Dark Horse has its ongoing Conan series that tells connected stories, and then it has its miniseries. In the minis, creators are allowed to spin whatever Conan yarn they feel like spinning — in whatever time period, with whatever Conan. These little off-shoots run the gambit from completely awesome Eisner award-worthy gems, to abysmal failures that will forever be held up as examples of how bad Conan comics can get.
Conan: Daughters of Midora and Other Stories has both kinds. About 50% of this collection is awesome; some of the best Conan you are going to find in modern comics. Great stuff. The other 50% is just bad. Really bad. Like, I want to tear out the pages and fling them into the fire bad.
The first story, Trophy, is nothing short of brilliant. Written by the brothers Tim and Ben Truman — who are the current torch-bearers of Robert E. Howard and do the best Conan comics in the business — Trophy is a tight eight-page story that shows off Conan's brain as well as that gigantic mirth that so rarely comes into play. Conan rides up to a desert oasis with a sack full of treasure and starts telling stories of each piece. The tale is so classic, so perfect, it plays like a hundred-year old fable; it could have been an episode of Jim Henson's Storyteller.
The art in Trophy is an equal match. Marian Churchland's style is nothing like I would expect to see in Conan, more fanciful and whimsical. Churchland did the colors as well, and perfectly captured those desert hues.
The Daughters of Midora by Jimmy Palmiotti and Mark Texeira is a pure old-school Roy Thomas/ John Buscema homage. I am most familiar with Palmiotti and Texeira with their Jonah Hex series, so I was expecting some kind of Western/Conan mash-up, but got this treat instead.
Conan finds himself in a jail cell, where an old man imparts a secret. There is a king with twin daughters. A sorcerer. Blue ogre men. A dinosaur-esque dragon. All the right elements in all the right order. I know some have panned this story for lack of originality, but I unreservedly loved Daughters of Midora, and wish Palmiotti and Texeira would come play in the Hyborian Age more often. Because they got it down.
And for two guys who don't have it down, next up is Kiss of the Undead and Island of No Return by Ron Marz and Bart Sears. These stories are just awful. This is that pure '90s Conan, where his body became freakishly muscled and all sense of storytelling or character was just flung out the window in favor of exaggerated, balloon-bodied woman in back-twisting poses and "awesome" fighting. Conan looks ridiculous, with a tiny little pinhead stuck on a gorilla's body. It's like a parody.
Here's hoping Marz and Sears never come near any more Robert E. Howard, because they obviously don't get it. If you have ever heard Conan described as a pre-pubescent boy's power fantasy, this is exactly what they are talking about.
Fortunately, as if to wash the bad taste out of your mouth, Michael Avon Oeming follows up with Children of the Sun.
I mainly know Oeming from Powers, but I know he has done some sword and sorcery stuff as well. He has a style that just works so well with the genre. He uses dark shadows and heavy lines like Mignola, mixed with Bruce Timm's animation style. I loved the rough edges he gave to his panels, that gives the story and even more barbaric feel. The story is both violent and elegant, both visceral and deep. And that last page… perfect.
The only bad part of Children of the Sun is that it is an eight-pager. Oeming should obviously be given a longer Conan series to do, either adapting a Howard story or doing his own original work. Either way, I would be first in line to buy it.
It's hard to recommend Conan: Daughters of Midora and Other Stories because while the highs are so high, the lows are so low. I wish the Marz/Sears collaborations weren't here, but they sit like a dead zone in the middle of an otherwise amazing collection. But there it is. Let the buyer beware.
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.