Saturday, April 26, 2014

King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (A Brief Review)

Conan is no stranger to comic books. In fact, beginning in 1970 Conan made his first comic book appearance with Marvel—Conan the Barbarian. Four years later Curtis Magazines, an imprint of Marvel, launched The Savage Sword of Conan. From that time forth one company or the other has released some type of Conan comic book and this trend has lasted to today. Having read a number of these, I can safely say that while some were good only in that they managed to capture the essence of Robert E. Howard's character, certainly most did not properly adapt Howard's original stories. And for me, this became so frustrating that I all but gave up on reading "adaptations" in the comic book arena of Howard's characters/stories. That is until Tim Truman and Dark Horse saved the day.

The latest series of Conan comic books from Dark Horse is a light in an otherwise dark world of REH comic book adaptations. The series I'm referring to is titled King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon. The series began its run in May 2013 and still continues to this day. The first six parts are actually called The Hour of the Dragon and the last six parts are called The Conqueror under the main title of King Conan. All twelve parts adapt Robert E. Howard's novel titled The Hour of the Dragon. Before the comic book was released I heard that Timothy Truman was writing it. This excited me for two reasons. First, back in April of 2013 REH Days announced that Timothy Truman would be the guest of honor for that year's panel discussions.

I knew about Truman from previous works going all the way back to Grim Jack, a character he co-created with John Ostrander. Second, I heard that Truman was going to adapt Howard's story as closely as he possibly could in comic book form. At first I was skeptical. I had heard previous claims about various series regarding REH's characters and had usually ended up being disappointed. But, because I had already purchased my REH Days ticket, was bound for Cross Plains, TX in June of that year, and this series would be released just prior to that (in May 2013), I figured it would be discussed at one of the panels. So why not buy the first issue and give it whirl? Besides, it would only drain my pocket of a measly $3.50.

Now, I must reveal that when I buy a series of comic books I usually read only the first issue and if I deem it "good enough" I'll buy the subsequent issues and then read them altogether. I only do this with series I know have a limited number of issues. Additionally, being a long time REH fan, I was very familiar with The Hour of the Dragon. So, I bought the first issue and read it. I was stunned at just how close it followed Howard's original work. Moreover, at REH Days Timothy Truman declared that the series would stay as close to the original work as he could get it. Rumor confirmed. I've been buying every issue since and just finished reading the first six parts of this twelve part run. What follows is a brief review of the first six issues. To prepare for this review I re-read Robert E. Howard's work The Hour of the Dragon and used it to compare and contrast this comic book series.

With regard to the first six comic books in this series, here is how they are divided from Howard's original work:
  • #1 (Part 1 of 6) covers most of the first three chapters of the book
  • #2 (Part 2 of 6) covers the latter middle of chapter 3 to the latter middle of chapter 5
  • #3 (Part 3 of 6) covers the latter middle of chapter 5 to the end of chapter 6
  • #4 (Part 4 of 6) covers chapter 7 to the end of chapter 8
  • #5 (Part 5 of 6) covers chapter 9 to the end of chapter 10
  • #6 (Part 6 of 6) covers chapter 11 to the end of chapter 12
WARNING: Spoiler Alert—if you read past this point and have not read the comic books or Robert E. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon and do not want anything spoiled, then stop reading here and go read the comic books and/or Howard's story first. Everyone else let's continue.

King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (Part 1 of 6) opens with something that is not included in Howard's original work; namely a much older King Conan, torch in hand, standing before Zenobia's tomb. He's in a kind of nostalgic state about his former bride until Pramis, a scribe, enters the room and startles Conan. When I initially read this I was a bit disappointed. This preface really deviated from Howard's work. My heart sank, but I forced myself to read on. What Truman did here was preface Howard's work with a narrative that sets up the story. In the long run, I think it works itself fairly well into the story. After much consideration I could only think of one pitfall with this kind of preface. It somewhat takes away the mystery and suspense about Conan in the story. Granted, if you're a seasoned REH reader then you've probably read all of the Conan stories. However, for those who have not read Howard or his Conan stories the possibility that Conan might die in one is quite real. Conan is confronted throughout Howard's stories with some heinous and deadly situations. Beginning a narrative with Conan telling a scribe the story certainly eliminates the possibility that Conan might die, somewhat removing the suspenseful nature of various confrontations and battles. And yet, this is my biggest complaint about the entire series so far and in certain parts of the comic books it works well with Howard's descriptive narrative from the original work.

From this preface Truman launches into the story Howard wrote. In a tomb in Nemedia, Orastes, who is a former priest of Mitra, along with Amalric, Tarascus who is the younger brother of the king of Nemedia, and Valerius, the former king of Aquilonia, use the Heart of Ahriman to awaken an ancient Sorcerer and High Priest of Set named Xaltotun. I was quite surprised when I compared Truman's adaptation with Howard's work. To a large degree Truman uses the dialogue directly from Howard's work. Plus, Tomas Giorello's artwork is phenomenal. He does an amazing job of capturing the details of not only the characters but of Truman's/Howard's narrative throughout the first six issues. Giorello's artwork definitely helps bring each scene to life, often exactly as I imagined it when I read Howard's original story.

Truman certainly stays quite true to Howard's original work with only a few slight deviations. For instance, in the original story when Zenobia frees Conan of his bondage from Xaltotun, she explains to Conan she must depart from him for a short time. No reason is given. However, before she departs she gives Conan specific instructions about where they are to meet again and a warning to be careful as he treads down a certain path to his destination out of the prison cells. In Truman's account she stays by Conan's side throughout this scene and even helps him to battle the haunter of the pits. Even so, this is a small deviation and works well in the comic book because first, it maintains the spirit of Howard's character and does not alter the story to such a degree as to render it unrecognizable. Second, it works well to strengthen Conan and Zenobia's relationship because they are working together to fight off a creature and Zenobia's concerns for Conan's well being is highlighted. It keeps the spirit of Howard in his character Zenobia in so far as Truman displays her to be a strong female. This is also something Howard's Conan would certainly admire.

Another minor deviation (which is really more of a summation to make it fit into comic book panels) occurs from the 4th comic book with Zeleta's visions. Zeleta is a witch whom Conan saves from several Nemedian soldiers. Conan kills the soldiers and the witch helps Conan by providing him important information via various visions to aid him in his quest to restore his kingdom. While the visions from the comic books are not identical with the books, they do follow the basic gist of what Howard wrote. The visions from the comic book detail the past, Conan losing his crown and the people in despair in the Capital city of Tarantia. The book, of course, gives greater detail and mentions names within this first vision, and Conan thinks the witch is toying with his mind. The second vision in the comic book is simply a brief summary of the second vision from Howard's story, once again I'm assuming this is done to fit it into the panels of the comic book. It shows Valerius being crowned king and those who fell out of favor with Conan celebrating his coronation. Something Conan already had knowledge about from earlier in the story. The third and last vision is also a summation of Howard's story. This vision is of an ancient time. It shows the body of Xaltotun in a sarcophagus and the Heart of Ahriman upon an alter. Conan does not yet understand the meaning of the stone, but he certainly recognizes it. These visions leave both the witch and Conan confused. The witch suggests they sleep and perhaps the answers will arise in their dreams. In Howard's original story, only Conan is completely confused, the witch has a better understanding of the visions but that understanding is not complete. She recommends they rest and perhaps a full understanding will come to her in her dreams. However, before they sleep she mentions that in the morning she may have the answer to this "mystery." The mystery lies in a remark she made earlier (in the comic book and Howard's original story), "I fear the heart is gone from your kingdom."

The one thing I was most pleased about in Truman's adaptation was his inclusion and emphasis on Zeleta's "mystery" about the heart of Conan's kingdom. This idea is revealed in the comic books pretty much the same as it is in Howard's original work. Howard was certainly connecting the Heart of Ahriman and Conan's kingdom in an obvious way—the one was used to take away the other—but also subtly adding the element of Conan's feelings for Zenobia. Howard does not bring out the Zenobia element until the end of his story when after defeating Tarascus, Conan requests Zenobia from Tarascus' seraglio because Conan will make her his queen.

Truman cleverly incorporates Conan's feelings and the love aspect of Zeleta's mystery via the narrative between Conan and the scribe Pramis. This is emphasized on the last page of the 6th issue in the comic book. While narrating the story for Pramis, Conan questions Zeleta's true meaning behind her statement. The panels actually read as follows: "Find the heart of your kingdom . . . that's what the old witch Zeleta had told me . . . but was the Jewel of Ahriman the heart she truly meant?" The next panel shows an image of Zenobia in the background, Conan in the foreground. It is at this point in the comic book Conan truly understand Zeleta's mystery and rushes forward to claim his destiny. None of this is in Howard's original work. However, I thought this was extremely well done and really appreciated Truman's interpretive license here. What this tells me is that Truman truly knows Howard's work inside and out, and is actually providing a small amount of commentary based on this understanding. Other than what I mentioned above there is no other noticeable deviation from Howard's original work.

While The Hour of the Dragon is not one of my favorite Conan stories, Truman and Giorello have certainly elevated my appreciation for it. And I thought they brought it to life quite meaningfully for both unseasoned and seasoned REH readers. But unlike so many who have taken Howard's characters and placed them in new stories, Truman has genuinely adapted Robert E. Howard's work as it ought to be adapted. In my estimation this is the best comic book adaptation of a Conan story, and I am very much looking forward to the next six comic books in the series.

If you have not purchased the first six comic books in this series then run, not walk, to your local comic book store and buy them. Also, the first comic book titled King Conan: The Conqueror (Part 1 of 6) was released a week or so ago. So the second 6 issues are now in full swing. As mentioned earlier, King Conan: The Conqueror make up the last 6 parts of Howard's novel The Hour of the Dragon. I highly recommend this series.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Now, come all you punchers, and listen to my tale,
When I tell you of troubles on the Chisholm Trail!"

"Steve Harmer was riding Texas-Fasion, slow and easy, one knee hooked over the saddle horn, hat pulled over his brows to shade his face. His lean body swayed rhythmically to the easy gait of his horse."—First Line from REH's western yarn titled Drums of the Sunset.

If that doesn't stir your interest to read Robert E. Howard's western tales then there might just be something wrong with ya!