It may have taken them 5 issues to stop messing around with pastichery and finally start seriously adapting some Howard stories, but it's well worth the wait.
This year's Howard Days, which I shall indeed be attending for all those who wish to see the Greater Bearded Scot, is centered around Howard in comics. The guest of honour is Timothy Truman, currently writing the upcoming King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon adaptation from Dark Horse. And the fandom rejoiced, for Truman is popular among Howard fans for his comparatively faithful adaptations and appreciation of Howard. Well, most Howard fans: there's always one, isn't there?
No, I doubt there'll be any tense stand-offs between myself and Mr Truman, because I'm a gentleman and a scholar as well as a raving blaspheming lunatic. Besides, although I have my share of misgivings on his decisions ("Why is Kutamun such a big wimp?" "Why did he reveal the Gray Ape so early?" "What's with this chronicler business in his King Conan stuff?") there is a lot to like in his adaptations, particularly when some of the changes - gasp! - are actually interesting. Yes, you heard me, I thought some of Truman's changes were something other than terrible, heinous and disrespectful to Howard! What on earth has come over me?
In any case, the subject of Howard in Comics is obviously highly tied to the long and celebrated history of adaptations, from the famous Marvel Conan the Barbarian to the current franchise at Dark Horse, with a gamut of writers and artists adding their interpretations to Howard's works. There have been stories that practically transpose Howard's prose straight onto the page, and others that took a more Hitchcockian approach. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as it were.
Being an aspiring comic artist myself, it seems an appropriate time to turn up to Howard Days with my musings on the medium's relevance to an author who died in 1936.
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
Taran of the always-excellent blog One Last Sketch posted a piece on the vagaries of adaptation, particularly of fantasy literature.
Recently, I’ve found it hard to muster enthusiasm for film adaptations of books I like. You could even say I’m sick of ‘em. There’s some I wish I’d never seen, Earthsea being one. I have to reconcile that with the fact that some of my favourite movies and shows are adaptations, and close ones at that: Hogfather, Stardust, Game of Thrones, even The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series based on Pride and Prejudice. I really loved Hogfather, the book, yet I’ve watched Hogfather, the film, far more times than I’ve read the former, and beyond clear respect (even love) for the source material shown on screen it’s hard to say why.
These are all rare exceptions, though. More often, we get something like Disney’s The Black Cauldron, which might share a name with one of Lloyd Alexander’s books but little else. The parallels between that animated feature and Earthsea are many.
There’s a scene in Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword where the characters argue over a stage adaptation of the book-within-a-book, The Swordsman Whose Name was not Death, which demonstrate the only major benefit I’ve found to adaptations: generating discussions, and bringing more folk to a well-liked novel. Nothing really sets a bookish person off into an extended conversation than bringing up the film adaptation of a book they like—unless the only reaction is a withering cry of despair.
It's difficult to disagree. I'm often guilty of making dagger-eyes at a great number of adaptations, even those that are not necessarily terrible films. So why on earth do I still hold out hope for worthy adaptations?
Well, I think the desire for adaptations is similar to the desire for illustrations. They aren't necessary to the enjoyment of the text, they run the risk of affecting the reader's mental interpretation of the text, and with the exception of maps or diagrams, they don't provide any more information. And yet...
My reasoning for adaptations is roughly the same as my reasoning for book illustrations: you aren't looking at a translation of a work into a new medium, so much as an interpretation. And generally, the best interpretations are done by great artists who bring their own qualities to the work. Frank Frazetta's illustrations for Howard are haphazard in terms of strict fidelity to the text, but Fritz' own background and aesthetic inclinations brought a power, atmosphere and richness that was almost completely absent in prior illustrations of the works. I've put together a (non-exhaustive) collage of depictions of Conan up to the publication of Conan the Adventurer in 1966 (and one from 1968):
First Row: Jayem Wilcox (Weird Tales V2N6, "The Phoenix on the Sword," 1932) Hugh Rankin (Weird Tales V23N1, "Rogues in the House," 1934) Margaret Brundage (Weird Tales V23N5, "Queen of the Black Coast," 1934) Joseph Doolin* (Weird Tales V25N3, "Jewels of Gwahlur," 1935)A fairly eclectic collection of Conans, is it not? I think Emshwiller got pretty close with his cover for 1955's Tales of Conan, and there are elements to like in the original Weird Tales illustrations, but it's curious just how civilised Conan looks in most of them. Frazetta was, in my opinion, the first artist to effectively portray Conan's savagery, the dark barbarian aspect of his character. And yet, as we all know, there's more to Conan than the barbarian: there's the king, the general, the thief, and so on. Napoli may have given Conan a rather Latin countenance (as Howard called it), but he certainly portrays the grudging regalia of King Conan; Doolin's illustration shows that artists have depict Conan with an impressive degree of muscularity back during Howard's lifetime; DeLay's art has that look of the "prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field
Second Row: Vincent Napoli (Weird Tales V27N3, "The Hour of the Dragon," 1936) Harold S. Delay (Weird Tales V28N1, "Red Nails," Part One, 1936) Unknown (AVON FANTASY READER #8) John Forte (Conan the Conqueror, 1950)
Third Row: Salvador Hermoso Lavalle** (Cuentos de Abuelito #17 - Nov, 1952) Norman Saunders (Conan the Conqueror, 1953) Frank Kelly Freas (The Coming of Conan, 1953) Unknown (Conan the Conqueror, 1954)
Fourth Row: Ed Emshwiller (Conan the Barbarian, 1954) Wally Wood (The Return of Conan, 1957) Steven Kelez/Alan Hutchinson*** (Star-Studded Comics #14, "Gods of the North," 1968****) Frank Frazetta (Conan the Adventurer, 1966)
bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen" Howard drew from. Even Frazetta wasn't quite correct to all the details. A good Conan illustration conveys something about Conan's character even if it doesn't get the hair or face right, which is why Doolin's work succeeds where the Boardman 1954 Conan the Conqueror artist does not.
Yes, that even counts for this one.
From Dark Horse's site, though it's since been taken down, apparently...
I came to something of a revelation recently regarding Wood's Conan, particularly noting the sheer disdain it receives from a number of Howard fans. Just what is it about Wood's take that is so distasteful to long-time Howard fans? I could argue any number of things, from the sense of no new ground being broken to Dark Horse Conan readers, to Wood's Conan and Hyborian Age being wildly inconsistent with Howard's despite initially claiming fidelity to the original story, to complaints about the artwork.
I have a theory, though. Reading Wood's Conan's inner monologues and thought bubbles, they reminded me more of what an inner-city modern suburbanite would think. It's a very modern-thinking Conan in the wrong way: it doesn't feel timeless, it rings false. It's a young person's mind, true, but a civilised young person's mind. It's inconceivable that the Conan presented here is the same Conan we saw in Truman's and Busiek's runs, let alone Howard's. Conan the Barista isn't necessarily a comment on Conan's appearance: many reviews I've read talked about how much more the reviewers identify with Conan, that he feels like a "real person," that his vulnerability makes him more appealing and believable to them. A lot like what I've been reading in the Tomb Raider reviews, essentially swapping a hero for an anti-hero (in the original sense). Conan's turmoil and depression while locked in Messantia's jail in issue 4 is nothing like how the original Conan has demonstrably felt in practically identical circumstances, but it does seem a lot like how a modern young man might feel in them.
I was reminded of Joe the Barbarian. This was a Grant Morrison series about a teenager with diabetes who plunges into a fantasy world when his blood sugar levels drop dangerously low. It's a pretty clear twist on the "fantasy as escapism for the disadvantaged" concept, and deals with many of the tropes associated with such observations. It isn't exactly respectful - when has Morrison ever let respect for anything get in his way? - but it's clear he has a fondness for the material he plays with. But of course, the world Joe discovers is not any sort of historical one, it's a fantasy world with dwarfs and laser-shooting battle-cruisers and warrior rats, and where he himself is a mighty individual of mighty importance. What if Joe Manson, as opposed to Joe the Barbarian, was dropped into a more unforgiving world? By extension, much muck has been slung at fans of Sword-and-Sorcery, where it's suggested they're living their lives vicariously through Conan: if you or I or any other average westerner were dropped into the Hyborian Age, we surely wouldn't last long.
Is this part of Wood's approach? Northlanders was well received for its very down-to-earth and mundane representation of Nordic Britain, and didn't present it in a heroic or mythic light. DMZ was all about the grim, relentless reality of a demilitarised zone. And in this series, there's a lot where Conan gets in far over his head: going off into the desert without sufficient supplies, mistaking a doe for a buck, and so forth. Conan makes mistakes, of course, especially as a young man, but not the sort of mistakes that would've gotten him killed back in Cimmeria. Mistakes that an actual Cimmerian wouldn't make... but a modern barista from Queens? Perhaps he came upon a curious quartz cube, or there was a crossing of mind-projection streams, or a wizened old man gave him a red jewel for a tip, and he found himself transported back to the Hyborian Age, and it isn't exactly what he expected from his dad's old Heavy Metal collection.
In other words, could Wood's Conan the Barbarian be a deconstruction of that old chestnut - Conan fans read the stories to escape the mundanity of the modern world into one where "men are mighty, women are beautiful, problems are simple, and life is adventurous." What if Wood's portrayal of a Conan who is not an indestructible killing machine, experiences emotions other than rage and lust, and isn't the definition of Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfilment, was a commentary on the genre's perceived failings? What if Wood's Hyborian Age isn't a teenage wonderland of nubile savages, evil enemies so irredeemable you don't have to worry about little things like moral relativism or complexity, and problems can be solved with the swift cut of a blade? How would a fan of Sword-and-Sorcery stories act when taken into the world they think they understand?
I'd say it's an interesting idea, if it wasn't completely redundant. The thing is, Howard's has elements of both. There are stories where he's the mightiest warrior in the land, gets girls all a-flutter, and wins the day. There are also stories where he's against the odds, doesn't get the girl, and doesn't win the day. Sometimes all that happens in the same story. So while Wood has been concentrating on the "brash, impetuous, foolhardy" aspect of Conan, it's just one aspect of Conan, even as a young man. I would say that Wood's Conan is along the same lines as Milius' Conan in terms of their approach to the source material: superficial similarities, sometimes even taking lines or plot elements from the stories, but ultimately focusing on only one facet of the character. Where Milius focused on Conan's drive and single-mindedness, Wood on Conan's youthful recklessness.
Truman and his predecessor Busiek have a different problem: they get close, very close, to Howard, but for various reasons they make several changes that seem, to me, completely unnecessary - and when the rest of the adaptation is so close, that makes them all the more jarring. Busiek's "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" was really close... except for making the Ice-Giants into 25-foot tusked ogres. "The God in the Bowl" was a damn near word-for-word adaptation of Howard's story... except for giving the Child of Set a Tiki-head. "The Tower of the Elephant" was probably the best, but it still sneaked in one of the Purple People Eating Uberboreans in the interests of fidelity to Busiek's Hyperborea story arc.
With Truman, he seems to have taken the choice of not directly adapting Howard's text, preferring to use his own words, and making tweaks, additions, and alterations to the narrative. This is a marked difference from Thomas and Busiek, who usually stuck to at least Howard's dialogue like glue, rather than change sentence structure and diction. Sometimes, this works really well. Truman's "Iron Shadows in the Moon" recasts the entire tense of the story from the third person to first person perspective, turning some of Howard's beautiful prose into Olivia's internal monologue. It works, because Olivia is the protagonist of the story, not Conan - in both the adaptation and original - so Truman was simply presenting some of REH's great prose through the medium of the protagonist. It's actually rather brilliant, I think.
But in this same adaptation, Truman does things that I just can't understand. He inverts the mystery of the Iron Statues by having a prologue depicting the events of Olivia's dream at the beginning of the story, before we even meet Olivia or Conan: not only does this anticipate and flatten "Black Colossus" only one story arc later, it does the same for the supernatural menace of the Iron Statues themselves. It's a subversion of Howardian Fairyland in this story: REH has the transition happen when Conan & Olivia arrive on the island, with the boat journey arguably serving as a Charonic voyage. Howard's started off with the supernatural in other stories like "The People of the Black Circle" and "The Hour of the Dragon," but Howard's in medias res opening with Shah Amurath tracking down Olivia is one of the best in the series, so it seems a shame to alter that.
Truman does this a lot: he also introduces Sergius of Khrosha and the Grey Ape before Howard did in his story, thus - in my opinion - robbing the story of some tension and surprise, while also messing with Truman's own shift in perspective: why would we see Sergius or the Ape when this is from Olivia's perspective? Then you have ludicrousness like the Grey Ape hurling a rock the size of a car at Conan, while Conan manages to survive a bearhug from the same beast, which stretches credulity far more than the original fight did.
AND WHY DOES THE MUTE GREY APE ROAR DADGUMMITTOAYCHEEDUBBLEHURLISTIKS
So I'm very ambivalent about Truman's adaptations from a fidelity point of view, simply because they're really good except for those few changes that seem so unnecessary and even detrimental to me, and that without them, they'd be even better. "Black Colossus" in particular could have been amazing if not for a few missteps, and frankly, I think the whole Interview with a Barbarian framing device in the King Conan series could have been really effective with a bit more ambiguity. Already I'm bracing myself for King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon, my second favourite Conan story, because I just know it's going to have changes that will drive me insane despite doing everything else brilliantly. It's almost as if Dark Horse knew Wood was going to be controversial, so they kept Truman on to keep the old diehards happy. Given the choice between Wood's Conan and Truman's Conan, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many members of the REH Forums who'd choose the former.
That said, I'm not going down that road. Rather than support King Conan (plenty of folks doing that already), I'm going to throw my vote on a third option: Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword.
When you talk about mixed bags, this is even more pronounced than any of the recent Conan series. Yet I have no qualms supporting REHSS, because the very nature of an anthology comic allows, practically promotes, a great variety of styles, tones, and subjects. It was tough in the early issues, where there were whole issues without a new adaptation of an actual Robert E. Howard story*****, but things have been getting much better recently.
I was particularly interested in Paul Tobin's take on "The Sword Woman," albeit very nervous. Agnes has none of the pop culture baggage of Howard's other characters, and thus far, hasn't been turned into Alley-Oop, Hercules or Elric: as such, she has a clean slate. It would've been so easy for Dark Horse to turn her into their rival to Dynamite's Red Sonja since Janissa seems to have left with Busiek, but Tobin's adaptation is... not too bad. So far, I hasten to add. Sure, there are bits and pieces altered somewhat, but it's recognisable as Howard's character and story, which is remarkable given how people tend to go with his work even now. Francesco Francavilla's clear line art is fascinating: it's very different from the style I would have chosen, but absolutely appropriate.
Look at this page, for God's sake. Look at it. The balmy yellow of the sunrise contrasting the cool grey of the shadows and dull green of the forest, with Agnes' hair the most vibrant red. Agnes' face has a minimum of detail, facilitating the power of expression. It's highly reminiscent of the European style of comics, like that of Herge's Tintin, and so entirely fitting for Howard's French heroine. The colours are strong, but warm, evocative of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. It's so compelling that I'd love to see Tobin go on to do a regular Sword Woman series: I really hope the rest of the story is as strong as this first part, and that he will stay on for "Blades for France."
Even outside of Tobin's Agnes, Edginton and Pace's "Men of the Shadows" is shaping up to be excellent, Sonora Kid and El Borak are good starts, the Cthulhu Mythos/Conrad & Kirowan tales tend to be great. If you absolutely must have Conan, then he's... present, even if the stories are not to my liking, and there are some nice samplers for the new characters. If the new stuff isn't for you, then Dark Horse love reprinting old classics from the Marvel Years, which offers a great insight into the styles and methods of adaptation in times past.
This is what I'm talking about with adaptations: you can get take one story, and make an entirely unique experience based on how you tell it. A different art style, choosing different focuses, looking at the same thing in a different way. Look how many adaptations of Shakespeare there are which place the narrative in different times and places, yet never alter the fundamentals of the story. This is why it's crazy when you do something severe like changing a character's gender, or altering the finale: why would you need to, just to put your mark on it? Even thought Tobin's done well so far, in no way do I think his work - anyone's work save Howard's - should be considered truly definitive. There should be many adaptations of Howard's work.
What smarts about Wood's Queen of the Black Coast is not just that not all Howard fans enjoy it: it's because the current business model means that it's going to be the only new adaptation of that story we'll see for a while. Or, at least, it's the only CPI-endorsed, high-budget comic adaptation. We could hope for fan adaptations like Petri Hiltunen's, but without the funding and distribution from Dark Horse or a similar company, it wouldn't have the "prestige" of having a star colourist or letterer. And that's assuming CPI/Dark Horse don't put the kibosh on the project altogether. Conan is too big a character to have only one interpretation, and Howard's work too good to have only one adaptation per story. Comics are a pretty good way to go, since the art of transporting a story from one medium to another can provide new insights, new ways of understanding and appreciating the story, new ways to look at it.
I might be on a panel at Howard Days: depending on who's coming and what Indy's up to, it could even be more than one. I'm not exactly an expert on the Conan comics: I've read a lot of them, but I couldn't tell you who inked issue 233 of Savage Sword or anything. However, I am a heavily opinionated beardy upstart from Scotland, and I have read other comics. And so it occurs to me that I might talk about how the nature of comics and its differences from literature allow for a form of literary criticism in itself. Maybe I'll make a comic about Robert E. Howard comics. Get really meta, write a comic about writing a comic about Robert E. Howard comics. The point is, with such a visual and powerful writer as Howard, it would be preposterous not to adapt his work into comics: he's one of the best comic writers who never wrote a comic. I'm not talking about writing derivative, repetitive strips about A Guy Saving A Gal And Settling Some Hash, I'm talking about the transformation of storytelling into a new way of being. Howard already did this when he took mythic sagas and historical accounts, twisted them into two-fisted yarns and hard-boiled pulp, and revolutionised the very genre of fantasy fiction. Adapting Howard to comics has shown to result in something special in the past, and it could do so again.
*Supreme thanks to Terry Allen for pointing me in the right direction, and to Tükörálarc for the scans.
**Theorised to be the artist by Cromsblood, and I owe him a great debt for the fantastic image resources for La Reina de la Costa Negra at CROM!)
***Alright, this might be borderline since it's an adaptation of "Gods of the North" and thus is technically an Amra of Akbitana story. BUT, I'm of the opinion that the differences are so minor, and the possibility of Howard using a nod and a wink to imply that this was indeed meant to be Conan, that it might as well be considered, beard and all. Once again, many thanks to CROM!)
**** Jeff Shanks ruins my little picture by pointing out that the issue was from 1968, not 1963 as previously stated. I'm grateful AND angry!
***** Of course, such things hardly grow on trees, there are only - oh, something like - almost four hundred REH stories out there, after all...