January 23, 2009

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Conan Volume 1

Written/Adapted by Kurt Busiek
Illustrated by Cary Nord and Thomas Yates
Dark Horse

(As if slavishly reading one set of Conan adaptations isn't enough, I have to follow this one, too!)

Ah, Robert Howard. Who'd have thunk that I would fall in love with the Edgar Allan Poe of his day? This is a man who invented sword and sorcery, a genre I rarely if ever read in modern form. This is a person who indirectly helped Arnold become Governor of California and yet I am drawn to his prose in a way I haven't been since Twain.

I love Robert Howard's work. I think he was a great writer, I think that if people get over the two main problems--his writing for the pulps and the stereotypes involved in such writing--they will see what I see: A man who wrote great stories that just so happen to be genre fiction. Those, to me, are the best kinds of genre fiction and the only kinds worth reading.

As you can see, I'm a big fan, and now here comes Kurt Busiek, one of my favorite comic book writers, to adapt his work into a narrative story for Dark Horse, as Roy Thomas (perhaps the Busiek of his day) had done for Marvel before him.

How can I resist such a great combination?

This is an amazing combination of just the right writer with just the right material. Busiek, as I mentioned in my Astro City Volume 1 review, is at his best when either mining the past or working within that structure. Therefore, with Thomas on one hand and Howard on the other, Busiek is in his element. I would say that he relies a bit more on the source than on its prior adapter, mostly because these stories feel rawer than the polished prose that Thomas is best known for. Busiek captures the essence of these stories, most of which I've read before in some form, giving his Conan the air of a "savage" who is far more wise than the world around him that's full of rulers, magicians, and other liars.

That's the key to Howard's greatness--his ability to show Conan as the outsider, no matter what the setting. He is only at home when he can fight the system. Conan is the man who removes the veil of respectability from his surroundings, and while they are fantastical, we as the reader can't help but see our age mirrored in his. Thomas's stories, while good, never quite got to that level. Busiek's does.

I love the set up for these stories--a young noble off on an errand for his father finds a statue of Conan the King and demands to know all about him. A reluctant scribe, just the type that Conan would hate in his day, protests but to no avail. Enter the story of young Conan, starting with the Frost-Giant's Daughter, a story not first by Howard's writing history, but first in terms of Conan's history as pieced together by those working in Howard's shadow.

From there, Busiek creates a story with elements of Conan tales that shows his ability to write a Howard-like story. It is so much like something Howard could have written that I had to double-check myself to be sure I was right that Busiek created it.

If there is a problem with this series, it's that I am going to dissent and say I don't care for the direct pencil work of Cary Nord. While it's "rough" and the editorial team feels that serves the material, I would love to have seen this get a nice inking first, to really bring out the art. As it stands, I feel like we're in a bit of a haze and a blur all the time. Again, I know that I am in the minority on this, but I felt it had to be mentioned.

No comic book and/or fantasy novel reader should delay any longer than they have before reading this amazing series of comics. (I joined on shortly after this set of issues came out.) This is one of the best adaptations I've ever read.