Just So You Know What To Expect
I've given up any hope of providing an objective review of Conan adaptations, but then, you can go to just about any other site for a more balanced opinion. Plenty of interesting reviews from hardcore Conan fans, complete newbies, even recent converts are out there. They seem to be more suited to answering the question "is it a good comic" than I, so I'm not even going to attempt to do the same. I have no idea if Conan the Barbarian #1 and King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword #1 are good comics purely on their own merits: to me, direct adaptations such as these are inseparable from the source material. So the only opinion I can possibly offer is how they relate to the source material, how they differ, and how these changes alter the narrative and character of the work.
However, there's something interesting going on here in the reception the two comics have among the Conan fandom. Some dedicated Howard fans really hate Conan the Barbarian #1, yet absolutely adore King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword #1; others consider the former a poor adaptation, but a fair story in its own right, while viewing the latter as a closer adaptation. On the other side of the fence, critical opinion of Conan the Barbarian #1 by non-fans seems to be much warmer than that of King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword #1. This seems to imply two things: firstly, that KC:TPotS #1 is a more faithful adaptation than CtB #1, and secondly, that the level of fidelity has a correlation between its reception by fans and non-fans.
Could it be true that, given the choice between a "faithful" adaptation and an "unfaithful" one, non-fans are more likely to enjoy the unfaithful one? Having read both issues, I have to question this conclusion, for a number of reasons. But first, my thoughts on the new series' first issue
Conan the Barbarian #1
Back when Wood and Cloonan's involvement was announced, I was simultaneously enthusiastic and apprehensive. Again, I greatly enjoyed DMZ, and what I've seen of Northlanders and Cloonan's art showed great potential. Since then, every successive interview has made me more and more worried, and each preview brought more concerns. Then the reviews came out, mostly confirming my expectations, good and bad. That said, there's a difference between experiencing previews and assessing the complete work, so I was lucky enough to pick up a copy at my local comic shop.
Let's get this out of the way first: Cloonan's interpretation of Conan is the biggest visual problem I have with the comic. Forget about subjective issues like "feminine," "pretty," "emo" or whatnot: this Conan just doesn't strike me as resembling the character described by Howard, either in the original tale, or in stories of the same rough time period. Here's Conan as he was described in "The God in the Bowl," which is speculatively placed near the beginning of Conan's career:
Arus saw a tall powerfully built youth, naked but for a loin-cloth, and sandals strapped high about his ankles. His skin was burned brown as by the suns of the wastelands, and Arus glanced nervously at his broad shoulders, massive chest and heavy arms.
Here's Conan at the age of 17 in "The Tower of the Elephant":
He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him. This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters. His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist, and heavy arms. His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering; a shock of tousled black hair crowned his broad forehead.
And so on. It gets even more noticeable when one considers this series comes chronologically (according to Dark Horse's timeline) after "Black Colossus" and "Iron Shadows in the Moon," which also use words like "massive," "powerful" and "broad." I'm sure some people can happily consider Cloonan's interpretation as depicting a "powerfully built," "broad shouldered," "heavy armed," "massive" and "strongly made" youth, but I can't count myself among their number. The character in this issue wasn't Conan to me, and when this is meant to be an adaptation of one of the original Robert E. Howard stories, that's sort of a problem.
Some reviewers prefer this version of Conan, arguing that he's more "believable," "vulnerable" and "human" than the musclebound behemoth they're used to, but frankly, I find it more bizarre that this slip of a lad is supposed to be the the same individual who broke a wild bull's neck at the age of 15. Again, I'm not asking for Rob Leifeld proportions, I just think a smaller Conan isn't necessarily more "believable."
What smarts the most is that we've already seen Cloonan could do a perfectly good Conan who's also muscular:
Honestly, I'd probably be fine if her Conan looked like this chap. But, we're stuck with it, so I don't think there's much to be gained from commenting on Cloonan's Conan any further.
Another major point of contention was Wood's handling of the script. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
“I’ve nothing to conceal,” replied the Cimmerian. “By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.
“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.
“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts.”
- Conan's account of the flight from Argossean authorities, according to Robert E. Howard
"I've nothing to conceal. I came to Argos seeking employment, but with peace currently in abundance, such work was scarce. I admit, I am a man of humble upbringing, and so maybe I am prone to misunderstand the ways of city dwellers... and perhaps more than a few quarts of ale had passed my lips. You men must surely know the place, the bone in the throat, that inn down the old wharf road? With the twin redheads working the ale tapes? As I said, I am just a man.
"So, my head heavy with ale and my heart yearning for battle, I had the misfortune to witness an officer in the king's guard mistreating a young woman. The sweetheart of a soldier, who had the greater misfortune of being deeply in love with this girl... and ran the captain through, right in the middle of the tavern.
"... No crime, but everyone else fled, and I was the fool for staying to finish my drink! More guardsmen appeared, and I, as the sole remaining witness, was hauled off to the clink. I spent the night behind bars. Come sunrise, I was furious. Were I not sick as a dog, I would have cut a path out of that hole of a prison. Instead, I let them haul me to the courts. Apparently... and perhaps this is just how city folk live, but apparently, it's against the law to murder a captain of the guard! Where I come from, in the north, you avenge your woman's honor, but I'm straying from the story.
"They got it into their heads that I was friends with the young soldier, and their repeated requests for information were starting to get on my nerves. The judge started in with a sermon on my duty to the state and society. I had just arrived in Argos the day before! I was practically drooling at the sight of my confiscated sword. But I choked my ire and held my peace."
"... Until the judge ordered me sent back to the dungeons for contempt of the court. Clearly, I was in a room of lunatics. So I, ah, reacquired my sword and split the judge's skull in two like a melon. And that horse? Stolen from the chief constable!"
- Conan's account of the flight from the Argossean authorities, according to Brian Wood
All through the latter, Tito interjected with painfully redundant comments ("Surely you committed no crime in witnessing this?") which is sadly a staple dating back to Marvel, but you get the idea. True, Conan's escape does resemble the basic outline of the events in the original story, in the way Mel Gibson's account of the Battle of Stirling Bridge resembled the historical event. Without taking anything away from Wood's talents as a writer, he's no Robert E. Howard, and it baffles me why he decided to monkey about with Howard's prose when the replacement neither improves on it, nor really "updates" it for a modern audience. Roy Thomas, Kurt Busiek and Timothy Truman all took Howard's prose and transcribed it into the script for their respective adaptations: though Truman has a habit of replacing some of Howard's more obscure words with unimaginative modern ones ("leman" replaced with "pimp" in "Black Colossus," for instance), he still kept to the cadence of Howard's prose poetry.
What Wood is doing is pretty much what I think you'd get if you typed "Queen of the Black Coast" into Google Translate, ran it through several languages back to English, and then reworked to remove the Engrish: sure, you can produce something that works, maybe even something nice, but it isn't the original. The brusque, blunt, punchy economy of Howard's original piece is replaced with a flowery, meandering whimsy which alters the tone of the story. As with other visual cues, it turned the opening of the story from a desperate, earnest flight from captivity or even death, into a fun Errol Flynn-esque chase scene, complete with flashy stunts.
When asked about this apparent dichotomy, Wood explained:
I felt like I stuck very close to the original dialog. I had a copy of the source material open on my screen at the same time as my script. But I'm not going to copy the original or replace words in an arbitrary way. An adaptation requires a fair amount of tweaks and adjustments -- even the most faithful of adaptations -- and the original story is so brief. Again, I would urge people to just read the comic first.
Yes, according to Wood, his dialogue is actually "very close" to the original dialogue. And, again, that weird idea that "any adaptation requires tweaks and adjustments," which somehow extends to "completely alter the prose." And consider one of the few things people agree on with Howard is his ability to spin a yarn, i.e. his prose is his best feature: why would you take away one of Howard's greatest strengths? Besides, it isn't as if Wood's going to be too stifled creatively if he just takes REH's text and sticks it in: he has a good twenty issues to do his thing with Howard's story working as bookends - or, if he prefers, prologue and epilogue.
This, more than Conan the Barista, is my problem. It's one thing making a Conan that doesn't fit the descriptions, but it's another taking stuff that Howard was completely unambiguous about: for instance, Conan looking over his shoulder with a sly grin as he rode down the wharf, when Howard made a point of mentioning that Conan did not look over his shoulder once. Wood is surprised that this is even a controversy:
This is seriously creating a controversy? No one should read into that any more than that in a comic you vary angles and degrees of zoom for compositional reasons and for a dozen other reasons. I think when you read the actual comics you can see how close I'm sticking to the original story.
If that was the only thing to take issue with, I could understand, and just file it away as an unfortunate mishap. But there are so many of these instances. I'm not going to go over every single thing, but here are the ones that were most noticeable (I haven't re-read "Queen of the Black Coast" since doing "The Lost Conan Adventures", so this isn't even based on a fresh reading, though I've read it often enough):
- I've already detailed how turning the flight from a life-and-death race to Pirates of the Caribbean was a bad idea to me, since in a comic which doesn't have a lot of action, an element of real danger probably wouldn't go amiss. However, what also bothers me is that Conan's drawn-out account takes place pretty much as soon as Conan climbs aboard... meaning Conan and Tito start shooting the breeze while the Messantian authorities are practically within earshot. In the story, they at least make some headway before relaxing, a paragraph of fierce rowing by the Argus's crew and the ship reaching open water. Here, you can still see Messantia in the background, as well as a few other ships (none are mentioned in the original story, so for all we know the Argus was the only ship in that particular stretch of the docks): aren't they worried the guards would commandeer one of the docked vessels and give chase?
- Wood implies that Conan did not know the young soldier whose murder of the guard was responsible for his recent problems: his resulting flight was thus born from his bafflement of civilized ways. In the original story, Conan was good friends with the young soldier, and he was forced into fleeing because he would not betray him to the authorities. This was the conflict, one of barbaric mores versus civilized laws, not that Conan was a hapless bumpkin in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore, Conan pledges to Tito that as long as he sailed with him, he would protect the ship and its crew: surely this would've been more poignant and effective if we had seen Conan's dedication to his word and honour already, as it was in the story?
- Conan spent the night in jail naked, and the flashback to the court shows he's wearing only his breeches and belt: no scale shirt or scarlet cape. There is no explanation for how he got his armour back, nor how he donned it in time to ride off to the wharf. Frankly, I think it would've just been easier to assume what I surmised from the original story: that Conan was only apprehended that morning and hauled into court, with the guard expecting him to simply cooperate.
- The crew take to Conan almost instantly - Wood even says so in the text, that they loved him. Within minutes of meeting him! "Man-crush" indeed. While I'm sure Conan's magnetic personality was a significant boon to overcoming barbarian culture clash, it seems strange that the crew would so take to him only minutes after he promised to wash the decks of the ship with their blood. Even Howard gave him a grace period where he had to prove his worth to the crew by toiling at the oars and such.
- The Argus's encounter with the burning remnants of a black village is replaced with a drifting ship. I don't know why they changed this, because frankly, a destroyed village strikes me as more menacing and ominous than a derelict.
There are also several inconsistencies with the finale of "The Road of Kings": the name of the tavern, the account of Conan's day in court, and of course Conan's relationship with the soldier are all different, which is pretty problematic when you're trying to sell a contiguous saga like Dark Horse are. Especially considering Thomas cast Ivanos of "Iron Shadows in the Moon" as the young soldier in question. And then there are personal issues that I don't expect everyone to agree on ("where I come from, in the north, you avenge your woman's honor" - bah, what self-respecting Cimmerian woman would look to her man when she could avenge her honour herself?), but I won't discuss them.
Having said all that, I found a lot to like in the comic, and a pattern emerges: every time Wood & Cloonan get away from Howard - i.e. they aren't adapting REH's prose, but detailing some speculative event that happened between Howard's lines - I start to enjoy it a lot more.
For all my criticisms of Conan's look, Conan's actions are far closer. I still think he's a bit too much of a loveable rogue in the vein of Captain Blood or Han Solo, but it's good to see a Conan with the gigantic mirth to go with the melancholies. I don't doubt we'll be seeing plenty of the latter as the story progresses, anyway. I just wish it could've been done without diluting the intensity of the opening scene: the tension of Conan's escape made his tale hilarious. Instead, it's just vaguely amusing (admittedly, a lot of reviews seemed to love this).
There's a scene where Conan is talking with Tito about his regrets for getting Tito into this mess, and he solemnly pledges to defend the ship for as long as he sails with them. This isn't in the original story, but I have no problem seeing it as something Conan may have done during the period in which the story takes place. Maybe not in the same phrasing Wood uses, but the sentiment is there. It offers a bit more to Conan than the usual Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment, even if it veers a bit uncomfortably close to Conan the Adventurer territory in making Conan into a noble savage. What's more, it'll show just how powerful Bêlit's hold on Conan is, when he lets the Argus and the men he pledged to fight for sink to the briny depths.
There's a wonderful "dream" sequences with Conan visualising Bêlit, made excellent by Cloonan's ethereal, sinister artwork, which reminded me of a horror manga (in the best possible sense). Conan imagines himself in the water, where Bêlit rises from the depths like a Yūrei, dragging him down into the depths in a carnal embrace. This is one of those occasions where non-fans might be confused by what in blazes is going on: at least one review wondered if Bêlit was employing magic against Conan. However, reading the tale, I'm pretty sure this is colourful metaphor on Cloonan's part, and since it shows off her spectacular Bêlit, I can dig it.
There are also some pastiche elements I wholeheartedly approve of.* There's one scene where Conan mentally likens Bêlit to "winged warrior goddesses of the north." Some may see this as a reference to Atali, and I think that could be possible, but I prefer to think of it as an allusion to the Cimmerian goddesses - Macha, Morrigan, Badb and Nemain, who are frequently associated with ravens. If they're anything like the Cimmerian women described in the draft of "Black Colossus," then they were not unlike Bêlit herself:
Amalric, delving into the scenes of a turbulent life, recalled a desperate battle on the northern frontier, and wild figures rushing into the melee – tall, supple women, stark naked, their black hair streaming, their eyes blazing, swords dripping redly in their hands. He shook his head.
- Cimmerian Women
She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian. She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther.
At this point in his career, Conan hasn't seen anyone who could compare with the fierce, proud, mighty barbarian women of the north, be they the dark-haired Cimmerian she-wolves of his homeland, or the flaming-headed Nordheimr tigresses.** Sure, he met women of imperious strength like Yasmela, or damsels with backbone like Olivia, but no-one all of steel springs and whale bone like certain fiery redheads of later centuries, or a blond Aquilonian he has yet to meet. This connection to Cimmerian women is, thus, highly appreciated by me.
Of course, Bêlit's by far the best thing about the comic to me: as wrong as I felt Cloonan's Conan is, her Bêlit is just right. Most reviews have commented on how Bêlit isn't just seductive and striking, but also commanding, primal, even frightening. She is a force of nature as strong as Conan, and she needs to be if the reader is to believe she could command a crew of eighty giant corsairs. I'm not worried about what they do with Bêlit, and in many ways, she's harder to get right than Conan. Cloonan deserves immense applause for her take on the Queen of the Black Coast.
If I have a criticism, it's that Bêlit - at least as we see her in this comic - is too pale. Howard described Bêlit as ivory-skinned, which is certainly one of the paler tones out there, but still a colour: at most, "off-white. Cloonan, however, portrays Bêlit as alabaster, to the point where she looks like a ghost. However, this is one of those (rare) occassions where I'm going to give the artist the benefit of the doubt since haven't actually seen Bêlit yet, just Conan's visions. It was remarked in other interviews that it stretched credulity for Bêlit to be out on the open seas and yet still pale,*** so I wonder why they exacerbate that by whitening her skin colour even further. That said, even if Cloonan's actual Bêlit is the same pallor, one could argue that it might be a shade of ivory.
If you've ever wondered what Conan the Manga might be like, this is pretty close in my estimation. Cloonan's art style is highly reminiscent of certain mangas I've seen, and the horror elements are suffused with a Japanese flair. In particular, the finale has the sort of stark dread reminiscent of the very best Japanese ghost stories, and Bêlit was more than a little reminiscent of a Koji Suzuki terror. Even Conan comes across like the roguish protagonist of a harem comedy. Of course, this is all dependent on whether you like manga stylistic conventions, but I think Cloonan's work is sufficiently western, particularly European, so that it becomes its own thing.
As for the adaptation side, well, this is certainly the least faithful of Dark Horse's adaptations: not only in terms of details like the dialogue, but in terms of fidelity to the tone of the story. Wood's dialogue can't hold a candle to REH's, and though some words and phrases managed to survive, it's largely the same tale told by a different storyteller. Which is all well and good, but when REH told the story so well, why not just let him do the talking?
From reviews which don't seem to know what a barbarian is beyond the obnoxious pop-culture stereotype, pulling the True Scotsman card, even one that thinks Belit is Dark Horse's version of Red Sonja(!), it's clear, however, that this comic is a big hit among the non-Conan fans. One can only hope that Wood & Cloonan keep their momentum going: while I feel their actual adapting leaves a lot to be desired, the bulk of their work is going to be their own. I think that'll be for the best with this team.
So, while I can't say I'm looking forward to the second and third issues, where Wood and Cloonan take the series after that will be the true test, and I think that's where they'll be most successful.
*"But Al, aren't you a purist? How can you defend pastiche elements?" Correct, I'm a purist - that just means everything put forward in the Purist Manifesto, which actively encourages and endorses more and better pastiches. I only have a problem with pastiche if it directly supplants or stands beside Howard's original stories in an official release, as it was when Steve Perry and Lenny Carpenter's works were part of the official Conan canon. An adaptation, especially one that makes a point of expanding, is a different matter.
**Unless you're counting Janissa, and frankly, a warrior woman who got her powers from nightly demon rape prescribed by a crazy ostiophile shouldn't.
***My personal theory is that Belit makes a concerted effort to maintain her pale skin. If we tie Belit's rule over the corsairs into the Ivory Goddess phenomenon noted among the Black Kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, then one might suggest she used available methods to support the ideal of a white-skinned goddess: staying in shade as often as possible, using cosmetic powders, or other historical skin-whitening agents. Perhaps the Hyborians have discovered a rudimentary sunblock.