Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

30 July 2010

Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #127-34, Conan Annual #6 (1981-2)

Released: April 2009 (Dark Horse)

Format: 240 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781595821775

What is this?: Conan wanders through a world filled with magic, evil men, and scantily clad women.

The culprits: Writers J.M. DeMatteis, Bruce Jones, and Roy Thomas and penciler Gil Kane

The Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories is significant in a negative way: it’s the first volume of the Chronicles of Conan series without an issue of Conan the Barbarian written by Roy Thomas or dawn by either Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema.

Instead, we get J.M. DeMatteis wrapping up his run, which started in v. 15 , Bruce Jones starting his run, which lasts until v. 19, and art by Gil Kane.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 17: The Creation Quest and Other Stories coverThis lineup does not exactly inspire confidence. DeMatteis’s introduction, in which he says, “I finally realized … the kinds of stories I wanted to tell were best suited to other venues,” doesn’t help matters either, nor does his admission that he was unable to deliver stories that pleased Buscema — they didn’t meet Buscema’s ideal of what Conan stories should have in them. Now, Buscema is just one man, and he didn't own the character, but I think he does have a pretty good handle on what makes Conan tick.

Although he doesn’t contribute to this issue, Buscema’s indictment of DeMatteis’s Conan writing seem to be borne out here. The first issue, #127, feels like a half-baked reversal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (adapted in Conan the Barbarian #16); a magic spell animates snow and ice into a magical totem for a village, but the spell has human form, forgets it’s a spell, and escapes to find love with Conan. And it has the dumb name of Xean. I admit, the reversal is nice — the cold woman of snow flees from her protectors and toward Conan — but the idea of the sentient, amnesiac spell is never developed, buried beneath action sequences: Conan fighting a polar bear! Conan fighting Vanirmen (as he did in “Frost Giant’s Daughter”)! Conan fighting Vanirmen again! And then it ends, with a priest telling Conan why the story ends, not that either he or we could have figured it out.

DeMatteis does try a more traditional Conan story in #128-130, a quest story in which Conan must pay an old friend’s ransom with treasures stolen from around the world. It’s a bit lackluster, however; the old friend’s wife teleports Conan into and out of danger, removing a good deal of tension, and the resolution of the story is a superhero cliché transported into Hyboria for the amusement of the locals. The end revelation that the friend, his wife, and their kid are essentially gods doesn’t help either, although it does give Conan a chance to repudiate his friend’s power creep: “I find … I have unleashed yet another god upon a world that has seen too many gods already. … I will long remember what you were — and try to forget what it is you’ve become!” It seems a rare true and original character note for Conan in DeMatteis’s work in this volume that he would distrust a friend, even a childhood one, once he learns the friend is more than human — because he is above the simple pleasures of mankind.

Jones’s work, on the other hand, is in keeping with the spirit of Conan; Buscema would later work with Jones on Conan. Issue #131 is a smart adventure story with a cursed ring, and even though the ending is contrived, it does signal a return back to direct stories with a sharper edge. The next issue’s setup isn’t exactly in keeping with Conan’s usual endeavors — he competes in deadly Olympic-style events to win a valuable sword — but even though Conan doesn’t really think much during the story, it does give him a chance to show his sense of fair play and his appetite for drink. The final two Jones issues are CSI: Hyboria, in which Conan solves the mystery of who cursed the princess, the gypsy’s true identity, and how to save an innocent woman from a death trap. In the latter, Conan’s helped by a bit of deus ex serpentia, but it is Hyboria: gods do occasionally pop out of the woodwork to help. Although you shouldn’t be able to have lunch with them.

When I said Roy Thomas doesn’t write any issues of Conan the Barbarian for this volume, that’s only technically true: Thomas does contribute Conan Annual #6. It’s Thomas nearing the end of his Conan stories, with a padded story that shows it was probably for the best he stopped writing Conan for most of the ‘80s. The story has a normal-length, single-issue kernel at its center: a man thinks he’s a conqueror reincarnated, and megalomania ensues. Thomas adds in giant spiders (who disappear early), a mistress and a wife (not as exciting as they sound), and Technicolor demons, but they all fall flat. With an artist like Buscema or Windsor-Smith going nuts on the art, perhaps it could have been something; instead, the art is drawn and inked by Gil Kane.

Kane was a very good artist who did a lot of superhero work for Marvel and DC; he even did a few fill-ins on Conan the Barbarian for Buscema and Windsor-Smith. Unfortunately, Kane is not Buscema or Windsor-Smith. That’s not a crime on most titles, especially on superhero titles that change artists regularly. But this is Conan; the title had, for more than a decade, been drawn with attention to detail and dynamic characters. Kane falls short on both of these counts. He inks himself on the DeMatteis issues and the annuals and comes across as an unfinished imitation of Windsor-Smith; when inked by others, there’s a marked improvement, although there’s still something lacking. Issue #134 was his last Conan for a while, and I think that was for the best. Like DeMatteis, his best work — which is pretty good — is elsewhere.

I have to give Dark Horse a great deal of credit: they’ve made a reprint series run for twenty volumes (Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories, which amusingly features Conan riding a giant dragonfly on the cover, is due out October 13). They don’t skip bad issues; they reprint all the issues they have the rights to without prejudice. The completists in me loves that, but in a practical sense, that means there are the occasional volumes like The Creation Quest. Buscema is back for v. 18 (Isle of the Dead and Other Stories), so anyone reading this volume can write it off as lackluster and buy the next one with optimism.

But for anyone but completists or Bruce Jones fans: skip this volume.

Rating: Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (1.5 of 5)

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