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

13 February 2012

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.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories coverConan 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: Conan symbol Conan symbol (2 of 5)

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6 Comments:

Blogger Marc said...

I have to give you serious credit for making it so far into this series, especially given that the last few volumes sound like they were often difficult to slog through. I've only managed my way through the first couple of volumes myself, and I'm not sure how much more I'll be able to take even at this point.

I suspect that there must be people out there who legitimately do see variety in stories that, to the likes of you and me, seem like cookie-cutter copies of one another. I imagine they quite enjoy books like this, just as they enjoy the Conan prose stories -- which I've found even more repetitive than the comics whenever I attempt to read them.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Raoul said...

The stuff with Belit -- #58 through 100 -- is worth reading, to a degree; having a consistent love interest / partner is a good change of status quo for Conan. On the other hand, there's a crossover with Red Sonja during that time, and I don't think they're allowed to reprint those issues, unfortunately.

I personally enjoy the original Robert E. Howard prose stories; otherwise, I don't think I could have made it this far either.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

To be fair, I should probably give the prose another chance. I've only read the first few stories in the first Del Rey collection, and it's quite possible that Howard gets a little better over time. I did like "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," though, which (not uncoincidentally) is one of my favorite Conan comic book stories as well.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

I don't know if Howard's stories get better as they go along, but I do know the first Conan story published, "The Phoenix on the Sword," is the least interestingThe second story, "The Scarlet Citadel," never grabbed me either; I was never one for Conan-as-king.

My favorite, "Red Nails," is the last one Howard wrote, but there's no guarantee that Howard was developing or that you would like it if you read all the stories. De gustibus non est disputandum, after all.

1:58 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

I'm glad you mentioned those first few stories by name, because come to think of it, I think that's about as far as I got in my reading before I set the book aside. The fact that you pointed those ones out as being among the weaker stories is enough to convince me to give the book another shot. (And if I lose my faith in Howard again along the way, I'll be sure to skip ahead and give "Red Nails" a try.)

5:58 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

If / when you read "Red Nails," let me know -- even if you don't like it. I'm always curious as to what others think of the original REHoward stuff.

3:15 AM  

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