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

30 April 2016

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6

Collects: Detective Comics #408-26 and Batman #229-44 (1971-2)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401251536

What is this?: A chunk of early ‘70s Batman stories, mixing the first appearance of Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins with forgettable stories.

The culprits: Writers Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, and others and pencilers Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others

When I reviewed Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5, I said the Bat-titles of the era were on the brink of something exciting. Batman and Detective Comics had shaken off the lingering funk of the Silver Age and were heading toward something much greater. So I was eager to read DC Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 — well, as eager as a person can get for a book after four years when you thought the book line was cancelled.

And — good news! — v. 6 is better than v. 5. But it’s only an incremental improvement, and the Bat-titles reprinted in this volume still feel like they are poised to become something different, something greater. They just aren’t quite there yet.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 coverYes, the Ra's al Ghul / Legion of Assassins story is sprinkled throughout the volume, but few other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery appear in the thirty-plus issues. Man-Bat and Two-Face each appear in one issue — with Two-Face beautifully drawn by Neal Adams — but each gets only as many issues as the embarrassing Ten-Eyed Man. Most of the stories are single-issue mysteries, often with a supernatural tinge, that go nowhere.

Those mysteries, whether they have a supernatural element or not, are v. 6’s biggest problem. Some of them (mostly those with occult touches) are set in exotic locations, like Waynemoor Castle in northern England; some of them are set in the gritty streets of Gotham. Unfortunately, whether Batman is taking on circus freaks, hicks, or Shakespearean actors in Gotham or elsewhere, these stories become monotonous. Despite being solidly constructed mysteries, their flaws become more readily apparent than their virtues after the third or fourth in a row. All the ghosts and haunted castles Batman investigates have as much real supernatural content as the average Scooby-Doo episode, which takes some of the suspense out of the story. Issues that try to be socially relevant, dealing with youth gangs and urban crime, devolve into over-the-top action sequences, like when a group of teenagers threaten to blow up an apartment tower to get their demands listened to.

As a side note, O’Neil’s frequent asides asking readers whether they picked up on whatever clues Batman used to solve the crime annoyed me — not because of the device itself but because the clues are so rarely available to the reader. If your mysteries aren’t fair play, you don’t get to taunt readers that they aren’t as smart as the detective.

That being said, the Ra's al Ghul stories are classics for a reason. Beautifully drawn by Adams and full of menace, Ra's is the one villain who seems to worry Batman, the only adversary who requires the World’s Greatest Detective to have long-term plans. Adding a new dimension to the stories is Talia al-Ghul, Ra's’s daughter, a love interest who presents a puzzle Batman can’t solve; despite his undeniable attraction to her, she is the daughter of the Demon as well as being ruthless and a remorseless killer herself. Additionally, these stories knock the Batman canon of this era out of its unmoving, unchanging placidity. Although the League of Assassins stories don’t affect the continuity of the rest of the book, the storyline’s progression gives the book a sense of passing time the stories don’t have otherwise.

Of course, it would be helpful if the cliffhangers in the League of Assassins storyline were followed immediately by their conclusions, but those issues are usually followed by unrelated issues from the other Batman title. I understand chronological order is important, but in a book like this, story coherence is more vital.

The art in v. 6 is outstanding. Adams provides covers for almost all the issues, and he draws about a quarter of the stories. This is Adams’s work at its finest: perhaps not as explosive as his work on X-Men a few years earlier, but each panel is beautiful, fully adapted to Batman’s world of shadows. The concessions he makes to Batman’s more grounded world makes his artwork tighter, more focused. Most of the remaining issues are drawn by Bob Brown and Irv Novick, both of whom worked with Adams on the previous volume. Neither is Adams’s equal, but both are solid artists with outstanding storytelling and an ability to fit the story into a many panel layout.

 coverScattered among the work by Adams, Brown, and Novick, the three issues drawn by writer Frank Robbins stand out, and not in a good way. Robbins is a good artist for a writer, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. (Robbins was primarily an artist in his career, but he splits the writing chores in v. 6 with O’Neil.) His style has a thick line and lacks the fluidity of the rest of the artists; even if he were a better artist, his work wouldn’t fit in v. 6.

One warning about this book: although it says it contains sixteen issues of Batman, that’s misleading. Two of the issues, #233 and #238, have only the cover reprinted because their contents are reprints. The covers of other issues of Batman and Detective promise back-up stories featuring Batgirl, Robin, or some other hero, but those aren’t included even though at least some of them are original stories.

On average, v. 6’s quality is only incrementally greater than v. 5. However, it contains so many iconic and important moments that it feels a great deal better at times. Nothing in v. 5 compares to shirtless Batman dueling Ra's al-Ghul, the first appearances of Ra's and his daughter, the first time Ra's is resurrected by the Lazarus Pit. I’ve read these issues before, in color, in Batman: Tales of the Demon, which was superior to v. 6 — and not just because Tales of the Demon was in color. Learning the context in which those Ra's stories initially appeared makes them more impressive, since the League of Assassins stories are nothing like the rest of the era. But actually reading those non-Assassin stories makes reading v. 6 feel like a chore at times, a bit of self-education that is unnecessary.

Still: shirtless Batman vs. Ra's al-Ghul. That fight was pretty awesome.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4 of 5)

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22 April 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #7-11 (2015)

Released: March 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785191674

What is this?: Rocket and Groot survive a frozen planet with poison wolves, then get a glimpse of the future; Rocket searches for the Halfworld Bible.

The culprits: Writer Skottie Young and artists Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade

You can expect a drop-off in quality when a popular artist stops drawing a title. It’s probably worse when that artist remains as writer.

Such is the case with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer. I have no idea how long Skottie Young planned to remain as writer / artist for the title — and I’m too lazy / disinterested to look it up — but after Rocket Raccoon #4, he gave up the artist part of his job to Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer coverThe result is a book that is significantly less interesting than what readers expected when they read Young’s Rocket Raccoon #1. The book is competently written — everything makes sense — but the story lacks the extra oomph that Young’s art supplies. The star is not playing to his strengths.

Young is not a polished writer. His plots are serviceable but unremarkable. The dialogue is not crisp or memorable, and I think we can all agree Rocket should never say “stupid fresh,” even if that expression is better than the “murdered you” he was using for a catchphrase. His Rocket makes a lot of references to Earth TV (including the season 6 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies for a space raccoon.

Young has three stories in the five issues of Storytailer: Rocket and Groot surviving on an ice planet for two issues, a glimpse of a possible future where Groot goes crazy, and a two-parter where Rocket finally gets to the bottom of his origins. The future story is pointless, and even Rocket remarks on the clichéd ending. The ice planet story is fine but very forgettable; introducing poisonous dire wolves as a threat to Groot’s survival is a nice complication, but Young is the one who decided Groot would be so hard to kill in the first place, so he doesn’t get any points from me on that score.

Storytailer’s ending is problematic, though. In the final two issues, Rocket gets a lead on the Halfworld Bible (called “Gideon’s Bible” in the original Rocket Raccoon limited series). He finds the bible, and with the help of another uplifted raccoon from Halfworld, he deciphers and reads his own backstory. (Again: why has he forgotten it? A footnote would be nice — I’m looking at you, assistant editors Charles Beacham and Devin Lewis.) Rocket then walks away from all of it — the explanation of his history, Halfworld, his fellow raccoon — because he feels it’s stupid. Which it is, but since I’ve read that story, I know it’s stupid in a daffily charming way. Denigrating the original Rocket Raccoon LS is needlessly insulting; that story, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Mike Mignola, hangs together as a memorable four-issue story, which is more than I can say for Young’s run. And if Young was going to make a callback to the original limited series, why didn’t he use a character from that story to help Rocket find the Halfworld Bible? Why invent a new character for Rocket to reject?

As I said in my review of A Chasing Tale, Young’s art is a secondary draw for me, but I felt its absence in Storytailer. Part of the problem with Young’s writing is that he’s writing for artists who aren’t named Skottie Young. Andrade is not up for drawing scenes with all the white figures and backgrounds in #7 and 8, which is a problem since those two issues take place on an ice planet. Andrade’s storytelling gets muddled at times, and it is especially difficult to distinguish what’s going on with all that white. (Maybe colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu is at fault, although Beaulieu did a fine job in the other issues.) Sometimes Young’s dialogue has to help Andrade out — like when Andrade is supposed to show eggs as big as Volkswagens, but nothing in the art hints at the eggs’ size.

I enjoyed Parker’s Rocket in issues #9-11, and his future Rocket in #9 is nice (although the scar over the eye and small bits missing from the ears is not the most original way to show “grizzled warrior”). But other elements of his art are lacking. A couple of times he’s supposed to depict amazing transforming machines, and the results are underwhelming. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high, but I think this could be traced back to Young — Young the Writer probably thought those transforming scenes would allow Parker to cut loose and draw something astounding, maybe even Kirby-esque. But Parker is a more intimate artist who excels at characters and expressions, and while his machinery is fine, that’s all it is: fine. The same goes for the scene in which Rocket is fighting his way to a teleporter in #10; this is supposed to be a big set piece, Rocket battling through all the obstacles in his way so he can get to the truth of his existence, but it boils down to a few scattered bodies as the actual moments of violence mostly happen off-page.

Storytailer is worse than A Chasing Tale, although not by much. (Your mileage will vary if Young’s artwork is a major draw for you.) Young trades Tale’s dismissal of women for a dismissal of Rocket’s origins; the former is more troubling in a societal sense, but since Young is working in a larger framework of the Marvel Universe, the latter bothers me more. Take that as you will; I suppose I’m inured to casual sexism in comics. The entire series is disappointing and slightly overblown, and I’m kinda glad Secret Wars ended it.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Half Rocket Raccoon symbol (1.5 of 5)

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15 April 2016

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5 (2013-4)

Released: March 2014 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607069454

What is this?: The mercenaries of Palisade are targeted for death, and four female adventurers — the eponymous Rat Queens — search for answers.

The culprits: Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch

I like fantasy settings, as everyone who has read my Conan the Barbarian reviews has guessed. (Why else would I keep reviewing them?) I like humor comics, or even comics that think they’re funny. But I am a bit of a Marvel zombie, which explains why I had yet to read Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery two years after it was released.

To be fair, I still wouldn’t have bought the book had I not needed something to get free shipping on an Amazon order with a birthday gift for my mother. But the price point was right, it sounded like fun, and I hate paying for shipping, so here we are.

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery coverRat Queens is set in a low-fantasy world, and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are not interested in extensive, Tolkien-like worldbuilding. The characters and institutions are given names that wouldn’t be remarkable in our world. The world is restricted to the city of Palisade and its environs, with a few hints of the world beyond: a magical college that Hannah, an Elven wizard, attended, and … well, wherever Dee, the priest, grew up. We see four civilized races — humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Smidgens, the Halflings / Kender / Gnomes of the world — but we don’t see what makes these races different from each other. (Dwarven females can grow beards, which … OK, is not that unusual.) The non-civilized races are generics: goblins, orcs, and trolls.

The entire book feels like an RPG that the players aren’t taking seriously. The protagonists are named Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty; other adventuring groups are named “the Four Daves” (the members are all named Dave), “the Peaches” (they all dress in peach-colored clothing), and “the Brother Ponies” (four guys with ponytails). The humor is usually sophomoric — no complex wordplay here — and the characters concentrate on (mostly) sanctioned killings, booze, drugs, cursing, and sex. If someone had told me Rat Queens was based on a real Forgotten Realms campaign set in a city like Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep, I would have believed it.

The humor is largely successful, even if it is unsophisticated. Being funny will make people forgive a lot of faults — just look at the women who date unattractive comedians — and that’s what happens here. Rat Queens is very self aware, knowing its fantasy RPG tropes and amping them up: gleeful carnage with grisly injuries, showing frustration rather than fear when confronted by unnecessary battles, not looking very hard at the shaky mechanics of divine spells. When the reader is laughing, it doesn’t matter that the setting looks like D&D splashed with whitewash or that adversaries are as deep as an oil slick but without the breadth. The book rarely takes itself seriously, and the jokes proceed at a healthy pace — because Anubis knows if they didn’t, readers would start looking around and wondering about the story.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the plot, but Old Lady Bernadette does point out a large flaw: the Rat Queens (and other mercenaries) get away with too much on their violent sprees. Readers customarily identify with the protagonists, but it’s hard to disagree with Bernadette. We see them inflicting major property damage without much punishment, and we’re left to infer that they don’t pay restitution; one of the Rat Queens tries to impersonate the head of the city guard and gets a few hours in jail, while another of the Queens robs the Merchants’ Guild and gets away with it. No wonder someone’s trying to kill them, since death is the only punishment that will stick, and it will actually make Palisade safer.

Wiebe doesn’t neglect giving the protagonists depth and backstory. We get a sense of each character: Hannah, the Elven mage and Rat Queens’ leader, is vengeful and powerful; Dee is a priest who doesn’t believe in the squid god who gives her spells; Violet, a Dwarven warrior, lacks repartee skills despite her preoccupation with what’s cool; and Betty, the Smidgen thief, is an amoral mushroom addict whose real problem, according to the woman she wants to date, is her awful friends. The characterizations fit well in a world that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Occasionally, however, the story will snap to a halt for a serious character moment — Violet’s conflict with her twin brother, Dee leaving her home and faith behind — before the plot’s gears grind, and the humor slowly ramps up again. (Hannah’s more serious moments with the captain of the guard, her ex, and Betty’s attempts at romance work much better, perhaps because they aren’t taken quite so seriously.) Some characterizations are unexplained (or perhaps unexplainable). Dee, the atheist priest, somehow develops a crippling, unexplained social anxiety between the book’s beginning, when she brawls and drinks in bars, and issue #5, in which the Rat Queens host a party. Betty is extremely perceptive but still wears an awful shirt. Hannah is described as “rockabilly” on the back cover. As she has no connection to music, and she seems neither a rocker nor a hillbilly, I have no idea what this can possibly mean. (Perhaps it’s a reference to her pompadour-like hairdo? I doubt many rockabilly musicians were heavily tattooed and wore corsets, though.)

Upchurch’s battles are a mixed bag. On one hand, he never skips on the violence and blood; these battles are savage and dangerous, and his art always communicates that. However, his battle choreography is frequently confused, as it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or to other landmarks.

Perhaps more contentious is his depictions of the Rat Queens. Blurbs on the back contain praise for the protagonists’ looks from the Mary Sue and CBR column / tag Comics for Girls. Each admires Upchurch’s ability to make the protagonists look like real women. I’m not sure of that; they look more like real people than the women in most superhero comics do, yes, but they are still abnormally attractive females, and they wear impractical, sexualized clothes — Hannah wears thigh-high boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier into battle (and the rest of the time, but it’s not quite as impractical in day-to-day life), while Dee always wears a loincloth that exposes most of her legs. Betty wears a top more suited to clubbing than adventuring. Even Violet, the practical one, has what appears to be boob armor from certain angles. Additionally, the characters are introduced in Sass and Sorcery in a series of pin-up poses. There’s nothing wrong with the way these women look, but it’s strange that Upchurch is being praised drawing characters who always wear the same sexy clothes, regardless of the situation. Agency solves the problems the humor doesn’t, I suppose.

I enjoyed Sass and Sorcery, enjoyed it enough to read the next volume. It’s fun! It’s as deep as a mud puddle and nowhere near as reflective, but even if that doesn’t change in future volumes, the series is still worth reading.

Rating: Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens half symbol (3.5 of 5)

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08 April 2016

Avengers West Coast: The Death of Mockingbird

Collects: Avengers West Coast #92-100, 102, Spider-Woman #1-4, and selections from Marvel Comics Presents #143-4 (1993-4)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 384 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785196891

What is this?: The Avengers West Coast fight Dr. Demonicus, the Lethal Legion, and the Power Platoon before disbanding; Spider-Woman learns the machinations behind her acquisition of powers.

The culprits: Writers Roy and Dann Thomas and artists David Ross, Andrew Currie, John Czop, Steven Ellis, and others

The first thing you need to know about Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird is that the title is a lie, a total lie, and Marvel knows it. Heck, by now, everyone knows it.

I suppose you can pull the Obi Wan route and say it’s true, from a certain point of view. But people who say that are, generally speaking, liars or weasels. It wasn’t Bobbi Morse, whom the Marvel Universe knew as Mockingbird, who died in Avengers West Coast #100; it was a Skrull taking her place. (As revealed years later, Bobbi was replaced during Avengers West Coast #91, which is reprinted in the Avengers: Ultron Unbound collection.)

Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird coverAnyway, that’s for the best, because Mockingbird’s death is unsatisfying. A long-time Marvel character who was getting back together with her husband, Hawkeye, Mockingbird was killed saving him from a stray spitball tossed by Mephisto. The death seems random, something in the “kill someone for shock value” line of superhero deaths — it was an anniversary issue, after all. Mockingbird had just saved Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, but her death seems more random than heroic; Mephisto didn’t have any specific hatred for her, didn’t even seem to be aiming at her. Anyone could have died. It just turned out to be Mockingbird.

The whole book feels of random — no, “unsettled” is a better way of putting it. Death begins with U.S. Agent and Hawkeye (calling himself Goliath at the time — just another bit of evidence that something is off) squabbling among the ruins of their headquarters; Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman each go off to find less destroyed housing, and the Living Lightning leaves the team. The AWC doesn’t even have a quinjet, having to beg one from Stark Industries a few issues later. Everything feels like it is falling apart; ten issues later, the West Coast HQ is still rubble, and team has been officially ended.

The stories in Death don’t help; they’re not very good, first off, and the team never seems to regroup. The Demonicus storyline takes a previous story, in which the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Dr. Demonicus created an island nation in the Pacific, and removes any sense of complexity from it. Demonicus and his super-followers are mind controlled by the demon Raksasa, start acting evil, import a population of foreign criminals, and even hijack a passenger plane while waiting for Raksasa to enter the world. If they hadn’t drawn attention to themselves with the hijacking or breaking Klaw out of jail, they might have gotten away with their plans (whatever they are), but instead Demonica is sunk. Literally.

The Spider-Woman issues are standard for a mid-’90s limited series: inconsequential and forgettable. The mini lasts only four issues, and one of those issues is devoted to retconning her origin story. The villains (Deathweb) are forgettable, even if they shouldn’t be, and the story combines ‘50s monster movie science with post-Watergate antigovernment paranoia in predictable ways.

In #98-100, Avengers West Coast reaches a nadir. The team is opposed by the Lethal Legion, four evil souls brought back from the dead to kill them. The AWC lose every time, which is bad enough, but the worst part is that writer Roy Thomas makes the members of the Lethal Legion real people — not based on real people, but actual historical personages. Axe of Violence, a woman with an axe for a hand, is Lizzie Borden; Cyana, who emits poison, is Lucretia Borgia; Coldsteel, a giant powerhouse all in steel, is Josef Stalin; and Zyklon, who flies in a suit of armor and emits poison, is Heinrich Himmler.

Yes, that’s right: the Avengers fight a real Nazi, named after the gas the Nazis used to kill a million people during the Holocaust. Making Stalin, a man who killed millions of his own countrymen, into a comic-book villain is questionable, although I admit comics do this with Hitler all the time. “Zyklon,” a name that evokes the Holocaust, goes over the line. Also, equating Stalin and Himmler with Borgia, who probably played politics a bit hard but probably didn’t engage in mass poisonings, and Borden, who may not have killed anyone and killed two people at most, is a tone-deaf mismatch.

That unsettled feeling that saturates Death was planned, I think. In a narrative sense, it leads to the main Avengers team trying to get rid of the West Coast branch. The East Coast branch’s dissatisfaction with the West Coasters isn’t foreshadowed at all, so the decision to shut down the West Coast branch comes out of nowhere. But the dissolution of the team is a natural consequence of the poor planning and shoddy superheroics that led up to it. In a corporate sense, Marvel used the closure as part of their push to cancel Avengers West Coast and replace it with Force Works. Unfortunately, Force Works was a downgrade, and about a year later, that title was still drawn into The Crossing, Marvel’s worst storyline ever. The title never recovered, sputtering to a halt a couple of issues later.

Death does have a few positive attributes. I enjoyed the Power Platoon, a group of solar-powered aliens who can’t speak any Earth language. They show up during the Infinity Crusade, when most of the team is off dealing with that crossover’s foolishness, and battle Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and War Machine. The eight members of the Power Platoon look similar, but each has a different power; their alien language allows them communication the heroes can’t understand, and their teamwork is excellent. The story ends with a sputter — the Power Platoon achieves its goal and then wanders off, while the Avengers decline to pursue — but it’s an enjoyable issue up until then.

RaksasaI also like the art of David Ross, who drew #93-5, 98-100, and 102. He shows excellent attention to detail, and action scenes are easy to follow. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his females aren’t gratuitous sex objects. Most impressively, he draws excellent demons; his Mephisto is nice, his Satannish is intimidating, and Raksasa — the only one of the three he designed — is truly impressive. In an era when Marvel’s demons tended toward Technicolor goblins of varying sizes, Raksasa is an alien, frightening, insectoid presence. With this facility for monsters, Ross would have been great on Conan, Marvel’s other Roy Thomas title. (He would have been wasted there, but he was wasted on AWC as well.)

The rest of the art — well, the less said, the better. You remember the ‘90s, and while none of this is as bad as the decade got, most of what is in Death looks like artists who weren’t quite ready for a big title. (To be fair, those artists drew a second-tier limited series, Marvel Comics Presents, backups, and fill-ins.) I’m sure they all did better work, in comics or out, and I’ll let it go at that.

Why reprint these issues? For completists. For those who want to see how a title that started so well finally ended, curling up on itself in a corner and dying. For those who like Ross’s art. But the resurrection of Mockingbird put an end to whatever emotional impact this book might have had, and it’s not recommended for non-Avengers fans.

And for Heimdall’s sake, don’t pick up the Force Works book. Death is the nadir of Avengers West Coast, but Force Works is even worse — and then it leads to The Crossing, which is the worst. Stop now. I beg you …

… although I admit if the price for a used copy drops low enough, I’ll eventually pick up Force Works. Completionism is my weakness, and I know it.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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01 April 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #233-40 (1990-1)

Released: December 2015 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616555894

What is this?: The adventures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Conan, his first girlfriend, and his best friend as they are stalked by a sorceress who wants to avert a prophecy.

The culprits: Writer Michael Higgins and pencilers Ron Lim, Gary Hartle, and Rodney Ramos

A collection with a name like Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories demands an impressive story. The Death of Conan should require a struggle against something huge, perhaps insurmountable — against an unbeatable monster, an undefeatable army, or even a struggle against the greatest enemy of all: fate itself. Ideally, The Death of Conan would feature an older Conan, one who has the maturity to see the stakes of his struggle, perhaps even doubting himself, if only for a moment. In other words, The Death of Conan should be more than just a shock to the reader; it should be a summation or at least an examination of the character.

None of this is true, of course. Chronicles of Conan, v. 30 gets its name from a single story in the collection (issue #238); the other seven issues are the “other stories.” Conan’s brief death is set in motion by a queen who is gone almost as soon as she proclaims Conan as a regicide. Although Conan heroically resists torture before his death, he has no agency beyond gritting his teeth at the lash. Perhaps worst of all, the story does not present an older Conan, whose death might have been presented as an event that will stick.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 30: The Death of Conan and Other Stories coverNo, it’s only teenage Conan. Oh, yeah — these issues are all wasted. In fact, Death shows Conan’s first adventures, an origin story for a character who doesn’t need an origin story. Who’s going to believe a character is going to die in his origin story?

Even when the deceptive “Death” in the title is forgotten, the storyline is problematic. No one ever wanted the stories of Conan’s youth before “The Tower of the Elephant,” a Robert E. Howard short story set when Conan was a young thief. (That story was adapted in Conan the Barbarian #4.) Writer Michael Higgins does incorporate an earlier story Howard alluded to — the raid on Venarium — into Death. In Howard’s version, Conan is a young but fearsome warrior, leading the charge over the fortress’s walls. In Higgins’s version, he’s a young warrior who manages to convince a party of older raiders into waiting until his friend opens the gates from the inside. It’s a small difference, but it weakens Conan; why weaken Conan to build up his friend?

We all know Jorrma, Conan’s first friend, and his first love, Melanie (a Hyborean name if I ever heard one), are going to die. If Higgins is going to waste time with them, he has to go all out: he has to make sure they are as important as they can be, given that Conan never mentions them in the 230 issues leading up to this story. But Higgins doesn’t. His characterization is scant, at best. Melanie could be any bar wench, as she’s blandly accepting of Conan’s demand that she take third place behind his plundering career and Jorrma. Late in the storyline, Higgins hints she might fancy Jorrma instead of Conan, but that hint goes nowhere. Jorrma is used as a tool by Acegra, a witch who has manipulated his and Conan’s families for generations and who killed both men’s parents. Jorrma fears harming his best friend, but he’s jealous of Conan’s relationship with Melanie. He falls in love — love at first sight, a love that requires some psychic manipulation of the young girl — while a captive in Venarium; his love is killed opening the fortress’s gates, and then she is mostly forgotten, as is his mental tampering.

Even Conan doesn’t seem so impressed by Jorrma and Melanie. Conan isn’t broken up by the death of either. By the story’s climax, he’s fed up with Jorrma’s incompetence, which gets them captured more than once, and his betrayals. Perhaps by the end, he realizes he was better off without Jorrma, and top-heavy bar maidens like Melanie are not that uncommon. Or maybe he stoically kept his grief over Melanie to himself, seeking out a succession of bland wenches over the years because they remind him of Melanie.

The one-issue prelude to this storyline, #232, was collected in Chronicles of Conan, v. 29: The Shape in the Shadow. In that story, Conan’s grandfather had a lifelong rivalry with the ancestor of Conan’s future best friend; this eventually deadly rivalry was provoked by Acegra, a Ron Lim-designed sorceress. (I’m a fan of Lim, but if you know his art, you know exactly how this woman looked, and you’ll know it’s a bad fit for Conan.) Acegra drives most of the action in this book, creating pawns to kill Conan and his family. Despite her power, she gets involved in combat only once, and that is to kill Conan’s mother. If she had only killed Conan when he was a baby, then she would have been victorious.

But there was a prophecy. There’s always a prophecy, I suppose; in this case, Acegra and her brother, who is possessed by a demon, have a vision of a 30-year-old Conan standing over their dead bodies. But none of that comes to pass; Conan’s victory comes much earlier and looks nothing like what it did in the vision. Conan doesn’t kill them, either: it’s their catspaw, Jorrma, who slays them.

But that’s just one of the sloppy storytelling problems in Death. Higgins keeps lobbing goons into the story, random soldiers Acegra has implanted with a grudge against Conan and Jorrma. These are supposed to be people Conan and Jorrma have a friendly history with, but readers never see any of them before they begin their grudge matches … I think. It’s hard to tell. Using characters we’ve seen before would make their attacks on Conan more significant. In fact, Higgins could have re-used Dryden, a Cimmerian rival to Conan, or Balthus, a guard who blamed Jorrma for the fall of Venarium. The reappearance of either would have meant something. Instead, all the other non-Conans in the book mean nothing — we have nothing invested in them, and they fail to elicit the slightest emotion for their successes and failures.

The artists are somewhat at fault for my confusion about whether villains have reappeared, although I suppose the number of ways sweaty, disheveled thugs can be drawn is somewhat limited. Lim (#233-5) is a poor match for Conan, with his smooth lines and streamlined designs; the grime and grit of the Hyborean Age can’t stick to his characters. Gary Hartle (#237-40) and Rodney Ramos (#236) are much better matches with the source material, but neither of them are standouts. I can imagine either having a successful run on the title, but being saddled with Higgins’s run is a recipe for forgettability. (Hartle continues with Roy Thomas, who will write Conan until its cancellation, after this arc.)

In #240, the story mercifully ends, with Justin Arthur (Thomas’s pseudonym) wrapping up the story with a climactic battle. Thomas also provides a framing sequence in which King Conan and his wife discuss how much of the story Conan, who was telling the tale to his son, was exaggerating or just lying about. Less obvious ways for a writer to denigrate his predecessor’s work exist, but given how bad Higgins’s run is, I can’t blame Thomas for telling readers to forget about it. I wish I could too.

Rating: Half Conan symbol (0.5 of 5)

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