ADVANCE REVIEW! Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword #4 will go on sale Wednesday, March 14, 2012.
It has been quite a while since the last issue of Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword came out last October. I'm not quite sure how to categorize this series. Quarterly? Random? I suppose it can be a boon on the pocketbook that the series comes out as infrequently as it does. And when it does appear, it is always a treat.
This issue closes off all of the existing stories. Lots of "Part 2 of 2" here. There are also two self-contained stories, which is a must for anthologies. This means that whenever issue #5 comes out, it will be a fresh start with brand new characters and more characters from the world of Robert E. Howard.
As to this issue, here we go:
Brule: The Spear Slayer – Part 2 of 2
Written by David Lapham, Art by Fabio Cobiaco, Colors by Dan Jackson
I don't know what happened between issue #3 and issue #4, but I did a double-take on the art here. Comparing parts 1 and 2 of Brule the Spear Slayer together, I would have bet money that the art team had changed. But nope. Same artist, same colorist. It looks like Fabio Cobiaco spent the months since issue #3 in October studying Mike Mignola, while Dan Jackson was studying Dave Stewart. But is it an improvement?
Brule the Spear Slayer is such an odd little story I am not quite sure what to make of it. Basically, it is an almost Munchausen-like tale of how Brule lost a spear and gained a new one. I like it for it's fairy tale quality. It is simple and straightforward. And kingdoms under the sea are hardly out of the realm of King Kull and Brule, especially after the events of Kull: The Cat and the Skull.
David Lapham wrote a nice little story, but I still have a problem with the art. Even though Cobiaco and Jackson did a drastic style change, they still have the same fundamental weaknesses. Cobiaco does tremendous backgrounds, richly detailed and beautiful to look at. But his human characters, and especially their faces, are poorly done. And while Jackson's colors show a greater range here, they are still too flat and lack subtlety.
The Sonora Kid: Knife, Bullet, and Noose – Part 2 of 2
Written by Jeremy Barlow, Art by Tony Parker, Colors by Brian Miller
This story kicks so much ass. Give Jeremy Barlow and Tony Parker a Sonora Kid mini-series. They deserve it. Their work here is fantastic.
Part 1 of Knife, Bullet, and Noose was cool, but it was pretty much just set-up. We got all the players in place, then paused right as the action began. Part 2 hits the ground running and all hell breaks loose. Grizzly Gullin's attack was just a trap to get the Kid to surrender his guns, and now he finds himself out-numbered and out-gunned. But even without his sidearm, the Sonora Kid isn't helpless.
Based on a Robert E. Howard original story, Barlow and Parker riff on cowboy action flicks and hit every note just right. Their Sonora Kid is 100% cowboy, charming and deadly at the same time. Parker does great facial expressions, and his mix of angles is cinematic and bold. Sonora Kid makes Jonah Hex look like amateur hour. This is how western comics should be done.
Brian Miller, who did the colors, also deserves special props. The fire scenes with the mix of red, yellow and orange with deep shadow are beautiful.
Conan: White Death
Written by Pete Doree. Art by Sean Phillips
Another fantastic entry. White Death is adapted from L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's Conan pastiche The Lair of the Ice Worm. I don't know why they changed the title, unless it was to add some suspense to the story, and I suppose I could quibble about a de Camp/Carter pastiche in "Robert E. Howard's" comic, but this is so well done that I couldn't care less what the source is.
The real star of the show here is Sean Philips. Anyone who has been unsatisfied with Becky Cloonan's slimmer, more handsome Conan from Queen of the Black Coast just needs to flip to the first page of this story to get a fix of exactly what they want. Philips Conan is solid, rugged. This is a man you can picture carving a bloody swath through armies. The artwork looks to be fully painted (although with modern computer technology it is hard to tell), and writer Pete Doree wisely lets Philips images tell most of the story.
My only minor issue with the art was that, if the landscape really is as cold as it looks, I don't think that Aesir would be walking around entirely covered in fur except for her breast sticking out. The incongruity of that looked ridiculous rather than sexy, and should have been saved for when she got out of the cold and into the fire-warmed cave.
White Death has a good, spooky atmosphere, and an actually unsettling monster. I haven't read The Lair of the Ice Worm for a long, long time, so I fully enjoyed the shock at the end. Even the most die-hard Conan fan is going to be pleased by this one.
The Thing on the Roof
Written by Dave Land. Art by M.S. Corley
Some people are going to call this blasphemy, but — with a couple of exceptions — I have always thought Robert E. Howard was a poor horror writer. In order for horror to be effective, the lead characters have to be somewhat fragile. And Howard's characters are nothing if not robust. By the same token, HP Lovecraft would have written terrible sword-and-sorcery. His pale, weak academics would soon find their heads up on pikes.
The Thing on the Roof is a pretty decent horror effort from Howard. It has its silly moments, but it is better than some. The story was adapted by Marvel back in the 1973 in issue #3 of Chamber of Chills in the EC style. This adaptation is a different tone, and artist M.S. Corley animated style gives it a touch of humor. I thought this worked well, given some of the absurd plot points. And his monster at the end is really, really cool.
Kull: The Vale of Shadow – Part 2 of 2
Written by Alan Zelenetz, Art by Tony De Zuniga, Colors by Tom Vincent, Lettering by Michael Heisler
I am glad to see this one end. There might be someone out there who loves Kull: The Vale of Shadow, and more power to them, but I find this a struggle to read and impossible to enjoy.
I don't know how to describe Kull: The Vale of Shadow other than this is a prog rock fantasy version of Kull. Originally published by Marvel in their oversized Graphic Novel series, I still have a hard time believing this comic is from 1989. Everything about it, from the style, to the color scheme, to the LSD-tripping moving back and forth from dream to reality just screams 1970s.
What is it about? I have no idea. Kull basically spends page after page having sex with some green woman with giant horns, who leads him through reality after reality, including the time he steps inside a painting to unite two lovers eternally separated on a canvas. Supposedly it is about Kull's rise to power as king, and maybe that is hidden somewhere in there.
I appreciate Dark Horse's attempts to bring some of the more obscure Marvel stuff back into print, but The Vale of Shadow maybe should have been left in the vault.
The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob
Last but not least, we get another installment of Jim and Ruth Keegan's brilliant "True Life Stories from the Life of Robert E. Howard." This issue has a letter exchange between Howard and Lovecraft on the merits of civilization vs. barbarism.
Up and Coming
Aside of Kull: The Vale of Shadow, this was a top-notch issue and fully worthy of the price of entry. If Dark Horse wanted to give a shot to a Barlow/Parker Sonora Kid or a Doree/Philips Conan mini-series I would totally be there. At the very least, I hope to see those teams return in future issues of Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword.
And speaking of next issue, now that the serials are all finished, editor Patrick Thorpe promises us some cool new stories coming soon. More Dark Agnes. A Steve Niles story. Hopefully we won't have to wait quite as long for issue #4 as we did for issue #5.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.