The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 31 | “Conan” (Dark Horse Comics, 2005–present) TPB Series Overview

Leaving Proof 31 | “Conan” (Dark Horse Comics, 2005–present) TPB Series Overview
Published on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 by

This week marks the debut of a new sub-feature of the column that I’ll be calling “TPB series overview.”  The goal of the TPB series overview is to give the reader a general outline of a completed or in-progress comic book serial and impart my personal opinions about the book’s creative strengths and weaknesses in a manner that would be more efficient than if I did reviews of the individual trade paperbacks that collect the series.

Today, we’ll take a look at Dark Horse Comics’ series of Conan trade paperbacks. But first, for the uninitiated, here’s a little background information on the eponymous character: Conan the Barbarian is the creation of Texas-native Robert E. Howard (1906–1936), one of the 20th century’s most notable pulp fiction writers and generally credited as the originator of the modern sword-and-sorcery genre. Conan debuted in print in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales magazine as the lead character in the short story “The Phoenix on the Sword.” The character would prove to be exceedingly popular with readers, and Howard would go on to pen sixteen more Conan short stories, novellas, and novelettes for Weird Tales. Four more complete Conan stories would be published in various collections after Howard’s suicide in 1936.

The matter of the chronology of Howard’s Conan stories has been the subject of much debate among readers and writers for the past several decades. Howard wrote his Conan stories out of sequence; that is, an earlier published Conan story might be set during the twilight of the barbarian’s career, while a later published story could be set during his early adulthood. There have been many attempts over the years to arrange the original Howard stories in chronological order, and even some attempts to fill in the gaps between stories with re-written or modified fragmentary Conan material recovered from Howard’s notes. Dark Horse Comics’ series of Conan trade paperbacks follow the chronology outlined by Howard scholar Dale Rippke, with some very minor alterations.

Thus far, Dark Horse Comics’ numbered series of Conan trade paperbacks collect two separately labeled monthly serials. The first seven volumes (volume #s 0–6) collect Dark Horse’s Conan monthly series (50 issues, published 2005–2008) and volume #s 7–10 collect the follow-up series, Conan the Cimmerian (25 issues, published 2008–2010). The various volumes adapt the following Robert E. Howard stories and novellas, arranged according to  Rippke’s chronology (with some minor variations): “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (originally published posthumously in 1953’s The Coming of Conan), “The God in the Bowl” (originally published posthumously, in heavily edited form, in 1953’s The Coming of Conan), “The Tower of the Elephant” (originally published March 1933 in Weird Tales magazine), “The Hall of the Dead” (unpublished story fragment, initially completed by L. Sprague de Camp and first published in the February 1967 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), “Rogues in the House” (originally published January 1934 in Weird Tales magazine), “The Hand of Nergal” (unpublished story fragment, initially completed by Lin Carter and first published in 1967’s Conan)  “Black Colossus” (originally published June 1933 in Weird Tales magazine), and “Iron Shadows in the Moon” (originally published as “Shadows in the Moonlight,” April 1934 in Weird Tales magazine). Dark Horse’s versions of “The Hall of the Dead” and “The Hand of Nergal” are original elaborations of the recovered story fragments, and are not recreations of the completed stories written by de Camp and Carter, respectively.

The first six volumes comprise material primarily written by veteran comics scribe Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Cary Nord (with the exception of the somewhat apocryphal Vol. 0, which is illustrated by Greg Ruth), while material penned by Tim Truman and illustrated by Tomás Giorello dominate the subsequent five volumes. While all the volumes are excellent adaptations (and elaborations) of preexisting Howard material and are generally consistent in tone and style, I find that the Busiek-written volumes hold up better to repeated readings, but that may have something to do with my preferences when it comes to the source material—I’ve always preferred Conan’s earlier adventures as a rogue and thief, as opposed to the “mid-career” stories where he serves as a mercenary and pirate—rather than an appreciable difference in Busiek and Truman’s abilities to adapt Howard’s stories. In both writers’ cases though, the dialogue and narration benefit greatly from their willingness to let the art fill in the exposition to some extent. Howard’s prose was so purple that it could be impenetrable at times, and both Busiek and Truman take advantage of the visual aspect of comics to relieve the stories of their excessive verbiage.

The differences in art between the creative teams are more striking: the Cary Nord-illustrated issues seem to have been shot straight from the pencils and coloured digitally, resulting in a softer, more painterly look. It’s a bold stylistic choice, as fans and readers alike will no doubt compare his work to that of esteemed Lancer/Ace Conan paperback cover illustrator/painter and seminal fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. I’ve always liked Nord’s work ever since coming across the underrated Mutant X series from the late 1990s, but he elevated his craft on Conan to such a level that I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that he might very well be the heir apparent to the legacy of Frazetta as his generation’s definitive Conan artist. The Tomás Giorello-drawn issues have a more traditional look as far as comic books go, characterized by strongly defined line art and a conventional, easy-to-follow, free-flowing storytelling approach reminiscent of John Buscema‘s and Alfredo Alcala‘s best work on the 1970s and 1980s Marvel Comics adaptations of the Conan stories.

Each volume also contains behind-the-scenes extras in the form of pre-production art samples, essays, and creative team and editor interviews that expound on the creative processes behind the book. These provide invaluable creative insight and serve to illustrate the sheer amount of scholarship and research that goes into Dark Horse’s versions of the classic Howard stories. In my opinion, Dark Horse Comics’ Conan trade paperbacks contain some of the best contemporary re-tellings of the classic Robert E. Howard Conan tales. Whether you’re a Hyborian Age scholar or a Howard neophyte looking to get into the defining American work of early 20th century heroic fantasy, there is no better alternative to these volumes when it comes to comic book adaptations. Very highly recommended.

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