November 21, 2008

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Chronicles of Conan Volume 6

Written by Roy Thomas
Illustrated by John Buscema and Neal Adams
Dark Horse (formerly Marvel)

One of the things that struck me the most in this volume is that John draws Conan's head very similarly to how he drew the head of the Hulk. That's relevant because both are "savages" who don't fit in the world they inhabit, hate society, and are both feared and admired for what they can do. Conan's body is, of course, more proportional to the rest of humanity than the Hulk, but I was really floored by the fact that, if this were in black and white and taken out of context, I might have mixed up the two staples of the Marvel line.

The stories themselves place Conan at work for a petty ruler, and the barbarian vs. the civilized world theme is very much in play. What's nice is that while Thomas is obviously going for that theme, he doesn't beat the reader over the head with it. After all, we're too busy with sea monsters, were-women, wizards from the days of King Kull, and battles aplenty to spend time being pedantic about the overall theme of Howards's work--his personal inability to fit in. While Conan is the poster child, Kull, Kane, and his Celtic and Crusader heroes all have the same motives.

From a comics history standpoint, it is fascinating to watch Thomas try to skirt the edges of the comics code. There's so much implied sex in this trade--including the mother of all tweaks by artist Adams--they could have made the cover blue.

Okay, I've mentioned the great art and the writing tricks, but what of the quality of the stories? Thomas spends a lot of time working with non-Conan Howard material, as he notes in the afterward. One is even based partly on a de Camp story, though for whatever reason, doing real adpatations of his part of the Conan canon seems to have been a constant problem. (I love writing Conan canon. Conan canon. Conan canon. Conan canon. Er, sorry about that.) As with the other volumes, Thomas deftly mixes Howard's pulp prose with the comic stylings of the 1970s. If you're a fan of either, you'll dig this, but even those who are a bit more "refined" in taste will be happy with the pacing of the action. Conan is not one to sit around in Thomas' hands--he may start the episode in a town hall or ruler's palace, but Thomas and Buscema quickly get him out there, sword in hand, ready to face whatever monster Howard can conceive (and a man who was pals with Lovecraft can conceive plenty!).

Thomas also takes pains to mature Conan, just as Spider-Man or Johnny Storm were being matured in the main Marvel universe. He learns not to muck with magic, having been burned so many times before, for example. This is the kind of storytelling that is lost in today's world of trying to keep heroes static and in the same place, rather than letting them age a bit here and there.

I really like these comics and am so greatful to Dark Horse for reprinting them, even as they continue along similar lines in their ongoing monthly. There's a lot more where this one comes from, and I look forward to what Thomas comes up with next.