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

20 January 2009

Savage Sword of Conan, v. 1

Collects: Selections from Savage Tales #1-5 and Savage Sword of Conan #1-10 (1971-6)

Released: December 2007 (Dark Horse)

Format: 542 pages / black and white / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593078386

What is this?: Reprints from 1970s Marvel black-and-white Conan magazines.

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and a cast of artists, notably Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema.

Dark Horse made its second foray into the Conan reprint market at the end of 2007 with The Savage Sword of Conan, v. 1.

This series is as different as two Marvel series featuring the same title character can be. Savage Sword is a black and white, “Essential” type phonebook, while the Chronicles of Conan are full-color trade paperbacks. The two titles being reprinted differed vastly, as well; Chronicles reproduces Conan the Barbarian, a standard comic book. Savage Sword, unsurprisingly, reprints The Savage Sword of Conan, a black-and-white magazine that ran at the same time. Because of rights issues, Chronicles doesn’t include the original covers. Savage Sword does.

Savage Sword of Conan coverAdmittedly, Conan is the same character in each. This leads to the question, Which is superior?

Both are written by Roy Thomas, so that’s a wash. There are more adaptations of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s original stories in Savage Sword, it seems, than any two volumes of Chronicles. That makes sense; there was more room for large-scale adaptations in Sword, which was a larger, more expensive format than Conan. Sword’s first volume has adaptations of “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” “Red Nails,” “Black Colossus,” “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” “A Witch Shall Be Born,” and the last two chapters of the adaptation of the only Conan novel, “The Hour of the Dragon.”

But “The Hour of the Dragon” highlights Savage Sword’s main drawbacks: continuity. In “Dragon’s” case, the first four parts of the adaptation aren’t included because they were originally printed in Giant-Size Conan #1-4 (1974-5), and the Giant-Size line isn’t reprinted consistently in licensed ventures anyway (the GIT Corp. DVD-ROMs omitted them, although probably for different reasons). This is a major flaw, especially since there isn’t an explanatory note about the missing chapters; I spent 15 minutes looking for the rest of the story before discovering the reason online.

A less worrying — but more consistent — part of that drawback is Savage Sword is not a single narrative. Those used to Chronicles or Marvel’s Essentials might expect Savage Sword to have the thread of a story throughout it. It does not. It hops from one story to another, usually with little regard to the narrative of Conan’s life as a whole. There are exceptions, especially in the original sequels to “A Witch Is Born” and “Black Colossus.” It’s another sacrifice to the freedom necessary for the long adaptations, and in theory it allows Thomas to include Conan stories that are simply good. On a practical level, it allows the reader to easily differentiate between Howard’s stories and Thomas’s own contributions to the canon; with the exception of “The Forever Phial,” a neat little story from the point of view of a doomed wizard that includes Barry Windsor-Smith-like art from Tim Conrad, and “The Citadel at the Center of Time,” a jumping off point for a couple of issues of What If?, most of them are easily forgotten, especially without the lattice of an ongoing story to affix them to.

However, it is the art where Savage Sword shines. Conan artists supreme Windsor-Smith and John Buscema are featured in this volume, with Buscema providing most of the art. Smith’s adaptation of “Red Nails” burns itself into the brain. Buscema’s “A Witch Is Born” allows Buscema to play with light and dark in a truly striking way. The truth is these adaptations give the artists a chance to play with some of the greatest Conan imagery, and they take full advantage. Windsor-Smith and Buscema have rarely looked so good, with the lack of color emphasizing their work rather than diminishing it. And there are more than 500 pages of this beautiful work.

The completist might be disappointed by Savage Sword. Some issues of Savage Sword of Conan are completely reprinted. Others have stories featuring other characters dropped, either because of issues of rights (Red Sonja) or interest (King Kull). Other stories are dropped for reasons I can’t determine.

Conan fans would likely choose Savage Sword over the Chronicles, I believe, while comic fans who like Conan might choose Chronicles but get a great deal of enjoyment out of Savage Sword. I can say, without hesitation, that Savage Sword is the better of the two, in my opinion, and it’s well worth your time.

Rating: Conan face Conan face Conan face Conan face (4 of 5)

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