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The Chronicles of Conan:
The Song of Red Sonja

I’m really not a big fan of “retro.” I remember when bell bottoms started showing up in my high school’s hallways and thinking how much time it would save the janitors in sweeping. I’ve never liked a movie re-made from some invariably bad 1970s sitcom or Almost Famous-like romps through the formative years of young adulthood set against the backdrop of the sexual, civil rights or yuppie revolutions. I remember rooting for those damn little kids in Stand By Me to actually get hit by the train, and wishing that Kevin kid from The Wonder Years would go on a Son of Sam-like killing spree, if to only alleviate my boredom while watching the show (which my mother forced me to watch by the way).

It might be safer to say that I really hate the concept of “retro.”

My hatred even extends to the realm of comic books. I see people scrambling to buy the phone book editions of Marvel Comic’s reprints from the original issues of Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Tomb of Dracula, and I ask myself why? Don’t get me wrong: the creators from that era should always be commended for what they did. Where would comics be without Jack Kirby or Stan Lee? Eisner? Buscema? These were the men who made comics into something so much more than newsprint and a pale color palette; they made it into an art form, creating the conventions that all comic book creators now have to recognize while dabbling in the three-color-ink world. There is no disputing the worth of that work.

But when I read something from the 1950s, 60s, or 70s I can only compare it to the modern books I read, because I grew up reading my generation’s comics. And by my generation’s standards, reading done-in-one adventures of Spider-Man fighting yet another animal based villain is not exactly my cup of Earl Grey. I get bored reading the old stuff, which sounds as sacrilegious to comic readers as screaming “Praise Jesus!” in the middle of a Bar Mitzvah, but I really don’t find myself having an enjoyable read. For this reason, I’m always hesitant to pick up any collection from long in the past, collecting what might be the work of some of comicdom’s iconic creators, but what also might bore me to self flagellation.

But damn Kurt Busiek for making me like an old character enough to go in search of the original material: Conan the Barbarian. Dark Horse comics, in conjunction with the monthly revival comic by Busiek and Cary Nord, has been collecting and reprinting the original comic adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s most notorious barbarian, which were printed by Marvel back in the 1970s. And because I like being non-sequitir, the fourth volume The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories is on the review table. Well, the review computer desk, which is adjacent to the review mattress. It’s a well-oiled system.

The Song of Red Sonja collects three issues of the Marvel published series (#23-36) and the graphic novella “Red Nails” that appeared in Savage Tales, which seems short, but the richness of the story, of the prose alone, makes this a densely satisfying read. Probably because the story itself is set in the distant past and in the barely discernible locations of the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, it doesn’t suffer from dating. There’s no slang from the time period of the writers (I could live the rest of my life without hearing “jive turkey” spoken again) cluttering the text.

Instead, writer Roy Thomas gives all the characters an eloquent dialectal nod, something of a combination of Shakespearean stage voice and barroom limericks meant to take the reader away from whatever year they live in and place them smack down in the middle of a world of giant serpents, holy wars, and barbarous bloodshed. The caption box narration in the piece, which is something that doesn’t appear as much in these days of minimalist comics, is so well put together one would think Thomas lifted Howard’s prose right off the page and transplanted it seamlessly into the artwork. The narration rides and directs the visual story incredibly well, which shocked the hell out of my retro-phob-ish self because I’d always thought of seamless blend of word and picture to be something more modern. Color me wrong.

Also surprising is that I find that I didn’t know the character Conan as well as I thought I did. Granted, he’s a big, hulking barbarian (at least the movies would have you believe so), but the way that Windsor-Smith and Buscema draw him accentuates his more streamlined physique; he’s as agile as he is strong, and far more intelligent that the label “barbarian” would suggest.

And Conan is not only a fighter, but a thief of some renown. Thomas writes him as a scoundrel; working by little in way of principles, Conan takes what he wants as long as doing so will not cause him any undue discomfort, and is perfectly willing to kill for his prizes, be they swag or more tender rewards.

I had expected women would be paltry shadows of their male counterparts in this series, especially with Conan hedonistically lusting after each woman me meets, but the females are nothing if not hard edged and able to stand toe to toe with any male fighter in the book. Red Sonja is shown to be both a great warrior and a leader of men, and possessed of a deviously cunning mind as she manipulates Conan to her own ends. The warrior Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is a pirate and swordswoman of note and fights comfortably alongside the Cimmerian against the denizens of a jade city in “Red Nails.”

Also of note is the way that Thomas and Windsor-Smith manage to balance the feminine aspect of these warriors with their aggressive nature. They’re not tender young waifs by any means, but Thomas employs the knowledge of some of the less desirable womanly traits (that pesky one that allows woman to lead us around by the short hairs is always a powerful one) and include it in his characterization. Red Sonja is a layered individual, and Thomas shows off her many sides; from warrior, to seductress, to criminal, throughout her short stint in the book.

The artwork is gorgeous. Barry Windsor-Smith is one of those names that floats around comicdom, carrying with it an impressive list of accolades, but with whom I was not familiar until now. It’s notes in the afterword by Thomas that Windsor-Smith would spend so much time detailing his pages and self-inking that delays were almost inevitable in publication. The level of detail and of draftsmanship is a visual feast, and it makes the artwork by Buscema, whose work is by no means less than great, look simple in the comparison. Windsor-Smith can draw bloodshed as easily as drawing the supple form of a female that makes all manner of sinful imaginings spring to life, and both are beautiful to behold. There are no less than five separate colorists working within these pages, but the one of note is Richard Isanove, whom to it fell to give the first chapter of “Red Nails,” which had been black and white until recently, the color treatment. He managed only to add to the great work of Windsor-Smith.

This volume is one of six that Dark Horse currently has available, re-chronicling the adventures of Conan, and while this is a great comic that reads wonderfully by it’s self, I’d recommend picking up the earlier volumes first. There are some story elements that are wrapped up in this volume that came from the earlier ones, including the climactic ending to a Holy war and a war of vengeance between Conan and another warrior that would be best served having read the prior stories. I am shocked at how much I like this comic and it is well worth the $15.95 price tag Dark Horse slapped on. If more stuff this good from yester-year sees collection, I might be cured of my retrophobia someday.

Until then, shun the old like we always do!

Chronicles of Conan: The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories

Robert Sparling

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