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

28 February 2015

Bandette, v. 1: Presto!

Collects: Bandette #1-5 ()

Released: November 2013 (Dark Horse/ original comics from Monkeybrain)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781616552794

What is this?: With the help of her gang of urchins, Bandette, a young woman in sorta-France, is the world’s greatest thief — or just about.

The culprits: Written by Paul Tobin and drawn by Colleen Coover

The word to remember for Bandette, v. 1: Presto!, is “charming.”

The protagonist, a young woman whose nom du crime is Bandette, is charming. The stilted dialogue, which suggests a not-quite-fluid translation from French, is charming. The plots, which don’t take themselves seriously, are charming. Her moral standing — a master thief who sometimes aids the side of good but is not above helping herself to other people’s loot — is charming. Bandette’s personal credo — “Presto!” — is charming in its simplicity. Colleen Coover’s art, which tells the story admirably without worrying overly much about realism, is charming.

Bandette, v. 1: Presto! coverAt this stage in the review, you’ll know if this book is for you. Many people will have already written off Bandette as sickly sweet. That is not the case, though. Coover and writer Paul Tobin skirt that pitfall as deftly as is possible, keeping Bandette carefree and lighthearted without being cloying; the protagonist is confident and sure of her abilities in a way that allows her to remain unconcerned yet exhilarated in the face of assassins and bank robbers.

Bandette lives in a world that resembles but is not quite our own. It is a European world, full of dashing, daring thieves and international crime gangs and signs in French. Bandette makes allusions to European comics: the Chocobolik candy bar is a reference to Diabolik, the anti-hero thief from Italian comics; Inspector Belgique looks like he could have stepped out of Tintin; and at one point Bandette is pursued by the villainous motorcycle riders from the “Take on Me” video (by the Norwegian band A-ha). It’s likely I’m missing other references. Still, there are jarring notes; French urchins would hardly be likely to play baseball on the streets of any French city, for example.

Coover’s art is excellent, conveying the book’s light-hearted tone as well as the dialogue and plot does. Coover’s Bandette is acrobatic and graceful, almost always in motion, and unmistakably youthful. Although the style looks cartoony, Coover manages subtlety throughout the book — in the backgrounds, in the details, and even right in front of the readers’ eyes. (In two different scenes, Bandette and her chief rival, Monsieur, pick the other’s pocket; the thefts are obvious because that is what we expect stylish thieves do to one another, but Coover actually draws both thefts — details I missed on my first reading.)

The only criticism I have of Presto! is that the volume feels slight. When I stop to consider whether it is, I realize Presto! is a good value: a $15 hardback, 144 pages in color, collecting five (online) issues. No, the amount of content is fine; the amount of story is the problem. In Presto!, Bandette rights a wrong by stealing stolen artwork, stops a bank robbery, is targeted by an international crime syndicate, and agrees to “the great thieving race” with her greatest larcenous rival. That summary contains a great deal of action, but Presto! doesn’t leave the reader with that impression. The international crime syndicate makes one attempt on Bandette’s life, although future attempts are promised. The robbery and the larcenous justice are brief episodes meant to show Bandette’s character, supporting cast, and world. The volume ends as soon as the great thieving race is agreed to.

Perhaps, though, the story is cut at that point to leave the reader wanting more. I know it worked with me. I hope the second volume, Stealers Keepers!, will provide more of a complete story, although for another $15 for the other part of a single story, Bandette looks like less of a bargain.

The final 40-plus pages in Presto! fall into the category of “extras.” Tobin’s eight “Urchin Stories,” showing Bandette’s allies, are illustrated by as many different artists; Steve Lieber’s art for the Inspector Belgique story stands out by being reminiscent of Coover’s work without being a slavish imitation. After the eight short illustrated stories is Tobin’s prose piece featuring Daniel, one of Bandette’s urchins. This is the best of the extras; the story tells how Daniel met Bandette, fell in love with her (although he’d never admit it), and aided her on another adventure. The extras are rounded out by pages detailing the process of creating Bandette; Coover’s explanation of how she creates the art is much longer than Tobin’s script pages.

Presto!, then, is a charming, airy pastry rather than a substantial meal. But that is nothing to be ashamed of; we all need filling meals, but we still crave those pastries. In fact, we can never get enough.

Rating: Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol Dark Horse symbol (4 of 5)

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20 February 2015

The Worst Marvel Crossover of the '90s

Last year, I finished reading The Complete Ben Reilly Epic, Book 6, which meant I had read, from beginning to end, all three of the Unholy Trinity of Bad Marvel ‘90s Crossovers:

• The Clone Saga
• Onslaught
• The Crossing

All three are terrible, terrible stories, produced at about the same time: around 1995 and 1996. That is, all three were churned out after the speculator boom of the early ‘90s and just as Marvel was heading into bankruptcy. (In fact, the Clone Saga ended with issues cover dated December 1996, the month Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection.)

All three of these crossovers are terrible. Whether they were commercially driven abominations or horrendously misguided attempts to overhaul a line, or both, each had confused storylines and a deleterious effect on a line.

Which, though, was the worst? This is a question that people will argue about; I have a feeling most fans’ answers would depend on which abused character they like the most. Still, I think some characters received a considerably shorter end of the stick than the others. (The Fantastic Four avoided the worst of this, although it should be noted that Atlantis Rising won’t be confused for Shakespeare any time soon.)


Onslaught is the least offensive of these mega-crossovers. For those of you who don’t know, Onslaught was a psionic entity created in Professor Xavier’s mind after he wiped Magneto’s mind. After ominous foreshadowing and the resolution of the long-dangling X-Traitor plot, Onslaught burst forth, took over New York with the help of Sentinels, and … didn’t do much. There was muttering of conquest, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Length: Relatively short. The actual crossover itself is contained in four trade paperbacks, and one of those doesn’t even have any X-Men titles in it. However, if you throw in the lead-up to the actual crossover, you have to include another three trades. The lead up and crossover ate up about fifteen months; the crossover itself blew over in a summer.

Spillover: The actual crossover (and some of its foreshadowing) pulled in quite a few titles, including the Clone Saga (see below). Incredible Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Thor all got caught up in the crossover, which is a shame, given that all those series (except Hulk ended when Onslaught did.

Creepy dude moment: When Jean Grey explored Professor Xavier’s thoughts in X-Men #53 and discovered a repressed memory (a flashback to Uncanny X-Men #3) that Xavier had a crush on Jean from the beginning. Not standing so close to him isn’t going to help when he can telepathically crush on her wherever she is.

Damage: To the X-characters, not much. Professor Xavier was shuffled off the page — you know, because of his crimes against humanity and whatnot. The character itself wasn’t damaged too much as what Onslaught did can be considered separate from Xavier. Mutants were hated even more, although that’s par for the course.

The rest of the Marvel Universe was remade by Onslaught (at least for a year). The Avengers and its subsidiary titles were all canceled, as was Fantastic Four; Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s well-received Captain America run was axed in favor of a commercial stunt. FF, Iron Man, Avengers, and Captain America were all leased to Image creators for a year. Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios got the latter two, while Jim Lee’s Wildstorm got FF and Iron Man. The titles were rebooted, with almost 35 years of continuity being tossed out for a year. Also: Liefeld drew the weirdest Captain America.

Mitigation: Sales rose on those old titles; all of them, except perhaps Captain America, needed the added attention and sales. More importantly, Onslaught wiped out the damage The Crossing caused, and that’s almost a blessing.

The Clone Saga

Now we’re getting into the heavy hitters. In the Clone Saga — a sequel to a ‘70s story that had to be confusingly retitled The Original Clone Saga — a clone of Peter Parker returns to New York to confront Peter. The clone, who calls himself Ben Reilly, is followed by Kaine, another clone who hates Ben, and the Jackal, who created those two clones plus others … Ben and Peter argue about who’s the clone, Peter steps down as Spider-Man when he loses his powers and has a baby on the way, and then a figure from the past comes to take credit for everything that’s happened in Peter’s life.

Length: Interminable. The crossover ate up two years of the four Spider-titles plus ancillary titles like Spider-Man Unlimited and Spider-Man Team-Up. More than 100 issues were thrown at this story! The creators backtracked, laid false trails, changed their minds (OK, so it was mostly editors and the business people who changed their minds), and generally squandered months and months of Spider-Man stories. The fruit of their labors filled eleven trade paperbacks.

It’s hard to get across how much ink and paper was wasted on the Clone Saga. Spider-Man has always been a character who can support the one-issue story, but combined with many throwaway stories were the idiocy of the Jackal and Spidercide, Gaunt and Seward Trainer, Scrier and Judas Traveler and hosts of other villains who had no purpose other than to look mysterious and prevent any resolution to the story.

And when they went to wrap it up, all it took was a four-issue story. Just one month! Why couldn’t they have done that a year earlier?

Spillover: Relatively little. Spider-Man’s troubles didn’t affect other titles much. The clone, going by the alias of Scarlet Spider, kinda joined the New Warriors, and he appeared as Spider-Man in an issue of Daredevil. The Clone Saga also brushed up against the status quos of Punisher, Green Goblin, and Venom, but no one cared about the Phil Urich Green Goblin at the time, and the Punisher and Venom series are both best forgotten. I mean, the Punisher had a ponytail, and no one wants to acknowledge that.

Really, despite the crossover allegedly being so popular, no one else wanted to touch it.

Creepy dude moment: When Peter smacked his wife. It was portrayed as an accident, Peter lashing out randomly after learning he was a clone, but it happened. One moment of frustration and insanity labeled Ant-Man a wifebeater forever, but the same standard wasn’t applied to Peter hitting Mary Jane. This is for two reasons: a) The storyline in which Ant-Man hit the Wasp was good and not best forgotten, like the Clone Saga, and b) People actually like Spider-Man.

Later, Peter tried to kill Mary Jane, but he was being mind controlled, which is understandable and normal behavior for superheroes.

Damage: After two years, the creators realized how badly the entire idea was, and they tried to put everything back where it was while providing a satisfying conclusion. What they did satisfied few, except in the sense that it allowed everyone to put the clone nonsense behind them and forget about it.

The Clone Saga, in its blind grasping for sense and sensation, committed several sins that should be unforgivable. It brought Norman Osborn back from the dead as the architect of the Clone Saga. It killed Ben despite his potential because he was a loose end and a reminder of the Clone Saga’s sins. It caused Mary Jane and Peter’s daughter to be stillborn, then held out hope that the child was merely kidnapped. It made Peter do bad things to Mary Jane.

It made Peter Parker into a clone for a while, which was stupid. It told us, “Everything you know is wrong.” Everything we knew was published by Marvel Comics, which should have been a tipoff that Marvel’s output was not the most reliable source.

Mitigation: The crossover had many ideas that were worth exploring. Peter having a child and moving on isn’t a bad idea, but there’s no reason he had to be labeled the clone for the idea to work. Kaine wasn’t interesting at the time, but he has been used well in the last few years. Getting rid of Aunt May was long overdue; it allowed Peter to grow some. I even have some sympathy for using Kaine to get rid of some of Spider-Man’s older adversaries, although the new Doctor Octopus didn’t pan out.

Most impressive is Ben Reilly. Seeing a different Peter, one who had been lost for years and coming back to a different Peter who had grown but had also gotten a bit lost, presented the reader with an interesting contrast. (Ben wouldn’t have cut a deal to allow for uneasy coexistence with Venom, but he also might not have given Sandman a chance to reform.) Ben’s existence was wasted, of course — except in the M2 Universe, which picked up on some of these threads in Spider-Girl.

Avengers: The Crossing

Iron Man kills a few women to hide a secret: he’s been working with Kang for years to help Kang, Mantis, and their Chrononauts invade Earth and conquer it using his time-travel powers. Kang does manage to erase Vietnam from almost everyone’s memories, but that’s about as far as his conquest goes.

Length: A little longer than the core Onslaught crossover but much shorter than Onslaught’s foreshadowing. The Crossing took place over half a year, and its contents — a mere 25 issues — were reprinted in a single oversized omnibus. (You can pick up the omnibus for about $30 on Amazon, although two insane people gave the book three-star reviews. Three stars! Why not give the book a whole constellation?)

Spillover: None, as far as I can see. The number of titles involved was admirably restrained: only Avengers, Force Works (formerly Avengers West Coast), Iron Man, and War Machine were involved in the story. Thor and Captain America stayed the hell away from The Crossing, which shows excellent sense.

Creepy dude moment: Everything Iron Man does in this book. In addition to killing three unarmed women (and no men), he blasts Wasp so hard the measures taken to save her life turn her into a wasp-human hybrid. (She seemed fine with that, though.) He kidnaps a couple of other women close to him. I suppose you could make a case that this is the flipside to the charmingly predatory nature of Tony’s normal persona — he uses and seduces women — but this turn has the subtlety of an atom bomb lobbed through a store window.

Damage: Holy God, did this do a number on Iron Man. Iron Man had been corrupted by Kang and was working for him for pretty much the entire Marvel Age of Heroes, although the story gives him no motivation to do so. To protect his secret, Tony declared war on women. And this is the guy upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built about a decade later!

Because a series starring a traitorous murderer would have been a problem, Marvel killed off old Tony and replaced him with a teenage version from a different timeline. Teen Tony couldn’t be too different, though, so the fight that introduces him to the main Marvel Universe ends with him suffering heart damage.

The art is inconsistent and usually awful. Instead of giving the secondary titles a sales boost, The Crossing failed War Machine and Force Works so thoroughly they were cancelled two months later. Obscure, best-forgotten continuity is crucial to the story, and readers are expected to remember things like who Yellowjacket II and Gilgamesh are. The story has tons of forgotten and unimportant characters wandering through it; sometimes we’re even supposed to care about them. (The death of Gilgamesh is supposed to be momentous, and the story can’t get that across.) Mantis wanting revenge on the Avengers makes no sense, and Kurt Busiek retconned her (and most of Kang’s soldiers) into Space Phantoms in Avengers Forever. Adult versions of Luna (Quicksilver and Crystal’s daughter) and the Vision and Scarlet Witch’s kids run rampant throughout the story, working for Kang, and no one can figure out who they are. War Machine has a horrifically ugly suit of armor. (I wonder what happened to it …?)

Mitigation: Onslaught / Heroes Reborn and Avengers Forever cleaned up so much of the mess from this crossover that we don’t have to remember it any more. Otherwise, this book had no redeeming features.


The Crossing is the worst of these; it’s so bad, the omnibus should be marked as hazardous waste. Still, it doesn’t have much of an effect on modern Marvel continuity. The Clone Saga gave us the returned Green Goblin and Kaine; Onslaught briefly ended decades of continuity in tangentially related titles and really launched the “Professor Xavier is a monster” idea into the wild. Again: The Crossing was published in 1995. Iron Man came out in 2008. In 13 years, the worst storyline in Marvel history was wiped from the timeline as thoroughly as Kang wanted to wipe out the resistance to him.

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14 February 2015

Jack Kirby and creator credit

Last fall, the heirs of Jack Kirby reached a settlement with Marvel Comics. The terms of the settlement haven’t been announced, at least not that I have seen; it’s probable the settlement included cash for the family and increased recognition for Kirby in the comics and other media in which his co-creations are used.

The recognition is welcome news; the threat of legal action might have been part of the reason Marvel did not include Kirby’s name in many places it should have before. (Another part of the reason — and you can decide what proportion this makes up — is Marvel being stubborn and / or stupid.) The money is also good news for Kirby’s family; Jack Kirby is no longer around to be rewarded, but his family would have benefited if he had received in life the kind of monetary recompense his reputation suggests he deserves, so it makes sense they should receive some reward now.

I have been thinking about my feelings about the case for some time now — probably too long, as the case is passing below the public’s horizon. I admit I was somewhat ambivalent to the Kirby case. I have no idea what his heirs were legally entitled to, and in truth, it seems no one else does either. Decades of copyright decisions suggest the Kirby family would have lost, but given the Supreme Court’s interest, the outcome might — might — have been different this time. I often wondered why I followed the case at all; I have no affection for Kirby’s art, and none of the heirs created anything, making the legal battle one between a corporation fighting for profits vs. a family fighting for a ghost — an imaginary person fighting for money vs. real people fighting for a former person. Neither side appealed to my emotions.

(As an aside: While I don’t care for Kirby’s art, I do respect his place in comic history, and he remains one of the premier — perhaps the premier — imaginations to have ever worked in the comics industry.)

I should be sympathetic to the creative side of any argument, but the heirs’ contention that Kirby co-created Spider-Man, even though the evidence of this is thin at best and evanescent at worst, distressed me. Building the case for Kirby’s greatness shouldn’t mean diluting the credit given to others. Worse, it was Steve Ditko’s creation they tried to horn in on, and Ditko’s legacy is already dimmed by the shadow Kirby cast on Marvel’s Silver Age. I understand this contention was a bargaining chip; when you set out your demands, you always stake out ground as far forward as you can so you can give up some ground and still get what you want. Still, it rankled.

But this did make me wonder if too much stock is placed in the original creators and too little in subsequent creators. We moan and complain when Kirby isn’t acknowledged as a co-creator of certain characters, but when X-Men 2 broadly (but recognizably) adapted parts of Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s God Loves, Man Kills and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X stories, we let that go by. It is enough if Kirby and Stan Lee are recognized as creators of the X-Men. But which comic creators had a greater effect on that movie? I would argue the Claremont, Anderson, and Windsor-Smith did far more to make X-Men 2 the outstanding movie it was than the men who created the X-Men and wrote the title for about two years.

Or to take an example entirely within the realms of comics, we can look at Iron Man. Iron Man was officially created by Kirby, Lee, Larry Lieber (who wrote Iron Man’s first appearance, Tales of Suspense #39), and Don Heck (who drew ToS #39). Lee claimed to have come up with the idea — he always claimed that, even when it might not be true — and according to Heck, Kirby designed the Iron Man armor, while Heck created the look of the other characters, including Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. But the original bulbous Iron Man armor was quickly done away with, and the more streamlined red-and-yellow armor we associate with Iron Man was designed by Ditko in ToS #48. So what did Kirby contribute that made a meaningful impact on the character? Little to none in the art department, it appears, but Ditko’s iconic design doesn’t get any consistent acknowledgement.

Of course, it’s possible Kirby contributed to the idea of Iron Man in the early stages; Kirby’s supporters often point out Lee’s bolts of inspiration were rarely as purely Lee’s as Lee claimed. Also, Kirby isn’t around to say what he did or didn’t do. Given that Kirby was a great idea man, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of his thoughts were incorporated into Iron Man’s origin.

But that brings me back to what I was wondering before. We remember his long run on Fantastic Four (more than 100 issues) and, but Kirby didn’t stick around some of the Silver Age titles he created for very long: only six issues on Hulk, three of the first five issues on Iron Man, seventeen issues on X-Men. Seventeen issues isn’t nothing, but it’s important to note that X-Men was, until the late ‘70s, the biggest failure of Marvel’s Silver Age explosion. The title was cancelled in 1970 and turned into a bi-monthly reprint title until 1975, when Chris Claremont and a long string of talented artists made it into Marvel’s #1 title. How much credit — not in the sense of “created by” but in the sense of making something a success — do Lee and Kirby deserve for pursuing an idea for seventeen issues (21 for Lee) that the market essentially rejected?

Lee and Kirby deserve some credit, yes. But the person who should get the largest thank you at the end of an X-Men movie is Chris Claremont. Even if he didn’t create most of the characters, he’s the person who made many of them — Wolverine, Magneto, Storm — interesting. Without him and his co-creators, no one would want to watch an X-Men movie, let alone five of them.

This brings me to an idea I considered for some time. Since the versions of these characters that are best known are the movie versions, I thought about looking at who created what in the movies. At one point, I thought about trying to find the creator who was most valuable in the sense of box office receipts, but that would involve some arcane breakdowns of credit — what percentage of credit should be given to Wolverine for the X-Men movies’ success vs. Mystique or Magneto? — that was unprofitable.

(Besides, the answer for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe would almost certainly be Stan Lee.)

Without Jack Kirby, it is somewhere between possible and likely that Marvel wouldn’t have survived the early ‘60s. The characters we know would be greatly different or wouldn’t exist at all. But it’s been 45 years since Kirby left Marvel the first time, which means dozens of other creators have altered, edited, and recreated what the characters and concepts he created. His influence can still be seen in Marvel’s output, both on page and screen, and some of what they publish hasn’t changed much since Kirby put aside his pens.

One of the greatest literary talents of the early 20th century was Thomas Wolfe, who wrote sprawling novels with beautiful prose. I mean really sprawling — the original manuscript of his first novel was more than 1,100. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, cut Look Homeward, Angel considerably and helped make it a success. Does it harm Wolfe’s literary reputation to acknowledge that Perkins’s considerable work made Wolfe’s better? And if acknowledging that sort of collaboration improved a novel, supposedly a solitary effort, how does acknowledging the contributions of others harm the original creators in comics, which often relies on collaboration?

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06 February 2015

Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #215-23 (1989)

Released: November 2014 (Dark Horse)

Format: 220 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616553746

What is this?: Conan becomes a implacable, unbeatable killing machine as he works his way toward Turan.

The culprits: Charles Santino (writer) and Val Semeiks (co-plotter / artist), with help from Larry Hama, Don Perlin, Michael Fleisher, and Gary Kwapisz

So far this year, I’ve read the first volume of Batman ‘66, Astro City: Life in the Big City, most of Mark Waid’s Daredevil run, the first book of Waid’s Indestructible Hulk, Umbrella Academy, v. 1: Apocalypse Suite, and Fantastic Four, v. 2: Road Trip. So of course the book that I’m going to write about is Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 28: Blood and Ice and Other Stories coverWhat interests me about Blood and Ice is writer Charles Santino’s run, which stretches from #215 to 220. Santino took over for James Owsley (today known as Christopher Priest), who improved the title immeasurably by giving Conan a supporting cast; if Conan was a static character in the Marvel Comics — and he was — Owsley’s supporting cast was allow to grow, to act in surprising ways, and to die.

It was a welcome change. Before that, Conan had been stuck in endless retreads of one- and two-issue stories where Conan had battled some uncanny threat, been involved in some way with a comely lass, and then moved on to the next uncanny threat / comely lass. It was boring and short sighted.

With Conan having jettisoned the last of his supporting cast at the end of the Owsley run, Santino and co-plotter / artist Val Semeiks embarked on a series of stories unique in the Conan canon: a series of brutal one-issue fights as Conan makes his way to the eastern nation of Turan. Never in the original Robert E. Howard stories, the movies, or Conan the Barbarian has Conan seemed so much of a ‘90s superhero.

The break beginning of this volume is well chosen, although my guess is that it was a fortunate accident. In #214, which is in the previous volume (Chronicles of Conan, v. 27: Sands upon the Earth and Other Stories), Conan is trapped in a mirage city. It’s a story indistinguishable from dozens of others in the Marvel series; a seemingly inescapable trap, a few monsters to bash, a scantily clad maiden hanging around the periphery of the story.

But in #215, the start of Blood and Ice, the story direction changes. Gone are the pretty girls; magic is violently shoved from the plots. In the first story, Conan is captured by Turanians at a desert outpost. Well, “captured” — the soldiers are able to move him along but not subdue him in an attempt to enslave him to work the giant water wheel beneath the outpost. Conan, unbowed, not only kills Turanian soldiers but destroys the water wheel and breaks the Turanian’s slavery. It seems as if most of the slaves die in the carnage as well, but that’s a small matter.

In “Death Pit” — the simple title is a taste of things to come — Conan can’t be beaten, can’t be stopped. He is a force of nature, destroying the works of true villains. The Turanian soldiers — agents of an encroaching imperialistic nation turned slavers to make the machinery of daily life turn fluidly — are more effective as villains than any number of black wizards or monsters; they represent a commonplace sort of injustice, and Conan will not let himself submit to that injustice. In the end, he smashes not only the soldiers but everything they have brought to the outpost.

The following issues show Conan against armies of men who not only cannot defeat him but also cannot bloody him. He destroys a large army of cultists in #216, invading their temple and bulling through their attempts to subdue him; the only beautiful woman is sacrificed by the cult early in the story, and Conan can’t save her. In #217, he’s back to battling a magical guardian in a deserted city, but he’s trapped on a small island in #218 and has to kill a homicidal band of tribesmen to gain their boat and escape. He fights through a Turanian army in #219, escaping by stealing superior horseflesh. Santino finishes his run by showing Conan pursuing a band of gold thieves; they stole what he had his eye on, and so he relentlessly follows them through the snow until they are all finished.

Santino’s Conan shows no cunning and very little guile, which is far from the character that Robert E. Howard created. Santino’s Conan is the greatest swordsman ever, it seems, indomitable and undefeatable — the very epitome of a superhero, except for his massive body count. Santino’s issues are bloody little fables about an unstoppable force, with Conan destroying all who tries to slow him. I’m not sure if these stories are good, but they are fascinating; why had no one done this with Conan before? Was it because this level of violence wasn’t permitted before the late ‘80s? Or was it because even the most mediocre of writers who had written Conan the Barbarian before this understood that that was not truly who Conan was?

Although I’m attributing most of this interpretation of Conan to Santino, Semeiks is listed as co-plotter as well as artist. Semeiks had graduated to co-plotter with Owsley, whose issues were greatly different in tone; unless Semeiks was able to exert considerably more influence on Santino than he was on Owsley, it’s unlikely the new direction was his. Semeiks continued to supply very good art during this time, fluid and action-filled, but it lacks the visceral brutality and blood to back up this version of Conan. It’s probable that editorial prevented Semeiks from drawing that level of brutality, though.

After Santino and Semeiks depart the title, the rest of the volume becomes much more like Conans past. Larry Hama’s #221 is an eerie little story that would not have been out of place in a ‘50s horror comic. Hama writes the story in verse, and his versification detracts from the story’s impact; a story with minimal dialogue / narration would’ve made the story truly memorable instead of an intriguing curio. Don Perlin shows Conan pursued by and confronting his own revenge squad; unsurprisingly, with all the men Conan has hacked to pieces over the years, Conan remembers none of them. The poignant revelation of their pointless attempt at revenge against a man who never hated them and didn’t even recall maiming them is balanced by Conan’s incompetence against a bunch of crippled buffoons. The volume ends with a story by Michael Fleisher, whose Conan is as different from Santino’s as possible: Fleisher’s Conan displays almost preternatural foresight while helping a comely lass recover a religious icon.

I don’t think I can recommend Blood and Ice for Conan fans. Santino’s interpretation of the character is too far off model to be convincing. On the other hand, his protagonist is a force of nature, compelling and readable because of his direct, brutal nature. I think even for a fan of sword-and-sorcery fiction, it is too simplistic, and six issues of it is altogether too much. However, if you can read #215 by itself, give it a try; I found myself reacting more emotionally to Conan’s struggles in that story than I had in total to the 100 issues before it.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol (2 of 5)

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