Monday, October 26, 2009

Trade Marks: My Conan Weekend

I've always liked Conan, but I would never described myself as a Conan-phile. A few years ago, I picked up the first three volumes of Dark Horse's Chronicles of Conan series at a deep discount. For one reason or another, I had put off reading them - never really in the mood, I guess. One recent weekend, I had a large chunk of free time so I decided it was high time I got a good dose of Cimmerian related action. I cruised through all three books over the course of a couple of days and here are my thoughts.

Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories collects the first 8 issues of the Conan the Barbarian series. When I was a child, these back issues were far too expensive to pick up so I never read the earliest stuff. What a way to kick off a series! Thomas' scripts are much better paced than his superhero stuff from that era, and Barry Smith's work is full of energy (both Dan Adkins and Sal Buscema do a nice job on inks). The highlight for me is the second story; Lair of the Beast Men, as we get a strong sense of Conan's principles. The Tower of the Elephant is a very strange and sad story - unlike anything else coming from Marvel in '71. Thomas' essay on bringing Conan to Marvel is a great read.

For the most part, the high quality continues with Rogues in the House and Other Stories. I've qualified my love for this volume because, much like Conan, I'd prefer to steer clear of magic. Some of these stories focus less on the sword and more on the sorcery - and that's not really my cup of tea. What I do like, however, is the growing relationship with Jenna, as her presence allows for some added layers to the stories. My favourite here is Garden of Fear, which I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog. Smith's work on Web of the Spider God is very strong, especially the scenes with Conan nearing death in the desert. This volume concludes with another interesting article by Thomas, and I particularly enjoy the bits about circumventing the Code.

The Monster of the Monoliths and Other Stories leads off with a big dose of mysticism, but for me it's anything but magic. I've never really understood the appeal of Elric. My Dad loved the books, and tried to get me to read them as a teen - but they really did nothing for me. The Elric appearances here really drag down the volume, as there's too much magical mumbo jumbo for me. That's not much of a critique, but it just doesn't fit my personal tastes and I don't think the two characters interacted very well. I much prefer the relationship with Fafnir as their travels together lead to some interesting adventures. Hawks From the Sea and the Black Hound of Vengeance are the highlights of the Fafnir arc with loads of great action sequences. There's another fascinating article, with Thomas discussing his dealings with Michael Moorcock, as well as getting Gil Kane on board for an issue.

All in all, these are great stories that haven't dated a day. It is wonderful that Dark Horse has seen fit to put them out in a high quality, yet affordable package. I'll likely pick up more of these as I go along - but after so much Conan in such a short period of time, I'm ready for a breather. A Little Lulu marathon, perhaps?


Aaron Bias said...

Wow! Three Conan TPB's in one weekend? Okay, relax, take a deep breath, and read a few issues of Uncle Scrooge. The excess testosterone will slowly subside.

Andrew Wahl said...


Thanks for these Conan reviews. Like yourself, I found myself priced out of the early back issues as a kid. Because of that, I never really ventured into the world of Conan (and, when I did, the later, uninspired issues did little to make me want to visit again). Since then, I've enjoyed the few early issues I've encountered. Quick question: How important is the color to these stories? My inclination is to track down a copy of the out-of-print Essentials volume that collects the first 25 issues; I'm fond of B&W artwork and would think that Barry Smith in particular would look nice in that format. But I'm starting to see the Dark Horse color volumes turn up cheap at used bookstores. Which format would you suggest?


Cole Moore Odell said...

I also just started reading these, and I have a hard time imagining them being as much fun without the color--and I say that as someone with shelves and shelves of Essentials & Showcases. I backed into them after reading some of the more recent (excellent) stuff written by Kurt Busiek, and wanted a version I could share more easily with my sons.

I really recommend the Little Lulu idea. They're some of the best comics I've ever read. And you really can pick up any one of the Dark Horse collections--the quality is amazingly consistent.

pete doree said...

Personally I find the rejigged photoshopped art in the Dark Horse Conan's slightly offputting. I hasten to say, I read the stories at the time in UK black & white versions, so I'd always say get that Essential. That art wasn't designed for the sort of colouring they put on it, so it's a little offputting. Having said all that, as much as I love Conan ( which is to say, a whole hell of a lot ) even I wouldn't read that amount in one go!

Scott M said...

For the most part - I was quite happy with the colouring (that being said - I am unfamiliar with the source material).

I'm usually quite happy with an Essential or Showcase Presents - but I must admit, when I saw the first volume of Savage Sword in shops a couple of years back - I thought the reproduction looked terrible (like the earliest Essentials).

Cole - I am a big fan of those Dark Horse Lulus, too. They are the best bargain in comics - and one of the few comics my wife likes as much as me.

Pete - it was indeed a lot of Conan, but I was in a good groove with no children around and it all flowed together quite nicely.

I must admit that seeing how many times Conan requested a 'flask of wine' got me thinking about a possible alcholism storyline (Barberian in a Bottle).

Erik said...

Not a fan of Elric, really? I find him to be a much better character than Conan. Flawed hero and all that.

Rob said...

I love those Conans--working on trying to collect the whole set.

RoK said...

The Barry Smith Conan is my favorite. I was reading these when they came out and his art would double in quality each issue. Imo these reprints should be titled Barry Smith's Conan. As a teenager, I could identify with this Conan. When Barry left, Conan became more like the way Howard probably imagined him.
I was blown away by the art on The Frost Giant's daughter. I believe it was originally in Savage Tales 1 but reprinted in the regular Conan when Barry missed a deadline. I think all the Smith issues were reprinted in color in a comic called Conan Classics or somesuch. I found them in a $1 box somewhere.

MilkManX said...

I really wish they would have left the color alone. I can't stand the coloring on these reprints.