Friday, May 15, 2009

The duty of a writer of pastiche is to resemble the original - Thomas and Windsor-Smith vs. Busiek and Nord on Conan

(Reposted from my now defunct typepad site)
It's hardly a suprise that I enjoy Robert E. Howard's writing, I've said it enough times. As a result, my hesitation to read the recent relaunch of an ongoing Conan series by Dark Horse Comics may or may not be surprising. On the one hand, I enjoy every single Conan story written by Howard himself, but on the other, I can't stand Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp or Robert Jordan's attempts to write him. And I've had mixed feelings about Kurt Busiek as a writer in the past. I've liked parts of Astro City but disliked Marvels, and haven't felt strongly enough about his other work one way or another.

It doesn't help that I've been re-reading the original Roy Thomas stories as Dark Horse has collected those, and frankly despite an ominvoric attempt to take every REH story that's not nailed down and adapt it as a Conan tale (and some stories neither about Conan nor written by Howard - at one point, Thomas adapts C.L. Moore's classic Shambleau which basically takes balls of molten steel the size of small planets... why not adapt Moby Dick? Hell, who knows, maybe he did, I haven't read past volume 6 of the reprints yet) Thomas does a really good job of making a Conan who resembles the original, a lot better than most fans of Howard would be prepared to admit, I think.

This is in part due to a general hostility towards the 'non-canonical' interference of later authors interpolating their own versions of Conan, generally less intelligent, less interesting Conans to be sure, and to be fair Thomas' Conan is less intelligent and capable than Howard's is. But Thomas isn't writing straight pastiche here, he's adapting the character and his milleu to the comic book form, and paradoxically to bring Conan to four color life it's actually necessary to present him as, well, less superheroic. This is most easily seen in the development of the series from the first few issues, which are drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith in a rather typical Kirbian four color style and which feature time travelling wizards, pictures of moon landings, and apes straight out of the silver age. Frankly, they don't work. It's only when Thomas and Windsor-Smith focus on Conan's exploits as a young, untried thief and adventurer new to the southern lands of the Hyborian Age that the series begins to find itself, and frankly in order for that change to work Conan cannot seem as indomitable and omnicapable as he often does in Howard's work.

Yeah, I can't believe I just argued that for Conan to work in the comics he has to be toned down, but it's true, at least for the first issues of Thomas' run. Howard's character is admirable because, in his first appearance, he's already an experienced man, a former reaver, a King, learned in both lore and the hard language of violence, still capable and willing to draw steel but not the fur-clad near savage he once was, and because Howard chose a non-linear way to produce new Conan stories we always met him at some different point in his career, always informed of his ultimate destiny but able to see him through new eyes... a young savage in Zamora climbing an elephant tower, a reaver along the southern coast called Amra the Lion, a frontiersman on the Aquilonian border to Pictland. Thomas' series, on the other hand, was progressing in a linear fashion from younger to older, and as a result Conan needs room to change and grow in a way that he didn't in Howard's stories. For the most part, it works. It helps that, despite the general sneering of the Howard fan at the comics, Windsor-Smith's portrayal of the man helps capture the 'panther-like ferocity' so oft remarked by his original chronicler.

To see Barry Windsor-Smith's work on Conan in Volumes 1 through 4 of the collections is to see an artist continually improve in almost surprising leaps and bounds. The artist who draws the first few stories would seem a pale imitation of the man who painstakingly illustrated Red Nails if not for the fact that we know it's the same man, and while Smith has never been a bad artist, it's telling to say that if Gil Kane had done two issues of the book at the early stages of the run, Smith might well have never come back to it. But by the end of his run, he could leave the book in Kane's hands and then decide to return, and in fact was even a better choice for interior artist on the title. Considering how much I love Gil Kane as an artist, that's saying a BIG something, but it's still true. As good an artist as Kane was, by that time Smith was even better. He perfectly suited the character and subject matter.

Having said that Thomas did a better Conan pastiche than some of the most famous authors ever to touch the character, and having said that Smith did wonderful, character defining art for the book, how then do I rate Busiek and Nord, the writer and artist who launched the modern series?

They do themselves proud. In fact, I was very surprised to find that, while I still prefer Thomas and Smith, I really enjoyed Busiek's take on the character. Unlike some of his superhero work, which can be somewhat drenched in maple for my taste, Busiek writes a sparse, lean script on the six plus issues of the book collected in the Dark Horse paperback entitled The Frost Giant's Daughter and other stories. Unlike Thomas, who often chose to adapt REH stories about other characters into Conan stories, or non-REH Conan stories, or even non-REH, non-Conan stories if he liked them enough, Busiek appears to be taking the established Howard stories and using them as a frame to give himself room to write all new tales of the Cimmerian. It allows him to stamp the stories as his own from the start without being nearly so beholden on the interpolations of writers like Carter and De Camp, although it's clear that like them he keeps the essay A Probable Outline of Conan's Career by Clark and Schuyler somewhere in mind, in terms of the chronology of Conan's career. I found myself impressed by Busiek's ability to present Conan as smart, young, eager, brave, and vicious in turn in his stories, while still retaining just enough youthful naivete to believe the legends of lost Hyperborea. Nord, for his part, usually does a rather remarkable job portraying the moody and violent land of the northern Hyborian wastes, and might well be at his best in the issues set in Hyperborea itself, where Conan confronts the horrible cost of the magical paradise he's come so far to discover. Nord's art isn't perfect - at times he renders the future King of Aquilonian with a simpering, slack-jawed grin simply not suitable for a man who would rather let a poet stab him than destroy an artist, but such missteps are rare.

Luckily, in the volumes I have assembled I can compare and contrast the two creative teams by looking at one story they both adapted: Howard's The Frost Giant's Daughter. Nord and Busiek choose to open with scenes of headless bodies laying dead in the snow as seen from above, while Thomas and Smith give us a vast panorama of the dead against the white with two small figures in the center of the dead, two last warriors coming to blows alone amidst the corpses. Nord chooses vivid, jagged motion and grotesqueries to set the piece in a distinctive style, while for Smith there is instead a clean, stark spareness to the lines as Conan slays the last member of Hymdul's band and later chases the daughter of Ymir across the snowy wastes, intent on catching her for his own lusts. I can't say which approach is better. I prefer Windsor-Smith's rendition of the daughter of Ymir and the frost giants, but Nord's dynamism is visually appealing and suits the story well.

In the end, an old man prefers that which he came to know first, but I can't say I dislike Busiek and Nord's work on Conan so far. It's some of the best work Busiek's ever done.

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