Time once more for Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, in which I opine on various recently released publications of the sequential graphic nature, some of which may be sitting on the rack at a comics shop, or awaiting the click of a button on some online merchant’s web page, near you. If you’re lucky. Or not, as the case may be.
Conan and I (the Barbarian, not the talk show host) go back a ways- I bought the occasional issue as a preteen back when Marvel first brought us the illustrated adventures of Robert Howard’s most well-known creation, beginning with #4; I, like most young fanboys, loved Barry Smith’s increasingly-assured and oh-so-decorative art, especially those who remembered his not-so-polished beginnings as a Kirby imitator pre-Barbarian. Roy Thomas was cool with me too a the time, having dug his sadly aborted X-Men with Neal Adams, as well as his Avengers. Eventually, Smith added a Windsor hyphen to his name and his increasingly-painstaking work started to take too long to finish, and after flirting with Gil Kane, the House that Jack and Steve and Stan built recruited Big John Buscema to draw the book. While I liked Buscema’s work OK, especially on his long stint on The Avengers and his not-quite-as-long tenure on the first Silver Surfer series, but I quickly grew tired of his unimaginative, brutish Conan, preferring Smith’s sleeker, more rock-star Conan with all his pre-Raphaelite flourishes, and bailed. And as a result, as the 70’s wore on into the 80’s, missed what seemed like a million and fifty issues of the ongoing as well as a plethora of black and white magazines (well, OK, I did buy the occasional Savage Sword of Conan, especially those with Frank Brunner or Neal Adams art). Anyway, one thing that filled the gap was reading the originals, which had been reprinted in the mid-70s- all the Howard pulp stories, in fact, which is where I also was exposed to characters I liked even better than the Cimmerian, like Solomon Kane, El Borak. Eventually Marvel ran the series into the ground, by doggedly following that long-ago Thomas/Buscema thud-and-blunder template, and there was even a time for a while when there were no Conan comics, and no one seemed to be interested in reviving him, either.
But Dark Horse stepped into the breach a few years back, and while their rendition has been closer in spirit sometimes to the same old ThomBuscema, they have at least employed artists have diverse styles, and good writers as well- they’ve done well by most of Howard’s repertory, as their very good Solomon Kane minis have borne out. I can’t say that I’ve read every one of their adaptations; let’s face it, I pretty much am tired of the character. But what I’ve seen seems to have been done with enthusiasm and care, and this first issue is no exception. I don’t recall how well Tim Truman’s script follows the source (which I read, of course, in a paperback as well as one of those infrequent Savage Swords), but he is a natural at writing in Howard’s voice- as a Texan himself, his work has always had a Howardian slant to it, even his Big Two efforts. Of course, since this tale of older King Conan’s recollected encounter with a nefarious wizard and a giant albino snake is told in flashback, we don’t fear for our hero’s safety, but the story’s told well enough to still maintain our interest. Artist Giurello works in a Wrightson-meets-Tom Mandrake style, heavily rendered, sloppy in places, and just fine overall though heads give him some problems. He doesn’t exactly bring anything to the party stylistically that you haven’t seen before, but for many that’s a comfort rather than a sticking point.
Howard Conan stories are tested-and-true adventure, and least on the strength of the first chapter, Truman, Giurello, and colorist/artist Villarrubia acquit themselves well for the most part. Chances are you know what you’re setting yourself up for if you pick this up, so rest assured there’s no big surprises, pro or con.
At some point in the mid-80s, when I worked at a major magazine printing factory, we contracted to print Fangoria, which was the closest thing to a Castle of Frankenstein or Famous Monsters that we had back then. Many of the articles therein dealt with the effects technology used to create the ever-progressing gore effects that soon became the staple of any horror movie, for good or ill. I started reading it regularly, and in the process, I became a bit of a gorehound- fascinated by the extreme gore films, those low-budget no-story wonders that utilized half their budgets for red food coloring and Karo syrup, and tried to see just how far they could go, to keep pushing the envelope. While initially repulsed, I found that the more I knew about how these catastrophes were brought to life onscreen, the less glamour and mystery these films had- I grew jaded to them, then eventually bored to the point where I eventually decided that I no longer wanted to inflict such imaginary unpleasantness upon myself…so I pretty much stopped renting and watching them.
Crossed, as I understand it, and I didn’t read the first, Garth Ennis-scripted series, is about a group of survivors of a biological plague of some sort which apparently turns people into sex-and-blood crazed zombies with puffy red cross-shaped whelks on their faces. In this issue, they find a seemingly normal fellow in a ravine as they cross a desert-like area- but he has a few screws loose, hence the title, and it seems obvious that he will probably cause more problems (he claims to know a safe place, and can help them find it) than he solves before issue four rolls around. Thing is with comics like this, which revels in depicting extreme acts of depraved sexuality and yes, blood and gore, is that since it’s a comic, and a not especially well illustrated one at that, is that there’s absolutely no chance for any sort of suspension of disbelief to come into play. So as a result, and without the saving grace of bawdy humor a la Johnny Ryan to leaven it, is that it just becomes tiresome and dull rather than cutting edge and transgressive. Perhaps that’s what Lapham is shooting for here, but he’s just not achieving it, and a big part of it is the art. Caceres is obviously a fan of Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s work on Swamp Thing, that’s the strongest vibe I get from looking at it; he’s got a heavier, clunkier ink line though and none of the brio those fellows had so many years ago. Perhaps someone like Pat Broderick was an inspiration, if he goes back that far; he’s got the same awkward way of drawing faces, heads and poses. He also employs that Bissette-like borrowed-from-Colan method of laying out his pages, all floating boxes and jagged triangle-slash shaped panels. I’ve seen worse, but this is just uninspired and doesn’t do Lapham’s over-the-top scenarios any justice. If you have to depict extreme violence and sex, for God’s sake have a fresh take on it, because a lot of awfully good artists have had their shot at it and one that’s merely OK doesn’t do anyone any good.
If you’re a big fan of Stephen King’s The Stand or perhaps The Walking Dead, and I know there are lots of you out there, and are hard up for more of the same, then you’ll probably want to give this a look, god help you, especially if you bit on the first series. Everyone else, move on. There’s nothing to see here, unless you’re just knocked out by doggy style sex with bloody corpses.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: YEAR ONE #1 (Dynamite): For those who want their Sherlock straight-up and unadulterated by those pesky modern innovations and attitudes, here’s a very faithful extrapolation of Conan Doyle which gives us what we must assume is Holmes’ first notable case, in which he foils a (admittedly clever) robbery plot. We also get a fair amount of expository dialogue, in case some of us are not up to speed on Holmes’ world. I’m not crazy about the art; it’s stolid and serviceable but unexciting. The script, by Scott Beatty, is better. Don’t know what he has in store for the next three chapters, but judging by this one, it should be interesting. B+
DETECTIVE COMICS #874 (DC): Speaking of Great Detectives, here’s Batman, who has cited Holmes as one inspiration many times, mostly in the O’Neil 70’s. Thanks to up-and-coming writing star Scott Snyder, for the first time in recent memory a Batman series in Detective (i.e., not featuring Batwoman) is worth following. No Jock this time out; Francisco Francavilla (who had been illustrating the Commissioner Gordon backup previously) steps in quite ably, and logically so since this particular issue is the continuation of that back feature. A
POWER MAN AND IRON FIST #1 (Marvel): I know #2 is out, and I had hoped to have both read before writing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Fred Van Lente does a good job of continuing on with his new, non-Luke Cage Power Man that was introduced in one of the Shadowland miniseries; the byplay between him and Iron Fist is done as well as you’d expect a Van Lente-scripted story to be done. He doesn’t ignore the Fist, either; I find myself more interested in his relationship issues than almost anything else here, and I don’t say that very often. The art, by people named Wellinton Alves and Nelson Pereira, is (this is a reoccurring theme in this column, it seems) derivative and stiff, with overtones of Tony (Ex Machina) Harris; it tells the story without being too much of a distraction, and I suppose that’s a win in today’s comics climate. B
HULK #30 (Marvel): In which the green Hulk and red Hulk get merged by the Impossible Man and brawl with giant Kirby monsters for several pages. While I think Jeff Parker is a hell of a writer, and enjoy his Thunderbolts quite a lot, this is never as fun as I think it’s supposed to be, despite appropriately cartoonish and exaggerated art by Ed McGuinnes, who still draws the best Squire in my book. Forgive the digression. Maybe I might have enjoyed this more if I’d been following along with the last few issues, but after a while I just got kinda overwhelmed by it all. Regular Hulk fans will, I expect, disagree with my C+ grade.
The All Purpose Handy Dandy Review Writing Music Thread: George (Happy posthumous birthday) Harrison- Dark Horse; Graham Nash- Songs for Beginners, Steeleye Span- Commoner’s Crown; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band; Chris Isaak; Sandy Denny- The North Star Grassman and the Ravens.
Also, RIP Dwayne McDuffie, and happy trails to Comics Blogger Prime Neilalien, who recently decided to retire from comics blogging for the foreseeable future. He was doing it for three years before I got started!
Review inquiries, love letters, and whatnot: johnnybacardi AT gmail.
That’s it for this week!