STALKER – With the WITCHER series such a sensation right now, Balladeer’s Blog takes a look at the forgotten 1970s sword, sorcery and fantasy series called Stalker.
The art was by the legendary Steve Ditko and the story by Paul Levitz. In a time when comic book companies keep rebooting the same unpromising characters over and over I am amazed that DC Comics never gave this intriguing series a second chance.
First off, a lame joke – Who DOESN’T love a sword they could pole-vault with? That baby is ridiculously out-of-proportion yet awesome at the same time.
Sometimes I wish Stalker’s sword really HAD been that big in the actual stories, but he’d have needed to carry it in a sheath slung across his back. If he kept it in a sheath attached to a belt around his waist it would be dragging on the ground behind him everywhere he walked. Anyway, on to the story – ALL FOUR PARTS ARE COVERED BELOW.
The Premise: In a fictional world as filled with fantastic beings and mind-bending geography as anything from Conan the Barbarian, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones a nameless warrior called Stalker tries to recover his stolen soul from the demonic warrior-god Dgrth. The narration tells us this is “a war that will rend a world from its gods,” really drawing us in.
STALKER #1 (July 1975)
Title: QUEST FOR A STOLEN SOUL
Synopsis: The story opens at Castle Loranth as Stalker uses all the preternatural skills that the god Dgrth has granted him to get past the walls and kill the guards. Our red-eyed hero penetrates to the hall where Baroness Loranth is holding a grand feast and hurls a knife at her chair. Attached to the knife is a note telling her that one year and one day hence Stalker will kill her as revenge for the wrongs she did to him in the past.
While the evil Baroness ponders the note a flashback shows us Stalker’s brutal life story: Thrown out by his vile drunken father as a child, the nameless boy had to raise himself in the streets. Just to survive he fought this world’s wild dogs and large rats for food and drink, then as he aged he learned to support himself as a thief.
A few years before our story’s present-day, the young man approached the Baroness’ palanquin as it was carried through the streets and offered to serve her as a knight if her soldiers would train him in the arts of war. The villainess pretended to accept his offer, then used him as a slave at Castle Loranth.
Eventually the young man objected to Baroness Loranth about this and the haughty aristocrat ordered her one-eyed slave-master to take him away for a whipping. Our hero escaped from him and fled the castle.
A week later he reached his home town of Geranth and entered a temple of the warrior-god Dgrth, master of demons. Giving an offering to the god succeeded in summoning him. Dgrth agreed to grant Stalker supernatural strength, stealth and skill with all weaponry in exchange for his soul.
Our protagonist agreed, assuming his debt would be paid after his eventual death. Dgrth double-crossed him by taking his soul immediately, leaving Stalker as a red-eyed, soulless but sentient warrior.
The flashback ends. Stalker is still in Castle Loranth pondering the anguish and torment the Baroness will feel over the next year and a day as she awaits his return. Our hero leaves the castle after killing the one-eyed slave-master.
While riding away, Stalker realizes that without his soul he cannot feel any joy or relief or spiteful satisfaction from his actions this night. Feeling that this is not the kind of emotionless existence he bargained for he resolves to take back his soul.
Galloping into Loranth Town, Stalker enters the local temple to Dgrth and demands that the priest grant him an audience with the evil god. Since Dgrth and his priests still assume that Stalker is a willing servant of the god, the priest states he has been ordered to aid the soulless warrior in any way that he can.
He tells our hero that the only priest of Dgrth who knows where the entrance to his Hellish domain is located is F’Lan. (The priest of Brazilian desserts? Had to be said.) F’Lan is the Prior of the Temple at World’s End Sea.
When the priest of the Loranth Town temple insists that he has no way of summoning Dgrth if the god does not wish to appear, Stalker attacks the man. The pair battle with cudgeling staffs on a sword-shaped narrow bridge over a pit of flames.
The warrior’s superior abilities make him triumphant, and as he knocks the priest to his death in the flames below he tells him that when he gets to Hell he is to inform Dgrth he is coming to take back his soul. Leaving the temple, Stalker rides off for World’s End Sea, the next stop on his quest.
STALKER #2 (September 1975)
Title: DARKLING DEATH AT WORLD’S END SEA
Synopsis: With the basics laid out, the remaining synopses will go much faster. After a ride of a few days, Stalker and his white horse have reached World’s End Sea. This fantastic site is literally the edge of the world, where all of this planet’s seas meet and pour over a waterfall into oblivion … or worse.
The sun rises from the chasm into which the waters disappear. Before the mounted Stalker lies a massive fallen tree, its further end lying on the small island on which stands the local temple to Dgrth. This crude makeshift bridge is decorated from end to end with skulls and bones.
As our hero rides his horse across, the stallion’s hoof strikes a gem embedded in the tree-bridge, unleashing a red-skinned, four-armed humanoid monster. This figure announces itself as the guardian of the bridge and attacks Stalker, a sword in each of its four hands.
The red-eyed warrior dismounts and defeats the creature, which claims it has guarded the bridge for a thousand years. Stalker sends it falling into the waters below, where the current carries it over the edge of the waterfall into infinity. Again, our protagonist reflects on how he feels nothing, not even a minor sense of triumph, since he lacks a soul.
Stalker rides the rest of the way across the bridge to the island and makes his way through the forest. After killing a large snake he skulks along behind a procession of Dgrth worshipers, consisting of robed monks, armored warriors, lecherous bald dwarves and beautiful bound women who are in store for who knows what.
Picking off a straggling monk, Stalker dons his robes and, thus disguised, follows the procession into the island’s temple. F’Lan, the Prior of this temple, arrives to conduct a mass. Our hero watches the dark ritual unfold, planning to catch F’Lan alone after it ends.
When the unholy mass reaches its version of “communion,” in which the worshipers all cut their arms and pour some of their blood into goblets to be drunk, Stalker’s presence is detected. F’Lan, whose eyes are as pure white as Stalker’s are pure red, notes that our hero bears “the mark of Dgrth” and prevents his men from attacking the intruder.
We readers learn that Stalker is just one of many such soulless warriors that Dgrth is creating, planning to eventually use them as a united host against the worshipers of his rival gods. Since these soulless warriors will know that nothing but eternal suffering awaits them after death they will fight with unmatched ferocity, just to prolong their lives, emotionless as their existence may be.
Stalker disabuses F’Lan of the notion that they both still serve the dark god, demanding to know where he can find the entrance to Dgrth’s hellish domain. The Prior sics his warriors on our hero and after a lengthy battle, sheer numbers tell the tale as Stalker is knocked out and imprisoned.
Not wanting to kill one of Dgrth’s future army without permission, F’Lan consults with the warrior-god overnight and learns that Stalker is now opposing Dgrth. The soulless man is condemned to die at dawn as a ritual sacrifice.
Stalker learns this from a beautiful blonde captive named Merilla. She was brought to the temple for unmentionable reasons and, after seeing Stalker fight F’Lan’s army, figures he’s her best chance for escape. She slips our hero a knife through the bars of his cell window, a knife presumably taken from a Dgrth worshiper after his antics with the woman.
At sunrise Stalker is taken out to be carved up and sacrificed to Dgrth. Our hero surprises F’Lan, the monks and the armored guards by having a knife and escapes them. Ultimately he reenters the temple, kills off more guards and reaches Merilla, who is facing torture by the enraged Prior since he figures she must be who armed Stalker.
The red-eyed warrior frees Merilla, learns the location of the entrance to Dgrth’s domain from F’Lan, then straps the Prior to his own torture wheel and sets it spinning for all eternity.
With no soul, Stalker cannot even be impressed with Merilla’s charms, so he passes up her offer to run away with him and sends her off on his horse. He boards a boat from the temple and sets sail for the entrance to Dgrth’s realm at a place called the Burning Isle.
STALKER #3 (November 1975)
Title: THE FREEZING FLAMES OF THE BURNING ISLE
Story: No matter what the cover says, the REAL title is above. At any rate Stalker, in his one-man sailboat, has left the World’s End Sea behind him and has entered the frigid waters of the Frozen Sea (Called the Sea of Ice on the map above) on his way to the Burning Isle. From his personal Hell, Dgrth watches our hero on his large mystic crystal and laughs.
The dark god conjures up a massive storm which tosses the boat around and sends down lightning bolts from coal-black clouds. The fearless Stalker sails on, so Dgrth unleashes a winged female monstrosity against him. In the resulting battle, the soulless man is knocked overboard and eventually makes it to a cold, snowy beach on the Burning Isle.
In another nice touch this island is in a cold sea littered with icebergs. Its beaches and mountains are covered with snow but at the very center of the island a smouldering volcano towers over everything. It is the only warm spot on the isle but provides enough heat for a little bit of plant life and berries to thrive.
On the beach the exhausted Stalker is awakened by a beautiful brunette calling herself Srani. She says she was accused of witchcraft by the people of Stalker’s home town of Geranth and exiled to the Burning Isle. She has been there for a year, living on the berries and drinking melted snow.
The ship she arrived in is in a lagoon filled with many-headed sea serpents which will kill her if she tries to sail away from this place of exile. Sword in hand, our hero boards her vessel and meets the sea serpents in battle, ultimately slaying them all.
Stalker tells Srani to take the boat and leave while he continues searching the island for the gateway to Hell. Having seen him slay the army of sea serpents single-handed, the woman believes him to be a god in human form and vows devotion to him. She will stay with him as his guide, since she knows the island so well from her year spent on it.
Srani leads Stalker up to a crumbling castle at the mouth of the volcano. The pair enter and as they make their way through it they are eventually attacked by another monster sent by the still-watching Dgrth. The red-eyed hero manages to slay this creature, too, by breaking its spine.
Stalker and Srani’s exploration of the ancient castle ultimately leads them to elaborate wall-art. These works reveal to them that Dgrth and their world’s other gods are actually powerful entities from another planet.
They arrived on “ships without sails which traveled the skies” (space-ships) and fell from the heavens long ago. Ancient Wise Men and Women managed, after untold centuries, to comprehend the sorcery of the gods. Using their own weapons against them, those ancient Wise Ones drove the gods into exile through the gate at the core of this castle.
Dgrth was condemned by his fellow deities to guard the gateway forever, to prevent human beings from pursuing the gods any further. Dgrth’s domain is the hellish realm that serves as a buffer zone between the world of mortals and the dimension into which the gods retreated.
That’s why the demon-lord wanted an army of soulless warriors to use against the worshipers of his fellow gods, hoping to defeat them and free himself from his combined prison and kingdom.
At length, Stalker realizes that Srani is really the winged female monster which attacked him at sea and he is forced to slay her, then begins descending the miles-long staircase leading to Dgrth’s Hell.
STALKER #4 (January 1976)
Title: INVADE THE INFERNO
Synopsis: Stalker has reached the bottom of the eldritch staircase, where he approaches the cavern entrance to Dgrth’s realm. The Gates of Hell close behind him.
Guarding the way ahead is a three-headed purple-skinned humanoid demon. This unnamed guardian wields a sword in one hand and a barbed-wire whip in the other. In its pouch it carries burning Dust of Dragon’s Teeth which it can throw at our hero at will.
After an epic battle, Stalker outfights the demon and throws its Dust of Dragon’s Teeth into its eyes. All six eyes on the three heads burst into flames and, the narration tells us, will burn forever, so the former guardian will eternally be both blind AND in agony.
Suddenly an imp appears before Stalker and claims he will guide him through Hell to Dgrth’s forever-burning palace called Castle Carnage. Our hero walks along a roadway paved with the bones of past warriors who, like him, dared invade Dgrth’s realm while still alive, only to be slain.
The bones rise up to try to kill Stalker and add his skeletal remains to their numbers. Our hero fights his way along the roadway, ultimately using his sword to smash the skull providing the animating force to the living skeletons.
Next, from out of the surrounding flames of Hell writhes a fire-breathing red dragon with the head and black spots of a leopard but the horns and long, winding tail of a dragon. Stalker overcomes this menace as well when he figures out it is just an illusory form of the Imp and sheathes his sword. This was a test of courage.
Stalker angrily seizes the Imp by the throat and it admits its job is to lead him TO the perils of Hell, not around them. With his grip still on the Imp’s throat our hero vanishes into the white nothingness of Limbo. Stalker’s sheer determination to reach Castle Carnage lets him escape Limbo and arrive at the doorway to that castle.
The Imp tells the red-eyed warrior that he is now free to enter. Our hero shrewdly figures this is just another trap so he turns his back to the doorway and walks away, ignoring the Imp’s taunts of cowardice.
Stalker goes straight to another fabled spot in Hell – the moor in which dwell the souls of the Virtuous Dead: warriors whose purity of spirit keeps them from suffering in Dgrth’s realm. They have been waiting for the arrival of “the greatest warrior who ever lived” to shatter their bonds and lead them against the dark god.
Our protagonist figures HE is that warrior and, of course, he’s right. He frees the Virtuous Dead from the swamp and, mounting a white horse with a curved horn on its snout, leads them in a charge against Castle Carnage. If he had walked in alone when the Imp invited him he’d have immediately fallen to Dgrth and his demons.
The army being led by Stalker is composed of Virtuous Dead souls from thousands upon thousands of years. It includes soldiers who wielded futuristic ray-guns in the war to drive off the star-spawned gods, warriors who died in humanity’s own destructive wars that followed their defeat of the gods and soldiers from the post-apocalyptic wars which ultimately left the world in its current quasi-medieval state.
Dgrth now sends his own Hellish legions against Stalker and the Virtuous Dead warriors, to try to prevent them from reaching Castle Carnage. The battle goes on and on, with the demons giving way step by step until finally the battle is taking place right outside the warrior-god’s palace.
Leaving the two armies locked in combat, Stalker spurs his horned white horse through the flames that bar the doorway and rides in, ultimately standing before Dgrth on his throne. The red-eyed warrior demands that the dark god return his soul to him, preferring to return to wretched slavery but be complete, with all the joys and sorrows that a soul carries with it.
Dgrth, in his blood-red armor, tells Stalker that he would LOVE to, given how much trouble he has caused him … but he cannot. He is powerless to separate one soul from his metaphysical form and return it to its owner.
The only way he would ever disassemble, freeing all his captive souls, would be if there are no more human beings who worship him, pray to him and offer sacrifices to him.
Stalker, infuriated but still determined, accepts that challenge. He offers Dgrth a deal: if the dark god returns him to the world of mortals, that will free the spirits of the army of Virtuous Warriors to wherever their deserved spot in the “good” afterlife is, since they will no longer have a leader.
That will rid Dgrth’s domain of the rebellious army which he and his legions could never defeat nor be defeated by and his realm would be once more under his undisputed rule.
Dgrth does so, transporting Stalker back to the Burning Isle, outside the castle at the mouth of the volcano. The soulless warrior now vows to never rest until he has eradicated all worshipers of Dgrth’s evil from the world of mortals. If he succeeds, no matter how many years it takes, his soul will be loosed and will reenter his body.
*** This finishes the saga, since this is the last issue of Stalker. For whatever reason, it didn’t even last as long as DC’s own Claw or other 70s imitations of Conan and Kull and company. Even Atlas Comics’ Ironjaw and Wulf the Barbarian lasted longer.
With no choice but to wrap things up, writer Paul Levitz did as his editors told him, bringing things to an open ending which gave a small sense of closure while leaving the story open to continuation if DC ever gave Stalker a second chance.
For whatever reason, DC still hasn’t done that, over 40 years later. This boggles my mind, given the massive potential this series had. Since comic book companies often chase entertainment trends as surely as movie studios do, you would have thought Stalker would have been relaunched when the Lord of the Rings trilogy started to hit theaters, or when Game of Thrones was big on television.
It would have been nice to at least see what types of adventures Levitz had in mind for Stalker in the unvisited regions on the map above. What monsters might have lurked in the Cold Wastes, the Great Swamp and the Hill Country? How would The Man Without A Soul have survived in the Abode of Dragons? What horrors would he have faced along the Endless River or the Frozen River? Might he have battled Dgrth-worshiping caravan robbers terrorizing the designated Trade Route?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. +++
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.