Tuesday 12 July 2011

Coming Back to Comic Books | The Coming of Conan

I've lost track of how many times folks have told me to give Robert E. Howard a shot. Why I haven't yet, it's hard to say.

Actually, no - I suppose it's not so hard. Just embarassing, in an odd sense: because I haven't read the Conan stories for the same reason I haven't read A Game of Thrones... for the same reason I haven't progressed any with The Malazan Book of the Fallen since reading and needless to say adoring Gardens of the Moon while on holiday a while back. Much as I would like to spend a week or a month or even a year catching up on all the classics and sagas I have every reason to believe I'd love... that moment when the postman comes, and in his sack he has an early copy of some new release I've been looking forward to -- that still excites me. Damn it all, I can hardly help myself. I'm practically powerless at the prospect of the new.

Maybe it's finally come time to admit I have a problem.

But not today! In fact, while we're talking about powerlessness, and problems - oh I do enjoy a good segue - what with my computer out for the count last week, and my opportunities to blog thus reduced, I finally read some Conan.

That is to say, some Conan... comic books.

Had you going for a minute there, didn't I? :)
In all seriousness, however hard it can be to square away enough time to read one dusty tome or another, the first collection of Dark Horse's revitalised Conan comic book has only redoubled my enthusiasm to dig out the original stories by Robert E. Howard, and dig in -- if only to see if I enjoy them half as much as I did The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories.

For obvious reasons, I cannot speak to how faithful this series is to the canon of Conan, such as it is... though I am given to understand that this first ongoing at least - as opposed to the two which have succeeded it: Conan the Cimmerian and the current Road of Kings - takes the majority of its cues from Howard's work. Certainly a healthy amount of respect for the source material - indeed the source of the source material - is evidenced. All exposition, for instance, is rendered in typewriter-esque lettering, and one need look no further than the newspaper-style strips featured at the rearmost of each individual issue. The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob are insightful adaptations of episodes in the life and times of Robert E. Howard, rather than the low fantasy of his foremost creation.

But what of the comic proper?

Well, judging solely on the basis of The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories, which for the larger part chronicles everyone's favourite Cimmerian's imprisonment in the creepy dream kingdom of Hyperborea... Conan is fracking fantastic!

Having trawled through the related Wikipedia pages since, I know that the only Robert E. Howard story retold in this first Dark Horse collection - though other details were lifted from here and fleshed out there - is the titular one; of the Frost Giant's alluring wee lass, and her habit of leading horny warriors into the maw of her monstrous father, like lambs to the slaughter. Conan is himself seduced by this wicked but beautiful creature -- though of course the beast at the end of the long journey she leads him on is surprised to find our once and future King more than a match.

Now the tall tale of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" is certainly a fine one, but I'll be honest: I didn't find it particularly representative of the finest this collection has to offer -- more a neat diversion on the red-brick road to Hyperboria. In fact, I couldn't tell when Howard's Conan ended and Kurt Busiek's began, and that's testament not only to my aforementioned ignorance, but also to Busiek's tremendous wordsmithing. Whatever my myriad other failings, I have read most (if not all) of Astro City, and I wouldn't have pegged that and this as the work of the same author in a million years, had I not known it to be the case.

Cary Nord, meanwhile, is as ideal an artist to give life to Conan and his kin - and all the lands they live and breathe in - as any I can think of. I hadn't come across his pencils before now, and though there's a loose quality to them I could live without, I'm be looking out for them from here on out. Together with Thomas Yeates on inking duty and a wash of gorgeous colours from Dave Stewart, Nord's art evinces a painterly quality utterly on-point, brilliantly capturing the fantastic landscapes of Cimmeria and its surrounds -- as well as Conan himself, and those unlucky souls whose path he crosses. Nord seems pretty much made for this book, all told.

It'll be a relief, I imagine, to hear the artists are also dab hands at action scenes. It's as well, I guess... but in truth, much of what I love about The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories is that it is resolutely not - as I expected - just fight after fight after fight, with perhaps a breast here and there, or some gore, to break up all the swordplay.

There's heart to these tales, in the words and the art. Moreover, there's real character, and whether that's thanks to Robert E. Howard or the creative team behind Dark Horse's first Conan comic, I haven't the slightest. Nor am I much fussed exactly where Conan's essential spark comes from. It's here, in this series, and that's enough -- at least it is for this returning, and ever more-bolstered admirer of sequential art.

Saying that, I might just have to muscle in some quality time with my copy of The Complete Conan before delving into the second volume of this excellent series...


  1. Generally, Busiek's adaptation of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is practically word-for-word from the Howard story. I might disagree with certain elements or interpretations like the toothsome Ice-Giants, but everything that happens is pretty solid. Frequently Busiek just takes whole stretches of Howard's dialogue and prose and quotes it.

    All the content preceding and succeeding TF-GD is Busiek, based on hints Howard left in a letter to P.S. Miller:

    There was the space of about a year between Vanarium and his entrance into the thief-city of Zamora. During this time he returned to the northern territories of his tribe, and made his first journey beyond the boundaries of Cimmeria. This, strange to say, was north instead of south. Why or how, I am not certain, but he spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir, fighting with the Vanir and the Hyperboreans, and developing a hate for the latter which lasted all his life and later affected his policies as king of Aquilonia. Captured by them, he escaped southward and came into Zamora in time to make his debut in print.

    That said, Busiek's interpretation of the Hyperboreans as eight-foot-tall sorcerers and purple ogres is, ahem, somewhat controversial, and led to some weird situations where these giant purple ogre Hyperboreans turn up in Howard adaptations, and really stick out as a result.

    Hopefully you'll have a read of the Complete Chronicles of Conan, though. "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is only about nine pages long, but it's so packed with symbolism, description, allusions and mythic grandeur that it feels like a miniature epic. The translation into a visual medium unfortunately meant some of that was lost, but that's the nature of adaptation.

  2. I posted a less than favorable review for The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Volume 1 of a Del Rey's anthology)on Amazon a few years back, and it still receives angry comments from Conan fanboys. I grew up with Milius and Arnold's Conan the Barbarian, rather than Howard's Conan stories. And while the former is based on the latter, Milius' take on the steel-eyed barbarian didn't adequately prepare me for the real Conan stories, which are far more whimsical and less philosophical (this is only my opinion, Howard fans will vehemently disagree with me) than the Milius piece.

    I have enjoyed every volume in the collected series of comics from Dark Horse, but the stories from Howard just didn't grab me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but they lacked some quality of mystery or enchantment that I felt was present in Milius' rendering of the character and his Hyborian Age.

    Anyway, keep reading the comics. I don't think any of them are quite as good as that first one, but none of them are bad. I'd be curious to hear your opinions on some of Howard's material, though.

    Curiously, generally not being a fan of poetry, I've found the most moving piece of original Conan lore to be the poem titled, Cimmeria, by Howard. It probably doesn't hurt that the poem was inspired by land that is practically in my backyard, but despite that it's got something the stories lack. Shades of gray and whispers of things that might have been. You can find and read Cimmeria in just a few minutes on the web. I'd like to hear what you think about it. Thanks, Niall.


    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  3. Will do, Kris - on all counts!

    In fact the more I see of this new-fangled Conan film, the closer and closer I get to declaring the week of release a celebration of all things Cimmeria. Maybe a look at the older movies, the next few trades, and finally - since I see Gollancz are releasing a tie-in collection of some of what (some) scholars agree are the best Conan stories - a bit of catching up on the old classics.

    We shall see soon enough whether or not I manage to find the time, I expect...