Tuesday, 11 October 2011

‘Conan: The Blood Stained Crown and Other Stories’ – Various (Dark Horse Books)

You can tell that your books have been well received when people start riffing off the themes and plots that you originally came up with in the first place and turn a character into something else entirely whilst ensuring that they stay the same. The tragedy is that Robert E. Howard wasn’t with us long enough to see just what an influence his iconic character ‘Conan’ had on, well... everyone who picked up the books really. Whether it’s the number of barbarians that you come across, in other fantasy novels, or the way that Dark Horse have handled the ‘Conan brand’ (and it is a brand now, isn’t it?) you just know that Howard had to be doing something right all those years ago.

Sticking with Dark Horse (and I will, nearly all of my favourite comics are published by these guys); one of the interesting things that I learnt, reading this collection, is that they’re not just about putting Conan into epic series. There are special ‘one off’ comics made for conventions and special events; there are even short stories commissioned so that artists on longer running series can take a breather. And that’s where ‘The Bloodstained Crown’ comes in. A collection of some of these shorter tales, all neatly packaged up just in case you missed them last time round.

After reading some longer Conan stories I thought it would be nice to sit back and go with some tales that are more ‘bite sized’, something that you can swallow in one gulp rather than chew on. Sometimes a change is good!‘The Bloodstained Crown’ is certainly the book to go to if that’s what you’re after with one of the tales only lasting for four pages. ‘Conan’s Favourite Joke’ demands you share the same sense of humour to really get that joke and it turns out that I do. I initially thought that Timm’s art would be too cartoonish but it ended up really suiting the tone of the story itself.

Funnily enough, I found that the longer a tale was here (I’m looking at you ‘Seeds of Empire’ and ‘The Bloodstained Crown’) the less ‘punchy’ and energetic it became...  I think as far as the aforementioned tales were concerned, they sought to merge two separate storylines here (the ‘Prince and Vizier’ sub-plot along with the legend of Conan) which maybe weren’t meant to mesh like that. I’ve read a few of the comic books now, where the Price must deal with his treacherous (and strangely snake eyed) Vizier and this storyline works better around the main piece, not as a part of it. Not like that. It was good to see Timothy Truman make an appearance on artwork duty. I think I prefer it when Truman is writing but his art did both stories justice this time round.

‘Helm’ is the other longer piece and while it doesn’t feel as disjointed as the other two stories I’ve mentioned, it does meander when it could really have done with the dose of energy that the final panels received. I found myself wanting Conan’s helm to get its journey over and done with so I could go onto the next story in the collection. What ‘Helm’ does do though is give us an unexpected journey around Conan’s world and it took me to places that I certainly hadn’t seen before all drawn in a gritty tone by John Severin. The look of fear on the boy’s face, on that last panel, will stay with me for a long time... The plot is slightly repetitive (Conan’s helm doesn’t stay on a head for long and you can see a person’s end coming) but Busiek and Nicieza combine well to show us just how dangerous Conan’s world actually is.

The highlight of the book for me was ‘The Storyteller’, a piece written especially for Howard’s centennial. To be fair, I think this tale would have won anyway as my man Eric Powell contributes the artwork and it was great to see a little piece of ‘The Goon’ make its way into the land of people like Conan (especially when you see who the main character is based on). You can see where this story is headed and there are no surprises when that ending comes. This time though, Busiek and Powell use this foreknowledge to add real pathos to a tale of an unsung hero and I unexpectedly found something in my eye (that made it all watery) when I reached the end.

‘In the Tower of Tara-Teth’
is one of the earlier stories in the collection but it turns up last here as I still can’t for the life of me work out what it was about or what it was trying to say... A re-read is due there I reckon but Kayanan does sterling work drawing the fight sequences; there’s real sense of energy and viciousness going on here and I’m not just talking about Conan here. Confusing but fun!

'The Bloodstained Crown' has a little something for everyone and, despite a couple of false starts, there was enough here for me to have a lazy afternoon read that was a lot of fun. Check it out if you're a fan and you haven't already.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

1 comment:

Cursed Armada said...

I agree that Dark Horse is where it's at... I picked up issue #1 of Kull, and I frekin loved it! This art does look a little too cartoonish for my taste as well...