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

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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