Tuesday 17 August 2010

This guy really loves his Dark Horse Conan...

I guess it's hard for me to say anything about Dark Horse's run on Conan.  Most would accuse me of being an unpleasable fanboy, that no comic adaptation could possibly compare to the artistic vision of Howard, and that anything would come up short.  To which I say, absolute hogwash.  There have been absolutely fantastic adaptations of Howard stories over the years: Savage Sword's "Worms of the Earth," Dark Horse's "The Tower of the Elephant," Scott Hampton's "Pigeons from Hell," Marvel's "Red Nails."   No, none of them are perfect, but they're all so damn close I can easily consider them as successes, with the majority of my reservations ultimately in the minority to the stuff they got right. So just to get that out of the way: no, I am not impossible to please, as I have been satisfied by comic adaptations before.

That said, I feel like I almost slip into a negative mode by default when it comes to the Dark Horse comics.  Perhaps its the eternal contrarian in me, or maybe I'm just one of those kinds of nerds.  In any case, I notice that the public at large seems to utterly love Conan, and many fans consider them to be the closest Howard adaptations ever.  I disagree: they're about on the same level as the Marvel adaptations, but in different ways.  Classic Marvel couldn't depict the stories with anything near the level of violence, nudity or sexuality in the original stories, and Thomas was prone to making weird decisions to "improve" the story for a comic format.  I'm pretty sure Stan Lee had a hand in some of the very weird early issues, too.

Yet even though Dark Horse doesn't have the CCA to contend with, they still manage to make divergences that don't make sense.  They go against Howard's descriptions in many areas, alter the stories to fit into their arc, and they insert their own characters all over the place.  I can only guess it's part of Paradox/CPI's design to create a single homogenous "look" for Conan, and unfortunately, it's one that includes Aquiromians, Greco-Hyborians, Uberboreans, and Thoth-Amon as Nemesis.  I plan on covering the various Conan adaptations in comics in the future: one of the most notable cases is in the Marvel and Dark Horse iterations of "Black Colossus."

While I liked many aspects of Truman's adaptation of "Black Colossus," there are also many parts I didn't: the complete mischaracterisation of Kutamun, the pointless alterations to dialogue and exposition, the ham-fisted attempt to humanise Thespides - all in addition to the things Dark Horse does in most of its arcs, like shoehorning in Thoth-Amon, and persisting with the stupid Greco-Hyborians and Uberboreans.  At least the Prince and Vizier don't make an appearance.  It isn't a perfect adaptation (and I admit, it would be hard to picture a truly perfect adaptation), but I'll accept that there are some people who like it.  But not as much as this guy.

I’ll let you into a (not so) secret. As far as I’m concerned, Conan, the book currently being published by Dark Horse, is by far the best adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s most beloved creation to have ever sprung from the fevered brow of writer and artist alike. Want to know why? Doesn’t really matter if you do or don’t, because I’m going to tell you anyway, so pay attention kiddies, here’s the reasons. It’s entirely faithful to, yet at the same time, lovingly expands upon, the world in which the Cimmerian roamed. Take ‘Black Colossus’, a short story that’s been fleshed out to fill the holes in Conan’s life created by pulp deadline necessity, but at no time does it feel like the story has been fleshed out. Truman is the vessel through which Howard’s spirit flows, it guides him and helps him, as he crafts Conan’s journey and our becomes a captain in a Mercenary guard and defends Khoraja and the cities fair Princess Yasmela against the desert Sorcerer Nahtok, a guise adopted by the ageless sorcerer Thugra Khotan and his horde of Set worshipping warriors, before defeating the unholy deities puppets and their master with hardened steel, sinew and battle born courage. Warfare, blood, swords and sorcery, all the ingredients that bring the tales of Conan to vivid life are present, yet never get in the way of , or become the whole, story, and in Tomas Giorello, the barbarian has finally found his definitive artistic muse, a man who work almost drags the reader into Conan’s ancient, vicious, heroic age. I swear, Truman’s run on this book just keeps getting better and better, and it’s easily one of the top five books out there at the moment. Howard would be proud of how far his favourite son has come…

OK, this is bordering on the ridiculous.  While I won't begrudge someone liking Truman's work, to call him "the vessel through which Howard's spirit flows"?  More astonishing, to call Giorello Conan's "definitive artistic muse"?  Are you serious?  I wouldn't even say that of Frank Frazetta, and anyone who's read my blogs knows how much I adore Frazetta's work.

For one thing, it isn't "entirely faithful" by any stretch.  Even the very dialogue is changed, character motivations are altered, small details are altered for no discernible reason, and the expansions are haphazard.  Sure, it adheres to the plot and characters, and so can be considered broadly faithful.  Yet, Howard's dialogue and prose are some of his best qualities: it seems bizarre that you'd replace that with trite modernized facsimiles.  As well as that, some of the original story is actually truncated - you'd think that you'd try and expand the story as much as possible before injecting narrative epoxy, rather than shorten parts of the original story to add in your own stuff.  Sound familiar?

Is Dark Horse's Conan truly the best adaptation of Howard's creation?  Frankly, I think it's debatable whether it's better than the classic Marvels, let alone the Savage Swords - at least before the later Thomas, or Fleischer/Jones/DeMatteis eras.  It isn't even the best adaptation of "Black Colossus" - that's still the three-parter in Savage Sword #2.  Sure, there are some groaners, like Thugra Khotan's mummy-face and the persistent Greco-Hyborians, but nearly everything else is pitch-perfect.  The art is incredible, the script and story faithful to a degree Truman barely approaches, the composition of the page is fantastic.  I can't even call it nostalgia, because I didn't grow up during the heyday of Savage Sword, and I read it only a few years before Dark Horse's version came out.

I guess Mr Martijn and I just two very different people, is all.


  1. "It’s entirely faithful to, yet at the same time, lovingly expands upon,..." WTF?

    Yes, you and Mr Martijn are very different people. You know how to write critically in order to communicate your meaning rather than merely impress people by how you turn a phrase. You are also able to read critically and have actually read the source material that the comic is based upon, therefore are able to render a cogent opinion about the relative merits of the adaptation.

  2. When the Martijn lips have been surgically removed from Truman's and Giorello's butts, maybe you can question him about his views on comic adaptations and fidelity to the source material. But I think even Lestrade could deduce the answer to that.

    (somebody needs to remind him about what Sir Franklin Zappa once said, "NOBODY looks good in brown makeup."

  3. You flatter me overmuch, guys! That said, I'm not free from my own cases of gushing adulation. If I ever meet John Watkiss, I very well might plant a big smacker on his lips. Then slap him for making Cormac too skinny.

    Ooh, I'm such a tart.

  4. I'm not sure what it is about writers adapting Robert Howard that they feel the need to change his stories. Perhaps it's the ego that needs to be assuaged. Perhaps it's jealousy for how effective Howard was in spite of himself. I've yet to see anyone improve on anything Robert Howard wrote. And here's the rub; I like Tim Truman's work. I always have. His stint on Conan is an improvement over Kurt Busiek's attempt, hands down. That said I marvel at how often Tim gets it wrong. He's not alone, but I had such high hopes for him. Then I have to temper that with the fact that DHC in their not-so-divine wisdom have decided it's time to give Roy "I-ain't-run-this-thing-into-the ground-enough" Thomas another go 'round.
    So, despite my better judgment I have to lament Tim's exit from the regular Conan book to make way Roy.
    Conan, and, indeed, all of the Robert Howard line should be treated better than it is. There's a reason his creations elicit such attention after all these years, not that the editorial whims at any of the comic companies will admit they're mucking around with iconic stuff much less follow that up with the respect it deserves. Why have a comic that can win awards and prestige? Better to meet those deadlines and ignore all those oft mentioned, over-vaunted promises of making this and the other Robert Howard characters stand proud with chants of sincere adherence to the "source".
    I bow to those broken promises.

  5. Rick, I have to agree. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Howard adaptations should be treated as illustrations. The thing is, there's plenty of scope to "make your mark" on a Howard story without changing a word of the text. That's why it grates when Busiek turns The God in the Bowl into a Tiki god, and when Truman decides to turn Kutamun into a wimp: there are tons of different avenues to follow with Howard's descriptions of the God and Kutamun, without having to directly contradict Howard at all.

    I will say that I think Truman & Busiek are about on a similar level, but in different respects. I think Truman has a much better handle on the Hyborian Age, but his choices to dullen and "modernise" the dialogue is infuriating. Can't he have a better handle *and* stick with the sparkling dialogue?