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

30 September 2016

Conan the Barbarian, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #250-8 (1991-2)

Released: July 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 240 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558666

What is this?: After losing the princess, Conan is tormented by

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and penciler Mike Docherty

In retrospect, it’s obvious Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories collects stories from a title heading for its end.

Even more than the previous volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories, Second Coming uses continuity to give stories more weight and more interest than they would usually have. In fact, Thomas is so invested in using previous Conan stories — usually stories that he himself wrote — that in Conan the Barbarian #254 he completes a Savage Sword of Conan story he wrote in 1979 that never got an ending.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories coverThe continuity Thomas is calling on should be in service of the main story, in which Conan travels back to his home village in Cimmeria to see if it has been destroyed, as he has seen it destroyed in his dreams. Unfortunately, the continuity is of dubious value.

Thomas scatters footnotes throughout the book. Almost every Conan story has some reference to Conan continuity, which, before Thomas took over this time, was rare. But as I said, this is the sign of a title that’s about to wrap things up: As he retraces his path back to Cimmeria, Conan revisits the signposts he encountered when he first journeyed to civilized lands. And that’s a good idea! If the story were more focused, if the overall structure of the Second Coming storyline fit together better, it might work. But it’s hard to see, for instance, how #253 does anything but divert Conan’s journey home momentarily; yes, it reintroduces the wizard Kulan Gath, whom Conan and Elric of Melnibone killed in Conan #15, but surely Thomas could have integrated Gath into the storyline more elegantly, rather than having Conan encounter him while visiting old friends. And why resurrect Kulan Gath at all? He’s not an iconic villain; rather, he’s a magical speedbump in Conan’s early career.

Sometimes these callbacks are necessary; for instance, a brief flashback in #252 to Savage Sword of Conan #2 is used to explain why Conan is no longer a general and secret consort to Yasmela, whom he had been serving since #246. (Both Savage Sword #2 and #248-9 are adaptations of the Robert E. Howard story “Black Colossus,” with SSoC continuing a little farther forward in time.) I’m thankful for the footnotes, even though I’m not sure half these references and flashbacks serve any purpose other than Thomas shouting, “Hey hey hey — these stories are important!” But they aren’t. The purple plague in #255-6 is a distraction easily disposed of, a fillip meant to disguise that the story’s only purpose is to revisit the Lost City of Lanjau from Conan #8. A stopover in Numalia gives Thomas a chance to mention a few characters and places from Conan #7. An old lover (from Conan #48) rescues Conan from the snow and the walking dead in #258; their dead son, who grew to an accelerated adulthood after Conan sired him with an uncanny northern woman, is mentioned, even though he appeared in a non-Thomas story (#145). All these old stories add up to a bunch of distractions bolted onto a plot that needed to be leaner to succeed.

It’s a shame, because the storyline has some entertaining — even chilling — parts. Queen Vammatar of the Hyperboreans, who opposes Conan’s return to Cimmeria, commands the dead and men’s loins; in many ways, she’s the standard sorcerous femme fatale, but Thomas and artist Mike Docherty sell her resurrection power as something truly dangerous and chilling. The creators don’t make the dead as powerful a threat as well as the best zombie tales do, but they can’t, given the Code-approved nature of a serial book. The design of Vammatar’s servitors, the Witchmen of Hyperborea, is almost effective, as their featureless white masks are unnerving, but they seem to be wearing black bodystockings, which makes them look like semi-villainous Mummenschanz.

Cona’s lieutenants, Zula and Red Sonja, exit this story early, having had enough of Conan’s love affairs and desiring more exciting work now that the peace has been won. Thomas evidently agrees with me that Conan works better with a sidekick, though, so he assigns Conan a new one: Hobb of Anuphar, a fat sybarite whose cowardice is supposed to work as comic relief. It doesn’t work, since Hobb’s competence is marginal and his one-note bumbling grows tired quickly. By the end of the story, we don’t know much about Hobb other than he’s Volstagg the Voluminous, except without the charisma or strength.

And we don’t even get the second coming in the title! That doesn’t happen until the next volume, Chronicles of Conan, v. 33: The Mountain Where Crom Dwells and Other Stories. (To be fair, #252-8 are the first seven parts of the Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath storyline.)

Docherty’s art, other than the disappointment of the Witchmen design and the too cartoony skeletal warriors in #255-6, is solid as always. His work looks strongly influenced by John Buscema, although that might be traced to the finishes by long-time Conan inker Ernie Chan. His art is detailed enough to show the rough edges and grime of a time undreamed-of, but it’s never so fussy or confusing that it’s hard to follow. I have gained an appreciation for artists who can draw a clear battle scene, which is a must for Conan; Docherty does a great job with action, and I never have to ask how a character gets from point A to B. If I had to find a flaw with Docherty, other than the occasional design misstep, it would be that his art doesn’t inspire ecstatic praise; he’s solid, not transcendent.

Hoover's cute horrorDale Hoover fills in on #253, and although I’d admire his clean, unfussy work on a number of other titles, it just doesn’t fit with the dirty, blood-stained world of Conan. The depiction of the mutilation of a prince whose life-force was drained, turning his extremities to bone, suffers from being too clean and too neat; the panels have little chance of communicating the horror of seeing someone’s hands and feet reduced to bone. Also, I’m not a fan of the cheesecake design and poses of Imojen, a Kothian rebel leader. Still, his cartoony flashback drawing of the Dweller in the Dark is adorable.

I enjoyed this volume, even if I can see the flaws — the irrelevant fill-in flashback in #251, the Thomas-ian obsession with resurrecting stories and characters that no one finds as interesting as Thomas himself does. But Second Coming does feel like it has a direction and a point, even if that point is to get closer to the end of this series.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Conan symbol (3 of 5)

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