Saturday 26 December 2009

Savage Sword's "Worms of the Earth"

Savage Sword‘s “Worms of the Earth”

As I’m sure you will appreciate, Christmas over here in Bonny Scotland has veered between the agony of organizing an efficient Christmas dinner & present delivery route, and the ecstasy of knowing the madness is over for another year. Thus, I thought it an idea to stick to something cheerful and enthusiastic.

Generally, Howard fans have been blessed and cursed with adaptations. The films (which may or may not include Conan the Barbarian depending on your view), the cartoons, and the television series would naturally be considered on the “curse” side of things, but what of blessings? By far, the most numerous and accurate Howard adaptations are found in comics. The Dark Horse comics have their hits and misses, and while they are more faithful in some ways, they unbalance that with some annoying and sometimes baffling divergences of their own. In my opinion, Roy Thomas is the most consistently successful translator of Howard into a new medium, all the more effective when you have the likes of Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema and Gil Kane on the art side of things. He isn’t beyond reproach by any means–there are a great many of artistic or narrative decisions that just plain bug me, even in his Savage Sword adaptations–but his mantra of sticking to the text as closely as possible is one that certain other translators into other mediums would do well to adopt.

Diversions of the Groovy Kind has most kindly (and groovily) uploaded Roy Thomas’ adaptation of “Worms of the Earth.” Part 1 is here, part 2 here. It was printed in The Savage Sword of Conan numbers 16 and 17, featuring the artwork of Barry Smith and Tim Conrad. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do a Robert E. Howard adaptation.

The essential themes of “Worms of the Earth”: the stark, bleak atmosphere, the sense of Bran going too far in his vengeance and damning him and his entire people in his lust for vengeance, the tragic revulsion of Atla, the inhuman horror of the Worms, the haughty arrogance of Sulla transformed into pitiable madness. All are present. Every one I could think of. Some of the dialogue was adapted prose, and it works fine, just a few switches of pronouns. The descriptions are nigh pitch-perfect, the story stuck to like glue, and the narrative brisk and tight, with no extraneous pastichery. A great job by Thomas: in this case, he fired on all cylinders.

The artwork, especially Conrad’s, is simply astonishing. It’s like a black-and-white film, with the contrast and mood of one of the classic 1940s horrors. The establishing shot of the crucified Pict is impressive, a real sense of scale. The vista on pages 40-41 of issue 17 is simply breathtaking. The misty, bleak, unforgiving landscape of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Kidnapped, Tam O’Shanter–and, of course, Howard’s Bran Mak Morn–laid out in a two-page spread. I love it.

The depictions of the characters are uniformly fantastic. Bran is the strong king of a savage people, with a sense of darkest tragedy looming about his noble features. The other Picts we see are the stunted giants we all know and love, and Gonar makes for an imposing and otherworldly figure. The Romans combine a sense of smug imperiousness with a strength that suggests they’ll back up that confidence–a nice parallel to Howard’s own grudging respect for the Romans, despite his antipathy for them when they’re against the Celts.

What I particularly love is the refusal to be constrained within the panels. The first part mostly keeps within the confines, everything contained in a box. This part, I believe, was primarily Barry Smith. However, on page 55 of issue 16, things start to change, as we’re faced with action bleeding out of the boxes. Page 58 is a riot of sweeping greys, stark whites and hellish blacks, amply illustrating the chaotic fury and frustration of Bran, faced with the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Page 39 of issue 17, a “previously on…” catchup, has Bran’s spear and horse encroaching over the exposition, providing a sense of immediacy even with the necessary considerations to new readers. Page 45 starts to play with panel shapes, with two quarter-circles in the bottom.

Page 48 has one of the most ingenious uses of Howard’s dialogue incorporated into the very construction of a page I’ve ever seen: four panels, arranged in a semicircle, echoing that same masonry described in the text! Absolute masterpiece of textual and image synergy. 49 continues the technique, this time inverted, to mirror Bran’s descent into the underworld. 51 has Bran dominate the page in style, by physically clutching two foreground panels, thrusting them aside roughly and confidently, like the door to Atla’s hut–as indeed he does (thematically) in the text. Yet another masterstroke.

Ah, but the moment we meet the Worms on page 53… This is sequential art. The loathsome, serpentine forms of the Worms gather around Bran. Indeed, the panels are arranged in a spiral: Bran is trapped in the center of a veritable whirlpool of horror and nightmare. Then, page 54, the entire page–what would normally be a pleasant white–is pitch black, punctuated by the mad, distended eyes of the Worms. The five lone panels are enveloped by this swamp of darkness and glittering eyes. It’s an excellent use of panels–and breaking them. Absolutely brilliant.

When Bran comes upon the ruins of the Roman fort, the lone survivor’s recount of the horror is in distorted, cloud-like panels, like the design used to indicate thoughts or dreams. Soon, that cloudy shape distorts into a melting, disintegrating mess, until the survivor dies. Finally, the great confrontation with Bran and the Worms – again, excellently drawn. The final three panels overlap each other, suggesting the haste of Bran’s flight from that insane episode, pushing the terrors behind him as he rides into the night.

The good webmaster of “Diversions of the Groovy Kind” considers this second only to Thomas’ and Windsor-Smith’s adaptation of “Red Nails”. I respectfully disagree, as this, to my mind, blows the excellent “Red Nails” right out of the water: the artwork, the exemplary translation, and the clever use of panels just show how incredible Howard comics could be.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It isn’t: there are two major flaws with the adaptation. First, Atla. The depiction here is far too grotesque, an outlandish exaggeration of the unloveliest aspects of her description. She also looks too old and hag-like: Atla was specifically stated to be “not old”, but with the weight of great age on her shoulders. Her reptilian & Wormish aspects are only noticeable up close, as Bran finds out. That’s what makes her such a horrific character, in my mind, the dichotomy of the beautiful and the hideous. Poisoned Honey. Taking away her youth and subtle attractiveness until the final revelation somewhat dilutes it.

The second is that the Worms are revealed too completely, too soon: it ruins the revelation at the end, and much of the horror is somewhat neutered. A single flash revealing semi-obscured features would’ve been so much more powerful. I do feel these problems let the comic down substantially, but not quite enough for me to stop fawning over it. After all, just about everything else is pitch perfect: though it would be remiss of me to not comment on the faults, neither shall I totally condemn it for them, even with their relative magnitude.

This comic shows exactly why I have no time for the “Howard is too difficult to adapt” crowd. Give me one good reason, one, why this story wouldn’t make a solid film, or an episode of an anthology series. It’s cinematic, it’s powerful, it’s multi-faceted and multi-layered. I’m not going to be making any bold statement when I say that, if any one story could be considered Howard’s best, “Worms of the Earth” is a worthy contender for that title. There is absolutely no reason to change this intelligent, atmospheric, frightening, exciting, brilliant tale, as Thomas’ adaptation (for the most part) illustrates.

Even beyond the fact that “Worms of the Earth” is faithful to the story in a way no film or television adaptation could even dream of approaching, the very style and construction of the comic is bold and pushes the medium to the limits. A film based on a Howard story cannot merely adhere to the text, and presume to be any good: a director  must be willing and able to use the power of cinema, to be as inventive and striking as Howard’s own prose. It would be pointless and counter-productive to ape Conan the Barbarian or 300, or even Alexander Nevsky. Howard deserves more than a routine genre movie.

You filmmakers working on the film adaptation of Bran Mak Morn, take note. The new Conan film will not be The Hour of the Dragon. The new Solomon Kane film will not be “Wings in the Night.” You have a chance to make “Worms of the Earth.” Don’t be like Doppenheimer or Bassett, making a superfluous origin story that ignores Howard’s meticulously crafted words, with characters and stories alien to his creations. Thomas showed a near word-for-word adaptation was possible.
Make your film Bran Mak Morn. Make it Robert E. Howard. Make it great.

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