Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories
Collects: Conan the Barbarian #151-9 (1983-4)
Released: December 2010 (Dark Horse)
Format: 200 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781595825841
What is this?: Conan stabs his way through another nine issues of his eponymous series.
The culprits: Writer / artist John Buscema and writer Michael Fleischer, with fill-in art from Gary Kwapisz
There’s no doubt the comic book direct market is in trouble. Sales have been declining for years, and unlike at the direct market’s dawn, few titles are guaranteed a continued existence. This is discouraging for those of us who would enjoy long runs for new characters and titles or hope titles that have always been at the fringe of economic viability (Power Man & Iron Fist, Defenders, Alpha Flight, etc.) will get a new ongoing series. The only good news is that almost every current title should have a purpose or a hook.
You don’t see too many zombie titles any more. If you’ve read comics in the late 20th century, you’ve probably come across a zombie title or three. They’re the ones that lurched along, all semblance of life drained away, still repetitively doing all those things it did when it was new and vital. There’s no creative reason to publish these comics: no overarching plots, no exciting young creators looking to work with the character, no groundbreaking creativity. There’s just a semi-loyal audience hanging around, large enough to make money off of. For a Marvel comic, there’s something humorous about this: Marvel zombies helping zombie comics titles survive. A zombie support network, if you will.
Conan the Barbarian was a prime example of a zombie title. After original writer Roy Thomas left, there was a drop-off in the writing quality; few of his successors had a handle on Conan and his world like he did. Truth to tell, even Thomas was having trouble by the end of his long run. The title floundered. So by issue #151 — where Chronicles of Conan v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories begins — what was the purpose of this title?
The easy answer is that Conan stuck around to give artist John Buscema, often inked by his frequent Conan collaborator Ernie Chan, a place to play. Conan is the title the elder Buscema brother was most associated with, and if he wanted to do the title, why not let him? The art still looks great; there’s no doubt about that. Conan and his enemies are dynamic, active enough to still occasionally surprise the long-term reader with their vividness. Conan himself hasn’t devolved into a copy or parody artistically, although I have my doubts about his blue-sleeveless-tee-tucked-into-furry-bikini ensemble. Still, the monsters are monstrous, and the girls are as gorgeous as ever. And Buscema even started plotting the stories. Giving Buscema a forum for his work and keeping him happy seems a worthy goal, right?
But it’s hard to shake the idea that even the art has lost its freshness. I’ve seen the Conan / pretty girl / evil-wizard / monster set piece before, and if Buscema moves the elements of this stock tale around artfully, he can’t disguise that they are the same elements. I find myself wishing Marvel would have given Buscema a new challenge, something for him to flex his character design and artistic muscles on.
On the other hand, Conan must have sold. So the zombie stays in the publishing schedule.
The writing is a larger problem. Certainly there’s nothing new there. The stories aren’t the worst in the Chronicles of Conan series, but Buscema and Michael Fleischer (writer #151-4, dialogue #155-9) aren’t breaking new ground. There are no overarching plots, no development of Conan’s character (although 21st century readers should know that’s not a priority), and few characters — good or evil — are worth seeing again. Conan’s violent edge has dulled into a paternalistic affability; he’s a nice guy by this collection. A nice guy who guts a few people every issue, but he’s not out to destroy, and he’s not always on the make.
The same elements are used again and again — abducted maiden, lost city under attack (that one’s used twice), evil woman trying to control Conan (again, twice), the perilous inn. Issue #155, in which Conan rescues a grateful toady from a semi-competent wizard, is the best of the lot, and although there are a few attempts at twists (the wolf in #158, the wizard’s identity in #157), the execution produces limp results. (The twist in #158 is spoiled on cover, for instance.) This is partially down to Buscema, who is presumably learning the ropes as a writer; in #156, for instance, the final third of the story is a flashback in which Conan doesn’t appear.
I have to admit I didn’t initially catch that the title of #154 — “The Man-Bats of Ur-Zanarrh!” — was a play on a 1958 Batman story, “Batman — The Superman of Planet-X,” in which Batman encounters the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, an alien planet. (Not many other people would have caught it had Grant Morrison not resurrected the idea for his recent Batman run.) Clever — but not clever enough to save the story or the book. In any event, when a war between winged humans and bat men on a floating city — a war in which Conan rides a giant dragonfly — seems a little ho-hum, it’s probably time to strike the curtain and call it a day.
There are reasons for zombie titles to exist — or there were, at least. They served as a safe place to launch new creators, such as Frank Miller on Daredevil, and new ideas. They provided a feeling of a shared universe, which was more important then than it is today. These zombie titles also give readers a nice feeling of continuity: there’s Conan on the newsstand; it’s been there for a decade, and it will still be there in another decade.
That last is a luxury the direct market will no longer allow, though, and the other two aren’t relevant to Night of the Wolf. The only reason for Conan to continue throughout the ‘80s was economic. But that’s not really a reason for anyone but Conan diehards to read Night of the Wolf in 2012.
Rating: (2 of 5)