ADVANCE REVIEW! Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword #2 will come out on June 8, 2011.
Even though he is one of my favorites, I will be the first to admit that Robert E. Howard was not a great writer. He was mediocre at best, with limited style and skills, stilted dialog, often hack-kneed plots, and shallow, one-dimensional characters. But somehow, through some mystical confluence of inspiration and muse, when Robert E. Howard wrote Conan he was transfigured; he became a great writer, one of the greatest. But only when he was writing Conan.
Okay, so I'm being uncharitable. Howard also did a good job with King Kull, Solomon Kane and a few others. His work was character-driven; if he had a good character, he produced good writing. If he had a great character, he produced great writing. And if he had a mediocre or completely lame character… well, you can guess what level of writing he produced.
Dark Horse took on a daring challenge with Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword: to take these lesser-known, lesser-written characters and make good comics. Sailor Steve Costigan. The desert gunslinger El Borak. Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who would be combined with another Howard creation Red Sonya of Rogatino to become the comic character Red Sonja. The Viking Niord. Not exactly household names. There are six stories in total, two of them continuing serials, one a reprint from 1970s fantasy anthologies, and one an illustrated version with Howard’s text. That makes for a good mix, and allows new readers to pick up any issue while still encouraging ongoing collection.
I am impressed with the results. One of the benefits of using the lower-grade Howard pantheon is that the writers are more free to write their own stories. When I read Conan comics, I am constantly comparing them to Howard’s Conan and am nitpicky about the departures. But when I read this El Borak story, I just sit back and enjoy.
The showpiece of this anthology is El Borak, the Texas-Cowboy-in-the-Middle-East who makes his first comic appearance here. Rendered by writer Mark Finn and artist Greg Scott, El Borak is remarkably well done, with cinematic pacing and imagery. This story is an original piece by Finn, set as a sequel to Howard’s El Borak adventure Hawk of the Hills. Finn and Scott have obviously studied their desert adventure flicks from the period, because they captured the look and feel just right. The sword duel between El Borak and Hakim Khan was fantastic -- beautifully written, beautifully drawn.
The Dark Agnes is another original story, which is not surprising as Howard only wrote three Dark Agnes stories. This Dark Agnes is still a “She-Devil with a Sword” but don’t expect her to run around in a chainmail bikini. Written by Marc Andreyko with pencils by Robert Atkins, Dark Agnes is one of the two continuing serials. Andreyko gave Dark Agnes a more feminist theme than Howard probably intended, but then he was a 1930s Texan. Atkins’ art is good enough, but not particularly memorable.
I have never liked Sailor Steve Costigan, and the story here didn’t convince me otherwise. He is one of Howard’s “fighting characters,” a tough guy who gets into problems then settles them with his fists -- basically Popeye will all the mirth sucked out. Writer Joe Casey and artist Pop Mhan do their best to make something out of the meager source material. Mhan in particular draws some interesting faces, while Casey tries to weave some twists and turns into the tale. But ultimately it is a typical Sailor Steve Costigan adventure, and he just punches people until he wins. The following Sea Cruise, which combines Howard’s original text with illustrations by Tim Seeley, is a far better story. The scene of a corpse getting its eyes eaten out by crabs is one of the best in the book.
The Valley of the Worm is the sole reprint, coming from 1972's Supernatural Thrillers #3. Story-wise, this may be the worst in the book. It is a typical Howard device of a modern man experiencing his wild past life where he was a powerful barbarian warrior. The story is entirely saved by Gil Kane’s perfect art, looking even more beautiful with modern coloring.
And finally comes Conan. There is something primal about Conan. He dominates the book as soon as he steps on the page. You get the feeling that Conan would easily take down everyone else in this book without dinging his sword raising a sweat. Paul Tobin and Wellington Alves do the Conan story The Jewels of Hastern, and do it well. I haven’t heard of either Tobin or Wellington, but they get right into the heart of Conan with a story that's all blood, women, jewels and strange gods -- the way a Conan story should be. Artist Wellington did a great job on the armor and castle setting of the story, and Tobin leaves the story on the edge of a climax, leaving the reader wanting to flip the next page but being forced to wait until the next volume of this anthology comes out.
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