by The Masked Bookwyrm

Conan reviews ~ page two

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cover by GulacyConan: The Skull of Set 1989 (SC GN) 62 pgs.

Written by Doug Moench. Pencils by Paul Gulacy. Inks by Gary Martin.
Colours: Steve Mattsson. Letters: David Jackson. Editor: Tom Kavanagh.

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: Oct. 2014

Reading the Skull of Set is, at least for me, an intriguing illustration of a point. You see, for better or for worse, a lot of Conan pastiches in comics and novels (ie: stories not written by Conan creator Robert E. Howard) tend to be fairly formulaic Sword & Sorcery adventures following set narrative grooves. It's a problem because it means of lot of the stories can be generic -- on the other hand, cliches are cliches because they work.

But as such, what distinguishes a good Conan story (or comic) from a middling one is less the basic plot or characters, and more how well the story is told.

Case in point, you could argue the Skull of Set covers similar terrain as another Conan graphic novel, The Witch Queen of Acheron (which is reviewed lower down) -- the two I read around the same time, though they were published a few years a part. Both open with an extraneous action scene as Conan is arrested by city guards; both involve Conan brought before the city ruler and offered a reprieve if he undertakes an expedition; both involve a journey through hostile territory, harried on all sides by enemy marauders; both climax at old ruins where an ancient monster is unleashed leading to a big fight.

Yet while I felt The Witch Queen of Acheron was a run-of-the-mill Conan comic presented on heavy paper -- The Skull of Set is a highly entertaining and engaging effort that reasonably justifies (if not altogether demands) the "prestige" presentation of a graphic novel. And it's all in the telling. It doesn't go anywhere unexpected -- but there's care taken in the getting there.

It's by writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy, guys who've been collaborating, off and on, for decades on various projects and at various companies. I'm not sure Gulacy's ever tackled Conan before, though Moench has occasionally (certainly he's written in the milieu, such as on some King Kull comics).

Gulacy brings his realist style to the visuals, nicely aided and abetted by inker Martin and colourist Mattsson, for an atmospheric, detailed style. There can be a certain stiffness to his figures at time, but generally it's striking work, both in terms of the characters, and the environment in which they exist, whether it be city buildings, arid wastelands, or desolate ruins. I've said before that fantasy and Sword & Sorcery stories are partly about escapism to these pseudo-historical realms and so art that evokes a sense of place is important. And this the art, and Mattsson's colours, do.

As a character, Conan can veer about a bit, particularly in pastiches written by different writers. Sometimes a surly misanthrope, sometimes prone to altruism, sometimes juvenile and boorish, sometimes well spoken and thoughtful -- rather depending in the writer and the story being told. Here Conan can maybe seem a little too erudite and refined at times -- though equally given to deeds of barbarian brutality. Nothing that strays too far from the central personality.

Moench is a writer that I can be mixed on, but here seems in particularly good form. The story follows pretty generic templates for these kind of stories, but it's in the details that Moench (and Gulacy) give it its identity. Conan is assigned to drive a shipment of arms to another city, and ends up unintentionally in the company of a handful of fellow wayfarers. The inspiration Moench's drawing on might be some old western movie (as a stagecoach of strangers are forced to brave Indian territory) or maybe some 20th Century thriller (a mismatched group flee a war torn city into the surrounding territory). There's even a priestess who would be a nun in a western version of the plot! Moench gives just enough personality to the characters so that they feel like more than simply monster bait. There is effective tension and suspense as the rag tag group find themselves trying to stay one step ahead of marauders and there are some notably effective action scenes -- one resulting in the characters finding themselves stranded on a plateau which is somewhat unassailable by their enemies, even as arrows can be fired from across the ravines. They are safe and exposed in equal measures.

It takes the basic cliches and dresses them up with interesting characters and scenes. Moench even throws in extra mysteries and twists so even if the basic direction of the story is obvious, there are surprises along the way. Characters turn out to not be who they say, Conan's initial mission turms out not be what he was told, and there's danger from multiple sources for multiple reasons and, of course, discovery of a supernatural evil amid the ruins on the plateau.

There's one panel where an arm is hacked off in gory explicitness that I'm guessing was included simply to make the story seem "mature" and so justify the graphic novel presentation -- because other than that, there's little that wouldn't be shown in a mainstream comic at the time. There's no nudity, though a female character does start wearing a buttocks-displaying costume later on -- it's not technically nudity, but might have seemed conspicuously salacious for the colour comic.

Ultimately, The Skull of Seth isn't some Hyperborean-era magnum opus, but in its mix of borrowed templates (the stage coach western) with traditional Conan cliches but told with twists and mysteries, atmosphere and effective visuals, it stands as a singularly effective example of the genre.

Original cover price: $__

coverConan: The Witch Queen of Acheron 1985 (SC GN) 62 pgs.

Written by Don Kraar. Pencils by Gary Kwapisz. Inks by Art Nichols.
Colours: Julianna Ferriter. Letters: Janice Chiang. Editor: Larry Hama.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Additional notes: Marvel Graphic Novel #19; published at over-sized, tabloid dimensions.

Published by Marvel Comics

Number of readings: 1

reviewed: Oct. 2014

I often begin reviews of these older graphic novels pondering what's the purpose of the format. In contrast to the average comic at the time (this being the mid-1980s) these were on heavy paper, boasting richer (multi-toned) colours, and were presented at over-sized tabloid dimensions -- and of course often 64 pages when even a comic book annual would often only be about 40 pages. So one might assume they would be reserved for particularly special stories. Particularly for characters with existing series in which to present average tales (in the case of the barbarian sword & sorcery hero, Conan, multiple series, including the monthly comics, and black & white magazine adventures that, like a graphic novel, boasted longer page counts and over-sized pages).

But I suppose the counter argument would be: why does there need to be a reason? It's just one more Conan comic, except longer and with richer colours.

Because in the case of The Witch Queen of Acheron it's generic and workmanlike and pretty much unfolds the way you expect. It's not especially epic or Byzantine in terms of plotting. There's an opening sequence where Conan is rousted by city soldiers leading to a chase through the streets -- complete with a variation on the overturn-the-fruit-cart shtick (here it's kegs of wine) -- that is basically just a prologue to the story...yet it manages to occupy a quarter of the pages! Conan is captured by the local despot who wants Conan to lead him to a legendary lost treasure of a long dead witch queen (one guess what happens when they get there -- just one now).

Despite the page count there isn't really much effort to develop characters or explore relationships. There's a pretty damsel along, but she just flitters in and out of scenes as needed.

Now to its credit, it certainly clips along briskly enough -- almost too much so. There were a number of sequences which felt a little choppy, as though panels that might act as segues were missing. The expedition heads into the hills where outlaws hang out, but they seem to surround the characters when the scene wants to create tension -- and then disappear again when the story needs the expedition to get moving again.

Writer Don Kraar seems to approach the material with a certain light-heartedness. The opening scene I mentioned has Conan acting more like some kind of swashbuckling rascal rather than a brooding, bad-tempered barbarian. Though of course the story builds to the usual mayhem and carnage. But the problem is also the dialogue feels clunky, maybe because he's sort of trying to affect a fantasy milieu formality even as he's also trying to go for light-hearted banter (when soldiers threaten to take him Conan gives a rather contemporary-sounding retort: "You and how many legions?") And, as I say: there isn't much emotional depth. Though Kraar does seem to indulge in Conan uttering a few gratuitous "sluts" and "harlots" which is the sort of dialogue you might more associated with the black & white magazine Conan stories than the regular, monthly comic.

The art by Gary Kwapisz also has mixed results. On one hand I can't really say it's bad, but there is a stiffness to it, and a flatness, a certain, well, comic book-ness unlike what you might associate with familiar Conan artists like John Buscema -- a lack of shadows, of dimension. My suspicion is Kwapisz uses photo-references, hence why some of the poses seem "realistic" (and maybe explaining why some of the characters don't always look the same from panel to panel, because he was using different source images).

Strangely even Janice Chiang's lettering looks a bit rough and hasty -- though I normally think of her as having had a very clean, meticulous style.

Now to be fair, a lot of Conan comics -- and pastiches -- over the years can be dismissed as being rather simple and generic. And maybe that's the appeal -- the familiarity of it all (heck, I enjoyed Conan the Reaver -- reviewed above -- which was also written by Kraar). After all, if someone did a radically different Conan story it might not feel like Conan. But at the same time, one can read this and feel that it basically presents a concept that's stock, unfolds it in a predictable way, and doesn't really dress it up much with interesting characters, relationships, or scenes, while even just the simple telling (dialogue, visuals) is only workmanlike.

As I say: it is briskly-paced and can keep you turning the pages. And maybe that's enough. And maybe a prestigious, high-end "graphic novel" doesn't have to be anything more than an average Conan comic.

Original cover price:$6.50 USA

Savage Sword of Conan, vol. 6 2009 (SC TPB) 544 pages

coverWritten by Roy Thomas, Michael Fleisher, Bruce Jones. Pencils by John Buscema, and Gil Kane, Ernie Colon, Ernie Chan. Inks by Alfredo Alcala, Ernie Chan, John Buscema, others.

Reprinting: the Conan stories from Savage Sword of Conan #61-71 (originally published by Marvel Comics, 1981) -- some issues featured back up stories, not reproduced here.

Additional notes: covers; pin-up galleries.

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

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Feb. 2011

Suggested for mature readers

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Conan the Barbarian was created by writer Robert E. Howard in the 1930s. Popular in its time (and idiom), the character started to slip into obscurity, then was revived in the 1950s and 1960s when the old stories were re-published in book form, sandwhiched between newly written pastiches by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, and added to, still later, by a host of other writers, making Conan arguably the first "shared world" property. But make no mistake: the character was created by Howard and, arguably, the rest -- even de Camp & Carter -- are just writing glorified fan fiction. I say this because a lot of later fans often seem to regard Howard as merely one of the contributors to the Conan mythos, but Howard wrote the original tales, and was dead long before the later additions (and so had no way of approving them). Anyway, many would argue a major boost to Conan's popularity, and indeed, what may have been responsible for cementing him as arguably the most famous 20th Century fantasy character who wasn't a hobbit, was the Marvel Comics version. It was originally seen as a risky property to take on in a medium dominated by men-in-tights. But the Conan comics proved enormously successful and long running. Eventually Marvel's rights lapsed, and Dark Horse Comics have in recent years produced their own Conan comics but, recognizing the appeal of the old series they've also reprinted the old comics in various TPB collections.

In addition to the regular, colour comic, Marvel also produced the black & white magazine-sized Savage Sword of Conan, published slightly outside the confines of the Comics Code Authority. And these too Dark Horse has collected in a series of TPBs.

These stories jump around in Conan's life, making this simply an anthology of unconnected tales. The early Marvel stories tended toward faithful adaptations of the printed stories. This lent the comics a greater credibility and, in the case of the better source stories, allowed for well plotted adventures. Yet by this point, Marvel was maybe beginning to exhaust the well of old stories, and most of the comics reprinted in this volume are original to the scripters...which is why I picked this up. As much as I applaud the fidelity shown by adaptations, the fact is, if I want to read the original stories...I can read the original stories. I want a comic to give me something new.

This collection boasts a variety of writers at work, with Roy Thomas, Michael Fleisher and Bruce Jones all contributing -- investing different tones to the various stories. While John Buscema is the primary -- and best -- artist represented, there is also some variety here too, with Gil Kane, Ernie Colon and Ernie Chan all contributing issues, while a variety of inkers both adds some variety to Buscema's pencils (for better and worse) even as it imposes some conformity on Colon and Chan's contributions. And since these were originally intended for black & white (and reproduced as such here) there's a rich use of shades and grey washes.

With all that being said, the results of this collection is...mixed.

It's decent enough, featuring mostly original tales (with a few adaptations in the mix, though whether of Conan stories, or non-Conan stories rewritten for the character -- as Marvel sometimes did -- I'm not sure). Even as few of the stories necessarily stand out as memorable. Literally. Reading this collection off and on over a few months, I would sometimes be part way into a story...before I realized I had already read it a few weeks earlier!

The fact that Savage Sword of Conan was published outside the Comics Code, as essentially a "mature readers" comic, is only occasionally in evidence. Despite the Conan prose stories often full of naked damsels, in these 500 plus pages, nudity only appears in about two panels! And though women are often garbed in loin cloths and bras, even these are relatively demure (no buttock-displaying G-strings or their like). Gore sometimes exceeds the colour comics, but only occasionally so. It's more in the dialogue that the stories sometimes push past the monthly comics, with Fleisher inparticular seeming to gleefully indulge in using words like "harlot" and "slut" with sophomoric abandon.

With different writers at work, there is some variety to the tales, from the traditional monster-in-the-dungeon tales (which crop up more than once) to those emphasizing political intrigue and machinations. The takes on Conan himself vary, from a surly misanthrope, to other tales where he is sensitive and altruistic!

The opening tale, "The Wizard Fiend of Zingari" is fairly strong (albeit I had read it previously, so nostalgia may play a part in my assessment). Written by Fleisher, like a few of Fleisher's tales it's perhaps overly seedy and sleazy, but nonetheless mixes aspects of court intrigue, with a quest, and a monster, and because of its sleazy aspect, suits the nominally "mature readers" format. Bruce Jones' "The Children of Rhan" stands out as, arguably, the most memorable of the tales here -- a moody tale of Conan taking a mysterious girl under his protection, only to realize she's more than she appears. It perhaps most portrays Conan a little atypically as a sensitive humanitarian, but is none the worse for it, and manages to be unusually emotional and bitter sweet. If a few too many of the tales run to fairly simple action pieces with little characterization, in contrast is Roy Thomas' "Sea of No Return" (from a story by Danette Couto -- soon to be Mrs. Roy Thomas). Drawn by Colon, it's not as well illustrated as Buscema's stuff (although inked by frequent Buscema inker Chan, it doesn't jar, either), it maybe goes too far in the other direction of being almost entirely character interaction and machinations, with little action, almost coming across as a "Murder, She Wrote" episode in loin cloths as Conan gets caught up in intrigue on board a sailing vessel. Yet in the context of the surrounding stories, it acts as a noteworthy counterpoint.

Admittedly, a lot of the stories tend to blend into each other (hence why I could find myself not realizing I'd read a tale before) without much to distinguish them -- lots of evil tyrants, castles to besiege, and monsters in dungeons/tunnels/moats. Despite nice art from Buscema, and unusually heavy reliance on verbose text captions, they don't always evoke the same kind of palpable atmosphere Howard could just with the written word. Too often the supporting casts introduced are thinly fleshed out and disposable. Sometimes literally so, just there to be monster fodder -- even the ladies (not something Howard would necessarily have done!). And sometimes the attempt to import other templates can have awkward results -- Thomas' "Eye of the Sorcerer" is another quest/evil wizard tale, yet graphed onto it is what almost feels like an "After School Special" involving a father/son estrangement, as the son looks up to Conan, much to the chagrin of his dad. It's a kind of awkward fit.

The Savage Sword stories were significantly longer than the colour comics -- some as long as fifty pages. But, I'll admit, often just feel like -- plot and character wise -- they could easily have been rewritten for a smaller page count.

A funny aside about the art is how the pictures and text don't always match up together. Either as if Buscema was ignoring the written instructions or as if the writer wasn't paying attention to the pictures. For example, in one of Fleisher's efforts, Conan encounters a race of Amazon women whom Fleisher describes -- in keeping with actual mythology -- as having cut off one breast. Buscema ignores this and draws them as full figured and double breasted -- perhaps understandably!

Ultimately, I picked this up on a whim, because every now and then I have a harkening for a little Sword & Sorcery in general, and Conan inparticular. And most of the stories here are adequate page turners, but with the exception of the few I highlighted, not necessarily much more.

Cover price: $19.95 USA

Cover price: $ __ CDN/  

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