Saturday, June 18, 2005

King Conan: Epic Interrupted

For a while now, I've had a complete run of "King Conan/Conan the King," gathered from Ebay shortly after I returned to comics after years without them. When I was younger, I'd read the book only very occasionally, mostly just the earliest issues. I'm a huge Conan fan and since my return to comics suffer recurring periods of barbarous frenzy wherein I consume massive quantities of the Cimmerian's Hyborian Age mayhem. I came into my "King Conan" run toward the end of one of these spells and was content to re-visit some of the early issues I'd experienced in my youth before putting the lot of them in a box for another day. That day came a few weeks ago. I've been reading through the series from the beginning and I've just struck gold in the form of Alan Zelenetz and Marc Silvestri.

Marvel seems to have wanted "King Conan" to be something more than just a run-of-the-mill adventure comic. The larger page-count, quarterly (later bimonthly) publication and dollar cover price (at a time when 40 cents was the industry standard) attest to this. One of the shortcomings of the early "King Conan" though, is that it doesn't seem to have an identity of its own. It's quite readable and, for the most part, quite good but generous format aside, it's written as just another Conan book. The focus is on simple, straightforward action/adventure stories with no depth and little character development. There are stand-alone stories and a few multi-part story arcs but nothing ever really seems to happen. An adventure concludes, a rigid status quo is restored and there things sit until the next threat emerges in the following issue.

All of this changes when Zelenetz comes on board with issue #16. Jim Owsley, the new editor of the book, devoted a significant portion of the letters page in #17 to describing the wild enthusiasm with which Zelenetz and he went about planning the coming run over lunch:

"Well, we talked and talked. The more we talked, the more great ideas were suggested. The excitement grew. By the time we were done, Al's eyes were blazing, his heart was racing, and he was standing atop our table, butter knife in hand, screaming in barbaric rage.

"Well, not exactly. But he did kill a perfectly good tree taking a zillion pages of notes, and there were hushed whispers of the words 'epic' and 'magnificence.' You see, we're going to blow 'King Conan' up and start over; and we're doing it with dynamite."

What follows lives up to this hype and then some. The run is striking in its maturity and complexity. The characters evolve from status-quo-locked stock one-noters to fully realized individuals who grow and change with events in their lives. The supporting cast, previously little more than background noise, is significantly expanded and fleshed out in wonderful detail. Subplots abound. The book immediately takes on the air of an epic; the reader can't help but feel as though a grand tale is unfolding and each new installment is a delight. The book, for the first time, acquires a soul of its own. It would be hard to overstate how much I enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, the spell is broken rather roughly with issue #29. Don Kraar takes over as writer and immediately abandons the course which had been charted by Zelenetz and Marc Silvestri. The shift is jarring and Kraar's seeming effort to destroy, by the quickest, crudest means possible, much of what his predecessors had built is very off-putting.

In issue #20, Conan's son Conn was apparently killed in an ambush by unknown sorcery-aided assailants. Unknown to his family, Conn survived and, in a series of back-up stories, experienced several solo adventures, ending in his decision not to return to Acquilonia. He spits out his silver spoon in grand fashion and determines to make his own way in the world. It was a great set-up for what should have one day been a Conn solo series and Owsley makes plain in one letters page that the character's absence from "King Conan" is meant to be for the foreseeable future.

Kraar returns Conn in his very first issue.

When, by that point, last seen, Conn had been in far-away Hyrkania; he'd discovered that he had a half-brother there, had taken a wife and, when war threatened, had signed up, while his brother had departed for Acquilonia. What became of the war, Conn's service in it, his brother, his wife or anything else in this storyline is anyone's guess. Kraar offers no explanation--he just has Conn appear in Acquilonia, only a few issues after the above-outlined storyline, having apparently journeyed there in the company of a traveling jester.

Zelenetz and Silvestri had sent Trocero, Conan's loyal advisor, home to his wife from whom he'd been separated for many years while in Conan's service. A significant portion of #26 is devoted to his flashback-filled journey home as he reminisces upon various events in his life, concluding with an emotional reunion with his wife. It would have been a good end to Trocero's story and, at the very least, seems intended to have retired him for a time. Kraar simply returns Trocero to the Acquilonian court. Again, no explanation. He's just there and only three issues after he left.

One of the book's ongoing subplots had been a secret romance between Conan's 16-year-old daughter Radegund and Leonidas, one of Conan's elite Black Dragon knights. After failing to protect Conan from a would-be assassin, Leonidas resigns from the Black Dragons out of shame. With his slot cleared, Conan embarks upon filling it, putting would-be recruits through hellish (and hilarious) tests. Meanwhile, Leonidas, having left the court, continues to correspond with Radegund. Kraar opens his second issue on the book with Leonidas suddenly once again a member of the Black Dragons, no explanation. Worse, he immediately proceeds to have Leonidas and all of the Black Dragons whom Zelenetz and Silvestri had been developing killed in an ambush by Picts.

At the time she met Leonidas, Radegund had been chafing from her forced betrothal to Pepin, an androgynous fop whom Conan holds in contempt. Pepin's father Maloric was an Aquilonian nobleman who, we learn, had been plotting against Conan for some time. He'd been the one who had arranged for the attack that had apparently killed Conn. Aiding him had been a powerful, nameless wizard who had his own developing story and still-undisclosed motives for wanting to kill Conan in some particularly grisly fashion. Maloric's impatience eventually leads to the dissolution of their partnership and each continue their separate plots against Conan. The wizard, in another plot thread, has been searching for a ring which, we're led to believe, is a source of great power. At one point, a spell he's worked is undone by an outside force, which is shown to be an unidentified child wielding the very ring for which the wizard had been searching. On still another front, Conan, after the seeming death of Conn, emotionally abandons his wife Zenobia and as time goes by, she seems very much on the verge of opening an illicit romance with Lysander, a soldier and the only survivor of the ambush that seemed to kill Conn. Persistent entreaties by Zenobia to promote Lysander arouse Conan's suspicions. One day while the two are out riding, he draws his sword, puts it at Lysander's throat and demands to know why Zenobia is so persistent an advocate for the man's advancement. Conan probably knows the score yet he accepts Lysander's explanation, that Zenobia feels close to him because he was the last person to see Conn alive. Most surprisingly, Conan then assigns him as Zenobia's personal bodyguard, a position he hadn't sought. Conan's proffered rationale is that he currently has no slots available in his Black Dragon force but Lysander learns a few pages later that Conan has promised Maloric he would suggest the androgynous Pepin for that very team. An implied approval of the affair? Possibly. It's a fine example of the multi-layered plotting the book was featuring throughout this run and is something that should have played itself out over time. Conan's son Taurus, meanwhile, had been developed into a devilish piece of work, a sinister schemer who, all but disowned by his father, obsessively pursued knowledge of black magic. An incomplete incantation leaves him with a goat hoof in place of his left foot.

Virtually all of this is dropped without comment when Kraar assumes writing duties. Out of frustration, I initially stopped reading his run only two issues into it; if I'd been buying the comic as it was published, I would have stopped there as well. I waited a few days to give myself some breathing room then returned to read up to the end of #32, where I've again stopped. In the first four Kraar issues (with Mike Docherty assuming art duties and Larry Hama as editor), there isn't a single mention of Maloric, the wizard, Lysander, Pepin, Taurus, Conn's wife, Conn's recently-discovered half-brother or any of the related plot threads--it's all just swept away, much of the pre-Zelenetz status quo reestablished by fiat in only two issues.
To assume authorial control of a book after such a stellar run is obviously an unenviable task for any creative team and Kraar/Docherty were in an even worse position given that it's clear their predecessors' run was so abruptly terminated only because someone at Marvel who didn't like it had the power to pull the plug on it. Kraar's story arc in these issues, dealing with a large-scale invasion of Acquilonia, is probably not a bad one as such things go but I didn't connect with it on any level. I'd probably have to read it outside the context of these developments to appreciate it.

"Conan the King" is going back in the box for now. After I've let it sit for awhile, I'll no doubt return and perhaps I'll be able to render a different judgment when the memories have faded.


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