Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Comics Commentary: Conan the Barbarian Comics


This is a Media Diet Comics Commentary video review of Conan the Barbarian #14-15 (Marvel, May and December 2020) and The Cimmerian: People of the Black Circle (Ablaze, 2020). Unscripted, unedited. Just a guy talking about comics.

Audio only.

Transcript below...

Today's focus is Conan the Barbarian. We've got two Conan-related series that we're going to share with you today. First up is the current ongoing Conan series at Marvel. Marvel currently holds the Conan license in the United States, and I just dipped into the current ongoing series. We've got two issues, #14 and #15, that we'll be talking about today. There's another Conan-related comic, though, that's also available in the States currently. It is actually a slightly more interesting situation and story. It's published by Ablaze, and Ablaze is based out of Portland, Oregon. These are three issues of a current miniseries published by Ablaze, The Cimmerian: People of the Black Circle. The tops of the covers say “Robert E. Howard's Savage Hero Uncensored!” so it sounds pretty interesting and intriguing. We'll talk about that in a moment.

First up, though, the Marvel book, because Conan has a long history at Marvel. In fact, on the cover of #15, there's this little bug down here in the corner by the UPC, “Celebrating 50 years of Conan at Marvel.” So Conan's been at Marvel for 50 years. It's 2020, so that means at least since 1970. The current series is worth checking out. They're no longer adapting Howard writing—Robert E. Howard being the creator of Conan the Barbarian—but they are still based in the legend, in the lore. We've got the Nemedian Chronicles quoted here. That is one of the most iconic pieces of writing from Howard, from the Nemedian Chronicles.

This current ongoing series is part three and part four of a story called “Into the Crucible,” and it's written by Jim Zub—whose name you'll recognize from a couple of other comics that we've reviewed recently. We mentioned him in relation to, I think, the D&D comics because of his connection to the Rick and Morty comic—and drawn by Roge Antonio for #15, and then just dipping back to #14, same creative team: Jim Zub, writer, and Roge Antonio, artist. (If you want to correct my pronunciation, please do so in the comments below!) 

The storyline “Into the Crucible” is interesting. It's fun. It takes place in the holy city of Garchall.  #15 situates that, actually, in Uttara Kuru. In the city of Garchall, they worship this god Challi-Mai, also known as the Many Deaths. One of the ways that they worship this god of many arms and many deaths is by putting citizens and adventurers through what's called the Crucible. They send them into this underground labyrinth or layer. Those lights on the right with the gemstones represent the lives of the adventurers that are going down into that labyrinth. As they die or are defeated—because to celebrate this god of many deaths you have to kill the other people—as the lives are snuffed out, the lights dim, leaving one who is then seen as a hero.

So Conan finds himself as part of this Crucible tournament against his will. I’m not quite sure how he found himself there or why they chose him. He “was tricked into this foul pit,” it says. The other people think he's one of the blessed contestants, but he's not. Wonderful image there by Antonio of the god of many deaths. So he's basically with a group of people going through the labyrinth, and they encounter various threats and overcome them as a group through teamwork. They end up, through a shaman of the afterlife, channeling one of the previous or prior contestants who's gone on before, and he gives them some information that causes them to not trust each other as much. You might think that that information is welcome and helpful, but in the end, it ends up probably sowing more discord than helpfulness.

It changes the group dynamic, changes their relationship and friendship, and they continue making their way through the labyrinth with a lesser degree of trust than in the past. There's a wonderful image of a giant crocodile or alligator that they encounter as part of going through the Crucible. In the end, they escape to daylight. Without telling you what happens after that point, it does set up the next issue, #16, quite well. This current run of Conan—even though inspired and informed by Howard's writing, but not adapting or returning to his writing—is worth reading. Jim Zub seems to be doing a good job writing D&D and similar sword and fantasy, sword and sorcery, sword and sandal comics. Check it out if you like Conan, Red Sonja for that matter, or if you like D&D.

The next Conan series we're going to talk about, though, comes from the Portland, Oregon-based publishing company Ablaze, which I was not familiar with. I actually don't know what else Ablaze does. I'm always interested in new publishing companies, so I will check that out. Looking at this issue, there don't seem to be house ads informing us about other projects. There's just variant covers and a promo for the next issue. So I’m not quite sure about Ablaze. But there’s an interesting story about this comic.

Three issues: People of the Black Circle. I'm just going to show you the covers. As you can see at the top: “Robert E. Howard's Savage Hero Uncensored.” It's a three-issue adaptation of the story, “People of the Black Circle.” We'll address that in a moment. There’s a bit of an interesting story about how it got here. This is a reprint of a European comic published by Editions Glenat from France. I actually read up about this to learn about it, but i'm not remembering everything that I read. It was originally issued in France by Editions Glenat. In Europe, Howard's writing is in the public domain, so there is no estate managing control of the writings. There's no need to get permission or a license like there is here in the States with the Howard estate.

This was published in France by Editions Glenat, and it's written by Sylvain Runberg and drawn by Jae Kwang Park. I believe that's a Korean name. (Again, feel free to correct my pronunciation in the comments.) The gist of the original Editions Glenat is that it is a strict adaptation of Howard's original writings. The comic opens by saying that “Howard's Conan first appeared in the pages of pulp magazines in the 1930s. He contributed 17 Conan stories to Weird Tales Magazine from 1932 to 1936. Through these stories we see Robert E. Howard's savage hero take shape."

So the idea behind the Editions Glenat books might be, let's adapt those 17 stories into comics form, truly adapting them as they were written, as they were originally published in the '30s. That might be where this “uncensored” comes from. The “uncensored” could also be a comment on the Howard estate trying to stop the republication of these comics in the States by not granting a license. When Ablaze was originally trying to bring these books to the States, the Robert E. Howard estate actually legally tried to stop them from publishing them in the U.S. It ended up moving forward. This was at the end of 2019 that all this was happening. It ended up moving forward because in Europe, it is in the public domain.

The neat thing about the comic is actually not that uncensored nature. It is interesting that it was published in Europe and fought so it wasn't published in the States. That is a form of censorship, some might say. I don't think it's censorship. It's a legal and a business disagreement. But the idea of adapting the comics as originally written is interesting, and that gets a little bit lost. Park's artwork is a little dense and heavy. This is just the second page of the first issue, but I just want to show you a little bit of what it looks like: relatively dense page designs, relatively dense panel content. It does result in some interesting imagery, which is wonderful to look at, but all that said, the uncensored nature—portraying things that perhaps Marvel can't portray in its current licensed comics—gets a little lost.

For example, here we have, I believe, a daughter stabbing her father or a wife stabbing her husband. That might get a little lost given given how dense and how busy the page and panels are. But it’s good art with a little bit of Asian flair to it. It occasionally feels like manga. I'm wondering if Park has done other manga work or similar comics. But that's not the most interesting thing about the comic.

The most interesting thing about the comic is that Ablaze and perhaps Editions Glenat is also publishing the original story in text. In this first issue, we have eight pages reprinted of the story accompanying however many pages of comics. That continues for the next two issues. Again, issue #2 of the series continues the story, “People of the Black Circle” comics adaptation strictly from the text, and then after the comic, the text. And in the third issue, the same: comics adaptation, “uncensored,” they say—and one might think that coming from Europe, that means a little more blood and gore, a little more stuff that we can't necessarily see in comics in the States. I don't know that that's actually the case. And then at the end, the story, reprinted. That is interesting. It is drawing me in as a reader to not just read the comic but to also reread the original fiction. 

That story does end here, adapted in three issues. The next story that they're going to do is “The Frost-Giant's Daughter,” which is a wonderful, wonderful story. That seems to be drawn by somebody else, Robin Recht. There's a cover image in black and white for that forthcoming series. I think that there was one preceding this. Ablaze has been bringing the Editions Glenat stuff to the States for some time since they overcame that legal injunction at the end of 2019.

If you like Conan, clearly do check out the current Marvel licensed books, but also dig a little deeper and see if you can find these Ablaze “uncensored” comics. This is just one story. Another story before this might have been “Queen of the Black Coast.” The next one is “The Frost-Giant's Daughter.” Check it out. It's actually really interesting, a true adaptation of the weird fiction from Weird Tales and reprints the public domain story. It’s a good way to return to the roots of the character in comics form while reading that fiction hand in hand—while still being sure to keep up with the current Marvel license series, which takes new stories, new directions, new life to the character, which has now been with Marvel for 50 years.

Of the two, if you could only get one, check the Ablaze books out, at least for one run of one story. It’s really, really interesting stuff. It’s a good example of how licensing stuff from other countries could work well. I’m surprised that Heavy Metal didn't try to get this. I think you snoozed. It could have been something that ended up in the magazine over time.

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