Tuesday 4 September 2012

Good Scot/Bad Scot: Conan & The Daughters of Midora

So Conan: Daughters of Midora and Other Stories is out, and much like recent Kull, Solomon Kane and The Road of Kings collections, it's a trade paperback I'm not in a particular hurry to purchase, even if it includes a brand new story exclusive to the book. Zach Davisson has a review up, and it's fair to say he and I have rather divergent viewpoints on some aspects of Howard adaptations and pastiches. Case in point, he loved Conan and the Daughters of Midora, the banner story in this collection, which should tell you something about the quality of the pieces therein.* I... Well, I wrote a rather cynical review of it for the fifth issue of my REHupa 'zine. And since the collection's out, it seems timely to dredge it up again.

I should note that this was written in late 2011, so some of the references are a bit dated: I'm not collecting the main Conan title any more, and Savage Sword of REH has started getting on with Howard adaptations.

Good Scot / Bad Scot: Conan & The Daughters of Midora

Normally, the only Robert E. Howard related purchases I tend to get are the ones directly involving a Robert E. Howard story, or biographical material. This extends to the comics, where I restrict myself to direct adaptations (which is why I’m starting to get a bit impatient with Dark Horse’s Savage Sword of Robert E. Howard: you’d think this’d be a great excuse to, you know, adapt some actual Robert E. Howard stories, rather than make up yet more pastiche ostensibly starring REH creations, but I digress), so this means I don’t bother with things like the newspaper comics or post-Roy Thomas Marvel runs. I do make an exception for Dark Horse, since I’ve started collecting them primarily for the Keegans’ Adventures of Two-Gun Bob. Comic prices nowadays may be artificially inflated, but I’m happy to fork over the cash for some new Two-Gun Bob, and sometimes the main story isn’t bad either!

However, there are exceptions. Sometimes I take a chance, with the mantra “eh, what’s the worst that could happen?” Upon a trip to the inaugural Glasgow Comic Con, the first attempt to bring the grotesquely commercialized comic convention to notoriously tight-fisted Scotland, I came across a goodly number of Conan comics. I’m particularly proud of nabbing a copy of the first appearance of Red Sonja for a fiver, noticing an identical copy in slightly better condition going for £80. Better be careful, or I’ll end up like Jeff Shanks and spend all my money on Weird Tales!

So I bought all the REH adaptations I saw in the box, most from Marvel, but a few from Dark Horse. On a whim, I noticed there were some… others. These were mini-series not linked to the main story, but not based on a Howard tale either: Conan & the Demons of Khitai, Conan & the Midnight God, Conan & the Songs of the Dead and so forth. A whole bunch of them, all complete, and they were under a pound each.  I figured “why not,” and purchased them too.

Having bought them, I then got the fine idea of reading them. I… probably shouldn’t have bothered. I don’t really have the mindset who can enjoy anything just because it’s Conan or Kull or Solomon Kane: I’m the sort of pedantic purist who gets vaguely annoyed if Kane has a red sash, or Conan has hair that’s slightly too long. Then again, I actually enjoyed Conan the Adventurer up to a point, so how could I complain about comics?

Let’s find out.

Conan and the Daughters of Midora

Why this one as a first choice? Because this series encapsulated exactly my problem with the vast majority of “original” Conan stories as a whole: it’s an adventure that has practically nothing to do with Conan, nothing to do with the Hyborian Age, and certainly nothing to do with Howard, yet somehow it got published. It has nothing to say, no new insights, no new spin, no deconstruction or reinvention. Conan fights some wizard, kills some monster, steals some treasure, quaffs some grog, acquaints some wench. I got enough of those when Howard was churning out the lesser Conan stories, so the formula got tired in short order.

Occasionally you’d get a story that tried to do something different, but Daughters of Midora sure isn’t one of them. It’s just another Sword-and-Sorcery story that refuses to justify its existence. We already have 60 pastiches, hundreds of comics, two cartoons, a television show and three films that are just new adventures, and yet most of them are just variations on a theme. Much as it pains me to “praise” Conan the Liberator and Conan of Venarium, at least they have a point: they’re depicting well-known alluded-to periods in Conan’s life, telling stories that people might be interested in. Telling them poorly – so poorly – but they are based on kernels of ideas that have merit and justification. In 90% of Conan pastiches, there is zero such justification. They’re just more run-of-the-mill wastes of time that do nothing, say nothing, and go nowhere.

Aside from that, Conan and The Daughters of Midora is a strange one: it isn't so much the lack of relation to Howard that bothers me, it's just the story is really, really bland.  It's barely a Conan story at all: apart from a cursory reference to Brythunia and Zingara, there's little indication this story has any place in the Hyborian Age.  It gives the impression that the world is just a collection of generic places for adventures to happen in, rather than the fully-fledged Uchronia of the original stories, where even in stories set in far-off islands we get information about their relation to other countries and lands, be it geographical or cultural.  This story makes no attempt to do that, which makes it seem detached from the Conan universe - and frankly, that's probably for the best.

The story starts off in "The Holy City of Gouvia"... wherever that is.  Conan starts off in a tavern, where he propositions a wench, by... telling her that he plans to steal "The Black Pearl" - Gee, Where Have I Heard That Term Before - but the girl refuses his advances "I do not bed drunks - especially bragging, thieving ones".  Then it turns out that the girl informs the police.  Conan starts to make mincemeat of the guards, but then inexplicably pulls the Human Shield hostage technique.  "Back - or I slay your captain!"  Which obviously sets up the depressingly overused "hero gets knocked out from behind when he wasn't looking" tactic.  I would complain about this, but it is explained somewhat later.  He winds up in jail, only to conveniently release himself using some tools he concealed from the guard... who ought to be hanged for apparently not bothering to search the prisoner.

Conan wastes little time getting to wherever the Black Pearl is situated, killing guards and generic cultists.  Eventually he is subdued somehow, we never see exactly how, by the very same girl from the tavern (whose name we learn is Valensa) wielding a sword and wearing very little for no discernable reason.  Of course, as the honorary Grandfather of the Chainmail Bikini Cheesecake Babe, Howard never described his female warriors wearing anything practical or substantial, did he? You know, apart from Valeria, Red Sonya, Dark Agnes, Tarala, Helen Taverel...  No of course not, get those silly thoughts out of your head.  In any case, it's revealed Conan's apparent stupidity at the beginning, revealing his plans to a girl he doesn't know and letting himself get captured via Bottle to the Head, was in fact his plan all along - since the local jail happens to be just where the Black Pearl is!  Quite why he went with this elaborate trap that could've ended up going horribly wrong is beyond me since he's a Cromdamn Cimmerian who can scale walls like a spider and slip through a forest without disturbing the wildlife is beyond me.

I mean look at the tower: it has STAIRS.  STAIRS ON THE OUTSIDE.

Truly a formidable, nigh-impenetrable fortress!

There are barely any guards.  We are never given an adequate explanation as to why Conan couldn't have just sneaked in that way, without additionally alerting the authorities with his plan, putting them even more on guard than usual.  Conan continues: "Congratulations, you have caught me... now SLAY or IMPRISON me... anything to end this prattle".  Reading my mind, big man, reading my mind.

The king is uncommonly lenient towards Conan's brusque conversational manner, and reveals that he has a job for him.  I don't know why a King would hire an apparently nameless Cimmerian thief as opposed to the world renowned Zamorian thieves, but that's neither here nor there.  It turns out the king is hiring Conan to find his daughter Hannah, the twin sister of Valensa.  Waaaitaminute... Twin daughters of a king in a kingdom whose name is shared with its city?  That sounds familiar – better check for the Mark of the Witch!

 No, of course not. After many hours of studying Hannah and Valensa’s chests, I can say definitively that the Curse of the Ashkauri is not upon them. I did get some strange looks from onlookers, evidently mistaking my scholarly rigour for some other purpose. Can't imagine what that might be.

The King - whose name I assume is Midora, since they never actually state it in dialogue or narration - continues with the circumstances of Hannah's disappearance.  It seems the only two gentlemen considered for Hannah's consorts were a pair of wizards - long time Conan fans would know that this is not likely to be good.  Midora picked one, Lord Tanner, inviting the ire of the other, Lord Killver – seriously, Killver - who shows his sorcerous fury by... knocking over a vase.  Yes.*  I shall note now that this is the only remotely evil thing we see Killver do in the entire comic, which will lead to the big problem I have with the ending.  The following morning, Hannah was kidnapped, of course, because apparently even though Killver swore vengeance they were not sufficiently prepared despite having another sorcerer with them and the resources of a Cromdamn kingdom to watch out for any vengeful wizard-lords.

Then we get a weird balloon: "By reputation, you are a thief... a clever one.  I need someone Killver is not familiar with."  ...So, if Conan is a thief of some reputation, what makes Midora think Killver won't know him exactly?  Another weird exchange: "I do not need the help of scum like this to find my own sister!" - if you didn't need the help, why haven't you gone after your sister yourself, eh?  Don't talk it if you can't walk it.
Next page, they're off. "Those mountains are all that separates this kingdom from Brythunia, correct, girl?" Finally, some geographical context!  True that means it could be anywhere from Corinthia, Zamora, Nemedia, the Border Kingdom, Hyperborea or the Turanian Steppes, but I'll take it.  I'd guess it's one of the "Corinthian March" kingdoms like the unnamed city of "Rogues in the House" - I don't see what could've been lost by mentioning this, but whatever, it's not like there are nerds out there that appreciate stuff like this, right?  Gore, Girls and Gore, all the REH fan needs, apparently.  After introducing The Characters Who Exist To Die, Valensa comes up with a howler: "Call me by my name, Barbarian."  Yep, nothing like pious hypocrisy to endear us to a character.  As they ride off, what I assume is some sort of orc notices them, and says "...MUST... ...WARN... ...MASTER... ...MORE... ...MEN... ...FROM... ...MIDORA..." Gee, if speaking is such a labourious effort for Ugluk here, why didn't he just THINK it for the benefit of readers, which wasn't really necessary to begin with since it seems obvious from context that he's a bad dude off to warn Killver.

They set up camp, and for people who made such a big deal about not announcing themselves, it seems really stupid to light a campfire out in the open.  The guard falls asleep at the post, letting some more Uruk-Hai infiltrate the camp, and like all Alleged Action Heroines, a girl who's supposed to be empowering manages to get kidnapped.  Gee, thanks writers, for making a heroine who wields a sword and talks like a warrior but in the end just serves the same purpose as any damsel in distress.  The Law of Inverse Ninjitsu kicks in, as dozens of Ungodly Monsters From The Depths of Hell are dispatched with ludicrous ease by the three warriors.  Hence the Number One reason I'm glad there are no orcs in the Hyborian Age: without orcs, we don't have battle scenes where hundreds of monsters that should be the ultimate killing machines are slaughtered as easily as malnourished peasants by The Big Hero. Though of course, you wouldn’t know it from this comic, would yah?

Conan comes upon Valensa valiantly fighting off a big orc, but predictably not valiantly enough, as all it takes to knock her down is a back-handed slap.  The Pseudo-Warrior Woman is thrown to the ground and subjected to attempted rape by what is now revealed to be a man who has been transformed in some way, only for Big Hero Conan to come save her.  Apart from fighting off one Orc with a sword, I really see no evidence of Valensa's alleged warrior-woman status having any effect whatsoever on the story: she talks like a stroppy teenager, she acts imperiously to Conan, and gets kidnapped and put in peril.  You could replace her with Natala or Octavia and there would be very little difference in the story.

After vanquishing this Band of Orcs, they bury the Background Characters Whose Only Purpose Is To Die, and strip off to bathe, leading to... Gratuitous Nonsensical Sex.

That's right, nothing gets a girl in the mood for love like watching her loyal guardians die brutally!  Few stimulants get her motor running like narrowly avoiding a demonic monster controlling the body of someone she knew from assaulting her!  There's no greater turn-on in the world than burying those same loyal soldiers and slipping into a pool to cleanse herself of the filth and blood and sweat of battle!

This is one page after she buries her head in Conan’s chest in distress and sorrow. ARGH.  The next morning they plan for attack, and Valensa continues to pine about the sad situation with her father: "Truth be told, there are times I feel like one of the guard around them... but that matters not.  Enough of this patter..."  Does anyone else get the feeling that Palmiotti HIMSELF is getting tired of this comic and wants to end it as soon as possible?

Now, the attack relies on the fact that there is only one guard holding the castle gate.  Showing remarkable naivety, Conan assumes that Killver is expecting an attack from elsewhere, instead of assuming that there's more than meets the eye. (Insert your own Transformers reference.)  So Conan fashions a spear, sets it on fire, and flings it at the hapless orc.  "A simple enough plan, princess.  The flames will weaken the wood.  The door should come down easily enough now..."  It might just be me, but this strikes me as a colossally stupid idea.  Conan could easily slip past the solitary guard, climb up the apparently unguarded walls, and open up the gate from the inside once Valensa has killed the sentry.  Or he could've waited till nightfall and crept in, given his reputation as a thief after all.  Or he could've caused a distraction to draw away any orcs within so he could slip in unseen.  Anything like that would've been better than basically burning down the front gates, guaranteeing that everyone in the castle will come roaring for the front gates to meet the besiegers, possibly shooting them down from the battlements or pouring boiling oil or any number of siege defenses.

And I would cheer them for it.

Luckily Conan is punished for his awe-inspiring stupidity by the KRAKOOM (this is why I love comics: unparalleled masters of onomatopoeia) of a charging monster through the flames.  The beast approaches Valensa, but recoils in some sort of expression - Surprise?  Fear?  Anger?  "Did I leave the fridge open"?  It turns around to menace Conan, along with a bunch of Orcs.  Conan dispatches the dragon WITH A SINGLE STRIKE before going on to the Orcs.  So instead of going for a big epic monster fight echoing the incredible monster battles of, say, "Red Nails", "Rogues in the House", or "The Tower of the Elephant", Palmiotti opts for the "Vale of Lost Women" approach by Conan killing the monster with ease in the most anticlimactic way possible.  GOOD JOB, Palmiotti.
Conan is about to deliver the final blow, when this surprisingly touching exchange takes place:

Killver comes out, calling "Hannah!  How did you...?!?"
The MONSTER replies "I am SORRY... my love..."
Killver: "What have you done...?"
Hannah: "I had to protect us my love..."

So... well, I'm actually pretty impressed.  The monster turned out to be the girl herself, who wasn't kidnapped at all, but left of her own volition to be with the one she loved, who turned out to be not too bad of a guy after all despite having an army of orcs and a walkway paved with skulls.  Well, this is a lot better than I was expecting, I have to hand it to Palmiotti for providing a twist in the tale playing on our preconceptions that would befit a good sword-and-sorcery tale.  Now the clunky name "Killver", the generic monster soldiers, and the row of skulls all make sense, to alter our preconceptions and throw us a loop.  I still have many problems with the story, but this ending was so poignant and thoughtful I might give it a pass.  If the comic had decided to end there.  It didn't.

We continue with Valensa pretty understandably angry at the death of her sister.  She ends up blaming the sorcerer for all the ill that befell her.  Erm... I didn't get that impression, I think it was just as likely Hannah fell in love with the charming wizard and that love was truly genuine, but Valensa's upset, so we'll let her go.  Killver continues, crying that without Hannah he has nothing to live for.  Snarling a ruthless "Let me hasten your reunion then, wizard" Conan promptly cuts off his head.

... So Conan brutally slays a wizard who shows no direct evidence of being any more evil than Zelata in cold blood as he mourns the death of his lover... and we're expected to accept that?

That is cold, even by Conan's standards.

The strangest thing about all this is apart from the moral problems with using the undead, Killver didn’t show any signs of being evil.  Whatsoever.  The orcs were sent out to protect the castle from attack and stop attempts to separate the two lovers - perfectly reasonable.  Skulls lining a road, while gruesome, are not necessarily a mark of evil - look at the ossuaries of Eastern Europe.  And there's no reason to assume Killver even built that road, it could've been there from the previous owner.  About the worst I can see is Killver using the mutated or reanimated corpse of the captain, but given what we’ve seen from the rest of Midora’s men, it could be poetic justice as much as anything else. In any case, Conan showed incredible callousness to a man who did little more than defend his home and beloved using every tool available to him, whose world has been utterly shattered.

Now sure, Conan isn't a nice guy in the thief tales, and undoubtedly partook in his share of atrocities as a pirate, but there's a very good reason Howard never actually detailed those atrocities in the text: because it's really, really hard to root for a guy like that.  In this case, it's unnecessarily callous for Conan to treat the so cruelly.  I could've accepted the sorcerer pleading with Conan to end his life, at least then Conan would be echoing "Tower of the Elephant" in being cruel to be kind, but this scene didn't play anything like that episode.  What's worse is that there is nothing after this: no talk about the star-crossed lovers and the sad tragedy that befell them, no talk of what Tanner would think, nothing about the consequences.  This is just ignored so we could get on to the “bigger” question: how Midora's going to react to the death of his daughter.

It turns out that instead of forcing the King to accept the death of his daughter, Valensa gets dressed up, has a haircut, and pretends to be Hannah, essentially a lie that effectively validates Midora's favouritism despite Valensa and Conan's dislike of it.  As such, Midora is overjoyed at the return of "Hannah", and distraught at the death of "Valensa".  "Hannah" sends Conan off on his way with the Black Pearl, and now the tale ends.  To be frank, I don't know what to think of this: on the one hand it's less obvious than having Midora suddenly appreciate Valensa when he loses Hannah, or for him to be an insensitive oaf and talk of how he wished it was Valensa who perished in a depressing gender reassignment of movie-Boromir and Faramir.  On the other, it feels a bit of a copout for Valensa to give her Daddy the daughter he loves most, which is a rather unpleasant indication of her own self-worth.  I don't know, it's just weird.

So overall, what do I think?

Bad Scot: I hate it.  Of course I hate it, but WHY do I hate it?  I hate it because it's silly, the female character is a joke, the villain displays no first-hand acts of evil apart from pottery damage and necromancy, and the hero acts like an evil brute.  Nobody talks about why the Black Pearl is so sought after, making it really bad as a Macguffin.  The girl who's allegedly an action heroine exists only to be menaced, kidnapped and imperiled.  The villain exists only to be killed and comes across as far too sympathetic for his cruel death.  There is no explanation for his soldiers, or the row of skulls, or how the girl transformed into a freaking monster at the end despite not being a sorcerer to the best of our knowledge.

Most of all, I hated the depiction of Conan: he almost displays some cunning in his plan to get in the dungeon, until you wonder why he had to do this considering he's a master sneak who doesn't need to go to this trouble - an explanation of why would've been fine, at least - shows baffling bluntness in his attack plan, and kills a mourning lover in cold blood.  It's a horrible story that nobody looks good in except the villain, which is not a good sign.

Good Scot: I can’t really say much about the story or characters, but the one very good element of Conan & the Daughters of Midora is the art. The art is actually quite nice, not brilliant, but adequate enough, which is much more than can be said for the story. The strong inkwork, consistent character models and highly dynamic layout make up for the overall derivative and disappointing characters and story. It’s a shame Palmiotti didn’t just do the art and let someone else come up with the narrative. It’s a bad tale told better than it had any right to be, at least visually.

Final thoughts: Palmiotti can frame a good-looking comic and has a good eye for visual drama, but there isn’t much point when the story’s dull, the characters bland, and the few opportunities missed.

*And yet, he hated The Island of No Return, which I felt was practically indistinguishable from Midora in terms of mediocrity, but them's the digs.

**Rob Roehm noted in the mailing comments that destruction of pottery is a perfectly Howardian trait, as related in a certain Kull story: anyone want to play along at home and guess which story it was?


  1. Ah, but you missed that the 'artist' lightboxed several panels from the Windsor-Smith comics...including when the transformed dinosaur sister gets whacked! Go look at the exact same panel in Red Nails, and marvel at how low things can go...

    1. I KNEW the dragon looked familiar! Having compared the two, it *cannot* be coincidence. At best, I'll assume it was Palmiotti homaging Smith, rather than the more nefarious accusation of plagiarism. Certainly there were plenty of times Frazetta's been honoured in this fashion, though at least the authors did it "with apologies to Frank Frazetta"...

  2. That's actually the first of the DH Conan trades I passed up. Just too much mediocre material and lack of understanding of REH's concepts. Reminds me of Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan after Roy Thomas departed.

    1. To be frank, I doubt I'll pick the DoM trade even if I see it for cheap, though I'd at least like to read "Children of the Sun" to see what it's like.

  3. so are you going to cover any other stories

    1. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to proceed with "80 Years of Conan." Other Dark Horse comics, on the other hand... Well, we'll see. I'm pretty sure I'll bring up my "Midnight God" review for REHupa, and I have a review (well, more of a nuclear assault) of "Songs of the Dead" that I'll put in REHupa before taking it onto the blog.

      In the meantime, I might bring my Barbearians out to play...

    2. what of book of thoth?

    3. Oh CROM, Book of Thoth... I might get into that one later.

    4. not to be rude but aside from the obvious things (xaltotun appearing, Akivasha existing unmolested) I didn't see anything terribly wrong with it.

    5. also where is your midnight god review

    6. Book of Thoth basically turns everything we know about the Stygians from Howard upside down, from their religion to their political setup.

      Midnight God isn't up yet, I'm going to wait until I've finished it in the REHupa mailing.

    7. alright. However, Kurt Busiek did state that for most of its history Stygia did worship Set. The Ibisites came to power in some revolution; I find the idea of thoth as a nobody ascending to become the biggest monster of the hyborian age somewhat more interesting than the rich kid groomed from birth. He has the same fear of loosing power regardless. Than again I did like Akivisha as well (I felt it balanced human and monster, and we get to see that while she is a bloodthirsty monster there was still some small element of humanity

    8. I find the idea of thoth as a nobody ascending to become the biggest monster of the hyborian age somewhat more interesting than the rich kid groomed from birth. He has the same fear of loosing power regardless.

      That idea is indeed interesting, but it isn't necessarily Thoth-Amon's story. My take deserves a bit more explanation, so I'll get around to it in future, hopefully.

  4. You went waaaaaayyy more into depth on this one than me! I just thought it was a nice little nostalgic story in the old Marvel Roy Thomas style--mindless and fun to read. I enjoyed it.

    Reading it for the first time in the collection made a difference, I think. I compared it to Island of Lost Souls which was horrible. Put those two together and Daughters of Midora comes off looking all right.

    1. Honestly, I think they're both equally mediocre, though I'll say the art in "Daughters" is much better than "Island" as a general rule. But there you go.

  5. Midora was pretty lame. And I kind of agree that Conan banging that Aquilonian sorceror's daughter as the catalyst for Venarium is kind of silly.

    However, I felt that while book of THoth didn't fully honor howard there were elements to like. The idea of Set being temporarily overthrown in the past was creative, and the idea that Kalanthes and Thoth were once friends added more depth to their conflict. The idea that thoth came from nothing also explained his fear of loosing power far more. The way he engineered his way to the top of the food chain was brutal and uncompromising.

    1. And I kind of agree that Conan banging that Aquilonian sorceror's daughter as the catalyst for Venarium is kind of silly.

      That's one of the big problems.

      However, I felt that while book of THoth didn't fully honor howard there were elements to like. The idea of Set being temporarily overthrown in the past was creative, and the idea that Kalanthes and Thoth were once friends added more depth to their conflict. The idea that thoth came from nothing also explained his fear of loosing power far more. The way he engineered his way to the top of the food chain was brutal and uncompromising.

      Oh, there are certainly elements to like: the artwork was gripping and excellent at times, and I certainly agree with the idea of Thoth's fear of losing power being drawn from experience. I don't agree with the direction Busiek took Kalanthes and Thoth's relationship, but it was at least a fair idea (even if it's a bit cliched at this point). However, there are just so many things that outright contradict what we do know of Thoth, Stygia, and Set that it's just another bizarro-Hyborian Age story to me, much like Demons of Khitai presents a bizarro-Khitai.

  6. So when is midnight god going up

  7. Wow, this sounds really bad. And that's coming from a guy who *liked* the Red Sonja and CtB 2011 flicks.