January 2, 2010

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Solomon Kane Volume 1: The Castle of the Devil

Written by Scott Allie
Illustrated by Mario Guevara
Dark Horse

Long time readers of my reviews in various places know that I am a huge fan of Robert E. Howard's work. Why this particular pulp writer and not Lovecraft or some other creator I'm not sure, though I tend to think it's because of Howard's sense of alienation from others which comes out in nearly all of his characters. That's something I can relate to and, for me at least, helps put Howard's writing above his peers.

Anytime there's a new Howard-based comic, I'm interested, though now I wait for the trade. I grabbed this off the shelf at my local comic book store a little bit ago, and opted to make it my first read of 2010.

For those who aren't familiar with him, Solomon Kane is a typical Howard character--a loner, cast out from his group, wandering around and seeing what fate has in store for him. Kane is a Puritan, so in his case, he is convinced the Lord is sending him challenges.

The Castle of the Devil, taken from a Howard fragment, finds Kane in the Black Woods of Germany (where some of my ancestors came from, so I found the setting pretty cool). After a typical Kane scrape, he meets up with a fellow Englishman and spends some time at the castle of a strange Baron, who lives above the ruins of an old abbey with a terrible secret. Kane finds the castle not at all to his liking and cannot get a fix on why. Is the problem the Baron? His Muslim wife? He cannot leave without knowing why God has placed him here. Meanwhile, Kane's companion is no man of virtue and his plots may very well take Kane down with him.

Before long, the answer of why he's here comes to Kane and he's out to battle demons as part of the Lord's plan for him. Can a man of sword and primitive pistol take down an unholy set of creatures bent on living sacrifices, and led by a person who reads from a forbidden book? The answer lies in the story, but even if he wins, Kane can't help but feel a bit empty about the results of his actions.

Unfortunately, after read this one, I feel a bit empty as well. There's nothing wrong with this story as presented by Allie as far as the plot itself goes. Working from a fragment, Allie manages to keep the pulp sensibilities (right down to a dislike of the foreign) of a 1930s story without it seeming blatantly racist. The villain is well played, the horror is nice and scary, and the ending is bittersweet in a manner that fits a Howard story.

The problem is that, for me at least, his sense of Solomon Kane is completely wrong. In Allie's hands, Kane is a single-minded puritan who feels he is doing God's work. He never looks past the edge of his hooked nose and would be gleeful at the idea of a witch hunt. He revels in his actions, looking only for more foes of God to smite. In other words, he's like a young Conan but substituting treasure for a heavenly reward.

Howard's Kane, however, is constantly conflicted. He feels that violence is abhorrent to the Lord but does it anyway time and time again. Kane refuses pleasure, yet knows that secretly he loves nothing more than to get into a battle and kill those who are ungodly in his eyes. He is a walking contradiction in Howard, but under Allie he's a one-man army of God. I just didn't care for the presentation, because for me, the complications of Kane's life is what makes him worth following. Without it, he's just another action hero, just set in Colonial times. Worse, because he's a puritan and a racist, if he has no interesting qualities, he's just a jerk.

And boy does he come off as a jerk here. Kane waffles between hate and love for the Baron over and over, dismisses John Silent at every turn, and refuses to see the evidence of his own eyes. By the end, I'm far more interested in Silent's next adventure, because while he may be unsavory, he at least has a heart.

I think part of the problem stems from using fragments rather than whole stories. Both this and the next Kane story solicited by Dark Horse are working off story fragments. That means Allie has to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It's probably better to let the character grow in your hands after showing what the original writer intended first. Giving us a longer original Kane story would have grounded him better, I think.

Allie is not assisted in any way by artist Mario Guevara. While Dark Horse might like him, I found his artwork to be stilted, stiff, and completely without flow. His characters all seem caught in the act of having their photo taken by a 19th Century camera, even when they are supposed to be moving. Placements and body language aren't to my liking either, as the Baron's wife looked more like a nun than a seducer.

Instead of helping the story go from page to page, it felt like I kept ending up at a full stop. The choice of camera angles for the action shots also didn't do anything for me. Kane often looked like he could care less what he was doing. If this was intentional, I think it was a mistake.

However, I think the worst problem is that Kane comes off looking like an elf. In the first few pages, I actually thought he was a demon! He's colored to look like a vampire in the entire book, which drove me crazy. Someone online said Kane looks more like Elric, and I think that's accurate. It was very distracting--pale doesn't mean he's a zombie. In their effort to get Howard's description across, I think they went overboard.

A last note on the art is Dark Horse's belief that pencil to color is a good idea. I've said it before and I'll say it again that the inker is an important part of the comic creation process. Setting up shadows, giving the impression of depth, and emphasizing the work of the pencil artist goes a long way to making a book look like a cohesive whole. I'm not sure why they don't agree.

Overall, this first trade of Solomon Kane just failed on too many levels for me to enjoy it. I'd have gotten past the writing with gorgeous art. I'd have gotten past the art with a strong script that echoed Howard or made me want to like the main character. Unfortunately, I didn't get either out of this one, so I can't recommend it. If you're intrigued by Solomon Kane as a character, however, I urge you to seek out a Robert E. Howard short story collection and see for yourself the complications inherent in the character that are missing here. Dark Horse is usually pretty good at adaptations, but on this one, I'll pass.