Friday, 27 September 2013

Essential Conan volume 1

Essential Conan volume 1 reprints issues #1-21 & #23-25 of Conan the Barbarian and also the cover of issue #22 which reprinted issue #1, per the standard fill-in practice at the time. The only thing missing appears to be a back-up story in issue #10 introducing Kull the Conqueror. Everything is scripted by Roy Thomas, with some issues based on stories by Robert E. Howard, one plotted by John Jakes and one two-part story plotted by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn. Nearly everything is drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith (using the truncated surname "Smith") apart from two issues and a back-up story by Gil Kane and one issue by John Buscema.

Conan himself is a licensed character from the fiction of Robert E. Howard. A barbarian in a fictitious "lost" historic era, the Hyborian Age, he's been a major cultural phenomenon with many books, films, cartoons and more. So naturally he's almost completely passed me by with my only other experience being the Conan the Adventurer cartoon series from the 1990s. But one of the beauties of reprint series like the Essentials is the ability to pick up a sizeable chunk of a series in one go and broaden one's horizons.

The setting is the world some twelve thousands of years ago. Issue #16 includes a map of the known world during the Hyborian Age. Broadly it appears to be southern Europe and most of Africa but with the Mediterranean dry, the Caspian Sea stretching much further and some other alterations to waterways. It would be foolish to try to map the various kingdoms and states to modern day political entities even when names are familiar, such as "Picts" or look similar, such as "Zembabwei". The stories are set in a supposed lost period of history to avoid excess historical research (and the concept of civilisations rising and falling with day to day technology regressing is familiar from actual recorded history) and it's not possible to determine just how accurate any of the detail is. But I'd be very surprised if there really were monsters, aliens and magic on Earth approximately ten thousand years ago.

Conan the Barbarian was the first major Marvel title to be created without Stan Lee's writing. Instead we get the writing of Roy Thomas, and it's clear that this was a particular special project for him, and the art of a young Barry Windsor-Smith. It's easy to see why this rapidly became a cult hit, with the series winning several Shazam Awards from the Academy of Comic Book Arts, including Best New Talent 1970 for Windsor-Smith, Best Continuing Feature 1971, Best Writer (Dramatic Division) 1971 for Thomas and Best Individual Story 1973 for issue #24's "The Song of Red Sonja". This series isn't conventional superheroics in a loincloth but instead a tale of a wandering wild man. Conan is no saint, and he regular drinks, cheats, steals, lusts and more in ways that the traditional Marvel heroes would never do. And his attitude to woman is prehistoric, not at all like a 1970s man facing the decade's wave of feminism. Upon meeting Red Sonja in battle, his reaction is "No one fights all my battles for me... least of all a wench who should be tending a hearth somewhere!"

In the earliest issues Conan wears a helmet with horns sticking out the front, but it undermined his look, making him seem almost civilised. Fortunately Jenna removes it in issue #6 and it doesn't return in this volume. This helps to reinforce his wild image and often he feels like a raw frontiersman suddenly cast upon civilisation. Whether it was a conscious decision of Thomas and Windsor-Smith or a necessity forced upon them by the material they sometimes adapted, Conan goes from city to city, roaming across the Hyborian world leaving few roots as he goes. In the first issue he is shown a vision of the future where he will become king of a mighty empire, but he doesn't know where. In the meantime he journeys all over with no attachments and very little in the way of a supporting cast or recurring foes.

Issue #6 sees the introduction of Jenna, who disappears at the end of the issue, but reappears in issue #8. She briefly becomes Conan's companion, but in a sign of what a harsh world it is where no-one can be trusted, issue #11 sees here betray him to the authorities for money when her affections shift to another man. The issue is also bold for its era by showing Conan standing in a bedroom whilst Jenna has nothing but bedsheets wrapped around her. Nothing explicit is said, but it's clear what they've been doing, making her betrayal of him that night even more hurtful.

Conan briefly gains a fighting companion in the form of Fafnir, a thief and pirate who is the sole other survivor of his ship. When the two are washed up on an island they find they have nothing more to fight over and wander together until they find themselves forced to fight for Prince Yezdigerd of Turan as he besieges Makkalet. In battle Fafnir is wounded by a flaming arrow to the arm and then falls into the ocean. It's a sad moment as Conan discovers his friend amongst the wounded, his arm having been infected and amputated. Subsequently Fafnir is chucked overboard with the other dead and wounded, causing Conan to abandon Yezdigerd.

Issue #7 introduces Thoth-Amon, a powerful sorcerer who has become one of Conan's best known foes, but as with many of his subsequent appearances he doesn't directly encounter Conan and instead works through agents. Late on issue #14 sees the debut of Kulan Gath, who would make a number of appearances in the present days as well. Otherwise the foes Conan fights are largely one-offs.

There are a number of appearances of other sword and sorcery heroes, doubtlessly in the hope of spinning some of them off into series of their own. Although not included in this volume, issue #10 carried a back-up story starring Kull the Conqueror and on a number of other occasions reference is made to him when describing the history of Conan's world. Issues #14-15 guest-star the anti-hero Elric of Melniboné, with his creator Michael Moorcock co-plotting. Not all the attempts feature pre-existing named heroes though, with issue #12 containing a back-up by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane (who appear on panel at the start and end to explain the reason for doing the story) telling of a man's attempts to win a Baron's daughter and inheritance through tackling a dragon - but there's a hidden curse. However it's issue #23 that introduces probably the best known other Hyborian character, Red Sonja. A warrior woman who can more than hold her own against all comers, and easily fends off Conan's advances even as she gets him to help her steal riches, she's a strong character with much potential. Her dress is different from her most familiar look with a metal bikini and instead she wears a full chain mail top.

Occasionally the dialogue is a little racy and I was amazed to see in issue #24 a man in a tavern shouting "...you worthless wank!" with another man asking ""'Wank' did you say now!?" I presume somebody subsequently pointed out that this is British slang for masturbation, as I've seen a 1970s Treasury Edition reprint of the story that changes it to "Wonk". At least I assume it's the Treasury Edition and not the Essential that has the altered version but there's a long history of reprints changing dialogue from the original and often it's hard to tell which most accurately reproduces what the original publication carried. But there are other subtle sexual references throughout the issue, ranging from a palace tower that has an incredibly phallic design to a moment when Conan and Sonja are bathing and Conan looks at Sonja who rejects his advances and there's a mini explosion in the water below his waist. How on earth did this stuff get passed the Comics Code Authority? The Treasury Edition reprint is a bit mixed - on the one hand it uses an earlier version of artwork in this scene where instead of Sonja holding up her chain mail top she has just her hands in front of her breasts but on the other it cuts down the panel with the explosion so that part of the effect is lost.

Issues #20-23 show signs of problems in production. #20 has a two page epilogue which tells the story entirely through narrated captions. It could be an experiment with methods of storytelling but it feels more like an attempt to rush through the remaining plot in the space available due to artistic spread. Then #21 has Windsor-Smith only doing layouts and four other artists providing the finishes, invariably a sign of problems with deadlines. A caption at the end of #21 & the cover of #22 both promise "The Shadow of the Vulture" (another adaptation from Howard) but instead the latter contains a reprint, another sign of deadlines not being met. It's a pity as it means the last few issues by Windsor-Smith are something of a stumble out, though issue #24 is a good one to go out on.

It's odd that such a series was launched with a relative novice drawing it, though this was reportedly due to the high cost per issue of the licence, but the result shows some amazing art as Windsor-Smith's quickly adapted to the genre. When he's replaced on the final issue here by John Buscema it feels rather an anti-climax. Buscema's work is often good and it's unfair to judge his Conan work on just his first issue, but he would clearly need more time to settle in.

Overall this is quite a strong volume and the series is a real change from the norm. The comics market has a long history of trying many different genres and experimenting, and that's just as true for a reprint series as for the originals. It's good to see Conan had a chance to be included whilst there was time. Unfortunately this volume was published in 2000, and not long afterwards Marvel relinquished the licence to Conan after thirty years. Consequently they are unable to reprint this volume and so it remains the only Essential with a "frame" original cover to have not been subsequently reprinted with a later cover format. Short of something unforeseen, it's unlikely that Marvel will ever be able to reprint any more Conan material and thus add more of his adventures to the Essential line. (This has also cause several of the gaps in the What It? Classics.) As a result this volume is now difficult to obtain. However Dark Horse Comics now hold the Conan licence and have reprinted much of the Marvel material so the stories are reasonably accessible still.

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