Friday, August 2, 2019

Conan Omnibus I: Birth of the Legend By Kurt Busiek

Conan Omnibus I: Birth of the Legend
By Kurt Busiek 

Odds are pretty good that you don't need me to tell you who the character Conan the Barbarian is. Created in 1932 by Robert Howard, Conan and his imitators have stalked through fantasy for 87 years now. If we're going to be honest Conan and the idea of the barbarian adventurer who climbs his way up civilization may be both the most American fantasy character out there and our most enduring donation to the fantasy genre as a whole. Mr. Howard, who sadly took his own life before hitting his prime, wrote twenty one full Conan stories and numerous fragments before his death. Many of those fragments were taken up by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter who reworked and in some cases rewrote some of Mr. Howard's work. Since then Conan has appeared in movies, live-action television, cartoons and video games with regularity. One medium he has thoroughly conquered however is comic books, with a Conan comic book of some type being in print nearly continuously from 1970. Marvel's Conan the Barbarian ran for about twenty three years, ending in 1993, with the Savage Sword of Conan running from 1974 to 1995. In 2003, Dark Horse Comics began their own run, entitled simply Conan by Kurt Busiek.

Kurt Busiek was born September 16, 1960, in Boston, Massachusetts. He did not grow up reading comics, as his parents disapproved of them (Dear god). Despite this when he opened his first comic at the age of 14 (Daredevil 120 in 1975) he was hooked by the history and connections to an entire fictional universe. He started making comics in high school and college and had several letters published in the reader's comments section of various comics. In fact, he's credited for the theory that the Phoenix was a separate entity and had merely replaced X Men character, Jean Grey, paving the way for her first return from death (And so it begins… See kids! Your supremely dorky fan-theory can influence the development of entire genres!). Busiek started working for DC and Marvel in the 1980s and over time would also work on his own ideas, such as the award-winning Astro City or Autumnlands (the first volume of which we did review). He was the writer for the first year or so of the Conan Series. So let's finally start talking about the book.

The Dark Horse series decides to tackle Conan from the very beginning, the small hill village in the dim, misty land of Cimmeria. Telling us the tale of Conan's birth on a battlefield (Woah, um… there’s a mental image), his childhood, and growth to a young man. The series also confronts the problem of tying the stories of Conan into a single linear narrative that is coherent as well as entertaining. Mr. Howard usually used the medium of short stories for Conan and he did not write in linear order. Adventurers leaped about freely from one period of Conan's life to another. Mr. Howard would claim to friends later that was how the stories came to him as if Conan was sitting with him and telling him stories from his life to pass the time or entertain him. Mr. Busiek tackles this by weaving in and expanding Conan lore from Mr. Howard's letters and using a narrative framing device. In this case, the series is framed as a vizier (possibly a dark sorcerer) of what could be the Ottoman Empire reading recovered scrolls of the Nemedian Chronicle (a fictional in-universe account of Conan's world) to a prince who finds himself fascinated by a long-vanished king. With the vizier/sorcerer complaining that there's no way that this chronicle could be accurate and has to be an overblown narration, Mr. Busiek gives himself some operating room for his own inventions and expanding on Conan's family. While Conan’s family doesn’t appear in Howard’s story, he did discuss it in some letters to fans. For example, stating that Conan’s Father was a blacksmith and that his Grandfather had spent a lot of time outside of Cimmeria. This meant that Mr. Busiek could bring Conan’s Grandfather to the fore as the man that Conan was closest to, able to calm and educate Conan about the world by weaving tales of the world to the south. A world of silks, gems, good food and drink, and beautiful women.

The young Conan we get here is a moody young man, often finding himself somewhat separated from the fellow children of the village. Shaped by the dangerous and grim land that he was born into, where his clan has to fight to wrest out a living from the hard hills, Conan grows quickly. A major issue we're shown is just how talented Conan is at fighting and killing, he is frankly more dangerous than most modern adults will ever be. This is a problem because being a child he hasn't learned the restraint needed to avoid tragedy. On the flip side, his society doesn't work that hard and if we're going to be honest, can't afford to work that hard to keep Conan restrained. Mr. Busiek takes pains to show us that life in Cimmeria is hard, rough and dangerous. Honestly, I appreciate the savagery, as there is a tendency to romanticize pre-industrial lifestyles and forget that it often means putting yourself completely and utterly at the mercy of forces such as winter or blight (The myth of the Noble Savage is utter bullshit that persists to this day and gets even more stupid than it was in its inception. You see it every time someone talks about how we need to go ‘back to nature’ in order to be healthy. I’m a biologist, I love nature, but nature is scary and being at its whims is not our friend.). Add in that the hills of Cimmeria teem with predators who view the humans sharing their habitat as a potential meal and that Conan's clan must often face raids and attacks from their neighbors. This is not restricted to other Cimmerians, although they fight amongst themselves fairly often; but other nearby ethnic groups like the blonde, blue-eyed Asgardians and their red-headed rivals the Vanir. Faced with so many dangers without, they need the strength and rage of men like Conan to stave off extinction and if that means putting up with their growing pains so be it (He may have killed the guy in the next hut in a drunken rage, but he killed ten Asgardians last week so it’s a net positive! {And a pack of wolves and a panther}). Although this means that Conan ended up crippling one of his clan-mates as a child (the boy attacked him and was trying to bash his skull with rocks to be fair) and killed another through accident and while he was punished, he got off lighter than others would. Which explains some of his later behavior honestly. This also shows us the fact that Conan doesn't realize just how strong he is yet and that he's not fully comfortable with himself. Of course, at this point, he's fourteen (Show me one of those who is comfortable with himself). I will note that Conan even at this young age is able to realize when he's wronged someone and attempt to make amends, accepting the guilt for the man he killed and submitting to the victim's family for whatever decision they come to. While Conan's morality isn't our 21st-century American morality, it is recognizable as a form of morality and his struggles to understand and act in what he views as moral and honorable behavior add dimension to his growing pains.

In this volume is also where Conan takes part in the sack of Venarium, something that was discussed in one of the stories that Mr. Howard wrote but never really got into. Venarium was a frontier town of the great nation of Aquilonia. That frontier is the southern lands of Cimmeria, rich in iron, tin, and other ores (Tin? Daaaamn. Getting into the head of an ancient person, a good deposit of tin will make you rich as fuck, what with tin’s scarcity relative to copper. Bronze is important yo! Even in the iron age). The Aquilonias are socially more advanced than the Cimmerians and as such see themselves as having a right to take land from the Cimmerians (Do they have a flag? </Eddie Izzard>). The Cimmerians don't agree with this and are prepared to make murdering Aquilonians the new national hobby as a response. Here Mr. Busiek doesn't shy away from the grim realities of such a war, as both sides commit atrocities without any restraint. Cimmerians raid and brutalize any Aquilonians they can get a hold of, while the Aquilonians in their turn ruthlessly hunt down and torture and kill any Cimmerians they find in turn. In the end, Venarium falls and the Cimmerians murder all the women and children they find in the fortress. Including a young Aquilonian that Conan had come to know and love, added with the loss of friends and family this brings the cost of such wars fully to the fore and makes for a powerful reason as to why Conan would leave his home. There were simply too many memories pushing him out and nothing left to keep him.

Mr. Busiek covers Conan's first journeys beyond those misty hills, heading north into Asgardian and Vanir lands, seeking the nearly mythical Hyperborea. From this point, he's able to work in new adaptations of Mr. Howard's work as well as original works of his own and do a good job of welding them together into a coherent whole. In this case, we see the Frost Giant's daughter, told as an episode in this journey to the far north. We also get Conan's first experience with the civilizations south of his home as he moves on to see the truth of his Grandfather's tales. It's here that we see more of Mr. Busiek’s original work with the inclusion of an immortal witch the Bone Woman as a background character and her servant the swords-woman Janissa. Janissa is an interesting character. At first, I thought she was just a Red Sonja stand-in but Mr. Busiek was smart enough to make her a very different personality and character. Janissa is more bitter and biting then most modern takes on Sonja and she is bound to service of the Bonewoman, who in exchange magically enhanced her strength and speed. She also fights much differently then Red Sonja using a pair of blades modeled on a Khopesh - a curved blade believed to be invented in bronze age Egypt. This lets her stand apart from Red Sonja, Belit and the other various warrior women of the Hyborian Age. That said there are parts of her origin that I found kind of distasteful. As part of Janissa's training was to be tossed in a pit, where she would be attacked by a growing number of demons. If they defeated her, which they often did, they would beat and then rape her. If she killed them all, she would be let out of the pit, well more like she wasn't allowed out of the pit until she won. Frankly, this just kinda feels unnecessary. I'm not saying you can't use rape as part of a character's backstory or never have it show up in your stories but there's a line between using it as a plot element and using it for shock value. There's a whole discussion to be had here, but I'll simply put it like this: could you get the same value from the story if you cut out the sexual assault? If the answer is yes, then you should most likely do so. This is really the only black mark I can lay on the Omnibus but it's not a light one, honestly though given how Mr. Busiek approaches other heavy topics, I view this as a well-intentioned attempt to call back to the older origins of Red Sonja, but in all honesty I'm no fan of that origin either.

Despite that, overall I enjoyed the comic and found it a compelling way to tell Conan's story and introduce people to his world. Mr. Busiek gives us a moody and savage young man struggling to come to terms with the world and himself but eager to force the world to come to terms with him whether the world likes it or not. He also gives us a world haunted by dark, hungry, ancient powers that also have civilizations that strive towards new heights and is full of people who feel real and alive. Despite some missteps, Mr. Busiek overall does an admirable job here. I'm giving the Conan Omnibus a B+ and I'm hopeful of seeing future volumes hit the A rank before too long.

Next week, we return to Miles Cameron Traitor Son Cycle with The Dread Wyrm, which was also voted for by our paterons.  If you would like to vote for books to be reviewed consider joining us at whereas little as a 1$ a month gives you a vote on what books come up for reviews. Until then, Keep Reading!

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders. 

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