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Fire And Ice

Longbox Graveyard #88

I try to keep Longbox Graveyard laser-focused on Silver and Bronze Age superhero comics, but I do take the occasional detour, whether I’m looking at the latest in digital comics technology, reviewing a popular comic series of the present century, or lauding a contemporary animated series for emulating the kinds of comics I loved in the 1970s.

I also have an affection for Conan the Barbarian — in both his literary and Marvel Comics forms — and this week’s subject at Longbox Graveyard owes an obvious debt to Robert E. Howard’s immortal fantasy hero, which is reason enough to depart a bit from my normal purview.

Fire And Ice

The year was 1983, a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger cemented his international celebrity by playing Conan on the big screen, and the public was hungry for sword & sorcery action. Nowadays, it seems like every Christmas brings us a Lord of the Rings or a Hobbit or some other fantasy epic, but thirty years ago — before the advent of computer-generated special effects — bringing fantasy properties to the silver screen was a dicey proposition.

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You Might Also Like: Frazetta Gallery

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A pioneer in adult filmic fantasy was Ralph Bakshi, who (along with Don Bluth) was about the only American film producer of the era trying to make a go of feature animation outside of Walt Disney Studios. Sensing that the time was right for a big screen sword & sorcery epic, Bakshi partnered with his longtime friend, the legendary artist Frank Frazetta, to make Fire And Ice. No stranger to fantasy, Bakshi had already created Wizards (1977) and an incomplete version of Lord of the Rings (1978) using the same rotoscoping process that would drive Fire And Ice, where live-action footage was traced over by artists to create the final animated product.

Fire And Ice had an impressive comic book and fantasy pedigree — thanks to a script by Marvel Comics scribes Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway — and of course Frank Frazetta’s DNA is thoroughly entwined with fantasy art and comic books. But despite lofty ambitions, Fire And Ice is never more than an average movie, mostly owing to a predictable story and on-the-nose characterizations. The plot is a straight-ahead battle to the death between kingdoms of fire and … uh … ice (bet you didn’t see that coming) with a loin-clouted hero and a princess in peril caught in between. Our cast never surprises — they are Noble Savage, Evil Wizard, Mysterious Warrior, and Kidnapped Princess for the entirety of the film’s 81-minute run time. The on-screen action is sometimes diverting, but the score is forgettable, and the voice work merely adequate (with Steve Sandor’s anachronistic Darkwolf somehow the best of the bunch).

In today’s era of plentiful, big-budget fantasy movies, there’s little to recommend Fire And Ice. Even the Frank Frazetta connection is misleading, as the film’s budget didn’t permit Frazetta’s gorgeous, painterly visions to come to life. While rotoscoping conveys convincing motion, the action is mostly confined to a few lesser brawls and running (endless running!) through fantasy backgrounds painted by getting-their-start artists like Dinotopia’s James Gurney and “Painting With Light” artist Thomas Kinkade.

No, the main reason to watch Fire And Ice all these decades later — and the reason I’m covering it here at Longbox Graveyard — is that is is fun for fans to play “Spot-The-Frazetta.” The film’s quality doesn’t approach Frazetta’s painting and illustration work, but Frazetta was a full and committed collaborator in this film, and it’s fun to see his compositions, set pieces, and favorite visual concepts peek out from behind the film’s curtains.

The movie opens with some Frazetta pencil art that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else (and could well be concept art for the film).

Frank Frazetta, Fire And Ice

Princess Teegra is a classic Frazetta girl come to life, and watching her roll around is pretty much the main event of Fire And Ice.

Teegra, Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

Much of the film’s suspense comes from hoping Teegra will bounce out of the six-square-inches-of-silk that passes for her wardrobe. (Sadly, the costume’s functional quality proves as unlikely as Teegra’s anatomy).

Teegra, Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

I think I spot Teegra’s origins in Frazetta’s “At The Earth’s Core.”

At The Earth's Core, Frank Frazetta

There have to be sub-human savages to threaten our girl. There. Have. To. Be.

Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

Frazetta, of course, painted exceptional savages.

Neanderthals, Frank Frazetta

There are a couple monsters, the best of which is this swamp dragon.

Swamp Dragon, Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

John Carter encountered a similar beastie in Frazetta’s spectacular pen-and-ink work on “A Fighting Man of Mars.”

A Fighting Man of Mars, Frank Frazetta

Our noble savage faces down some wolves, which really isn’t much …

Fire And Ice, Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi

… but it’s interesting to see how even that scene’s palett was likely translated from Frazetta’s “Wolfmoon.”

Wolfmoon, Frank Frazetta

Darkwolf is the prototypical Frazetta barbarian.

Darkwolf, Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

That pose above reminds of Frazetta’s “Berserker” …

Berserker, by Frank Frazetta

… and our last look at Darkwolf is even easier to recognize …

Darkwolf, Fire And Ice, by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

… as Frazetta’s iconic “Death Dealer”

Frank Frazetta, Death Dealer

All of which is fun, but only you can decide if this is enough to schedule your own viewing of Fire And Ice. The movie is readily available on home video, via Netflix streaming (where I recently re-watched it, for the first time since seeing it on it’s original run). The full movie is even on YouTube. There are worse excuses for revisiting Frank Frazetta’s art, and who knows … maybe I missed a frame where Teegra’s silk bikini failed to protect her virtue.

Maybe.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #88 The Last Days of Superman

Barsoomian Beat-Down!

Longbox Graveyard #39

I wasn’t going to write this column.

I intended last week’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars column to be my first and last word on the subject. Acknowledge my love of the property, excoriate the Marvel Comics run for being so crappy, express my anxiety over the movie, and finish things off with a one paragraph review of the film.

Done!

But today I got into one of those protracted geekfights that makes you think about things, and reevaluate, and get worked up all over again. So what the heck … one more John Carter column isn’t going to kill anyone. This subject does matter to me and I am seething with nerd rage.

I stand naked before you, beneath the hurtling moons of Mars!

Hear my cry!

Disney’s John Carter pierced me through my fanboy heart!

(all art in this blog by the immortal Frank Frazetta!)

As I noted in my update to last week’s column, John Carter gets more things right than wrong … but the things it gets wrong are so wrong that it torpedoes the whole enterprise. Even worse — barring some miraculous international box office — the movie is going to perform so poorly that it will turn the entire property into a toxic tire fire. There won’t be a sequel, there won’t be a John Carter movie franchise — just this single, flawed, oh-so-promising misfire.

And that’s a cosmic shame.

I am severely conflicted about this movie. My personal grade of C+ puts me a little ahead of the the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, and only one letter grade behind John Carter’s CinemaScore rating by audiences exiting the theater. Put a radium pistol to my head and I will admit that the movie was … good.

(Some of the time.)

(When you look at it just right.)

The problem is that with all the money, talent, and ambition that went into John Carter, “good” isn’t good enough. This picture deserved to be GREAT! Anything less is the cinematic equivalent of a Barsoomian airship captain leaping from the prow of his doomed flyer — a symbolic act of surrender.

I do love John Carter. Not as much as I love Conan, or The Lord of the Rings, but I do love the series. It’s probably not top ten for me, but it is comfortably in my top twenty. When the Conan movie tanked last August I reached back to the books and offered up a fist-full of suggestions about how the Cimmerian might be better treated on film, but I have no such prescription for John Carter. The books frankly aren’t that good — and I say this as a fan! Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novels are full of wonderful ideas and imagery, but as fiction they are a tough read. In the run-up to this movie, when I read that director Andrew Stanton was picking and choosing from the books, and throwing out what didn’t work … I felt great! That’s exactly what this series required! Mine the books for ideas, find the heart of the series, and make a movie for 21st century audiences!

I had faith that Andrew Stanton — the flat-out genius behind Wall-E — would do justice to the sentimentality and the heart that is at the core of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian romances.

John Carter was never deterred by long odds

But I knew.

I knew the moment I saw that first brown, tepid, dirge of a teaser trailer last year that this picture was in trouble. That trailer was all about loss, and mourning, and dust. There was no adventure. There was no romance. There was no attempt to connect this movie to contemporary audiences. From the creator of Wall-E and Finding Nemo! From the writer of Tarzan! Pixar’s first live-action movie!

None of that was on display in this first lifeless trailer:

And it is not too much of an exaggeration to report that it was all down hill from there, with an increasingly off-kilter marketing blitz just muddying the issue right up until the movie was delivered, dead on arrival, at theaters this past weekend.

I was one of the few Americans who turned out for this picture on opening day, watching the film in IMAX 3D, and my militant optimism turned to dismay almost from the opening curtain. The film opens in a strident rush of yelling and explosions and over-amped action that left me lost — and I’m a guy that’s read all the books, and blogs about this nonsense. Incoherent action, sky ships blasting anything and everything, characters we don’t know snarling at each other … then McNulty is confronted by three flying dudes who give him some kind of nanotech wonderweapon and I am supposed to care because …?

The Wire’s own Jimmy McNulty — Dominic West — played the heavy in John Carter, and I put him here because it is probably the last chance I’ll get to reference my favorite TV show at Longbox Graveyard

Look, opening the picture with a bang and introducing the audience to Barsoom is a great idea. But is this the best Stanton could do? My pal and sometimes Longbox Graveyard contributor Chris Ulm pulled a better opening out of his backside. Why not go with a Lord of the Rings opening? Show how distant Barsoom is a dying planet, with less water and less air each passing year. Show legions of Red and Green Men savagely battling over these precious and dwindling resources. Juxtapose the Martian civil wars with the American Civil War here on earth, show John Carter as the peerless Virginia cavalryman, fighting for his doomed lost cause. Have Carter unhorsed by some underhanded Yankee treachery, have him take a bullet in the gut, have him crawl off to die in the night and reach out to the glowing red planet Mars — then, boom, take us there and get on with the tale!

None of this protracted origin story that didn’t make sense in the book, and works even worse on film. None of this Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence nonsense. Just introduce the world, raise the stakes, tell us why we should care, and get on with a fast-paced, action-packed, fish-out-of-water adventure on a fantastic world with the homespun, Southern gentleman Carter our anchor against the unreality of it all.

those odds are looking worse

When the picture does get around to John Carter on Mars, things improve a bit. For awhile. But it is here that my greatest disappointment with the movie comes to the fore — Stanton opts for spectacle over character development.

The Green Men are wonderfully realized, and the strongest part of the film. But rather than following the book, and richly developing John Carter’s relationship with the Tharks (and I can’t believe I am defending a book I don’t like all that much!), the film throws characters and situations at us in a rush. John Carter’s slow-developing friendship with Tars Tarkas is central to the series. The Tharks are savages who laugh only when someone is in pain, but through John Carter, Tars Tarkas learns the value of friendship, develops the courage to acknowledge his daughter, Sola, and bravely charts a new path for his people. The friendship between John Carter and Tars Tarkas is one of the greatest in fantasy fiction (and George Lucas pretty much stole it for Han Solo and Chewie), but Stanton gives us no chance to enjoy watching these two characters come together, testing each others’ strengths, challenging each others’ most deeply-held convictions, and emerging better for the experience. Instead we get a kind of rough sketch of Tars Tarkas’ wonder at encountering John Carter, and a couple scenes where Tars tells us how Carter affected him, rather than showing us through action, dialogue, and character development.

ace character actor Willem Dafoe is larely wasted in his role as Tars Tarkas

Sola fares a bit better — and the bit with her body being branded for each crime she has committed is a nice way to externalize her outlier nature — but we aren’t shown enough about Thark society to really understand how special she is for feeling kindness and maternal instincts. And likewise we have little chance to appreciate the unbreakable bond of loyalty between John Carter and Woola — the poor beast set to “guard” him — because the movie is moving at such a breakneck pace that there is no time for the relationship to simmer, to transform from prisoner and jailer to man and man’s best friend in a fashion that could have illuminated character and bound the audience to the story.

Dejah Thoris and Woola (I think)

These oversights are critical because more than flyers, radium rifles, beasts, and aliens, Burroughs’ Mars books are about friendship, love, loyalty, and honor. What makes John Carter special is his compassion — that he wins over an entire planet through his courage, but also his mercy. The kindness Carter offers his foes blows Barsoomian society apart. It turns Sola into a mother, and Woola into a faithful and loving companion. It transforms the Tharks from savage raiders to eternal allies of Helium. And it wins the heart of the “incomparable Dejah Thoris,” in the central romance of this sword & planet romance series.

Dejah Thoris fares a bit better than the other characters in the film. I thought her reinvention as a scientist and woman of action was clever and appropriate. But her romance with John Carter is almost entirely truncated in service of a silly plot contrivance based around Carter wanting to return to his home planet, and playing the world-weary warrior. John Carter is a one-dimensional character in the books, but if he is about anything, it is two things — that he is a fighting man through-and-through, and that he falls in love with Dejah Thoris at first sight.

Why did the movie turn Carter into a reluctant warrior who thinks Dejah Thoris is a spoiled little snot? Again, I never thought I’d be defending the book — where the romance is melodramatic, overwrought, and juvenile — but, sheesh, I would have rather seen Burroughs’ turgid romance brought to the screen word-for-word than the expository partnership we got in this movie. The male/female adventuring almost-lovers dynamic is one of cinema’s most basic archetypes — how did Stanton get this part wrong? Has he never seen Speed, Romancing the Stone, The Princess Bride, or a Thin Man movie? Raiders of the Lost Ark? Star Wars? Bonnie and Clyde? Ferris Bueller? Anyone, anyone?

Why on two worlds did the movie devote screen time to the deadly-dull interplanetary Thern conspiracy when there was so much basic character work that went undone?

That’s the kind of nonsense I’d expect from Zack Snyder or Michael Bay. From Andrew Stanton — it was a shock. And a bitter disappointment.

Andrew Stanton should be thrown to the banths for messing this up!

In my naive, fanboy way I came away from the film constructing a best-case scenario. After all, there was so much to like! I thought the Tharks were terrific. I loved the look of the film — the architecture, the technology, the costumes, jewelry, and makeup. I even mostly liked the cast. And there was a part of me that still had faith in Andrew Stanton, cleaving to the notion that his vision of the film had been subverted by interference from meddling producers, and undone by criminal marketing.

But then came this long story in Vulture magazine about how this film is 100% Andrew Stanton’s vision — including the marketing campaign — and all hope evaporated. Because even if by some miracle this film does well enough overseas to justify a sequel … that sequel is going to be the vision of the guy who so missed the center of the target this first time around. And if the movie doesn’t pull off a box office miracle, then it is going to be so toxic that John Carter will never see the screen again … and it will likely drive the final stake through the heart of a steampunk fantasy genre already savaged by movies like Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, and Jonah Hex.

So in John Carter we have a film that kills not only a franchise, but an entire genre, and sullies the esteem with which I held the director for his work on Wall-E. As a movie, John Carter is just mediocre — but as a missed opportunity, this movie ranks among some of the most disappointing genre films I’ve ever seen, right alongside pictures like The Phantom Menace, Watchmen, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Like all of those movies, it is disappointing enough to make me reassess why I liked the original vintage so much in the first place.

fortunately, there is still SO MUCH to love about the original vintage

My advice to Disney — have faith in the franchise, get Jon Favreau for the sequel, and slash $100M from the budget of the next picture.

My advice to Andrew Stanton — get back to Pixar and make movies with bugs and fish and robots … you know, things with heart.

My advice to Longbox Graveyard readers — go see John Carter! Ack, I can’t help myself! This moment may never come again, the chance to see John Carter — however flawed — on the big screen. Go see the film, and with your wallets keep the flickering hope of a sequel alive. And let me know what you think of the movie in the comments section.

In the name of the Ninth Ray, that we have come to this! Chris Ulm’s daughter decided she hated the movie, sight unseen, and reports that the kids are calling it, “John Farter.” A century in the making and instead of taking a victory lap, John Carter needs mercy tickets to get a second time at bat. And here I am still holding out hope for this hopeless mess of a movie. I guess I really do love John Carter, after all.

“A warrior may change his metal, but not his heart.”

Sigh.

Thank you for indulging my rant. Next week I will get back to comics with my WonderCon report (and if you will be at the show, come see the panel I am moderating Friday at 4:30 — “Triumph of the Small Screen!”).

Until then … Kaor, my Barsoomian brothers, and blessed be the shell of thy first ancestor!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #40 WonderCon Wrap-Up!

 

John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Longbox Graveyard #38

John Carter comes to the movies this week, completing an odyssey stretching back one hundred years, beginning with publication of A Princess of Mars in 1912.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — and vastly less successful than that author’s Tarzan of the Apes — the John Carter series has nonetheless fascinated geeks like me for a century, giving birth to the “sword and planet” genre, and having its bones mined by dozens of science fiction books and films to follow, most notably Return of the Jedi, where the whole first act owes more than a little to the airships and savage desert races of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter has remained in print these past hundred years, first as a serial, and later reprinted as a series of eleven novels. It was in the Science Fiction Book Club editions from the 1970s that I first encountered John Carter, and I still have those battered low rent hardbacks on my shelf today, mostly because of the classic Frank Frazetta covers …

… and some pretty special black & white interior art, too.

Those covers and (especially) those interior drawings set the look and feel of John Carter for me, the tale of an ex-Confederate adventurer from Virgina who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is caught up in a whirlwind of swords, radium pistols, flyers, princesses, wild beasts, and the savage Green Men roaming the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom. It’s not great fiction — unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, I find little joy in Burroughs stiff, neo-Victorian approach to storytelling — but it is great world-building, right up there with the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

On the eve of the movie’s release, it’s fruitless to speculate on it’s success — the tale will be told at the box office this weekend. But it doesn’t look good. Tracking numbers are weak and the knives are out for the film and the studio that greenlit the $250 million dollar production. For my part, I expect to like the picture (and I did — sort of — see the end of this post for my brief movie review). I respect director Andrew Stanton — I thought Wall-E was brilliant — and the footage released onto the web by an increasingly nervous studio adequately satisfies my fanboy expectations.

The marketing has been tepid, with the studio distancing themselves from the term “Mars” for crazy reasons; likewise they have steered clear of the story’s post-Civil War period roots, probably spooked by the failure of last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. John Carter seems doomed to be another Scott Pilgrim Versus The World — a genre film that audiences like, but for which the audience was too small to sustain a franchise, which is a real shame, because Burroughs’ Martian saga is broad and rich enough to sustain several feature films.

But I’ll take what I can get.

In 1977 the notion that I would some day get a John Carter movie — in a summer that will also bring me a Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movie — was more fantastic than John Carter slicing up a whole legion of the synthetic men of Mars. Three decades ago, the closest I could get to a John Carter movie was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic series, and I bought every issue (and three annuals, too).

And boy oh boy did they stink!

I stayed with the book to the bitter end out of some misguided loyalty to the property but this run was terrible — terrible art, terrible storytelling, terrible design. Even the colors were terrible. And that the book was so poor despite the heartfelt efforts of some quite talented pros — like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, and Chris Claremont — points out how hard it is to get this story right (and simultaneously increases my respect for Frank Frazetta, even as it makes me that much more nervous for the movie).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marv Wolfman was one of the finest comic book writers of his day, and in the letter page editorial introducing the first issue, Wolfman says all the right things — how he’s loved the series since he was a boy, how he’s always wanted to do John Carter at Marvel, how Gil Kane was his perfect pick for penciller. He knew the books well enough to spot a multi-year gap buried between paragraphs at the end of A Princess of Mars in which to set his series, and he launched the book with an ambitious, twelve-part epic called “The Air Pirates of Mars” that showcased all the many weird races, landscapes, and creatures of Burroughs’ Mars.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wolfman never really made Barsoom his own — the humorless, first-person narration Burroughs uses is tiresome in the original books, and when Wolfman brings that style to the comic page it is positively deadly, offering little insight to the stoic John Carter while encumbering each page with a wall of words.

So, too, do Gil Kane’s pencils fail to impress. I’m massively indifferent to Kane, but even his most ardent supporters will find little to like here, in page after page that seem a tangle of red bodies and snarling faces. A John Carter artist must be a designer as much as a storyteller, and Kane was either incapable or totally disinterested in developing the look of John Carter’s world — his panels are almost entirely bereft of memorable architecture, costume design, or technology. There’s practically nothing about these pages that tells us we’re on Barsoom aside from a few extra limbs on the fauna.

all the parts are here, but I’m not feeling it

I re-read the series for this review and was appalled at how bland, dull, and lifeless were Burroughs’ creatures and characters when transferred to the comics page. In being so faithful to Burroughs, the series did Edgar a disservice, who even in 1977 was in need of an updating, but instead of cutting to the heart of Burroughs’ Barsoom — and giving us stories of romance, friendship, and loyalty — we get a kind of joyless Burroughs pastiche that fails by leagues to compare with the images that the novels conjured in my imagination.

Wolfman departs after a dozen issues, and Chris Claremont does a bit better job as scripter. In Claremont’s first issue, John Carter is poisoned, and presumably killed, so Claremont dismisses the first-person narrative form, and the series is better for it … for all of half an issue, then Carter is back telling us nothing and the book is all grinding gears again. Like Wolfman’s tale, Claremont’s “Master Assassin of Mars” story arc is too long, and not helped at all by a second-rate effort from artist Rudy Nebres as the book runs out the string.

I scoured the series for pages worth scanning, but couldn’t find much, aside from the splash page of a Dave Cockrum single-issue story, when Deja Thoris finally looks at least a little bit “incomparable” …

… and a dynamic page from a young Frank Miller, just finding his way as an artist at Marvel.

You also can find a few more decent pages over at the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More … it’s too bad Alex Nino didn’t score a full-time gig on this book!

But really, this series is better left forgotten. For lifeless scripting, uninspired pencils, anachronistic storytelling, and utterly failing to deliver on the promise of Burroughs’ rich Barsoomian mythos, Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars earns the first failing grade on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard report card. I’ve loaded my copies aboard a barge, set it aflame, and floated it down the River Iss … and am crossing the fingers on all four hands of my Tars Tarkas action figure that the great John Carter fares better in his feature film debut!

UPDATE: I’ve seen the movie now (in IMAX 3D no less) and while John Carter gets more things right than wrong, the things it does wrong pretty much kill it. I am stunned that Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) would get the heart and sentimentality of this story wrong, and it is deadly. Instead of focusing on the warm emotional relationships between John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Woola, and Dejah Thoris, we get a complicated story where a Thern conspiracy and a well-intentioned but boring Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence crowds out screen time that would have been better devoted to core character development. The movie looks good, the Green Men are great, and I was fine with most of the casting (I thought the smart and resourceful Deja Thoris was an especially welcome revision). But the movie races along at a breakneck pace, too strident, too shrill, too eager to please, and ultimately a confused muddle of names and places and pointless details that just distance us from the heart of the story. The film looked like it needed another month in the editing bay (and maybe there will be a better cut on home video some day), but the damage is done. This film was doomed out of the gate by Disney’s catastrophic marketing campaign and with the movie underdelivering in it’s opening weekend (pending only some massive international box office), poor John Carter is going to be one-and-done. I’m disappointed and not a little depressed that this franchise has been smothered in the crib. It could have been great … but now it goes on the shelf with other promising misfires like Firefly, Rocketeer, and Scott Pilgrim. Pixar got the story wrong! Who’d a thunk it? So sad.

  • Title: John Carter, Warlord of Mars
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1977-1979
  • Issues EXILED From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-28, June 1977-October 1979
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: F
  • Read The Reprints: Amazon

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #39 Barsoomian Beat-Down!

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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