Chronicles of Conan, v. 23: Well of Souls and Other Stories
Collects: Conan the Barbarian #174-81 and Conan the Barbarian Annual #10 (1985-6)
Released: March 2013 (Dark Horse)
Format: 232 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781616550523
What is this?: Conan, along with a Zingaran captain and a teenage girl, continues looking for a fabulous treasure, but he finds more than he’s looking for.
The culprits: Writer Jim Owsley and artists John Buscema and Ernie Chan
In previous reviews of the Chronicles of Conan series, I have complained about a great many things. The most important, to me, was the series’ lack of supporting characters and ongoing narrative. Every issue was the same: Conan steps into a new situation, starts stabbing people, and walks out the end, often as the only survivor. That narrative doesn’t provide much tension: He has to survive, since he’s the main character.
With Chronicles of Conan, v. 23: Well of Souls and Other Stories, writer Jim Owsley (the future Christopher Priest) has changed that. Conan has a partner, Zingaran captain Delmurio, and a sidekick, Tetra, a lovestruck teenage girl who Conan has taught to be a fearsome warrior. They are on a quest to find treasure — simple enough, but one rarely used for long-form Conan stories.
Well of Souls isn’t going to convince a reader with no interest in Conan to start reading the series. However, it might lure readers who are interested in the character or concept back to the series by giving them reasons to invest in the title rather than an individual story. The supporting cast is vivid enough to make readers care about them. Delmurio and Tetra have personalities, and readers will most likely have an opinion about them; when they leave Conan’s side, the barbarian picks up a new companion, who will presumably also make readers like or hate him. The extended plot pays off in a not completely unexpected fashion after seven issues (two in the previous volume, Reavers in the Borderland), and a new plotline begins.
It’s a solid foundation for a series. It’s only a baseline, but it saddens me how badly previous volumes miss that mark.
The individual issues are on the whole mildly interesting, elevated by the structure but showing only flashes of excellence. Issue #175, with its war-haunted river town and mysterious boatman, is the most atmospheric and probably the best issue in the collection. Even the less interesting issues have elements that momentarily pique interest; the opening story, which largely revolves around a mob of uninteresting war orphans, has some surprisingly vicious moments and ruminations about the ethics of keeping occupied populations in line that redeems the fleeting romances and undifferentiated crowds.
Despite my faint praise for the individual issues, Owsley has a better handle on Conan’s world than the writers who preceded him. The settings are filled with casual violence and superstitious people who cannot recognize false prophets or true prophecy when it is shouted at them. People die soon after they appear, and they die when it seems like they are going to join the ongoing cast. Owsley gives the protagonist more dimensions than he usually possesses in Marvel comics; the Conan in Well is as brooding, angry, and violent as usual, but the presence of Tetra restrains his lustful side. The narration says he is affected by her resemblance to lost lovers Red Sonja and Bêlit, but it’s clear Conan sees her adoration and reacts to it. Given her youth, he can’t return her affection, and he doesn’t want to reject her outright, so he doesn’t flaunt his sexual preference of other women to her. When her eyes are no longer on the barbarian, Conan goes back to his lecherous ways almost immediately.
Well of Souls has plenty of areas where it could be improved; better choices by editor Larry Hama might have prevented colorist George Roussos from assaulting readers’ eyes with a technicolor Hyborian Age or convinced artist John Buscema to cast aside the teenage Tetra’s furry bikini and loincloth ensemble, even if it is accessorized with green furry boots. (What animal could those boots have come from?) Making the spelling of man-monster Keiv (not “Kiev”) consistent would have helped. Having Owsley restate the overarching plot — on a quest to find treasure, based on a map Conan and Delmurio each have half of — would have been useful as well, since the reader often knows only that the trio are going to some destination. Hama also makes a mistake in issue #176, referring to Conan’s adventure with ex-mercenary Redondo as being in Annual #9 instead of #10. Since Annual #10 is included in Well, that’s not a big problem, but collection editor Chris Warner might have given the story in #176 greater impact by putting Annual #10 before #176. On the other hand, the continuing narrative doesn’t give much room for the annual, so it might not have been feasible.
The ever-reliable John Buscema drew all the issues of the regular series. Buscema was getting near 60 when these issues came out, but his art is as strong and vivid as ever. Owsley’s intense Conan would not work half so well with another artist, as Buscema’s work on the barbarian hero conveys a hardness that has nothing to do with his musculature. Buscema’s penchant for cheesecake — de rigueur for fantasy, I know — gets a little out of hand, as no woman in Well conceals her navel, and Tetra’s outfit is, as described, gratuitous. Frequent Conan inker Ernie Chan penciled the annual and does a good job of it.
The immediate future looks good for the title. The overarcing plot is controlled by a new adversary, not Conan, but the villain looks like he has a plan and is putting it into place. With Owsley remaining on Conan until #213 (another four volumes or so), the stories should retain their barbarousness, and Conan should remain well rounded.
Rating: (3.5 of 5)