by The Masked Bookwyrm

Conan reviews ~ page one

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"Know ye, O Prince...there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue marbles beneath the stars. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerean..."

The Chronicles of Conan, vol. 4: The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories 2003 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by Barry Windsor-SmithWritten by Roy Thomas. Pencils by Barry Smith, John Buscema. Inks by various.
Colours: various: Letters: various.

Reprinting: Conan #23-26, and the Conan story from Savage Tales #2 - with covers (originally published by Marvel Comics circa 1970s)

Based on the the character created by Robert E. Howard.

Additional notes: extensive afterward by Roy Thomas

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics has acquired the rights to the classic fantasy character, Conan, and is publishing a new monthly comic. In addition, though, they're in the midst of releasing a series of trade paperbacks collecting the Marvel Comics series that ran throughout the 1970s and 1980s. That's significant because, although Conan first saw life in a series of pulp stories written by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, and other writers added to the mythos in the 1960s and beyond, Marvel's comicbook was enormously influential, introducing the character and concepts to whole generations of readers.

The comic was comprised of a series of adaptations -- some faithful, some more loose -- of Conan stories and non-Conan stories by Howard (that were then re-written by Marvel to feature Conan) as well as some original tales, all penned, at least for the first hundred issues or so, by Roy Thomas. The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories reprints Marvel's Conan #23-26, as well as the epic adaptation of the Conan novella "Red Nails" that was originally published in the black & white magazine Savage Tales.

It had been a while since I'd read a Conan comic, but these issues were a lot of fun. Robustly written by Thomas, who had a nice feel for his surly anti-hero, the stories are interesting and exciting. I tended to think of Conan comics as featuring single issue stories or, at least, single stories serialized over a few issues, after which Conan would move on to a completely unrelated adventure somewhere else (like Howard's original stories, in which continuity was not a priority). But though each of these four issues of Conan's self-titled comic are relatively self-contained, with each featuring its own plot and conflict, they are also part of a larger story arc that climaxes in issue #26.

Conan, the mercenary, is a soldier in the besieged city of Makkalet which is caught in a religious war with its neighbour. The fact that these issues combine to form a story arc gives the stories a greater weight and depth (although, since it began a few issues prior to those featured in this collection, there are a few confusing bits, like Conan feeling the queen of the city tried to surreptitiously have him killed an issue or two before). It means that you get the usual Conan-esque adventures and battles with monsters and fellow warriors, but also the satisfaction of building to an epic climax -- and a cleverly ironic resolution.

As well, a couple of these issues are particularly significant because they introduced the character of Red Sonja who would go on to star in various versions of her own comic (like here), some paperback novels, and even a motion picture (the misconception is that Howard created Red Sonja, but the truth is Roy Thomas created her, albeit derived from some ideas by Howard). Because the stories in this book are a mix of loose adaptations and original ideas, even if you are familiar with the original Howard stories, you don't have to feel like you're just seeing a rehash of stories you've already read.

Thomas, perhaps reflecting his literary inspiration, is maybe a little too reliant on dense text captions, that, at times, simply describe what is being depicted in the pictures. I don't object to text captions -- but I feel they should supplement the pictures, not reiterate them. But, nonetheless, it does add a sophisticated, literary flavour to the comic. As well, Thomas' story arc has its share of machinations and enigmatic figures plotting oblique strategies. Often imitators of Howard forget that he was as into depicting Machiavellian strategies as much as bone crushing battles.

Thomas maybe also brings a welcome softer, more sentimental flavour to the milieu, such as his subtle depiction of the relationship between the king and queen.

The art chores are split between Barry Smith (later Barry Windsor-Smith), the original artist on the Conan comics, and John Buscema who became most associated with the character in the 1970s. To hear some critics talk, Smith was an unsurpassed artistic genius and the comic never recovered from Buscema -- even though, apparently, sales greatly improved during Buscema's run. I knew Smith's art from years later, all intricate detail and style, and from his earliest work, which was simpler and less impressive. I've liked Smith's later work -- but I'm not his biggest fan. And this middle period work is actually kind of problematic. Yes, he lavishes incredible detail upon his panels, depicting every flagstone in the street, and seeming every leaf on a bush. Yes, he could employ a lot of little panels to break down a scene (like contemporaneous wunderkind, Jim Steranko). And yes, it's interesting work.

But I'd argue Buscema was the better artist. His backgrounds aren't anywhere near as detailed, true, but his understanding of anatomy is definitely surer, his eye for composing a scene, milking it for its mood and drama, his flare for action, is all stronger than Smith's. His people are more expressive, more human, more three dimensional, and his women certainly more beautiful. Though, admittedly, he was still getting a feel for his main character here, and Conan looks a little too bulky and neckless in some panels.

I was glad this book represented both artists, because it was nice to see Windsor-Smith's much ballyhooed later Conan work after all these years (I'd only seen his earliest Conan comics) -- and it certainly has aspects to it that are impressive. But I'm glad for a couple of Buscema issues, because, as noted, I think he was just that much better. Ironically, Roy Thomas (in his afterward) reveals that Buscema was, apparently, unhappy with Ernie Chua (a.k.a. Ernie Chan) as inker -- despite the fact that Chan would continue to ink Buscema's Conan for years, and become as much associated with the comic as Buscema. It's true that Chan could certainly impose his style a little over Buscema's pencils, but I think the combination worked well.

Rounding out this collection is Thomas and Smith's epic "Red Nails" adaptation (over 50 pages). I'll admit I had a few reservations going into this, simply because I regard "Red Nails" as one of Howard's best Conan stories in its original form -- but, as such, I already knew the plot, and with my mixed feeling towards Smith's art, I couldn't help thinking the original text story was more moody and atmospheric (it's hard for an artist to capture the images that a writer can evoke in your mind) and Thomas' script, though faithful, I think likewise loses some of the bite and bizarreness inherent in Howard's original. Thomas also relies even more on text captions that simply describe a scene, robbing some of the immediacy from the story that a comic should have. As such, I'm not sure how to react to this. It's certainly O.K., and if you've never read the original, it probably reads better. But that's why I have qualms about a comic like this relying too heavily on adaptations, and why I prefer original stories -- because I can read the originals if I so desire.

The story was originally published in black and white in the non-Comics Code Savage Tales (though Marvel has reprinted it itself a couple of times). Dark Horse has chosen to colour it, which has both pros and cons (con being, wouldn't it be nice to see it as originally intended? -- likewise Dark Horse has re-coloured the colour comics utilizing modern, multi-hue colours). The story was also considered a little too extreme, in sex and violence, for the regular comic. But assuming Dark Horse has reprinted it without edits, it doesn't seem like much by today's standards.

The book wraps up with an afterward by Roy Thomas, which provides some interesting behind-the-scenes info.

Ultimately, the "Red Nails" story is seen as the centrepiece of this collection, but for me, the strongest part is the siege of Makkalet storyline from the regular comic. Either way though, this is an entertaining foray into the world a barbarians, sorcerers, and lost, pre-historic kingdoms.

Cover price:

Conan The Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth 1990 (SC GN) 62 pgs.

Written by Roy Thomas & Gerry Conway. Pencils by Mike Docherty. Inks Tony DeZuniga.
Colours: Tom Vincent. Letters: Phil Felix.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Suggested for mature readers

Additional notes: Marvel Graphic Novel #59; tabloid dimensions; introduction by Thomas & Conway.

Published by Marvel Comics

Number of readings: 1

reviewed: Aug. 2017

(This is kind of two reviews in one, as I end up contrasting this graphic novel with the Marvel adaptation of the movie Conan the Destroyer).

The backstory to this graphic novel is a bit unusual. Longtime comic scribes Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway had been commissioned to write a screenplay for the second Conan movie (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) which eventually became "Conan The Destroyer." But after a few rewrites and changes in the production team, the final-draft script was given to other hands (though Thomas & Conway retained story credit). Now a few years later back in comic-land, the thinking was it might be neat to bring Thomas & Conway's original script/vision to life in a graphic novel (Marvel had already adapted the finished film at the time of the movie's release). Or at least make it as close as they could since the limited page count would still require some rewriting.

So, in a sense, one could view this as the lost Director's Cut (or rather Writer's Cut) of "Conan the Destroyer" (years before Director's Cut DVDs were a thing I think!)

Unfortunarely, those looking for some lost classic come to life will be disappointed. This is, at best, a generic Conan romp -- nothing out of keeping with the canon, perhaps, but nothing special. I'll even go so far as to suggest that, well, the finished movie was better (despite an intro suggesting people in Hollywood who read Thomas & Conway's original script remarked that it was better than the film). Actually, let me back that up and say that I have very little memory of the movie (which I probably saw just the once back when it came out). What I'm actually comparing this graphic novel to is Marvel's own adaptation of the movie by Michael Fleisher & John Buscema (published both as an issue of Marvel Super Special #35 and in a two issue micro-series).

The two are obviously the same plot: namely Conan is recruited to escort a young woman (a member of a mysterious sect) on her quest to acquire a mystic key to be used in a religious ceremony -- with double crosses and sinister agendas afoot. But it just feels like the story flows a bit more smoothly in the movie adaptation, a little more logically (and the villainy can seem a bit subtler -- whereas in the graphic novel Conan seems a bit dense for not suspecting a double cross). In the graphic novel it can feel a bit like it's just lurching from one action set piece to another, almost like a video game. The movie adds a few extra characters, which adds a bit more complexity to the plotting (not that the characters are brilliantly nuanced, at least in the comic adaptation, but they do put more flesh on the scenes). However, as mentioned, the graphic novel is itself a shortened version of the unfilmed script, so maybe the characters were better employed in the original draft.

The most significant change is that in this graphic novel Conan arouses the ire of a boy (having inadvertently killed the boy's father) creating some conflict as the boy both wants revenge, but also they must work together. Whereas in the movie adaptation there is no boy and there's more focus on Conan's relationship with the girl he is escorting.

Perhaps one curious way the graphic novel diverges from the movie is the movie was a deliberate attempt to get away from the hard R-rating of the first Conan movie -- whereas the graphic novel actually throws in a bit of nudity (with both Conan and the girl showing their backsides -- though it's not that titilating, frankly, because of the art).

Which brings us to the visuals in general. And maybe another problem is just the art by Michael Docherty. It isn't that it's terrible, and can be good in spots, and benefits from the multi-tone/semi-painted hues (as opposed to the single tone colours of the Conan the Destroyer adaptation). But equally the art can be a bit rough in spots (and might also relate to my point about finding the plotting less smooth -- because sometimes the visuals made the storytelling unclear). I've often said that the visuals are sometimes more important in a fantasy comic than even a super hero comic because atmosphere and conjuring up a world is part of the point. Again, just to contrast the graphic novel with movie adaptation (and let's face it, this review is really two reviews in one, considering both comic book versions of the story), the movie adaptation was drawn by longtime Conan artist John Buscema. And even though by that point in his career Buscema was getting a bit looser in his line work (and maybe not really as inspired by the property as he once was) I'd argue it's still clearer, more sure-footed visuals.

Original cover price:$__USA

cover by SeverinConan The Reaver 1987 (SC GN) 62 pgs.

Written by Don Kraar. Illustrated by John Severin.
Colours: Marie Severin. Letters: Phil Felix. Editor: Larry Hama.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Suggested for mature readers

Additional notes: published at over-sized, tabloid dimensions.

Published by Marvel Comics

Number of readings: 1

reviewed: Aug. 2011

Conan The Reaver is an original graphic novel about everyone's favourite Hyborian Age barbarian. Set during (we can assume) a relatively early stage of his life, the action starts fast and furious, with Conan being chased at night by some palace guards who caught him trying to break into the palace vault -- something the not-quite-honest guards were planning on doing themselves! But Conan has friends among the riff-raff in the thieves' quarter of the city, and soon the three guards are whittled down to one -- but a deal is struck between Conan and the remaining guard, each having resources that could be brought to the enterprise.

Often Conan comics tend to fall into familiar ruts of what the writers assume a fantasy story -- and a Conan story -- should be: there's usually a treasure to be plundered, and a monster lurking in the catacombs that guards it, and a king. And all of that is here...but fortunately here writer Don Kraar remembers what some other writers forget. And that is there's more to storytelling than just hitting the obvious bases, and that Conan creator Robert E. Howard himself liked to throw in machinations and plot twists. And such is the case here, because beyond the cliches is a decent tale of shifting allegiances, and political instability, with enough characters moving in and out to give a human face to the action and suspense.

There's also a kind of contradictory morality -- on one hand, there is an inherent nihilism to the story, with Conan and the others fairly amoral thieves and scoundrels (Conan happily standing by as a man is made to essentially "walk the plank" -- something I'm not sure Howard would have done, seeing Conan as a guy who preferred to meet his foes fairly, man-to-man) yet Conan's sense of honour and duty comes to the fore as the story progresses, forcing him to eschew the easy route after making a promise to someone he feels honour bound to keep. Which adds a bit of a character dimension to the action.

And at it's heart, The Reaver can be likened to a caper movie, as the characters plot to break into the impenetrable vault. And the mix of scheming, battles, machinations and monsters nicely justifies and fills out its page count.

The result is a highly satisfying adventure. As I say, in the broad strokes it's all pretty safe and familiar material...but it's in the details, the story turns, the characters, that it establishes itself as something more than, say, the stories I read in Savage Sword of Conan, vol. 6 (reviewed below) which could, at times, fall into the generic barbarian cliches.

It's illustrated by old hand John Severin who might seem an odd choice, his work more elegant and clean cut, his figures more stiffly realist than the kind of boisterous dynamicness one might associate with a Conan story. But it works quite well, even if it does maybe seem a bit as though this is Conan by way of Prince Valiant, Severin's style having echoes of Hal Foster in a way. Marie Severin -- John's almost equally venerable sister, and a Jack-of-all-Trades at Marvel Comics -- provides the colours, giving the thing a nice, vibrant colouring. Tending to identify Conan with the robust, brawny style of John Buscema, I went into this with some scepticism -- despite otherwise being a fan of John Severin -- but the art is quite effective in its way. And Severin shows an excellent eye for storytelling and composition, like the scene where the Princess' tear falls into the pond, or a lengthy fight toward the climax that is told largely without words.

The story is maybe a bit gorier than one might expect from Severin (well known for his years on the parody comic, Cracked). That's presumably to justify the "graphic novel" format (as opposed to publishing it as just a few issues of the regular colour comic). Though there's no nudity or other "mature" content.

Ultimately, Conan the Reaver is a surprisingly effective tale -- true enough to the character, and the cliches of the genre, without seeming bland or too generic. It's not breaking out of any creative boxes...but in this case, it doesn't have to.

Original cover price:$6.50 USA

Cover price: $ __ CDN/  

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