My reading isn’t confined to funnybooks. I also read regular books … about funnybooks! In the past I’ve confined my Longbox Graveyard reviews to comic books, but setting up the bookshelf in my Secret Headquarters reminded me that I have several comics-related tomes that I’d never read.
These are all “coffee table books,” and I haven’t afforded them the depth of review I offered books like Supergods or Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, but they will still be of interest to genre fans. So, without further ado (and inspired by the book reviews at Professor Allen’s Eyes & Ears blog — thanks Prof!), here are capsule reviews of three books of interest to comics fans that I found on the … Longbox Bookshelf!
Conan the Phenomenon by Paul M. Sammon, Dark Horse Books, 2007.
Hurriedly written, and by the author’s own admission less a detailed account of Conan than a “detailed outline,” Conan the Phenomenon is nonetheless a handsome volume recounting Conan’s appearance in film, print, comics, and other media through the book’s date of publication in 2007. Author Paul M. Sammon is a Robert E. Howard geek who enjoyed the Conan series as a youth and was involved as a journalist in the making of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The chapters on the film, Marvel Comics, and (especially) literary Conan eras are strong, and particular attention is paid to the tortured path the Conan franchise has taken as it passed through many hands (and many lawsuits). Sammon considers the L. Sprague deCamp pastiches (and dismisses them) as well as the early Marvel Comics (and approves of them), and also offers a survey of more modern and obscure appearances by the Barbarian in television, animation, video games, and role playing games. The Dark Horse comics reboot also receives attention. While not a deep dive into scholarly criticism of Robert E. Howard or Conan, Sammon’s book offers more than enough details and information for casual fans (and even devoted Hyborians such as myself). As only the failed 2011 Conan movie is omitted (as it was not yet announced at time of the book’s publication), this volume may be considered comprehensive.
I most enjoyed the first chapters looking at Robert E. Howard’s life, as a young man out-of-step with his remote and conservative Texas town, and smiled when I saw photos of Howard and his friends posing for the camera like their blood and thunder pulp heroes. Sammon makes a case that the prevailing theory of Howard’s suicide — that he could not bear to live without his mother — might be too pat, instead suggesting that Howard may have long contemplated his own death, and felt he could permit himself to die once his mother no longer needed him to care for her. Perhaps most useful are the Robert E. Howard bibliographical pieces scattered through the book, cataloguing the various print editions of Howard’s work (including comics). Nicely illustrated, with a cover from Frank Frazetta, Conan The Phenomenon will make a fine coffee table book for any self-respecting barbarian, and the insightful foreword by British fantasist Michael Moorcock — advancing the case that Conan is a quintessential American hero — adds a touch of class.
Wonder Woman The Complete History by Les Daniels, Chronicle Books, 2000.
I don’t know a lot about Wonder Woman. I snubbed her in my Top Ten List of DC Heroes, and I confess the closest attachment I’ve formed to the character came through her television series theme song. Les Daniels’ picture-book history of Wonder Woman filled gaps in my knowledge, and reinforced my decision to not read Wonder Woman’s comics, as sorting through her tortured print history is definitely above my pay grade. Daniels devotes most of his text to Wonder Woman’s comic book incarnations, covering the memorable Lynda Carter television series out of respect for its ubiquity, but also to demonstrate how that show helped crystalize the interpretation of a comic book character that was still unsettled four decades after first publication. That the television show had such an outsized impact (it aired for only three seasons, and switched networks after being cancelled after its debut season on ABC) also speaks to Wonder Woman’s iconic status, and the fact that her most ardent fans and defenders sometimes didn’t read comics at all (including Gloria Steinem, who appropriated the character as the mascot for her Ms. magazine in 1972).
Daniels does his best to disentangle Wonder Woman’s comic book heritage, spending substantial print on the character’s Golden and Silver Age incarnations (as well as then-more recent interpretations by George Perez and John Byrne), but the book’s most memorable character is Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston. A strange combination of science and snake oil, Dr. Marston was a Harvard-trained psychologist with a law degree and a Ph.D; he also had an obsession with bondage fantasies (on display in seemingly every issue of Golden Age Wonder Woman), and through Wonder Woman’s comic book adventures hoped to demonstrate a utopian vision of a world rendered peaceful through the benevolent sexual domination of men by an enlightened female ruling class. A fascinating cat, our Dr. Marston, made only moreso by his invention of lie detection technology and national celebrity in places like the pages of Look magazine, which ran a photo spread showing Dr. Marston strapping lovely young women into lie detecting machines and then measuring their response to being kissed. There needs to be a screenplay about this guy right now … and you need to have this book in your library (if you can find it) for this and other tidbits, as well as lavish illustration including moments from key issues of Wonder Woman’s past; funky toys, dolls, and other merchandise (Wonder Woman macaroni and cheese!); and a couple publicity photos of the stunning Lynda Carter, who remains the definitive popular conception of the character, almost four decades after she first donned Wonder Woman’s red, white, and blues.
The Joker by Daniel Wallace, Universe Publishing, 2011
The most cursory work of the three books reviewed in this column, Daniel Wallace’s text for The Joker is little more than liner notes for the book’s copious illustration, but the author makes the most of his column inches with a near-total laser focus on the comic book incarnations of Batman’s arch-nemesis. Video games and toys earn passing mention, and the film appearances of the Joker just a page or two, in a book otherwise devoted to the four-color appearances of the Joker (excepting only a chapter or so for the Joker’s animated appearances; after all, the book’s introduction is by Mark Hamill, the voice of the animated Joker).
Wallace offers a survey of the Joker’s various eras, from his homicidal, mad clown introduction in the pages of Batman #1, through his campy Silver Age era, to his reinvention with the rest of the Batman mythos in the late 1970s and 80s, and his more nuanced persona of recent years. Spotlight sections call out the work of key Batman creators like Bill Finger, Frank Miller, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and others, and there is some examination of the origins and psychological roots of the character, but for the most part, you will thumb this book for the art, which is drawn from all eras, with clear and frequently oversized reproductions.
I particularly enjoyed the big Dick Sprang page showing the Joker digging sand castles on the beach while an incredulous Batman and Robin look on, while glimpses of the Neal Adams/Denny O’Neal version of the character reminded me I need to revisit their run sometime soon. The chapter on Harley Quinn, tracing her evolution from animated character to comic book mainstay, was also especially welcome. You’ll read it in a single sitting but will likely return to the art time and again — this title seems a good candidate for the remaindered aisle at your local Barnes & Noble, and would be well worth your deep discount purchase!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #109 Spider-Man’s Bottom Ten Bronze Age Bums
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) …
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Title: Red Sonja
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1975-1979
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Feature #1-7, Red Sonja #1-15
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: D
- Own The Originals: MyComicShop.com
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner!
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.
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.
You Might Also Like: Frazetta Gallery
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).
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.
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).
I think I spot Teegra’s origins in Frazetta’s “At The Earth’s Core.”
There have to be sub-human savages to threaten our girl. There. Have. To. Be.
Frazetta, of course, painted exceptional savages.
There are a couple monsters, the best of which is this swamp dragon.
John Carter encountered a similar beastie in Frazetta’s spectacular pen-and-ink work on “A Fighting Man of Mars.”
Our noble savage faces down some wolves, which really isn’t much …
… but it’s interesting to see how even that scene’s palett was likely translated from Frazetta’s “Wolfmoon.”
Darkwolf is the prototypical Frazetta barbarian.
That pose above reminds of Frazetta’s “Berserker” …
… and our last look at Darkwolf is even easier to recognize …
… as Frazetta’s iconic “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.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #88 The Last Days of Superman
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 …
… 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.
- Title: Conan the Barbarian
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1970-1993
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #58-100, January 1976 – July 1979
- Your Soundtrack For This Series (and the only thing I liked about Arnold’s movies): Conan The Barbarian: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Soundtrack] – Basil Pouledoris
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C+
- Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #24 Capes & Cowls
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 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