Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Very Conan Christmas: Conan the Barbarian #3

Conan the Barbarian
#3 (Feb. 1971)
"The Twilight of the Grim Grey God"
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Barry Smith
Inker: Sal Buscema

Karen: Here at BAB we realized that we've neglected a pretty important title in Bronze Age history: Conan the Barbarian. We decided we needed to rectify that oversight. Doug and I both now have The Chronicles of Conan Volume One from Dark Horse, which collects the original Marvel issues 1 through 8, and we are embarking on a three issue review, with more to follow eventually. With the exception of issue 7, which I believe I had read in a Marvel Treasury edition, I had never read these stories before. The first issue of Conan I actually recall having was #15, which guest-starred Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. I didn't start buying Conan regularly until the early 40s or so, so the artist I used to associate most closely with the character was John Buscema. But I always liked what I saw of Barry Smith's barbarian. As we read through these early issues, there is a very noticeable progression in Smith's quality as an artist. The overall art varies greatly though, depending on the inker.

Doug: I loved Conan back in the 1970's, from some of the novels to the monthly to King Conan. I enjoyed the Schwarzenegger films (although like most adaptations you have to emphasize the "based on" aspect). I've recently been acquiring the Savage Sword essentials. Like our sparse coverage of the Legion, we simply have to toss a little love toward these titles we've neglected.

Karen: Our reviews begin with issue 3, "The Twilight of the Grim Grey God." Our story opens with young Conan trying to smash the chains that bind his wrists. Suddenly he sees a tall old Viking-like man on a hill above him. The white-bearded man is dressed like a warrior, and addresses Conan by his name, although they've never met. He tells the young Cimmerian that blood is on the wind, and that the Hyperboreans are about to clash with the men of Brythunia. Conan thinks him mad until he pulls out a glowing sword and waves it over head. Suddenly, Conan can see valkyries mounted on winged horses in the night sky! He is stunned. The old man declares that "to each being there is an appointed time...and even the gods must die!" This means little to Conan, but the old man tells him that he will soon see the passing of kings "and more than kings!" He tells Conan to go and the youth does. But he casts a look back and sees that the stranger momentarily appears gigantic, before he disappears entirely.

Doug: Young Conan's brashness is a hoot here.
Aren't these stories supposed to take place as he approaches his 20th (or so) birthday? He has all the bravado of a warrior (shoot, an outcast warrior) of that age. And the shackles will certainly play a role throughout this tale. The valkyries are quite beautiful -- Barry Smith's art is already beginning to evolve before our eyes.
Karen: As day comes, Conan meets a Brythunian horseman, Dunlang, who gives him a lift once Conan explains that they have a common foe: the Hyperboreans. It seems they are the ones responsible for chaining Conan, so he has a score to settle. As they ride, they encounter a young woman, Eevin, who is Dunlang's beloved. She begs him not to go to battle, as she has had a vision of his death, but he says he must.

Doug: Hellbent warriors, women who dabble in sorcery, and warring factions of barbarians -- sounds like a Conan story to me! But I don't care... I love this stuff.

Karen: At a point mid-way between the two hostile camps, Malachi, leader of th
e Brythunian cavalry, engages in a tryst with Kormlada, the Hyperborean king's woman. The king has promised Malachi a great reward if he betrays his people and holds his men back in the battle. But Malachi wants more than gold -he wants Kormlada too! She has no love of her king, and schemes to stab him when everyone else is occupied with the fight.

Doug: Malachi is a dead-wringer for the Geico caveman, isn't he? The love triangle -- you know, where there is no love a'tall, was pretty good. Formulaic, but fun. Everyone in this tale has a personal agenda, and we know that convergence of destinies will be the payoff of the story. Say, I must confess that I could have used one of those handy "Meanwhile..." yellow boxes between scenes. I did a double-take more than once while reading this story.
Karen: Dulang brings Conan before King Brian in the Brythunian camp. He offers his services, but doesn't want his chains removed! He says that he has sworn not to remove them until he has killed the Hyperborean who put them there. I guess that's barbarian logic. He runs into Malachi who gives him a hard time about not using a weapon. Conan tells him to split the chain that connects his wrists, intending to use that as his weapon.OK, more barbarian bravado. When the morning comes, and the men prepare for battle, Conan is disgusted to discover that King Brian will not go into battle himself, but will stay in his tent until it's all over. Eevin shows up again to say goodbye to Dunlang, and then off to the field of battle they march.

Doug: Conan's primary function as a free agent and/or mercenary is ably characterized in this tale. This will follow him all of his days, until he becomes king of Aquilonia.
To some extent, there is a biblical feel to the events going on here, in that there are tribal factions, mysticism, betrayals, etc. There's a scope to it all. Conan makes a bit of a Vietnam-like commentary on King Brian when he mutters to himself, "And so the old send forth the young to die... while they make merry in their tents."

Karen: King Tomar of the Hyperboreans does lead his men into the clash. As forty thousand warriors clash, Conan somehow locates the man who chained him, and uses his chain to kill him -Cimmerian justice! Dunlang finds Conan and tells
him to go up the hill and tell Malachi to send his horsemen in. But the cavalry leader tells the youth that he will ride in when it is the right time. Bewildered, Conan relays this to Dunalng, who realizes they have been betrayed. He strips off his armor and wades recklessly into battle. Dunlang is slain and Conan goes berserk, killing dozens of Hyperboreans. King Tomar worries that the tide of battle has turned, and decides he must go slay King Brian himself to insure his victory.

Doug: Exaggerated? Waiting for the cavalry to arrive to turn the tide of battle, instead one enraged Cimmerian wielding a chain tips it in such a fashion that there is fear that the Hyperboreans will lose.
I'm just not sure about that, but it is great cinema.

Karen: Meanwhile Conan decides to go after Malachi, who fin
ds himself deserted by his men. Eevin finds Dunlang and cries over him while Kormlada passes by, looking down on Eevin as weak. She still hopes to salvage the situation to her own purposes. But Conan hunts Malachi down and easily kills him, shattering the venomous Kormlada's dreams.

Doug: One whack across the chops with that heavy chain. Awesome...

Karen: King Tomar enters King Brian's tent and the two face each other. However, as the two men carry their fight out into the open air of twilight, the grim grey god looks down on them, and they simultaneously strike one another dead. Conan sees the god and his valkyries as they fly towards the battlefield. He realizes that the god is Borri, god of the Hyperboreans, and that this is the last time he and his maidens will appear, as their worshippers are gone. As Conan steps over the bodies of the two fallen kings, he sees the grey god turn and disappear, and he remembers what he told him -that he would see the passing of kings, and more than kings.

Doug: Add prophecy to my list of biblical elements found in this story. As I said above, this has an epic feel to it, and the ending is no exception. In a way, the ending looks forward to the Thor Annual #5 we reviewed last summer.

Karen: This was an enjoyable one-o
ff story. It's all rather predictable but it has a nice mythical feel to it. Smith's art here is still a bit rough but an improvement over the first two issues. Buscema does a very solid job of inking, retaining Smith's style and complementing it. One thing I noticed about the art: Smith used a lot of small panels! Kind of made selecting the art for this post difficult.
Doug: This series, like the Tales of Asgard trade paperback from which we drew a few reviews earlier, has been recolored using a modern computer-generated palette. It's very rich, and in my opinion gives a storybook quality to the art. I know many of you are purists, and I am not opposed to reprints in standard four-color. But I think that given the mythological subject matter and landscapes that encompass Thor and Conan the Barbarian, it is wholly appropriate.


ChrisPV said...

For me, I think I really prefer black and white for a lot of old school stuff. The new coloring looks off to me, but let's be honest, alot of the old coloring methods could be mighty hideous. Being able to really enjoy the linework and whatnot on old school Thor is a joy without the color being printed out of sync with the inks and ruining the image.

Doug said...

Yeah, Chris, I was initially an opponent of the "updated" coloring on reprints. I still don't think I'd like it on Spidey or the Avengers, but it does look nice on books that have a "mood" to them. I think Neal Adams made some improvements on the reprinted Batman material, and I'm sure there are some issues of Daredevil that would look nice. I'd say that Dr. Strange, and stories like Man-Thing or Swamp Thing would look really good with the rich colors.


Taranaich said...

The original story this was based upon, "The Grey God Passes," is one of Howard's very best. Rather than Conan and the Hyborian Age, it's something of a historical fantasy featuring Howard's Irish reaver Black Turlogh, and is set during the Battle of Clontarf. There, the mythic resonance is even more pronounced, as the mysterious stranger Turlogh meets is in fact Odin. The battle between the Norse and Irish is thus turned into a battle between the old pagan ways and the new Christian ways, and is a showdown as spiritually important to Ireland as Tours was to France.

While I think Thomas did a grand job adapting it, it can't compare to the original. That's probably always the way, but it was an admirable attempt to introduce new readers to a great story when they otherwise may never have read it. That, I think, is why I'm largely supportive of his practise as opposed to when L. Sprague de Camp did it in prose.

Fred W. Hill said...

Like Karen, I didn't start collecting Conan until well into the Buscema era but I also loved what little I saw of Smith's work. I'll have to do some online research to see if I can fill up the holes in my collection of those first 24 issues.

MattComix said...

I guess where I love action but I'm just not that big on gore the Marvel Conan books hit the right balance for me. I think Dark Horse has done a knock out job in their recoloring, it looks better without losing the real comicbooky flavor. The colors aren't muddy, muted, or drowning in lens-flares.Or that annoying thing were a bright daytime scene always looks like it's happening at sunset even if there's a caption saying "12:00 PM".

For me with these recoloring jobs if a tree trunk looks brown instead of orange, they're on the right track. If Thor's cape looks brown instead of bright red, they've failed it miserably. Improve on the obvious shortcomings of the old coloring but still let a comicbook look like a comicbook.

Rip Jagger said...

I liked the coloring that Dark Horse did, though it might be criticized for being a tad dark at times. Giving these stories a new gloss doesn't bother me much since I own them a few times over, and in the original.

The Conan series rocked my universe. I'd only ever read one Conan book (The Hour of the Dragon)when I came to the Conan comic, and I found the book fascinating. Barry (Not-Yet-Windsor) Smith was a bit of a rock star artist, and it was fun watching him mature before your eyes on this very book.

Most of the talent Marvel used were veterans with established styles (though they hewed to the Kirby in all of us when they worked for Marvel) and Smith was the first of the wave of young guns who were about to take over the business. It was thrilling to watch these youngsters find their way.

"The Grey God Passes" is the first Conan story that didn't have that Marvelesque-almost-a-superhero feel to it, and the first to my mind to really show what Conan was about to develop into.

Rip Off

Garett said...

I've seen the old and new coloring in the Buscema issues, and I prefer the earlier coloring, by I think Glynis Wein. The problem I find with much of the new coloring is that it's too literal instead of evocative. Grass is green, sky is blue....
The best coloring in art evokes an emotional response. Some new colorists get that--Criminal has evocative colors over Sean Philips' solid drawing. That's the best combo for me--the drawing takes care of the realism, the colors go past that.
I like the lighting effects they can achieve now--headlights shining, etc. When a page has 6 scenes with a sky background, I don't want the sky blue in every one--shake it up so the colors of the overall page jump out at you.

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