this era where I discovered him as “round Mignola” (as opposed to “square Mignola” of Hellboy onwards) because his figures are still doughy and less geometric than they will become. That said, I can see some of those lines tightening up here, which makes sense given where this is in his career.

I don’t think one version is objectively better than the other, but I do miss (and maybe prefer) a Mignola who uses shadows and blacks as accents and highlights of a more rendered panel than the opposite approach. You never forget your first love, I guess. . .

Mark: I don’t think it’s a question of being able, but being interested. These days Mignola gravitates towards environments that stem from the protagonist’s mental state, and it changes as they change. Perhaps modern Mignola would draw two different Lankhmars, one before the death of Fafhrd and Mouser’s lovers and another after, perhaps even a third after they’ve come to terms with it and begin to embrace the city again.

I wanted to point out Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s coloring in establishing Lankhmar’s identity too. When they wander into one of the richer districts, the color shift is striking, with everything bathed in golden light.

The brighter areas of the cheaper districts never look like this; they muddy the light with oranges and browns, giving it a murky quality. You can see this when they meet the Grandmaster of the Thieves Guild, a figure that has a higher social status, but is still essentially down in the mud with them. The only other time we see this kind of unspoiled light in the cheaper districts is when Fafhrd and Mouser are together with Vlana and Ivrian in Mouser’s home.

And then look in ‘Bazaar of the Bizarre,’ where the upper class come into a lower class district—their costuming and body language still sets them apart, but they bring none of that light golden light with them. In this case, the golden light is reserved for the trinkets on sale by the Devourers. Note how at first this light has bits of green, giving it a slightly sickly quality, hinting that something is wrong, but that disappears as Mouser falls under the Devourers’ sway. Later, with truesight, Fafhrd sees everything bathed in murky greens. I like that this color language was developed over prior stories and then brought to the foreground for ‘Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ I feel everyone working on these stories was thinking about how each part serves the whole.

Greg: Even after everything we’ve mentioned up until now about Mignola and Chaykin, I think a real case can be made for Van Valkenburgh benefitting the most when it comes to producing these comics in 1991 versus 1973. The improvement in printing techniques and faithful reproduction meant she wasn’t limited to the 64-color palette used for the earlier stories. She could have pulled off a simpler version of the high society / low society color coding before 1991, but here she’s able to use a much wider range of subtler tones to not hit the reader over the head with it.

Continued below

The coloring technique used here (the specific name of which escapes me at the moment) also allows for a lighter application of colors. For just a few examples from “Bazaar” specifically: the building stones of Lankhmar have a reddish tone occasionally brushed over their gray-greenish base, and close-ups of faces show complexions of more than one monotone color (page 134, panel 4, on Fafhrd for example).

Mark: Oh, yes! I vividly remember a moment in ‘The Howling Tower’ when Gray Mouser is out in the elements and the way Van Valkenburgh colored it, you could feel the biting cold on his face. It was beautifully done.

But also, her colors can move in subtle ways that weren’t possible in ’73. There are scenes where the palette shifts from palette to another, but panel to panel that shift is virtually invisible, so you feel its effect rather than consciously notice it.

Greg: She went on to do some work for DC (Vertigo and Milestone) after this stint at Marvel/Epic, the last of which looks like it came out in 1996. It’s a real shame she wasn’t part of the Mignolaverse crew because her work, and how she handles Mignola’s linework specifically, can absolutely stand toe-to-toe with Hollingsworth or Stewart.

Mark: I agree. Her work in this collection is nothing less than an absolute pleasure to read. That said, the way the colors of the ’73 version are presented in this collection really don’t show the colors at their best. If you’ve seen Michel Gagné’s restorations of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s work for Fantagraphics, then you know how much better these can look. That kind of restoration is time consuming, though. If you haven’t read it, I recommend checking out “Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics” if you want to see what I consider the gold standard of color restoration.

Greg: Indeed.

Mark: In his afterword, Mignola describes ‘Lean Times in Lankhmar’ as being the story with “the least fantasy and was the hardest to draw.” It also strikes me as the one that would’ve been hardest to adapt; the story has these two clashing religions, both with their own histories and structures it needs to communicate, and in prose that material is presented with direct exposition but delivered with humor. As a comic, there isn’t really room for much of that, so it’s largely implied and what does make it across ends up reading drier in its truncated state.

I read the comic first, and there were moments that I thought were added by Chaykin to inject some fun into the story, but I was surprised to discover these were faithfully adapted from the prose (such as Mouser and Fafhrd arguing about the spelling of Fafhrd’s name; a scene that’s a good example of the kind of humor woven through the original’s exposition). ‘Lean Times in Lankhmar’ is certainly a silly story, but its prose version is sillier.


Mark: So much of what’s literally happening is just characters either talking to each other or preaching at them, and often surrounded by crowds, so it ends up being the least interesting story visually.

Greg: There were some bits I enjoyed: Mignola showing the improvement of Bwadres/Issek’s fortune over time with the larger sign and cleaner, more elaborate clothes; the signage and iconography of the other religions competing for street space & attention; throwing in some real-world religious iconography during Gray Mouser’s talk with Pulg. But I can definitely see “Lean Times” being the hardest to pull off without that extra tool of third-person narration, although I do think they were ultimately successful.

Mark: All of that being said, this kind of makes the following story, ‘When the Sea King’s Away. . .’ read even bigger. After perhaps struggling a bit with ‘Lean Times,’ Mignola cuts loose with this final story. You can really tell this is the artist that would later go on to create “Hellboy: The Third Wish,” but also you can tell Mignola’s just come off drawing a whole lot of crowds and talking heads and was thrilled to draw an octopus fighting with a sword held aloft in each tentacle.

Continued below

Greg: As much as he’s mentioned ‘Sanctum’ (from “Legends of the Dark Knight” #54) as a prototypical Hellboy story, I think you could for sure slot ‘Sea King’ as another touchstone Mignola kept going back to for the type of comic he wanted “Hellboy” to be. Mood, beauty, fantasy, Kirby-esque action. . . And this isn’t even accounting for the Abe Sapien / merpeople similarity that I think is just coincidental.

Mark: Oh, for sure, especially after Hellboy left the Bureau at the end of ‘Conqueror Worm.’ There’s a change in the comic from then on that definitely draws from things like ‘Sea King.’

Greg: I know it’s not quite the same thing because it most likely has more narrative purpose I’m just not seeing, but panel 6 on page 191 of the omnibus (the two merwomen) has the same feel as a classic Mignola ‘insert’/silent/mood panel that he can just drop into a story to make it his own.

I can’t think of a reason it HAS to be there per se (it’s not showing the setting collapse like panel 5) but it’s such a Mignola thing to be there as a beat or moment. Am I reading too much into that?

Mark: No, not at all. It’s the sort of flourish that makes the moment feel so big. As the water crashes down, these two stay still, silently watching. It’s the sort of beat that injects an otherworldly quality into the action.

Greg: Exactly.

Mark: I have to say, after reading the prose stories, it made me appreciate Chaykin and Mignola’s adaptation of them even more. Chaykin was very dissatisfied with the 1970s version, so when he got another crack at the series, he clearly wanted to do it right. The care is evident on the page and, yes, this is absolutely Fafhrd and Gray Mouser adapted to comics right. In many ways Mignola’s art is a perfect match since it initially reads as serious and dark, and so many sequences hinge on atmosphere, but it’s capable of swinging into cartoonish material too while still feeling like the same comic. The charm of the prose is so much in its humor, something that can really feel wrong if the tone isn’t just right in an adaptation, and the tone is what Chaykin and Mignola get so wonderfully right.

Greg: There’s a difference between adaptation and transliteration. Anyone looking for a 1-to-1 illustration and accounting for every word of Leiber’s prose is going to be sorely disappointed. But I agree wholeheartedly that these Chaykin/Mignola comics specifically are the best type of adaptation a Leiber fan could hope for—they excel as comics in their own right, and they embody as much of the Leiber source material as possible, including the humor and tone. Those two things are usually the hardest parts of a story to move from one medium to another, but these creators did it. This is a wonderful companion to the Leiber prose stories.

Mark: Companion is a great way of phrasing it. If you haven’t read the original stories, ideally this book should send you hunting for them.

Greg: Absolutely. Thanks a ton for giving me the opportunity to revisit these fantastic comics, and bump those prose stories back up to the top of my “To Read” list!

//TAGS | Mignolaversity

Greg Matiasevich

Greg Matiasevich has read enough author bios that he should be better at coming up with one for himself, yet surprisingly isn't. However, the years of comic reading his parents said would never pay off obviously have, so we'll cut him some slack on that. He lives in Baltimore, co-hosts (with Mike Romeo) the Robots From Tomorrow podcast, writes Multiversity's monthly Shelf Bound column dedicated to comics binding, and can be followed on Twitter at @GregMatiasevich.


Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on BlueSky.


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