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Nemedian Chronicles

Longbox Graveyard #9

Our big summer of comic book movies comes to a close this week as a new version of Conan hits the theaters. It’s been a good run, with most of the films being decent or better, and if nothing else I have all those superhero movies to thank for jump starting this blog. My previous post linking comics with the Captain America movie has been one of the most popular entries here at Longbox Graveyard, and although this week’s column also has a current movie angle, I will resist the cheap CHRIS EVANS NAKED linkbaiting that drove so much traffic for that entry, and make no mention at all of JASON MOMOA NAKED in this header.

No mention at all.

Aside from Green Lantern, I don’t think I’ve been genuinely let down by a spandex movie this summer (and I knew fell well what I was getting into with GL), but I must admit I view release of this new Conan with trepidation.

About the best that I can hope for is that it will be “stupid good.” Conan is a tough one … it will take a deft hand to take this character back to his roots and exhume the good stuff, a task made all the more difficult for the decades of crap that have been piled upon the Cimmerian’s shoulders. But I will raise my hand and pledge my good-faith intention to see the movie opening weekend at the theater, because I am an unabashed fan.

I owe much of my affection for Conan to comics.

I recently finished the fourth volume of the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan reprint series, getting me through issue #25 of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, and marking the end of Barry Windsor-Smith‘s run on the book. It’s a watershed moment for the series and with the movie coming out it’s also a good chance to write about my quasi-uncomfortable relationship with Robert E. Howard’s “mighty-thewed” barbarian.

(Pause here for homo-erotic snarking).

Before we can consider the comic book Conan, we have to go back in time to the pulp magazine Conan … but before we can consider the pulp magazine Conan we have to stop in the 1960s to consider the single most influential artist in Conan history — the man who put an Austrian bodybuilder in the California governor’s mansion and transformed Conan from this …

… into THIS!

Setting aside the gender politics evoked by juxtaposing these images, and concentrating strictly on how Conan is depicted, there’s no question in my mind that Frank Frazetta rescued Conan from the dustbin of history. I do think Howard’s stories are a cut above, and they may have found a modern audience even without Frazetta’s considerable talents, but there’s no question that Frazetta’s covers for the Lancer series reprints in the 1960s were the critical flashpoint for the popularity Conan has enjoyed this past half-century.

(I won’t write further about Frazetta here, but I hope you’ll read the Frazetta appreciation I wrote over at my Appy Place blog following the great man’s death ).

Among the creators introduced to Conan via those Frazetta covers was Roy Thomas, who would go on to scribe the Conan the Barbarian comic for a decade (and that was just his first run on the book). Conan was a consolation prize for Marvel (they originally wanted Lin Carter’s Thongor the Barbarian!), and reflective of their diminished expectations for the book, Marvel paired Thomas with an inexperienced Barry Windsor-Smith for a scandalously low page rate. Despite these humble origins, or perhaps because of them, Conan the Barbarian quickly developed its own voice, and not just because it was a sword & sorcery book on a rack dominated by four-color superheroes.

What set Conan apart from other comics — even more than its sorcerers, monsters, swordplay, and exotic settings — was the book’s attitude and scope. Attitude, because here was a genuine anti-hero — a Marvel comics hero who stole things, got drunk, and killed people (no wonder I liked him!). Scope, because Roy Thomas worked loosely from the chronology of the original pulps in scripting the book — right from the earliest issues, we know that Conan has an unrevealed history ahead of him, a saga that will someday see him crowned a king. These elements immediately gave Conan a presence and a direction that helped keep the book on track through the critical early issues where Thomas and Windsor-Smith were finding their way.

It helps that Howard wrote so many of his Conan stories using the same template. Howard’s formula of the noble barbarian versus corrupt civilization, seasoned with monsters, wenches, and wicked sorcerers translates well from pulp magazine story to twenty-odd page comic script, and there are several issues of Conan the Barbarian where those elements are mechanically on display. It’s a one-note song, but it helps that it’s a really good note … and even if we know instantly what will become of the girl, the wizard, and the legend introduced in the first eight pages of an issue, it is still a fun ride getting there. That master plan of Conan’s life promises even the most insignificant issue will fit into a larger whole. And of course we enjoy the great character of Conan even in the middle of the most familiar plotline.

Ah, Conan. A genuinely misunderstood character.

I had an email argument about casting the new Conan movie the other day — because that’s what nerds do — and was dismayed to see my friend advance this opinion about Conan:

Conan does not need to really act, he just has to be a physical anomaly in musculature, look ripped as he’s crushing armies, and just give pensive stern looks and one word monologues. Find the physical icon for Conan, and then spend six months to teach it to speak.”

I’m sorry, that’s not Conan. That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold put such a stamp on the character that for most people, Arnold is Conan. We have Arnold to thank for helping to popularize the character, but Arnold’s limitations as an actor did the character a disservice. Conan is more nuanced as written by Howard. He’s primitive, but not unsophisticated. Largely without guile, but not simple. Direct and thuggish at times, but also noble and with a greater range of emotion than Arnold could bring to the screen (“… gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth).

Whether or not we’ll ever see Howard’s Conan on the screen is beside the point. What’s relevant is the Marvel Comics Conan was developed years before Arnold would strip to the waist and hear the lamentations of the women. The Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan was different from Howard’s original take, but much truer in spirit to the original than Arnold’s film version.

It was also, first and foremost, a comic book, meaning it got to the point more quickly even than the fast-paced pulps on which it was based. When Thomas and Windsor-Smith adopted Howard’s “The God in the Bowl” in issue #7, they dispensed with Howard’s who-dunnit talking heads as quickly as possible, and gave us six pages of Conan fighting the evil Stygian serpent. Years later, Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord would take the better part of two issues to tell the same tale, which does justice to Howard’s original dialogue, but doesn’t make for a better comic. Thomas was respectful of Howard, but he also had an editor’s eye, and he knew what his audience wanted — plenty of swords, blood, action, monsters, and sex (to the degree that the Comics Code allowed).

Barry Windsor-Smith delivered those things, too, though at his own pace and with his own emphasis. As the new kid on the block, Windsor-Smith colored inside the lines laid down by Thomas for the first few issues, but by issue #4’s “Tower of the Elephant”, you can see Windsor-Smith asserting himself as a storyteller, and by “Devil Wings Over Shadizar” in issue #6, it seems that Windsor-Smith is setting the tempo, and Thomas is filling in the words. The plot/pencils/script process of the “Marvel Style” makes it hard to tell exactly who does what when examining artist/writer collaborations, but as Thomas’ superhero plotting is more slam-bang in style, I think we can attribute to Windsor-Smith the more contemplative tone that characterizes the later issues of his run.

A pleasure of reading these first twenty-five Conans is watching Windsor-Smith grow as an artist, both in terms of confidence and in skill. His strengths were his anatomy, his storytelling, and his mania for detail (particularly in architecture) which helped bring the Hyborian Age to life. Windsor-Smith’s characteristic “film strip” style also emerges over time, first glimpsed as the slow gathering of a supernatural thunderhead in #3’s “Twilight Of The Grim Grey God,” then coming front-and-center for the tavern boasting and creature reveal in “Tower of the Elephant,” and reaching it’s peak in #10’s “Beware The Wrath of Anu,” when Conan arrives too late to save his friend from hanging.

By the time they were adopting “Red Nails” for Savage Tales, Windsor-Smith was driving the train, and the work suffered a bit without Thomas’ plotting. Thomas admits things came off the rails here, describing Windsor-Smith’s storytelling on pages 2-3 as “… Valeria does nothing but ride a horse slowly up to a pool, dismount, look around, climb a small outcropping, and look around, until she returns to ground level …” By a later age’s self-indulgent pinup-driven standards, though, these two pages from Windsor-Smith tick right along, and the story, as a whole, is strong, and laps ahead of other books in 1974.

Thomas is also very good in this run. My favorite story of this era is his eight-part “Hyrkanian War” arc from issues #19 to #26, which sees Conan fighting as a mercenary (on both sides!) in a religious war, both at sea and in the exotic and brilliantly rendered seaport fortress of Makkalet. Thomas’ plot gives Windsor-Smith plenty of room to show action from the siege of the city, but we also witness Conan’s loyalty toward his crippled friend, Fafnir, and his hot-headed disregard for the authority of the Turanian prince, Yezdigerd, whom Conan slashes across the face before leaping overboard and swimming through a rain of arrows (taking one in the side) to try his luck with his former enemies in the besieged city.

Along the way we get to see Conan wrestle to the death with “The Black Hound of Vengeance,” and we meet Red Sonja, too … all-in-all a terrific run, and a great climax to the Windsor-Smith era on the book.

This isn’t to say the first twenty-five issues of Conan the Barbarian are without warts. The two-part Elric story in issues #14 & #15 is a missed opportunity — there is some strong characterization, but Elric looks goofy and the plot is a mess. Throughout the run, Windsor-Smith struggles with drawing animals, and he’s not at his best when drawing faces and emotions. The two stories drawn by Gil Kane are utterly forgettable. I confess I don’t really “get” Kane — I appreciate his sense of movement, but when I look at his art mostly what I see are chins, nostrils, and abnormally arched backs. Not a fan.

It’s also a shame that deadline pressure meant Windsor-Smith could not finish the final two issues of the Hyrkanian War story, but John Buscema would prove an able substitute, and Buscema would of course go on to become the definitive artist of Marvel’s Conan.

Reading between the lines, Windsor-Smith may have worn out his welcome by this point, so his time was likely coming to a close on the book no matter what. At the time, Windsor-Smith’s slow drawing pace and idiosyncratic style probably drove everyone crazy — Thomas says that when Buscema took over the book, he expected to “… win fewer awards and sell more comic books” — but the years have washed away such temporary troubles and left us with a real gem of a run, where brilliant art and solid scripting come together to cement Conan as one of the great fictional heroes of the century.

Even if you can’t afford to collect the original books, check out the digitally recolored reprints from Dark Horse. They deserve a spot in your comics library.

(And lets all hope the new Conan movie has more Thomas/Windsor-Smith and less Schwarzenegger in its DNA! Unfortunately, that Rotten Tomatoes score is looking more daunting by the hour …!)

NEXT WEEK: #10 Have You Seen This Barbarian?

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on August 17, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Awesome read as always Paul

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    • Thanks, Billy. I figure making a bold declaration that I am seeing the movie opening weekend will force my hand when discretion dictates I wait for DVD. Maybe I’ll sneak into the first Saturday showing with Miles — with all the blood and tits on display it could be the finest hour of his young life.

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  2. Great choice of samples from Barry Windsor Smith here. We picked up some copies of the Busiek/Nord stories and some that followed with Tim Truman. It was the first time we ever really got way into Conan stories. That is, transported into the Conan-verse with rapt attention. We’re enjoying the Frazetta Cover series, too. What a great way to get some of Frank’s most awesome Conan paintings along with super solid stories. It’s interesting to compare the story telling between these and the earlier Marvel versions of the same tales. We just might pick up some of those Dark Horse re-colored reprints this fall if we can get a discount on used copies. Smith’s incredible artwork definitely deserved a better pritning process than they were using back then.

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    • You can get most of the Windsor-Smith era Chronicles of Conan reprints on eBay for below cover price, particularly if you are patient and buy in lots. Volumes #1-4 will get you all of the Windsor-Smith era. The colors can be a bit vivid if you are accustomed to the print standards of the day, but as you note, those processes never did justice to the original art. Seeing these reprints was an eye-opening experience for me — as a kid I preferred John Buscema’s solid, thick, no-nonsense pencils for this character, but now I can see virtues in Windsor-Smith’s work that just never translated because of print technology (until today). That’s a big reason why this run rated so highly for me — the reprints caused me to look at this era in a whole different way.

      I’ve tried to read the modern Dark Horse run on Conan several times but just can’t warm up to it, which is a shame, because Cary Nord’s art is amazing on those first books, but Kurt Busiek never worked for me as a Conan writer (which is strange, because I like his superhero work). Busiek just didn’t seem terribly interested in Conan, and so we get a lot of focus on (frankly terrible) characters like Janissa the Widowmaker. Plus, the overall “decompressed” style of the modern books just moves too slowly for me (reference my comments in the post about “God in the Bowl” stretching out to two issues in the Dark Horse run … if I want a word-for-word version of the R.E.H. story I will turn to the original pulps).

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mars, always nice to have you drop by.

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  3. Right on. Buscema’s sense of line and composition is perfect for the format in which it was published. Don’t you think that much of the comic art of the 20th century was developed specifically for the pulp format? You know, low-quality paper, rudimentary color separations, and so on? Sometimes you see a reprint like the ‘high quality’ reprints of Kirby’s New Gods, and it just doesn’t look right. Hats off to Dark Horse for really thinking through this process. You can’t just slap an approximation of the old color onto new paper. You have to consider the paper itself. How white is it? How reflective is it? Some of the old colors only look right because they were printed on beige paper with a matte finish, and don’t translate well to today’s world of high gloss.

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    • I don’t know if 20th century comic art was designed with pulp paper in mind, but the artists who best knew how to embrace the format were certainly the ones who experienced the most success. Little was gained, really, by all the detail Barry Windsor-Smith packed into his Conan stories. His vision didn’t get fully on the page for forty years and all that extra work did was satisfy Windsor-Smith’s own artistic needs and make his books late. Less skilled artists enjoyed more successful comic book careers in part because they better understood their medium and were able to satisfy the market (by working fast and consistently to monthly deadlines).

      Good insight on colors and the way they interact with background paper colors. For an example of doing it wrong, check out the recent Tomb of Dracula trade collections — the colors look too electric and they overpower the moody Colan/Palmer art. My original books are murky and harder to read but more effective for all that they have been decaying on cheap paper since the 1970s.

      And I quite like John Buscema, actually, and I rate him my favorite Conan artist, but much of that is down to longevity. In a lot of ways he’s only as good as his inker, but the illustrative quality of his more careful work still holds up. He used a few stock poses again and again but they were good poses, and his powerful, flat-nosed depiction of Conan is the one that really stuck for me. I’ve continued reading the reprints up through Volume 8 or so, and am well into the John Buscema era — I plan to blog about the Queen of the Black Coast run in a future Longbox Graveyard.

      But even fans who prefer John Buscema such as myself owe it to themselves to check out the Windsor-Smith Conan reprints from Dark Horse. It really is like seeing this work for the first time.

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  4. You my buddy are a genius

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