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Red Sonja

Longbox Graveyard #90

It’s been awhile since I wrote about Conan here at Longbox Graveyard, but my Hyborian bona fides are well-established. I’ve lauded the original Barry Windsor-Smith run of Conan the Barbarian, mourned Hollywood’s many ham-handed attempts to bring the Cimmerian to the silver screen, and penned a love note to Belit, the “ultimate Marvel Comics girlfriend.” I even reviewed the Conan-inspired Fire & Ice movie here a couple weeks ago.

Conan material is starting to get thin on the ground at my secret comic book headquarters. I will review Savage Sword of Conan someday, and will take a crack at King Conan if that rumored Schwarzenegger Conan movie reboot ever gets off the ground. I’ll probably give the new Dark Horse version of Queen of the Black Coast a go someday, too. But in the meantime, I thought I’d satisfy my urges for Robert E. Howard nostalgia with a little Red Sonja. After all, she’s the She-Devil With A Sword! She has red hair! She wears a chainmail bikini! What could go wrong?

Almost everything, as it turns out.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

to the death! (or cancellation, whichever comes first)

Red Sonja was born in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #23, and won the hearts of all right-thinking Conan aficionados in the classic “Song of Red Sonja” from issue #24 (a story so good it made my Top Five Single-Issue Stories post, way back when, and is also the subject of my latest Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com). Working only from a name mentioned in passing in a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story, series scribe Roy Thomas introduced Sonja as a beautiful, fast-thinking foil to young Conan … a smart, daring, and calculating swordswoman who was pretty clearly out of Conan’s league.

Conan #24, Barry Windsor-Smith and Roy Thomas

Red Sonja was a vivid and instantly-memorable character, the kind that inspired fervent fan devotion … but also the kind that likely should not have received her own book, in that few of her qualities could easily be made to stand on their own. What makes Sonja likeable is the way she plays off of Conan — how she seems clever, determined, fearless, and one step ahead of our hero. Conan knows that Sonja will betray him — and so do we — but we go along with Sonja’s schemes because she’s the right kind of crazy. She promises riches and adventure, and maybe something else besides.

When Sonja tramples Conan aside and gallops out of town on a stolen horse, we can respect her as a fellow rogue — her betrayal was inevitable, and her “I-wish-there-was-another-way” besting of our hero both elicits our sympathy and affords us a laugh in a rare ending where Conan doesn’t get the girl. Implicit in this exchange is the promise these characters will meet again — and they would, both in Conan’s own mag and Savage Sword — but Sonja would never be quite so good as she was in that first tale, and the character that walked into her own book in Marvel Presents and Red Sonja would prove a distant echo of the Sonja we’d come to know and love.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

the series sported a couple good covers, but you know what they say about judging a book …

There’s certainly much to work with here. The Conan books were among Marvel’s most popular of their era and it would seem a small thing to walk an adolescent audience over to a series promising all the monsters and mayhem of the Hyborian Age with a little cheesecake on top. But instead of embracing the core elements of what made Conan work, Red Sonja runs from them in an ill-advised attempt to distinguish the book on its own merits. It’s like the creators set out to solve the wrong problem. The task should have been extending Conan’s magic to a second title. Instead, Red Sonja strives so hard to stand on its own that it ends up rejecting almost everything that made Conan such a romp in the first place. You can change a thing or two, but altering too many tropes at the same time leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance bound to put curious Conan readers off of the book.

Red Sonja #3, Frank Thorne

like Conan, Red Sonja scores a disposable mate at the end of some stories … and it kind of works (sometimes) … but other Conan tropes are missing from this book

The problems begin with Frank Thorne’s art, which displays a high degree of style and illustrative ambition but was as far-removed from the look of Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema on Conan as you can imagine. Thorne’s Red Sonja is almost abstract in her purity — there isn’t a wrinkle or a frown line on her, and her face is an exaggeration of wide, dark eyes and full lips that amounts to an exotic but unconventional beauty. In this, Sonja is in contrast to almost everything else in Thorne’s world, where every creature seems monstrous — gnarled, tattooed, infected, and corrupt, faces out of some south sea cannibal nightmare.

Frank Thorne, Red Sonja

everyone but Sonja has a case of the uglies in Frank Thorne’s Hybroian Age (and I’m not always certain about Sonja, either)

Thorne’s costumes, arms, and accoutrements seem more out of a fairy tale or an Arabian Nights fantasy than Howard’s Hyborian Age, and Thorne’s architecture, though sometimes ambitious, fails to evoke the wonder of a world that Buscema more effectively rendered even with rough indifference (and that Windsor-Smith laid down with manic attention to detail).

Thorne could turn in a decent bit of visual storytelling now and then (particularly when a page wasn’t swarming with overwritten captions) …

Marvel Feature #5, Frank Thorne

… but Thorne’s action scenes were especially weak, with his characters contorted in awkward poses, lamely clashing swords with all the conviction of a sixth-grade stage play.

Red Sonja #5, Frank Thorne

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age is a broad landscape of borrowed tribes and tropes, and there’s certainly room for Thorne’s take — but there isn’t room for Thorne’s take and the more familiar Marvel impression at the same time. More than just being about two different characters, these books appear to be set in entirely different worlds.

Part of this may be down to trying to do too much, too fast. Marvel launched a fist-full of female superhero books in the mid-1970s — Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, She Hulk, and Red Sonja all date from roughly the same age. Female superheroes are tricky to market and create and it is worth noting that none of those books would succeed. Launching just one successful female solo title would have been a challenge — launching four or more in a limited period of time seems a recipe for failure, especially given that Red Sonja’s creator, Roy Thomas, would be a remote presence in the book’s first several issues.

Marvel Feature #4, Frank Thorne

Frank Thorne would also suffer with monster design, but this gorgon was a strong effort

Marvel Presents #1 is a typically thrown-together 1970s Marvel book — a reprint of a Red Sonja story from Savage Sword of Conan, and a slight but not half-bad original eight-pager by Thomas and Dick Giordano. It’s like Marvel decided to publish a Red Sonja comic but didn’t bother to tell the creators! In Marvel Presents #2, the regular team is aboard — artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones, edited by Thomas. It takes Jones and Thorne a couple issues to find their footing — the first few stories are strewn with small, densely-written panels that afford Thorne’s art little room to breathe — but while Jones’ scripts were moody and atmospheric (and began to explore Sonja’s psychology in ways later writers would ignore), his tales were undone by distracting and over-clever plot twists and “shocking” reveals that served only to throw readers out of the story.

By issue #6 of Marvel Feature — and rolling into the run of Red Sonja’s self-titled book — Roy Thomas is aboard as co-scripter with Clair Noto, but even here the old Conan magic is lacking. Maybe Thomas was taking his hands off the reins, or maybe he still felt it essential that Sonja substantially distinguish herself from the tone and characterization we’d seen in her Conan appearances he’d penned, but this Sonja is all over the place, cavorting with unicorns and entering herself in beast man Olympics because … well, I’m not sure why, frankly.

Red Sonja #1, Frank Thorne

an artful page, but we’re not in Hyboria any more

Aside from a sense of justice stemming from her own oppressive origins that leads Sonja to quickly take up the cause of the underdog, I’m not sure who Sonja really is, or why she does what she does — and that bold red-headed wench who one-upped Conan and lived to tell the tale is long gone from these stories.

As a line extension of the Conan series starring a spin-off character from a book I loved, Red Sonja pretty much fails on all counts. Probably the best way to approach these issues is to set aside all previous conceptions — about Red Sonja, about the way the Hyborian Age looks and feels, about the kinds of stories told in Conan — and evaluate the series on its own merits. But when stripped of all that makes the Conan franchise special, these Red Sonja stories are generic fantasy stories that fail to deliver. Red Sonja was just different for its own sake, not better in any way, and offering few advantages for all the pains it took to distinguish itself from its parent book. The attempt to make Sonja stand on her own in terms of psychology and tone may have seemed imperative at the time but it ultimately did both readers and the book a disservice. We would have been better off with more of the same, all the usual Conan cliches and situations, made to seem slightly different by having Red Sonja at the center of the story, but still clearly a part of the swaggering, fast-paced sword and sorcery stories that worked so well in Conan the Barbarian.

Red Sonja #6, Frank Thorne

the best single issue in this run — Red Sonja #6, with a script from ElfQuest co-creator Wendi Pini — embraced the old Conan tropes and was better for it

I wish I could say that this book was ahead of its time, and that its fearless experimentation and bold new look made it a pleasure to rediscover after all these years, but sadly this is not the case. Re-reading these books was a hard slog, like cranking an engine that stubbornly won’t turn over. In it’s favor, I better enjoyed what Frank Thorne was trying to do than when I first read these books in the 70s, and was pleased to find the stories were less exploitative than I remembered. Yes, this is a barbarian girl in chainmail, but Thorne draws the character with dignity and avoids the “broke-back” contortions common to female characters in contemporary superhero books, where every page seems a pin-up built out backwards from the heroine’s ass and boobs. And every once in awhile there is a page that almost works.

Almost.

Marvel Feature #6, Frank Thorne

As noted above, it is hard to determine how much of a hand Roy Thomas had in plotting and scripting these books, but these stories are considerably less confident and sure-footed than his Conan work. It may not always have been wise to recycle some non-Conan Robert E. Howard tale into an adventure of Conan the Barbarian (as Thomas would do time and again), but doing so at least ensured that those issues would conform to Howard’s story beats and themes, rather than the fairy tale flights of fancy that too-often are at the heart of Red Sonja.

It is a testament to the strength of the brand (and Conan’s popularity) that the book lasted as long as it did, running seven issues in Marvel Presents and fifteen more as Red Sonja before its inevitable cancellation in 1979. Marvel and the audience certainly gave this book its shot — this isn’t the case of a boldly experimental book being cut down in its prime, like Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell’s Killraven. Everyone understood exactly what this book was trying to do — and no one wanted this particular flavor of barbarian fantasy. Red Sonja is a rich concept, though, and the character would go on to star in a series of successful books from Dynamite Entertainment, with no less a luminary than fan-favorite writer Gail Simone scheduled to pen Sonja’s adventures in a new series starting in July 2013.

But by not delivering on even the basics of its genre, Marvel’s Red Sonja disappoints on almost every level. I am stopping short of giving the book a failing grade. I’ve reserved that mark for Marvel’s John Carter book, which squandered far richer source material. But Red Sonja is the very definition of a “D,” and I’m not talking about Sonja’s cup size!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner!

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Longbox Graveyard Holiday Comic Book Gift Guide

Longbox Graveyard #77

The end of the year is coming into view and with it comes the happy duty of buying gifts for friends, loved ones, bosses, and even arch-enemies. Fear not — the Longbox Graveyard Holiday Comic Book Gift Guide is here!

My selections are idiosyncratic and make no attempt to be comprehensive. Items listed below are things I like and write about here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you like this blog, then chances are you will like them too. In the unlikely event that you have wandered here from some Google search looking for comic book Christmas gifts, then you can get an idea of my ethos by reading this blog’s first entry … or just trust that I know what I am talking about, and that I will point you in the right direction when it comes to comic book gifts, particularly for someone who loves older comics from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

(And if you want a more comprehensive and contemporary gift-giving guide, you won’t go far wrong with Tom Spurgeon’s exhaustive survey over at The Comics Reporter).

I don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice — if you’re a comics fan, you’re bound to be happy finding any of these items beneath your tree (or the non-denominational holiday avatar of your choosing).

SUPERHERO CLASSICS

Longbox Graveyard is mostly about superheroes, and here are some of my favorite collections.

Walt Simonson’s Thor

Simonson’s take on Thor from the 1980s remains my favorite interpretation of one of my favorite characters. In his fifty-odd issue run, Walt took all the classic elements of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Thor mythos — Asgard, the gods, Loki, the Destroyer, Thor’s battles with his father, romance, the whole shooting match — and made everything old seem new again. These books are fast-paced, adventurous, sometimes funny, and always full of heart. (You can read my review of the first part of Simonson’s run in two parts, here and here). Simonson’s work has been collected in the Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus, a beautiful volume that includes the entire run, including the seminal Beta Ray Bill storyline, and the Malekith the Dark Elf arc, which appears to be at the center of 2013’s Thor movie sequel.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man is fifty years old but I think the character’s initial Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run has never been bettered (and you can find out why I feel this way, here). The entire Lee/Ditko run is collected in a hard-to-find Omnibus, and you can also get at least part of the saga in a more readily-available Masterwork edition.

Conan The Barbarian

It has been awhile since I blogged about Conan’s earliest comics appearances, his romances, and his mishandling in film, but I am still a devoted fan of the Cimmerian, and very fond of the Dark Horse Comics reprints of the Marvel Conan books of the 1970s. The entire Marvel run is available — along with reprints of Savage Sword of Conan and King Conan too, if you are a completest — but I can most recommend the Barry Windsor-Smith reprints in volumes 1-4 of the series, and the following Roy Thomas/John Buscema run that is reprinted up through volume 14. The clarity and color of those reprints is a sight to behold — in many cases it’s like seeing the art for the very first time.

Captain America

File this one under new classics — while the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby tales are collected in an omnibus of their own, author Ed Brubaker’s take on Cap from 2004-2012 is my favorite interpretation of my favorite character. Mr. Brubaker has wrapped up his run but his tales are collected in several volumes, beginning with his Captain America Omnibus Volume 1, and continuing with the Death of Captain America, and others. A bit of these tales were mined for 2011’s Captain America movie, and Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc is reported to be the basis of 2014’s movie sequel.

Infinity Gauntlet

And since we’re talking about movies … if you want a look ahead to future Marvel movies, you could do worse than to read the recent Infinity Gauntlet collection. This mini-series by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim tells of the tale of the mad Death God of Titan taking on the entire Marvel Universe and (almost) killing them all. It is a cosmic fist opera of the first order (and you can read my review here), but it’s most worth reading to give yourself a crash course in the series’ central villain, Thanos — otherwise known as that mysterious purple guy from the end credits of The Avengers, who promises to loom large in the Marvel movies to come.

ANIMATION

There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to superhero movies, and you don’t need me to tell you that Avengers and Dark Knight Rises should be on your shopping list. But don’t overlook the charms of superhero animation, which tell a broader range of stories and introduce more obscure, weird, and wonderful characters than you will ever see in a live action move.

Young Justice

My favorite comic-that-isn’t-a-comic got a full review here, and with Cartoon Network yanking this title off the air without warning, the best way to watch it now is through these DVD sets. Young Justice is a serious, straight-ahead superhero series about insecure young heroes facing a monstrous super-conspiracy, full of action, surprises, and some sophisticated characterization that lends punch to a couple genuinely surprising cliffhanger twists. There’s a good chance this is the best superhero series you’ve never seen, and I’d put it up against some of the second-tier live action superhero films of recent years in terms of entertainment value. These DVDs are an inexpensive and very cool gift for comics fans.

Batman: Brave & The Bold

A distinct departure from the grim-and-gritty screen Batman of today, Batman: Brave & The Bold is a throwback to the silly Silver Age Batman of the 1960s, and will also be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the Adam West television show of that era. Taking its name from Batman’s legendary team-up book, the series sees Batman paired with a different DC hero each week. It is a breathlessly inventive show, with musical episodes, surrealistic dream episodes, and the BEST depiction of Aquaman, anywhere (yes, Aquaman). This series will connect with hipster adults (who don’t need to be mind-altered to enjoy it) and kids alike, and it’s a great series for adults to watch with their children, truly a show with something for everyone.

BOOKS ABOUT COMICS

The perfect gift for the comics fan who has everything may not be comics but instead book about comics — tomes that provide insight on the history and development of the comic book form. Here are a few of the essential volumes you’ll find on my shelf, which I think any devoted fan would enjoy.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe’s unauthorized history of the most important company in comics is a terrific read — and I enthused about it at length here. Far from a fawning fan history, this book is for those who want to see how the sausage is made, and for anyone who wants to know more about the larger-than-life personalities in Marvel’s creative “bullpen” (spoiler: some of these people aren’t very nice). This was my favorite book of 2012 and I recommend it even to non-comics fans for its look at a unique business, and for its chronicle of how Marvel rose from bankruptcy to become one of the most powerful companies in modern media.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Scott McCloud’s book isn’t a history of comics so much as a guide to understanding what makes comics a unique storytelling form, revealing the unexpectedly complicated wheels-within-wheels that make a comic tick. The book is scholarly but very approachable thanks to being a comic book itself, and it’s a good choice for convincing your on-the-fence friends that there may be more to these funny books than meets the eye. Confirmed comics fans will also enjoy McCloud’s insights on how the form of comics has changed through the years, and will also be exposed to greater breadths in the medium than we sometimes perceive when we’re locked into the monthly adventures of Captain Whatsisname.

Comics & Sequential Art

Will Eisner’s instruction manual on his singular way of telling a tale in words and pictures is intended for artists but still contains insights for fans and laymen. I go back to it every couple years just to remind myself how angry I am that I can’t draw a lick — Eisner lays out a grammar for comics that definitely favors the role of the artist/writer, but everyone will enjoy looking at the way Eisner breaks down a page, conveys emotion, and (most famously) depicts the passage of time. A master work from a master creator that modern comics authors and artists would do well to read.

MODERN STUFF

I do read contemporary comics, even if I don’t blog about them here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you want stories from the present century I can offer some guidance. For the most part these collections have the same storytelling values as those older books that I cherish, but they are dressed up for a modern sensibility. Some are revisionist takes on classic superheroes while others are new tales for a new age. Most of them will even stand up to critical scrutiny, meaning you can leave them out on your coffee table with only (minimal) fear of derision and embarrassment!

The Walking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s harrowing tale of our inevitable zombie-haunted future is both a television and publishing phenomenon, and my review of the first fifty-odd issues of this series headlined my Halloween column here at Longbox Graveyard. These books are well-written and approachable — a little slow at times, but taken together make for a terrific (and sometimes difficult) long read. Nearly every issue printed to date have been collected in Walking Dead Compendium One and the newly-released Walking Dead Compendium Two. For fans of a less literary bent, box set collections of seasons one, two, and three are also good viewing, but even fans intimately familiar with the television series are likely to enjoy the original graphic novels, which provide more in-depth characterization and also offer some twists and turns not (entirely) in line with how the show has developed.

The New 52

A little over a year ago, DC Comics hit the “reset” button on their superhero comics line, with the intent of making their comic book universe more inviting for new and lapsed readers. The “New 52” is DC’s line of 52 monthly comic books covering everything from Superman to Frankenstein, fitting everything into a (more-or-less) editorially cohesive whole.

Now that DC is several months into their reboot, the first issues of the New 52 are appearing as trade paperback collections, and I’ve liked most of the few that I’ve read. You can’t go far wrong with any of these titles (except the Rob Liefeld ones!), and if you have a lapsed Superman reader on your shopping list, or know a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy, then grab one of the many titles featuring those characters and you are good to go. If you’d like something a little further afield, then I recommend the New 52 collections of Aquaman (yes, Aquaman!) and Supergirl, as well as the continuing story of Batwoman (though new readers would be wise to begin with her pre-New 52 adventures).

I also enjoyed the medieval superhero adventures of the Demon Knights, the secret undead war of I, Vampire, and the gonzo monster-fighting exploits of Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.(since sadly cancelled, so this first collection might be the only stories we’ll get). Wonder Woman, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing all come highly-recommended, too, but I haven’t yet read them myself, so maybe thumb them in the store before buying.

Ed Brubaker’s Crime Stories

I’ve already enthused about Ed Brubaker’s take on Captain America, but his original crime stories are also well worth reading. There are echoes of Pulp Fiction in the multiple, interweaving narratives of Brubaker’s Criminal, a gritty look at street-level crime without a cape in sight. If you want a little more superheroics in your Brubaker crime drama, his Incognito is worth a look, about the trials of an irredeemable supervillian in the witness protection program. And even though they feature mainstream superheroes, Brubaker’s take on Daredevil and Catwoman owe more to crime books than they do capes and masks, so give them a look, too.

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited

If the best gift is something a person would love while never buying it for themselves, then a year’s subscription of Marvel’s library of digital comics may be the best option on this list. The service has its strengths and weaknesses, but the content is without peer, particularly for fans of older Marvel books. Recent titles run about a year behind their street publication but the back catalog is impressive and growing every week. This was the gift my family gave me last year and a renewed subscription is printed in bold crayon in my own letter to Santa this season.

Saga

Finally we have Saga, the “it” book of 2012. This Image Comics space fantasy from Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples is just getting started, and the recently-released first trade collection is a great place to jump into a difficult-to-summarize story that features a rocketship forest, TV-headed spacefaring noblemen, bounty hunters with complicated moral compasses, Lying Cat, a breastfeeding narrator, and … well, just go with it. Saga is a fast-paced, inventive, and surprising story and you can get in on the fun before most people even know it exists (or before the wheels come off of this ambitious tale). Plus, as a special bonus, reading this story will give you instant comics shop credibility, and may be the key to winning a date with that mousy comics girl behind the register who only reads cool stuff you’ve never heard about. Check it out!

So there you have it … a sack so stuffed full of comic book goodness that even Ben Grimm in a Santa suit would have a hard time carrying it through the door. I hope you’ve found a book or two for someone on your list (even if that someone is you), and if you do purchase something based on my recommendation, I hope you will write and let me know how it turned out. I also welcome your holiday gift suggestions in my comments, below.

Happy Holidays from Longbox Graveyard!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #78 Longbox Soapbox

Queen of the Black Coast

Longbox Graveyard #23

For all that comic books are full of half-naked women, there were precious few heroines in 1970s Marvel Comics to excite the interests of this (then) teenage boy. I wasn’t a Spider-Man guy, and so I didn’t have a dog in the Gwen Stacy/Mary Jane fight. Ms. Marvel was too mature, the Wasp was married, and Sue Storm was married to a white-haired dude and had a kid.

Valkyrie — clearly insane

Valkyrie was clearly insane (and her bullet boobs looked dangerous). Jean Grey was intriguing but no one in their right mind would get involved with a telepath (plus she dated the captain of the football team — boring!) Moondragon and Mantis were both high maintenance. Tigra would eat you.

But Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast? Now, there’s a perfect Marvel girlfriend! Impulsive, physical, vengeful, independent, doomed — she’s like some biker girl who blows up your life in spectacular fashion but is crazy fun every step of the way. She even had her own car (if a pirate ship counts, and I’d argue it should count double). Belit was the perfect choice for a first girlfriend, both for me and for Conan, who met Belit in issue #58 of Conan the Barbarian, and stayed by her side until her tragic death in issue #100.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

My previous Conan review looked at the Barry Windsor-Smith era of the book, concluding with issue #25. Frankly that’s as much Conan as anyone needs to read, but with the forgettable Conan the Barbarian movie debuting on Blu-Ray and DVD this week, this seemed a good excuse to look at my favorite barbarian one last time (and for old time’s sake, to linkbait JASON MOMOA NAKED, too).

Following Windsor-Smith on Conan the Barbarian was John Buscema, one of Marvel’s core action artists who helped build the post-Kirby house style on superhero books like The Avengers. In Conan, Buscema would find a subject for his more illustrative talents, and I think that Conan is the finest work he did for Marvel. When he took his time, John Buscema was a superior artist, and when he went fast, he still created strong work, which made him a superior comic book artist. If you doubt Buscema’s ability, check out a few of the Conan issues where John inks his own work. I’m especially fond of issue #70 — the splash page uses negative space of white lines slashing through inky darkness to create a storm so convincing you can practically hear rain hitting the decks.

But for all that Buscema would prove the definitive Conan comic book artist, the first two years of his run on the book were a grind, characterized by formulaic barbarian stories of a lesser sort. Bound as he was to the continuity of the original Robert E. Howard Conan tales, and having decided that twelve issues of Conan the Barbarian would equate to roughly a year in the Cimmerian’s life, scripter Roy Thomas was pretty clearly treading water until he could introduce Belit. Appearing only in a single Conan story from 1934 — Queen of the Black Coast — Robert E. Howard’s Belit is vividly rendered, but she’s also kind of cuckoo for Coca Puffs. In Howard’s story, Belit’s scarcely caught a glimpse of Conan before she’s doing her buck naked mating dance, and then just a few pages later, after a series of unnamed adventures over several years, we’re sailing up the poisonous River Zarkheba to Belit’s doom at the hands of a winged ape.

the mating dance of Belit, John Buscema-style

But in adopting Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas used every part of the buffalo, and from this single tale he spun out over three years of Conan the Barbarian, producing possibly the longest story arc in 1970s comics, and also creating one of the series’ great characters in Belit.

Unlike the quasi-virginal Red Sonja, who reserved her virtue for the man who could best her in combat (a safe vow, because she could lick any man in the room), Belit was an earthy character from the get-go, with her ambitions and lusts on display, whether they were for Conan, a casket of jewels, or the throne of Asgalun, which had been usurped from her by her wicked uncle.

Belit’s greed would get the best of her in the end

Working from the vaguest hints of the character provided by Howard, Thomas created a full-fledged origin story for Belit in issue #58, transforming her into a vengeance-driven girl-with-a-plan who instantly lent structure and urgency to a series that had wandered all over the place for years.

Belit does the Braveheart speech

John Buscema drew every woman with voluptuous curves, but Belit lacks the breast-heavy langor of his usual Hyborian women. She’s long-legged, with a narrow waist and square shoulders, strong and feminine at the same time, and while she runs around in a plunging fur neck line, she isn’t so top-heavy as the average super-heroine.

My memory held that these were superior Conan comics, but re-reading them these past several months has revealed they aren’t so different from what came before and after. Like the rest of Roy Thomas’ run, the Belit era of Conan the Barbarian is a pulpy, adventurous sword and sorcery saga, neither very good nor very bad, and suffering a bit for Thomas’ good-intentioned method of shoehorning in authentic Howard stories and plots whenever possible, even if he had to completely re-write a non-Conan Howard story to do it (we get a voodoo story, an Alexander the Great story, and a mermaid poem in this run, and none of them quite work).

We also get Conan fighting giant swamp monsters, Conan fighting wizards, Conan exploring strange ruins and exotic cities — fun-but-disposable stories, and really nothing special … if not for Belit. It is Belit that elevates this run, making it memorable if not quite classic, and it was still a joy to see her and Conan together again after all these years.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Conan and Belit have the greatest romantic relationship in Marvel Comics. This comes with heavy caveats … we’re talking about a 1970s barbarian comic adopted from a 1930s pulp series, so of course the relationship is melodramatic, exaggerated, and cliched. But it is also authentic, lusty, uneven, and doom-driven in ways rarely seen in mainstream comics. For better than forty issues, the usual sword and sorcery daring-do of Conan the Barbarian was leavened by a relationship that had a little bit of everything.

Such as …

… love a first sight …

… jealousy …

… more jealousy (and arguments) …… and arguments (and jealousy) …

… and making up (after jealous arguments) …

… and plenty of action above-decks, too.

For forty-odd issues, Conan gets to play pirate with a woman who takes no shit from him, but loves him so fiercely she (literally) comes back from the dead to save his life. Conan makes Belit’s goals his own, gorging himself on carousing and slaughter, bringing war to Stygia, helping Belit regain her crown (which she just as quickly gives up), and along the way killing the requisite number of swamp dragons and hawk riders. Belit tries (without much success) to keep Conan on a short leash while she serves as the brains of the outfit, and tries not to think of what life would be like were she to actually become a queen, and have to keep Conan as a consort. Like outlaws on a crime spree the two live day-to-day, and knowing the story ends in death gives it a melancholy, end-of-summer feeling that rises above the usual four-color barbarian set pieces.

This run isn’t perfect. It has too many jungle animals, a bad Tarzan knock-off who kidnaps Belit, a half-dozen fill-in issues unwisely based on non-Conan Howard stories, and a pack of dumbass crab men that even Roy Thomas regrets introducing into the saga. But it also has John Buscema at the top of his barbaric game, and it has Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast, a character as flawed and genuine as any you will meet in Bronze Age comics. These are choppy seas, but they are worth sailing. And when Belit meets her end, and Conan pushes her burning funeral barge out to sea, it is genuinely sad and sweet, thanks in no small part to Robert E. Howard’s original prose (by a man who knew a thing or two about depression and loss).

When that burning ship goes over the horizon, an era goes with it. Roy Thomas would leave Marvel after a year, ending this celebrated run on Conan. The book would continue, but even after Thomas returned it would never be the same. In truth this is a good place to step off the series, having now followed Conan through his adolescence and and finally into adulthood, christened by his first great heartbreak.

You can read the full, forty-two issue Queen of the Black Coast saga in the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan, Volumes 8-12.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #24 Capes & Cowls

Have You Seen This Barbarian?

Longbox Graveyard #10

Crom, count the dead!

The numbers are in and it was a first-round knock-out — Conan the Barbarian could muster no better than ten million dollars in its opening weekend. Finishing fourth in what should have been a one-horse race, Conan failed to vanquish two box-office hold-overs and a Spy Kids sequel that wasn’t screened for U.S. critics (and the primary virtue of which is that it smelled like dirty diapers).

Barely a week has passed since the launch of this prospective franchise, and Conan already feels like old news. But the Cimmerian is a favorite here at LongBox Graveyard, so I will give his latest film outing a post-mortem before throwing a spade-full of dirt on the poor brute’s face.

My Conan biases were outlined in last week’s column, but for those arriving late — I love and admire the pulps; enjoy the Roy Thomas run of the comics; dislike Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s movies; and I believe Conan is a more sophisticated character than he first appears.

Yes, I am a true believer, and I turned out with my son Miles and a scant few other believers to see the movie last Saturday. The problems with the picture were legion — the action was largely incoherent, the dialogue lacked snap, the plot was uninvolving, the villains barely rose to the level of a desultory Marvel comics script, and Jason Momoa had bigger tits than his female lead.

But one problem put everything else in the shade.

Where was Conan?

Someone needs to put Conan’s face on a milk carton. I keep going to his movies, but the Conan I know still hasn’t shown up.

Drama is all about the character, never more so than when we are transported to some distant world full of monsters and alien gods. The growling savages, leaping sand demons, topless dancing girls, and writhing snake monsters of Conan the Barbarian haven’t a hope of holding our attention absent believable characters struggling to overcome meaningful internal struggles. It’s a real shame, because the film has decent cast and all the blood, blades, and boobs you need to make a Conan movie … they just whiffed on the “Conan” part!

Since the Barbarian’s screenwriters keep getting the character wrong, I thought I’d offer some pointers about what makes Conan special, and how the character might be better realized on the screen.

CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Read The Books!)

Job One is to get to the library and read a couple books by Robert E. Howard. He wrote barbarian fantasies about this hero you may have heard about — guy by the name of “Conan,” as in, “Conan the Barbarian.” Howard was no Hemingway but the worst of his original Conan stories are head and shoulders above the hack screenplays that keep getting sold in his name.

Read those tales and you won’t find the One Ring (I mean a squid mask) held secretly by the Elves (I mean the barbarian tribes) to keep it from falling into the hands of Sauron (I mean what’s-his-name with the perfect teeth). Instead of raiding old D&D modules for story ideas as did the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian, consider adopting some of the better original tales, like “The Phoenix in the Sword,” “Beyond the Black River,” “Red Nails,” or “Queen of the Black Coast.”

(And rather than reference “The Tower of the Elephant” in a throw-away scene the way they did in Conan the Barbarian, you might try actually making “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s a pretty cool story. Check it out.)

CONAN THE REPITITIOUS (Enough With The Revenge Stories!)

To make their hero relateable, the screenwriters of the new Conan the Barbarian spend their first act showing us Conan’s childhood. As was the case in the tiresome 1982 John Milius film, this new Conan is a revenge story, with orphaned Conan remorselessly hunting down the Big Bad who killed his father.

Here’s the problem — Conan doesn’t a shit about his dad.

not THIS again!

If Conan thinks about his father at all, it is probably the same way he thinks about Crom — a distant, unfathomable figure who gave him courage and life, then left him to find his own way in an uncaring world. Conan is pragmatic and impulsive and so surrounded by blood and monsters that he knows every day could be his last. He’s an adventurer with a lust to live life to it’s fullest. This is not a man with a plan. The brooding, doomed, revenge-driven storylines now twice handed this character ill suit him (THREE times if you count Arnold mooning over Valeria in Conan the Destroyer. Enough already!)

CONAN THE CONTEMPORARY (Understand The Character)

It seems Conan’s screenwriters can’t get past the cliches to understand the living character at the heart of Robert E. Howard’s tales. There’s so much more to Conan than the grunting, one-note musclemen Hollywood keeps putting in his place. Conan’s writers need to see the Barbarian as a real person before they have a hope of giving him decent things to say and do. Might it help to think of him in present-day terms?

If Conan were alive today, he’d be the buddy you call to help move a couch, play wingman on a trip to Vegas, or help collect a debt. He would be perpetually broke, but he wouldn’t take your money. He’d seem both penniless and he richest man in the world. Jason Momoa’s screen presence hints at some of those qualities — Conan should be a regular guy, only more so. Keep that character in mind as you write Conan’s adventures in the Hyborian Age.

NOT the contemporary Conan I had in mind!

CONAN THE CONTRASTING (Let Conan Stand Out In A Crowd!)

The best way to appreciate Conan is through juxtaposition and contrast, but this newest film makes Conan just one brute among many, distinguished only by his lack of deformities and facial scars. When everyone is a mud-caked savage, it is hard to see Conan as a rustic outsider. He should stand out like a lion in a petting zoo.

But instead of plunging Conan into the civilized heart of darkness at the center of Howard’s Hyborian Age, the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian (doubtless with one eye on the budget) throw our hero into Bulgarian forests and (worst of all) the mud-hut Cimmerian villages of Conan’s childhood — a place so dull that Howard’s Conan left it at the first opportunity. Put Conan in fish-out-of-water situations where we can see how his barbarism is both a blessing and a curse, and the character and the world will both feel infinitely more interesting and engaging.

courtly graces, Conan-style!

CONAN THE CATHARTIC (Make The Violence Fun!)

Conan is an outsider in his world, unschooled in the ways of civilization. It’s OK to make the character a little innocent and vulnerable. We’ll like him better that way, and we will get on board with Conan when we see he is inherently decent and misunderstood. The present screen Conan is far too comfortable and in command of his world to elicit audience sympathies.

We need to see Conan take the wicked kings and merchants of the civilized world at face value; we need to see their betrayal coming well before does our hero; and we need to see Conan turn the tables on the fools who underestimated him with a cathartic outburst of violence that sets things right.

Everyone wants to punch their boss in the mouth. Let Conan do that for us and we will love him for it!

anyone could have seen that coming … except Conan!

CONAN THE METAPHORICAL (Make The Violence Meaningful!)

Like the screenwriters of this and past Conan films, Robert E. Howard set his barbarian at war with sorcerers determined to enslave the world with their dark magics, but unlike Conan’s filmmakers, Howard understood those villains were metaphors for the corruption and false civility of modern life. Conan’s enemies aren’t the wizards or kings or computer generated monsters that filmmakers throw in his path — Conan’s enemy is anyone who has surrendered their freedom to corrupt authority, or is complicit in injustice, large or small. Conan’s enemy is the boredom and frustration of modern life — the gatekeepers, ribbon clerks, shysters, and con-artists that hide behind the rule of law to stick it to the little guy. Conan’s violent outbursts needs to topple kingdoms and right cosmic wrongs — he should wipe clean the stench of evil like a force of nature.

The bad guy in Conan the Barbarian is intent on becoming a god and destroying the world, but his inevitable death at Conan’s hands didn’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the world. Raise the stakes! When Conan kills the Big Bad it should be like blowing up the Death Star. In Conan the Barbarian, he just knocked a dude off a bridge.

long odds and meaningful outcomes

CONAN THE DIMENSIONAL (Let The Character Change!)

Jason Momoa’sConan is impossibly powerful, strong, and handsome, but without flaws or foolishness there’s no place for the character to grow. We watch Conan have an adventure, but we don’t go on an adventure with him, because he is obviously so in control of the movie that there’s no room for the audience to join him. Worse, Conan’s interior world is so ill-developed that meaningful character change is impossible.

Aside from weakly coming to terms with guilt over his father’s death, our new Conan has no character arc. He’s the same guy in the final scene as his first (and neither is there a change in his world). There are no stakes, no journey, no beliefs that are challenged, no character changes, and no point to his story.

Howard’s Conan begins his life as a penniless adventure and winds up crowned a king, along the way becoming a thief, soldier, pirate, and mercenary — that character is constantly growing and changing. Let cinematic Conan grow on screen, and the audience will grow with him.

Conan is not unaffected by his world

CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DAMNIT!

There’s a scene about a third of the way into Conan the Barbarian where Conan’s pirate pal describes what Conan is really all about — that he looks like a savage, but that he has the heart of a king, that he’s loyal to his friends like a bloodhound, and that unlike civilized men, he does not sacrifice his children to gods or enslave his fellow man. That’s Conan, and it’s encouraging the screenwriters knew him that well enough to write that dialogue!

If they had remembered Screenwriting 101 and shown us that character, instead of telling us about him, we might have had a decent Conan picture, about an adventurer we could believe in and cheer for and watch grow wise before our eyes.

Conan could have been a contender. He could have been a franchise!

Instead, Conan the Barbarian is a tedious, seen-it-before, violent fantasy spectacle long on cliches and short on character, which means two things.

First, I wasted my money taking my lad to see the picture last week.

Second … the clock is now running on the next Conan reboot! Check back here at LongBox Graveyard in 2021 for my review … and if you do see that barbarian on the milk carton, tell him to get out to Hollywood and split some skulls! They’re making a fool out of him out there!

NEXT WEEK: #11 Captain Not-So-Marvelous

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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