Sunday, 21 July 2013

Conan Saga #1 review

Conan Saga #1 (published in 1987) reprints material previously published as Conan the Barbarian issues #1-3 (published in 1979-1971). Included are various supplementary materials such as a rather detailed map of Hyboria and a short essay on the visual imagination of Robert E. Howard titled "Wind Chimes in Hyboria" written by Alan Zelenetz. More extras included comprise of the original covers of Conan the Barbarian in black and white and a black and white version of the cover of Conan Saga #1. Finally, there is a sketch on the inside back cover depicting a large winged beast from the first story flying towards Conan and a seemingly nude women in his arms. Each issue of Conan the Barbarian is written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith with Dan Adkins and Sal Buscema as inkers or "embellishers". The whole thing is lettered by Sam Rosen.

The most enjoyable thing in this first reprint issue is Barry Windsor-Smith's art. It’s well suited to Conan's world. His anatomy and musculature are top notch. Conan doesn't have the muscle build of the Hulk, it's all pretty realistic. Windsor-Smith gives him a very toned and muscled body comparable to real-world athletes and that suits the Cimmerian just fine. The stories in this collection all take place when Conan was still a young man and again, the artist demonstrates this in the way he draws Conan.

I'm not too well versed when it comes to talking about art and I haven't read piles and piles and comics that harken from the seventies and so it's difficult for me to talk about why I like Barry Windsor-Smith's art. I just finished looking at the pages for a few minutes and the only thing I can think of to say is that his art looks like a more realistic style of Jack Kirby minus the crackling cosmic energy elements. But writing that I don’t think that’s accurate. There is a lot of movement and action in these issue and Windsor-Smith makes you see the action and feel it, too. It's a visual feast of fantasy action! I'm going to have to work on this because Barry Windsor-Smith did much more art on Conan the Barbarian and I plan on reviewing more of these since I’ve got a decent sack of Conan Saga.

Roy Thomas is an author I'm not too familiar with. I've read a few Avengers issues of his and I enjoyed them but I can't really name anything he's written which is a bit of a shame since he's done a lot of work for Marvel for years and years. He’s also no stranger to Conan. He’s written dozens of issues of various Conan titles and he’s also co-written the script for Conan the Destroyer with Gerry Conway.

The first two stories in this reprint issue are not adaptations of specific stories by Robert E. Howard. In the first story, "The Coming of Conan", our hero is in Vanaheim and he's become a mercenary fighting for the Aesir in their war against the Vanir. Conan is captured by a shaman who wishes to use him in one of his magic rituals. It's not a really engaging or entertaining story but Barry Windsor-Smith draws it with verve and energy. 

In "Lair of the Beast-Men", Conan is in Aesgaard and, again, he gets captured except this time it's by large ape-like men. They take him to their hidden city below the ground where they want to make him a slave. Conan resists this and in doing so he inspires the "manlings" (descendents of enslaved men that have been born into slavery and have never seen the sun). Thomas tells a good story that sheds some light on the importance of freedom and how it relates to a man being "truly" alive. 

"The Grey God Passes" is the only story based on a story by Howard. Conan fights in a border war and witnesses the work of the Grey God. For some, he is Borri the god of war but for all, he is death. Aided by the Choosers of the Slain, twelve beautiful women riding winged horses, the Grey God collects the souls of mighty men and rings them through the mist. It's a pretty good story, with a god, vengeful kings, war, treachery, lost love and Conan fighting in battle with nothing more than a rusty chain, surviving the battle and witnesses the work of the Grey God. 

There’s more to this Marvel Magazine than the reprints. There are also the extras and I enjoyed them. It's nice that the original covers were includes and I particularly like the inclusion of a black and white version of the front cover. The cover of Conan Saga #1 is by a more mature and skilled Windsor-Smith than what can be found in the reprints. Part of me wishes it’s this older artist who would have drawn these issues. His cover is just excellent. I love the slightly strange colouring, the fearsome Conan, the wall behind him and the scattered armour and skulls. I also like that this scene obviously takes place somewhere cold or during the winter season because of the snow on the ground. Conan's got a heavy cloak but he doesn't even seem to feel the cold standing there with bare shoulders, torso and legs. If I ever saw such a thing in real life I'd be absolutely terrified and I'm certain I would remember it vividly until the end of my days.

It's a one page visual feast. I can't help but wonder what the scene depicts. Is the wall the wall of a village? Conan looks protective, is his protecting the inhabitants of the village? If so, against who? If he is protecting the village I can't imagine the skulls were there before he arrived. Maybe Conan's been at his post for several days already and he's started to use scare tactics against the ennemies trying to infiltrate the village. I bet you Conan stole a weapon and a shield from a fallen foe from the armour and weapons at his feet and that’s why he’s got a sword along with an axe. Look at his weapons, they're clean, there's no blood on them. The colouring suggests that the sun has just recently risen and Conan's gone out to meet his opponents. He, one man standing alone against a many, is ready before they are. His hands and his weapons are clean. He probably cleans his weapons at the end of every day of battle. His cloak is over his shoulders and out of his way in order not to impede his movements. It's undoubtedly cold but he's not there to stand around warm and cozy. He has a job to do. Conan's face is serene; he knows he will survive this. He knows he'll be the victor and that the village behind him will remain unmolested because he held his guard.

That's the freaking story I wanted to read in these reprinted issues! Instead I got some good run of the mill sword and sorcery tales. It's not all bad though, the art was pretty good throughout except for the occasional awkward pose of facial expression. Overall this is something any fans of Conan could enjoy. As a side note, it's weird that the essay included in this issue of Conan Saga focuses on a comic book adaptation of Howard’s story “Red Nails” since it doesn’t appear in any of these reprinted issues. Still, the way Zelenetz talks about, I really hope I find that comic adaptation someday and get a chance to read it.

Bigger is better when it comes to Barry Windsor-Smith drawing Conan. 

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