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

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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