Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


The Chronicles of Conan, vol. 4:
The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Roy Thomas. Pencils by Barry Smith, John Buscema. Inks by various.
Colours/Letters: various.

Reprinting: Conan #23-26, the Conan story serialized in Savage Tales #2, 3

160 pages

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cover price: $12.95 US.

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 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 brilliant, 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 a couple of versions of her own comic, some paperback novels, and even a motion picture. It is a common misconception 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 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.

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 afterword) reveals that Buscema was, apparently, unhappy with Ernie Chua (a.k.a. Ernie Chan) as inker -- despite the fact that Chua would continue to ink Buscema's Conan for years, and become as much associated with the comic as Buscema. It's true that Chua 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 -- but, as such, I already knew the plot, and with my mixed feelings 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 -- adaptations too often suffer by comparison.

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 afterword 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 of barbarians, sorcerers, and lost, pre-historic kingdoms.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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