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

18 January 2013

Chronicles of Conan, v. 22: Reavers in the Borderland and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian Annual #8-9 and Conan the Barbarian #168-73 (1983-4, 1985)

Released: June 2012 (Dark Horse)

Format: 224 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781595828125

What is this?: Conan joylessly wenches and kills his way through more of the Hyborian Age.

The culprits: Writers Michael Fleisher and Jim Owsley and artists John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Val Mayerik

Writer Michael Fleisher’s work in Chronicles of Conan, v. 21: Blood of the Titan and Other Stories left me optimistic the quality of the Chronicles of Conan would improve from its consistently forgettable levels. And then The Chronicles of Conan, v. 22: Reavers in the Borderland and Other Stories jammed a broadsword through that optimism.

I wasn’t expecting a return to Roy Thomas levels of quality but something memorable about the stories in Reavers in the Borderland — about any story in Reavers, actually. Introducing Fafnir, a sidekick / partner for the title barbarian, distinguished Blood of the Titan from other books in the series. The rivalry and friendship of the two added a new dimension to Conan’s character, and for once, there was a character in Conan (other than Conan) I gave a damn about.

 cover But Fafnir is dropped from the stories in Reavers, and the series returns to random hack-and-slash action, full of gaudily colored thugs, wizards, and bravos trying to cut Conan down. Fleisher, who wrapped up his two-year run with #171, writes largely forgettable pieces, studded with violence and lady flesh. Fleisher’s stories show little wit and feature no memorable characters. The images parade in front of the eyes and then vanish, leaving as much of an impression upon Conan as they do the reader — that is, none.

In Reavers, Conan saves an old ally from a carnival (?!) sideshow. Conan protects a wench from some of his old enemies, only to find she is more than she seems. A wizard needs help with a demon and a cursed sword; that takes two issues to resolve. Conan appears to die; the reader yawns, not particularly caring how he survives. (Poison coma, if you’re interested. You shouldn’t be, though.)

I almost called Fleisher’s stories continuity-free, but that’s not true; he reuses characters from his run in two of his stories. In #168, Conan chances across Alhambra, the winged woman from #153-4 (The Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories), and saves her from the sideshow and her old enemies, the Batmen of Ur-Xanarrh. (He almost burns her and everyone in the carnival to death first, though.) In #171, he fails to protect a girl from the Brotherhood of the Falcon, which he fought in #162 (Blood of the Titan). But Alhambra is just a pretty face (and pair of wings) who doesn’t stick around, and despite “killing” Conan, the Brotherhood of the Falcon is just another group of faceless goons, with little to distinguish them from a random wizard’s henchmen or a corrupt duke’s soldiers. Fafnir, the saving grace of the last volume, does come back briefly in #170, although it’s only to say goodbye.

What Conan needs is a supporting cast, people who stay with him. They don’t have to stay forever; three or four issues would be fine. But Conan needs a contrast in the story, someone to express himself to (even if it’s by not saying anything), or else the book becomes the story of a guy with a sword killing random stuff, with as much character as a video game avatar. Not becomes, I guess — became, and that happened a long time ago.

Jim Owsley (known today as Christopher Priest) starts with #172, and things change for the better. The remaining two stories are to parts of a larger storyline set in the Pictish wilderness. Conan gains a sidekick, a pretty girl — giving artist John Buscema just what he needs: even more opportunities to draw pretty girls — and still has a hapless victim to protect. Owsley writes a more brutish Conan than Fleisher, who has Conan give his horse to a woman who just tried to steal his sword. Owsley’s Conan is plainspeaking and rude, saying hurtful things to people who might not deserve it. It’s a refreshing change; Conan should have some teeth. Issues #182-3 augur well for the future, and many people really like Owsley’s work on Conan.

But I’ve been burned before. The potentially explosive cliffhangers in Blood resolve as damp squibs in Reavers. I thought I had a handle on how the story in #167 would be resolved. I was wrong; I didn’t expect Fleisher to make the bold choice of ignoring the dangling plot altogether. The cliffhanger in Annual #7 seems similarly forgotten, although it was resolved eventually. Not in Conan the Barbarian or a Conan Annual or even Savage Sword of Conan, but in the Conan of the Isles graphic novel, which came out six years after Annual #7. I’m not going to change my rating of Blood, but the lack of payoff in Reavers does devalue the story in Blood.

There are many roles I rarely discuss in my reviews: colorists, editors, letterers … Reavers made me consider the reprint editor, which in this case is Chris Warner. Unfortunately, my attention is not to his benefit. Warner leads off the book with two Conan the Barbarian Annuals (#8 and 9). They were published before the Conan the Barbarian issues in this collection, but since I was looking forward to the continuation of Fafnir’s story, the beginning of this book seemed a poor place to put the annuals. (The wait also made the weak payoff even more disappointing.) Between Fleisher’s and Owsley’s runs would have been a better place, and it’s not like anyone was paying attention to Conan’s chronology at this point.

As for art: Buscema’s in fine form. His work looks better with inks from Bob Camp (#169-70, 172-3) than from Armando Gil (#171) or Buscema himself (#168), though. The final two issues are especially superb and sharp, even if I wish Bucema would get rid of Conan’s blue-sleeveless-tee-and-fur-underwear combo. Ernie Chan draws an action-packed Annual #9, although he can’t quite measure up to Buscema. Val Mayerik supplies the art for Annual #8, and I was too distracted by his tentative inking to say anything about his pencils. (This book is a warning against self-inking, really.)

Maybe my optimism isn’t dead; maybe it will survive the bloody attack that is Reavers in the Borderland. But even if it can survive this crummy book, you should skip Reavers. Reavers has little to recommend it, other than Buscema’s art, and Buscema’s work is in so many better Chronicles. Oh, there might be something to the Owsley run, and if there is, it’s going to annoying to miss the first two issues. Still: do not be tempted to buy this waste of time. It’s not worth it.

Rating: Half Conan symbol (0.5 of 5)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A rating of only 0.5??? Very harsh considering the quality of the artists. By comparison, most modern Marvel and DC titles look like the work of amateurs, in my opinion.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Raoul said...

I understand what you're saying. But Buscema and Chan are -- I don't want to say getting stale, but they're doing the same sort of things over and over. The writers aren't challenging them to do new things, really, and even Conan's clothes are static. Besides, if you want to see Buscema and Chan artwork, I very much want to encourage people to read a different volume than this; the two have a long and impressive output on much better Conan work, and people should see that first.

11:59 AM  

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