Wednesday, October 19, 2016
The Chronicles Of Conan-Volume 3
The third volume of the Chronicles of Conan records a somewhat tempestuous period in the comic book's early history as the artist formerly known as "Barry Smith" becomes increasingly aloof from his comic book origins.
The volume kicks off with a great two-parter which has that classic kitchen sink approach to plotting. We get the return of the sorcerer Zukala and his daughter Zephira. They are now good guys (sort of as these things are always rather suspect in the Hyborian Age) and are battling an other dimensional witch called the Green Empress of the distant land of Melnibone. This calls for Conan to suit up to be Earth's protector as other-dimensional warriors crash in and seek to carry on their deadly queen's mission. That also leads the anti-hero Elric (likewise of Melnibone) to cross over to the Hyborian Earth and hook up with Conan to beat back the enemies they both share.
This was my first-ever encounter with Elric and he's quite the exotic character in his peaked red hat (apparently a hold over from the Jack Gaughan's paperback covers). He and Conan don't really get along, but then neither of them really get along with anyone, but they do successfully battle together and defeat the Green Empress though at a terrible cost for everyone.
And that was supposed to be that for Barry Smith as he intended to move on to other projects.
Roy Thomas taps Gil Kane, an early fan of Conan and a guy who had expressed interest in the title. With inks by Ralph Reese Kane kicks out some wildly kinetic pages for Conan as he meets up with the pirate Fafnir (previously encountered with his partner Blackrat) who develops beyond his one-off homage to Fritz Leiber's Fahrd and becomes one of my favorite Conan characters. While Conan is always brave and bold, he's often humorless. Fafnir gives him that, a trustworthy companion who has a little perspective.
The two of them become embroiled in an isolated island city's politics, especially helping a duplicitous young beauty who wants to stay being queen. They battle monsters and disembodied suits of armor and barely escape with their lives when the whole place literally explodes beneath their feet.
Barry Smith returns to the book and produces some of his best work ever. Gil Kane hadn't liked the time it took him to produce an issue and apparently Kane needed work that he could churn out fast. It's probably for the best, since while I'm an unabashed Kane fan, I found his work in Conan not the best, lacking the necessary atmosphere the book had developed.
Conan and Fafnir end up in the Turanian navy who are lead by Prince Yezdigerd and are headed to the city of Makkalet to rescue their stolen living god. In these stories we get a real solid epic with Conan behaving in his most realistic manner. He's a mercenary for sure, a hired sword, but such a capable one that he poses a threat and an opportunity for many who are around him. Somewhat less so is the luckless Fafner who falls in the first foray against the walls of the city. Though saved by Conan he loses his arm and is apparently later killed by a feckless and uncaring officer who sought to gain a measure of revenge on Conan with the slaying. (Fafnir got better in later stories.) That officer of course ends up dead almost immediately when Conan returns from a mission in which he had to battle a deadly hound. Conan also ends up wounding Prince Yezdigerd before making his escape from the Turanians.
That puts Conan on the other side of the war literally and he ends up hiring out to the citizens of Makkalet, specifically its beautiful queen. He though appears to have chosen badly again as he is sent off to become a sacrifice on an altar which calls down a very Lovecraftian frog-like monster. Conan survives and seeks to put the war behind him but that will prove more difficult than he expected.
There's something so compelling about this period for Conan as he tumbles along. The sense of realism in this series continued to fascinate me. How a fantasy like this set in an imaginary world from long ago could feel more potent and of the moment than stuff like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four is strange but it did. Conan was just a soldier fighting a war he neither sanctioned nor had much affinity for, but he did his duty. That his duty took him to either side of the conflict proved just how arbitrary the rightness of war could be. In those days such messages about war were heady indeed.
Also is was one of the comics in this collection which really made feel part of a larger community. I was sitting in a local hangout getting a bite to eat when a young man, my elder in his twenties or something like that, came over to me and asked about the Conan comic I was reading ("The Black Hound of Vengeance") and commented how much he admired the book. I never got his name nor saw him ever again, but that brief exchange weirdly validated a young boy who loved comics and now knew for certain that someone else older (and presumably wiser) did also. It was a strangely affecting moment, as small and relatively insignificant as it seemed. I remember that moment often when I interact with teenagers and always try to understand that what might seem small time to me might loom larger to them. That's just one lesson I learned reading Conan.