If you’re anything like me and you grew up reading comic books through the 70’s and 80’s, then you might feel as I do: while graphic storytelling has indeed come a long way, it occasionally feels like contemporary yarns stray quite a bit away from the source material. Even in situations wherein, say, an old book or short story is only used as a starting point for modern era scribes to veer off into unanticipated directions, it isn’t all that farfetched to stumble across archetypes who bear little resemblance to those works of old. Much of this gets chalked up to ‘artistic interpretation,’ that today’s audience can no longer identify with these originals as thus they need to be updated for the sake of discerning audiences as well as pursuit of the mighty dollar (i.e. profits).
If that makes me sound like a fuddy-duddy, then so be it. Still, there’s an awful lot of sublime charm wrapped up in collections of storylines from three decades ago. No, they may not be your cup of tea. No, they may not enamor young minds with the pursuits of classic heroes. But what they retain is a sense of respect for what came before along with a heavy helping of prescience for where audiences could head when literary creations are given first-class treatment in comic books.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “He is known as ‘The Great Devil’ – Heku, warlord of the eastern kingdoms, commander of a horde likened to the sands upon the earth. More than conquest, Heku desires the return of his son, Kobe, once coldly given as a gift to a king but now Conan’s comrade and unwilling to return to his father’s evil embrace. All Kobe has between him and Heku’s host is his sword and Conan’s friendship, a bond stronger than steel!”
I made similar observations in a like-minded collection only the other day: the color palate used throughout much of the 80’s in the Conan books just doesn’t work thematically the way Dark Horse is penning them today. (That’s no insult; it’s only a reflection of how even graphically times change.) Back then, color choices were pretty bright, bordering on grade school primary colors. Characters tended to pop off the page whereas today’s audiences aren’t looking for so much individuation. There are only a handful of panels in these 200+ pages that lean toward the experimental or artistic (a few hint of the monochromatic), and this serves to give these issues a kind of visual consistency typified by many books of that age. Also, books were really being pushed to revolutionize storytelling thanks to the influence of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, so these adventures featuring our singular Cimmerian were still relatively kid-friendly by comparison to the full-bore bloodshed one might find in any collection today.
I’d still argue, however, that that reality doesn’t make these tales any less interesting for Conan’s audience. While younger readers might be inclined to set the book aside in favor of darker pursuits, the stories here (some of which I actually read in their original run, may even still have the issues tucked away in bags and boards upstairs) only flirted with edginess, drawing more encouragement from Robert E. Howard’s original stories as opposed to staking out boundless new territory.
The book closes with a terrific read that should be required study for every Conan aficionado: it’s an illustrated historical and geographical guide to the worlds of the strongman’s era. So far as I could tell, it’s very complete, mentioning all the main players – along with a few minor – who at one time or another have made appearances alongside our champion. It’s a brilliant addition to any fan’s library!
THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27: SANDS UPON THE EARTH AND OTHER STORIES is published by Dark Horse Comics. The volume collects material originally published in 1986, 1988, and 1989 (Conan the Barbarian issues 206-214 and The Official Handbook of the Conan Universe #1 from Marvel Comics). The collection features the talents of James Owsley, Charles Santino, Alan Zelenetz, Val Semeiks, Adam Blaustein, Geof Isherwood, Alfredo Alcala, George Roussos, Ron Wagner, John Buscema, Bob Camp, Ernie Chan, Vince Colletta, Mike Docherty, Armando Gil, Andy Kubert, Gary Kwapisz, Dave Simons, Vincent Waller, Mary Wilshire, Steve Mellor, Michael Kaluta, and Janice Chiang. And for those of you who don’t know (or grew up on an island) Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard. It all comes with the cover price of $19.99, and that’s a bargain so far as this longtime comic book reader is concerned.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27 brings with it just the right mix of nostalgia for a time when comics told quieter, simpler tales of classic derring-do and reverence for the source material which worked to inspire generations of storytellers and artists to pick up their tools in the first place. Naturally – as much of this appeared originally in the mid-to-late 80’s – it may not make a believer out of you if you’re not already a relatively hardcore Conan enthusiast; but it’s always one more reason to get to know the quintessential barbarian if you have the time, money, and inclination.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, VOLUME 27: SANDS UPON THE EARTH by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
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