Tuesday 16 December 2008

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas and friends

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2 (v. 2)The character Conan and the stories about him are sometimes seen as primitive versions of the fantasy stories that came later. Part of that is a matter of chronology; part of it is his similarity to characters like Tarzan; part of it is that he’s a pretty primitive fellow himself. But I think it’s also because Conan is a character without any checks or balances. In roleplaying games, for example, you generally have to specialise, to choose one area in which to excel, and that often has implications for other aspects of your character. Conan has no such limitations. He’s the strongest, and also the fastest. He’s the biggest, but also the sneakiest. He’s the best hand-to-hand fighter, but also the best general. He’s the best at absolutely everything, even as a youngster, no matter how much different abilities might seem likely to clash with each other. He’s a superhero, basically.

This must have been said before, but he is also, metaphorically, a phallus, pushing his way through the cloth of these adventures in search of women. His primary characteristic isn’t his strength or his agility, it’s that he can’t be cockblocked: anyone who tries will feel the length of his sword (oo-er). When he meets a woman he wants, he knows he will have her, and so does everyone else. The message of his loincloth, like Tarzan’s, is that sex is never more than a second away; it’s both a threat and a promise. In fact, the entire book is a call to the reader’s groin: a chance to let your imagination wander where your sense would never let you; a chance to luxuriate in fantasies of sex and violence.

That doesn’t stop if from being hugely entertaining. In fact, reading this book was one of the most sheerly enjoyable, uncomplicated reading experiences of my life. Somewhere in the middle of it I stopped reading it for the sake of my ten-year-old self (for whom every Conan book and comic he could find was a priceless treasure), and started to read it for myself.

There was a lot to enjoy, even as a (relatively) mature adult: this volume is even better than the previous one. For one thing, the magazine settles down to a series of full-length stories, forty and even fifty-page epics. It also benefits hugely from the presence of John Buscema, contributing to almost every issue, bringing both continuity and, of course, brilliant artwork. There’s a craftmanship and artistry to these comics unusual for comics of the time, evident both in the art and in the writing of Roy Thomas. (Sometime I’d like to compare the comics with the stories to see how much of that writing is Roy Thomas and how much is Robert Howard – but even if turns out that all the writing I admire in these comics is from Howard’s pen, credit would still go to Thomas for knowing not to interfere with it, and translating prose to comic so expertly.)

If there is one problem with the art, it’s that the reverse C-shape panel layout is used too often – i.e. where panel one is above panel three, with panel two stretching vertically across them at the right. It’s very confusing. But when a book contains some of the most befuddlingly attractive women ever created by a pencil, it seems ungrateful to complain about the layouts!

The original magazines had black and white interiors, so almost nothing has been lost from the artwork by printing these in the Essential/Showcase format (though I often think comics look better in black and white anyway, given how primitive comics colouring was until relatively recently). The exception would be the magazine covers, which deserve a colour book of their own to show them at their best (as has happened with the Commando reprints). Those paintings are simply stunning, even in greyscale.

The centrepiece of the book is “The People of the Black Circle”, a one hundred and twenty page adaptation of the Howard story, which was serialised across four issues of the original magazine. It’s absolutely marvellous, but then so are nearly all the stories in the book (though I could have done without the one about the cannibals, which must have seemed dated even in the seventies).

I had mixed feelings about a later story, “The Pool of the Black One”. Conan always shows a reckless disregard for the lives of others – he’s happy to kill guards and the like, if they’re in his way, even if they aren’t individually his enemies. In “The Pool of the Black One”, however, he commits a murder, plain and simple, just for his own convenience. Having not read the original Howard stories (I thought I had, till I came to catalogue them on Goodreads), I was a bit surprised by the story. It wasn’t a nice guy he murdered, but it was someone who had saved his life. It seemed to me that Conan crosses a line in that one.

But then that’s what he’s for – he’s for crossing the line, doing what we wouldn’t. He’s the unrestrained killer, the irresistable lover, the epitome of the male stereotype. He’s what women would like men to be, but would despise them for being; he’s the image men can’t live up to, and the image they can’t live down.

We were a bit short of money the month I read this book, to the point where I had to cancel our Sky subscription – maybe that’s why I found a bit of Conan so compelling; he wouldn’t have to worry about anything like that. I feel bad that I had to cancel Sky, but also bad that something as trivial as affording Sky feels like the measure of my manhood… Jeepers, listen to me… I’ll be going hunting to make up for my inadequacies next…

The Savage Sword of Conan, Vol. 2, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema et al, Dark Horse, tpb, 544pp.

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