Conan the Barbarian by Jason Aaron

conan jason aaronA very welcome oversized hardback collection of writer Jason Aaron’s twelve-issue run of Conan the Barbarian. The arc is titled ‘The Life and Death of Conan’ and is a pretty interesting take on the character for his return to Marvel: I suspect it was a deliberately introductory arc intended for new readers unfamiliar with the character, as it sweeps forwards and backwards in time referencing various parts of Conan’s life and adventures. It may also be a case of Aaron referencing REH’s habit of non-chronological stories, Howard depicting Conan as a King and then in his next story depicting Conan as a young thief, or later in his life as a pirate, writing stories at various stages of Conan’s life as if on a whim. It would be left for two fans to later write a probable chronological outline of Conan’s life piecing the REH stories into some kind of order (“A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” by P Miller and J D Clark first published in a fanzine in 1938). 

One of the ways to judge how good a new Conan story is, is perhaps inevitably to compare it to the mood and spirit of REH’s original tales. This is something of a double-edged sword because there is no way for any writer to really create something that rings wholly true of Howard. Conan’s creator may have been a pulp writer quickly turning out the stories to pay the bills (and at the time of the Conan shorts were written this would include paying for, or contributing to, his mother’s medical expenses as her health failed) but their quality has ensured his work has been in print for close on a century now. Indeed, it can be argued that Howard’s best stories are those not involving Conan at all, but it can’t be denied that the best of the Conan yarns are really something special. 

So how does Aaron fair with such an unfair comparison? Pretty well I think. I’m not really convinced that he manages to capture Conan’s character; there is something a little too civilized regards Aaron’s Conan for all his narrative commentary otherwise, lacking some of the dark barbarian of Howard. There’s a literal fixation on Conan’s wanderlust, Conan’s drive to see over the next hill, an ambition to experience all the Hyborian Age’s wonders that I don’t think was such a character trait in the Cimmerian at all. It feels a little too on the nose, too modern a point of view. I rather thought Howard’s Conan lived more aimlessly, subject to his own physical whim and excess, whether it be wine, women or loot. Aaron further features a rather unwelcome explanation for Conan’s success, attributing it to a witches curse and the protection from a Dark God that needed the Cimmerians blood at the end of a long life in order for that Dark God to return. Hey, I’d prefer to attribute Conan’s length of survival to his own efforts.

The art and colours (chiefly by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson respectively) are beautiful; modern comic art is on this evidence rather more sophisticated than much of the 1970s art that featured in Marvel’s original Conan books, although I still think John Buscema’s Conan is the definitive one. This edition certainly benefits from the larger size- I initially bought this run in two softcover collections but really struggled with the small print, my eyes not what they were: no such problems here. Aaron left the title after issue twelve but I definitely hope that the successive issues with a new creative team can also be reprinted in OHC format eventually. While I am really enjoying Marvel’s omnibus reprints of both the colour and black & white Conan titles from the 1970s – 1980s, I would be fascinated to see where Marvel goes with this new generation of Conan titles.    

Conan Omnibus Vol.3

conanomni3I’ve received the latest Conan the Barbarian Omnibus this week. Collecting the original Marvel series during its lengthy John Buscema era (the definitive comics Conan for me), this third volume features issues 52-83, a few annuals and other material. Its a wonderful blast from the past. Glancing through it my attention was caught by the cover of issue 57, and its date of December 1975.

1975! Wow, just imagine that. Thinking back to what the world was like that back then, the movies that came out, the tv shows, the music, just imagining how it all was back when John Buscema was drawing those issues, and Roy Thomas writing them. Geeks of my generation tend to think of the world as pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars. Its stupid I know, but that film is such a powerful, iconic moment in pop culture its a seductive way of thinking- things were so very different then, pre-1977: not worse, not better, just… different.

The run of issues collected in this third omnibus dates from 1975 to 1978, back when I was a young lad reading various Marvel monthlies. I loved them, it was a means of escape, long before Marvel Studios made it so ‘easy’ putting them up on the big screen (I can only imagine what it must be like for ten-year-old kids having all those Marvel films to watch now). One of my pleasures in reading these collections has been the letters pages, the occasional notes in them from the editor (in Conan’s case, Roy Thomas) and the detailed forewords etc to these books (the stories behind the scenes of these comics is really illuminating). Looking through the issues from 1976 really felt a little like a time machine. I remember 1976 well, I was ten years old. I remember the long hot summer; one of the hottest on record- we had a drought here, and I was deep into my Marvel comics that year. It was the year of the American Bicentennial, which meant very little to most kids here in Blighty, but to me swept up by the coverage in the Marvel comics (particularly the Captain America comics of that year) seemed so important and colourful. It was the  year of Howard the Duck (which I bought in an Omnibus collection a few years ago), and so many other wonderful four-colour Marvel mags. I’ll make myself feel really old by recalling Abba’s Dancing Queen hitting the charts, Batman reruns on network television, Starsky & Hutch on tv Saturday nights, or Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’  winning that years Eurovision. Gotta love those 1970s.

XX7.TIFFAs I’m a huge fan of John Buscema’s work, its a great pleasure reading these issues from when he was in his prime. Reading editorials later in this collection regards John’s absence in later issues reprinted in this book (several instead drawn by a pre-Star Wars comics adaptation Howard Chaykin), it was poignant to read the explanations of John being busy on art duties on Captain Britain, a comic published by Marvel over here directly targeted at the UK market. I don’t think any of that stuff got published in America at all, certainly not until a collected edition years later. The original run for that character is largely forgotten now, and it hasn’t likely dated well at all, but I remember being wowed by those issues drawn by John Buscema and amused by the very frequent times when it was blatantly obvious that it was drawn from an Americans idea of what London and the police etc. looked like, not the reality. Its funny, because everything I imagined America looked like came from those Amazing Spider Man comics drawn by Steve Ditko and John Romita and so many others, and I’m sure that was as skewed as that weird Britain pictured in that comic. Somehow the real America never really lived up to the imaginations of those Marvel artists. I haven’t seen those Captain Britain strips in decades, I guess they would be kind of cute now. Or horrifying!

The Savage Sword of Conan Omnibus Vol.1

The b&w magazine The Savage Sword of Conan was probably my favourite comic of the 1970s – well, I say comic, it was indeed a magazine, as it didn’t have to conform to the Comics Code Authority as the regular four-colour comic books of the Marvel line had to. It enabled the writers and artists to create longer and more ‘adult’ adaptations of Robert E Howard’s stories- it felt more authentic to me, as far as REH goes, a feeling which was reinforced by the magazine running text articles about REH or his books; it was where I first learned about Glenn Lord and his book The Last Celt, and Howard himself and all the stories he wrote. Although I first encountered Conan in the pages of the four-colour Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Windsor Smith, it was in Savage Sword that I felt I encountered the genuine Robert E Howard Conan that launched my love and appreciation for his stories, and my fascination with the writer himself.

I still have my old original issues of Savage Sword– original American editions and then later the Marvel UK edition (which lacked the background articles etc). I later bought the first few Dark Horse collected editions  from 2007/2008 that reprinted Savage Sword‘s Conan strips when Dark Horse acquired the Conan license from Marvel – big bulky paperback tomes a little like telephone directories, and really as cheap and nasty as that might sound. I always wished that one day they could be collected in hardback on quality paper with the attention the strips deserved. It was always an idle fancy. The magazine was decades old, of course, and I suppose old-fashioned, and the chance of anyone creating hardback editions for posterity seemed just that- an idle fancy. But over the years I’d look through my yellowing copies and often dream of a proper quality book collecting them.

Well, here we are, with Marvel having now re-acquired the rights to Conan from Dark Horse, this time it’s the original publisher collecting the originals and thank goodness, it has made them part of its Omnibus line, with hardback binding, quality glossy white paper (although I quite miss the old matte paper stock) and even including the supportive text articles and letters pages. Unfortunately, as the rights Marvel has now doesn’t seem to include all the REH characters, as this collection only features the main Conan strips, and not the support strips featuring characters like Kull or Solomon Kane. The only awkward thing about it is the sheer bulk of the thing- at 1,040 pages, it’s a bit of a monster, although I would have appreciated a larger page size- as the book is slightly reformatting the original magazine the pages are slightly reduced in size (in the examples here you may notice the slight window-banner at top and bottom detailing the issue number and omnibus page count), not helping my eyes at all.

It really is a joy reading these stories again and seeing them in such a durable edition at long last. Whenever I read REH’s original Conan stories, it’s always the Savage Sword images that come to my mind, over and above that of Frank Frazetta’s famous oils. The magazine’s art was something really special, particularly as it was always in black and white with intricate detail most of the time, looking like old-fashioned classic illustrated book style and not at all like contemporary comic-books of the day. They always featured pretty extraordinary painted covers, too (and which are printed in colour in this edition, heading each reprinted issue), which rivalled anything on paperback covers- it looked and felt like something really special, and I used to read it over and over. Of course, part of my love and fascination was because it chiefly featured my favourite Marvel artist, John Buscema. To my mind, Buscema’s work reached whole new levels of majesty when the magazine featured his partnership with Alfredo Alcala, starting with an adaptation of REH’s Black Colossus. Alcala, a popular Filipino artist of some renown in his own right, served as an inker of Buscema’s pencil layouts but added much of his own embellishments and details. The stories they did together are some of my favourite pieces of comic art of all time.

Imagine my shock and surprise then, to be reading Roy Thomas’ lengthy introduction to this collection and discovering that John Buscema himself hated what Alcala did to his pencils! I still can’t believe it. I suppose, thinking about it, a lot of that embellishing and detail and texture that Alcala was adding was more Alcala’s own illustrative style – looking at his own comic-book art, it’s clear it looks very much like those Savage Sword  strips that I love. Indeed, perhaps too much like Alcala and too little like Buscema, from Buscema’s point of view. To me of course, it offered the best of both worlds- Buscema’s brilliant layouts and framing and the sumptuous old-school illustrative details of Alcala. But really, when I read all those stories I had no idea, and in the magazine’s letters pages most readers seemed to think the same as I did- the two artists were a magnificent partnership.

So there you go- you learn something new everyday.

While this omnibus is pretty expensive, for fans of old this is surely a must-buy, as they tend to have limited print runs and I have to wonder if there will ever be another reprint after having waited over 40 years for this one. Roll on The Savage Sword of Conan Omnibus 2 in November of this year. Meanwhile I need some new reading glasses…

1982

As I write this, 35 years ago.

Half a lifetime ago I guess. I was sixteen.

I remember, walking with a group of friends (most of whom I have not seen in decades- in that pre-social media era freindships had a habit of splintering off forever,  lives spinning off like shattered shards of glass). We were walking to another’s house on the other side of our council estate, to play Dungeons and Dragons (we were RPG-junkies for a few years back then). I remember walking down a street as we made our way across, talking about Blade Runner, thinking about the film’s year of 2019. Worked out how many years ahead it was, how old I would be in that year. A time so long-distant to a sixteen-year-old! 2019 was some incredibly far-off shore, a distant alien landmark, way past that other notable year, 2001, that figured so highly in our geek estimations.

It’s odd to consider that Kubrick’s special year was such a landmark to my generation and those before us-  2001: A Space Odyssey! Those very words were exciting, powerful, they carried some kind of arcane meaning. People now, kids, likely look back on it as just any other date, just another old movie. For us it was something bigger than us, something evocative of a space-faring future ambition. We had visions of returning to the moon, going to Mars. Even in 1982 it all seemed a matter of when, not if.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid. But 1982, 35 years ago, it was another world.

1982 was a year for other worlds. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World. Well, I could go on and on about those RPG days. Back when the acronym TSR meant so much, Gary Gygax was some kind of genius, and Games Workshop was a gateway to incredible places- each of us of our group would pick a game system and create adventures we would later gather to play.  I ran a campaign titled Shadow World using the AD&D rules that went on for years. I still have books and folders of work I wrote for it, up in my loft- it was such a passion of mine that took so much time it’s hard to fathom now. I should have been out fooling around with girls but instead was inside my room dreaming up dark dungeons and evil sorcerers. Well, either that or reading or painting.

I read so much back then- Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard…

1982, Arthur C Clarke was still alive and writing, as was Ray Bradbury. Frank Frazetta was still alive. John Buscema and Gil Kane and Gene Colan and so many others I grew up with were still working in comics. I was reading 2000 AD in those days, the comic still in its prime. 1982 was the year they ran the 26-issue Apocalypse War saga in the Judge Dredd strip. Each week after reading each installment I was trading comments with my mate Andy in the halls of our secondary school. Block Mania, East Meg One, War Marshall Kazan, Stubb guns, 400 million dead... it was some glorious soap opera, a comicstrip punk-Charles Dickens that unfolded each week, and we would marvel and moan at the various turns of fate as the saga progressed.

I remember the threat of global nuclear armageddon was very real, so that Apocalypse War storyline seemed very pertinent. We actually went to war that year, an old-fashioned war: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and we sent an armada to those small islands thousands of miles away that no-one had even heard of. I remember the daily updates on the news.

1982 was a very good year for films. Its why this blog has its name, for one thing.

Blade Runner, ET, Poltergeist, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2, Conan.People often refer to it as the ‘summer of 1982’ and of course it was if you were American, but in other countries that incredible summer of genre films was spread out across the year, as releases were not so immediately global then. Wrath of Khan was here in July, The Thing in August (what madness was that?), Blade Runner and Poltergeist in September, Tron in October, and finally E.T. not until December when likely everyone had already seen it on pirate VHS. Video piracy-  how I first saw The Thing and Conan and Mad Max 2 (and The Exorcist, too, that Autumn).

I could never get my head around being able to watch films on-demand at the press of a switch. Even today it seems a bit weird, a bit like sorcery. In 1982 of course it was a slice of the future, but always over someone else’s house; at home we couldn’t afford a VHS machine until we rented one in late 1983.  Those dark Autumn nights of 1982 when we gathered over a freinds house when his parents were out and watched those VHS copies, they linger in my head forever, so intense it almost seems like yesterday. I giggled like some kind of idiot on first watching The Thing (it just seemed so extreme, in hindsight it was probably nervous laughter, not funny ‘ha-ha’ laughter, but I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead at that point). I detested Conan for not really being honest to the Howard books (though I made peace with it soon enough on subsequent viewings) and I remember being gobsmacked by the wild kinetics of Mad Max 2.

Backtrack a few months to Easter, 1982, and Tron: I remember playing an RPG over a freinds house and we paused to watch Disneytime on his portable telly. Imagine five or six of us enthralled when they showed a clip of Tron: it was the Lightcycle chase, and this little portable b&w television was suddenly a window into the future. Hell, I was still playing videogames on my Atari VCS and they were nothing like the cgi being thrown around in Tron. We had seen nothing quite like it, it was like something that arrived out of nowhere.

It was like that back then. Films did seem to come from nowhere. I remember every month going into the city to the specialist bookshops, reading all the latest movie news in the latest issues of Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique, Cinefex. Marvelling at the latest pictures, reading the latest previews/reviews/interviews. There was no internet, films were spoiled less and information harder to come by. Trailers were rarely seen (not available at a whim as they are now).

When I saw Blade Runner that September, I had never seen a single scene beforehand, hardly any pictures. I do remember a film-music programme on the radio on which I heard the sequence of Deckard meeting Tyrell- that was my only experience of that film beforehand. I wonder if that was why the film had such an impact on me back then? Nowadays we see so much, learn so much, before we even see a film. It steals the surprise somehow. It’s so hard to avoid these days.

Back in 1982, films kept their surprises.