Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories
Collects: Conan the Barbarian #241-9 (1991)
Released: March 2016 (Dark Horse)
Format: 224 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558659
What is this?: After avoiding a demigod’s son’s revenge plot, Conan and his cohorts join the Khorajan army.
The culprits: Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gary Hartle and Mike Docherty
Since the next volume of the Chronicles of Conan — Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories — is scheduled to come out next week, I thought I’d review the most recent volume as a warm-up.
Is Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories better than the preceding volume? Oh, Crom, yes — it would be almost impossible for Roy Thomas, Conan’s first writer, to conceive of anything as dire as The Death of Conan and Other Stories.
With that low bar cleared, it’s time to look at whether Empire of the Undead is good. That question is a bit more complicated …
Those who know Thomas by his superhero work probably realize Rascally Roy never met a bit of continuity he didn’t think he could mine for a story. That’s the case with Empire of the Undead, where Thomas follows Michael Higgins’s continuity-ignoring implant with a storyline that brings back old friends and old rivals. Red Sonja returns, but that’s not so unusual: she pops up every now and then. Thomas also reunites the surly Cimmerian with Zula, one of the pirates who sailed with Conan and Bêlit in Conan the Barbarian #84-94 — a deep cut, to be sure.
Zula is a welcome addition — I’ve said before that Conan works better in the long term when he has allies to work with. But the returning villains … I’m not sure. Thomas introduces El-Ron, the son of Zukala, whom Conan fought in #5 and #115 and allied with in #14, and reintroduces the bat-like Afterlings, which appeared in #43, Stygian wizard Shu-Onoru, Zula’s old master who appeared in #85-6, and Stygian prince Katuman, who appeared in Savage Sword of Conan #2 and 3. (Other characters from the past also pop up, but I’m not going to list them all.) Thomas also uses Varnae the Vampire, who has long been established as the most ancient vampire lord in the Marvel Universe, as a villain for the second storyline in Empire.
These villains fall flat, though. The returning characters don’t serve much narrative purpose, as each of them — save for Shu-Onoru, who has a strong connection to Zula — could have been a new character without sacrificing any effect on the plot. Varnae is particularly out of place, as the story he’s in has none of the traditional vampire trappings, and he’s defeated by the clichéd “one thing that can defeat him” — a magic spell that Zula reads, in this case. Also, the Conan editorial staff was lying down on the job; other than Zula, the book contained few footnotes stating which issues these characters came from. Strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary, but it would have been nice to give readers some context.
Despite Thomas’s determination to link everything in his latest run to something he did more than a decade before, the book largely succeeds. The first story, a three-parter called “The Sorcerer and the She-Devil,” is fine, with Red Sonja’s feisty return mostly managing to hide the plot’s unwillingness to let either her or Conan affect it. (Does Thomas have something against Scientology? Naming the villain El-Ron tends suggest he does, but I can’t find anything online about it.) The following two-parter with Varnae the Vampire is notable only for the return of Zula; otherwise, #244 and 245 is a series of fights, usually with the heroes losing, interrupted by monologues.
The book finally gets into gear with #246, when Conan, Sonja, and Zula arrive in besieged Khoraja. Conan begins to ascend the Khorajan military ladder, as he has done in many other cities and states, and helps the Khorajans defeat the desert nomad wizard who threatens the city. Thomas gives the story a little nuance, showing the Khorajans are not completely innocent: their high command is just as stupid as the generals Conan usually serves under, and the city has an oppressed minority that Sonja is ambivalent toward, even when they try to kill her. I also appreciate that Thomas ignores Conan’s final fight with the uncanny leader of the nomads — we all know Conan’s going to win, right? — and instead concentrates on Zula and Sonja’s battle with demonic underlings. I admit laughing out loud when after the battle Sonja and Zula found Conan in post-coital bliss with the Khorajan princess.
Additionally, Thomas gives more depth to Sonja than I anticipated he would. At first, Sonja displays her customary rivalry with Conan, although she lacks the usual camaraderie she usually has with him. (It turns out Sonja was hired to assassinate El-Ron, and Conan kept getting in the way of her plan.) But as the book goes on and she continues to adventure with Conan, her rivalry continues, although Conan is mystified at why she’s so angry about his successes. When Conan quickly becomes a captain in the Khorajan army, Sonja bristles. It’s easy to see why: in Empire, Sonja is every bit the warrior Conan is, but it’s always Conan who gets credit for being the superior warrior. Her resentment cools a bit at the end when Conan, elevated to general, promotes her to captain. Overall, Sonja is more insecure than usual, but I can live with that, given how difficult it must be to live, even for a while, in Conan’s shadow.
Artists Gary Hartle (#241-7) and Mike Docherty (#248-9) are solid artists, and I have no complaints about them. They aren’t superlative stylists like Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema, but both know how to draw Conan and his world, telling comprehensible stories. More importantly, in my eyes, they give Sonja more clothing than a chainmail bikini. Hartle’s one-piece swimsuit with lapels and a fur-trimmed cape is only a moderate improvement, but Docherty gets rid of the lapels (and cleavage) as soon as he can, adding leather armor around the neck and shoulders and a loincloth. It’s not practical, but it’s nice to see someone moving her in a more sartorially useful direction.
More amusing than Sonja’s clothing is the contrast between Conan’s interior and cover artists. Hartle and Docherty, as I mentioned, are good, but they never were considered “hot” artists; on the other hand, the covers are contributed by artists who were the most sought-after pencilers of the day. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, a trio that would help found Image Comics the following year, contributed the covers for #241-3, and Art Adams drew #247-9. Those are impressive artists to line up for a title that was aimlessly wasting readers’ time in the previous collection.
No one’s going to pick up Empire if they haven’t been reading Chronicles of Conan for a long time. But if you made it through Death of Conan without your interest in Conan being extinguished, then you might as well pick up Empire, especially since Thomas seems to be adding a little more depth than he has to to the stories.
Rating: (2.5 of 5)
Labels: 2.5, 2016 March, Art Adams, Chronicles of Conan, Conan, Dark Horse, El-Ron, Gary Hartle, Jim Lee, Khoraja, Marvel, Mike Docherty, Red Sonja, Roy Thomas, Todd McFarlane, Varnae the Vampire, Whilce Portacio, Zula