Robert E Howard's Savage Sword is always a bit of a frustration for me. I should be happy that a comic like this is being published at all, that Howard is getting some due. And it should be such a cool comic — Howard has a wealth of untapped material beyond Conan, King Kull, and Solomon Kane that is just ripe for the picking. And some of the stories show that potential. "Sonora Kid" was amazing. "White Death" was gorgeous. But the comic on the whole rarely rises to the level of awesome that I know it could.
With issue #5, we get more adaptations. That's good. Previous issues had too many original stories while Howard's own writing gathered dust. When I pick up a comic called Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword, I expect the bulk of it to be Howard's writing, with some occasional pastiche from other writers. This issue we get four Howard yarns, and one original, which is the proper ration — although, as a nit to pick it would be nice of Dark Horse to credit Howard with his own work. When I see "Men of the Shadows" was "written by" Ian Edginton instead of "adapted by" Ian Edginton, I admit I choke a little. It would be great to see a notation as to where the story was first published as well.
So we get almost all Howard stories in Issue #5, so what's the problem? That is harder to put my finger on.
Bran Mak Morn: Men of the Shadows
Ian Edgington, Richard Pace
Bran Mak Morn was Howard's first hero, and a prototype for what would come after. The Pict chieftain only shows up in a handful of stories, and "Men of the Shadows" is the first. This story is adapted by Ian Edginton, breaking the story into three parts. He does a good job from what I can tell of this little eight-page intro. There is quite a bit of story that needs to be compacted into this little intro, and some of the best parts are lost, I think, like the savage Northman throwing off his Roman armor to become again a wildman and a warrior, which is what drew Bran Mak Morn to save his life.
Richard Pace's art looks decent, violent and brutal with a really nice head-on-a-stake scene. Pace's Picts aren't the woad-covered hairy blue men of Gary Gianni, but they are authentic enough for me. I would have liked to have seen a little more of the atmosphere of the story captured and less of the action, but we will see what happens. I am looking forward to the next two parts.
In the Forest of Villefere
Steve Niles, Chris Mitten
I was looking forward to this one. Horror master Steve Niles adapting one of Howard's werewolf tales seemed like a win-win situation. And Niles did a good job. He took Howard's sparse tale and packaged it into a tight eight-page comic, and retained much of Howard's prose. As an adaptation it was excellent.
But the art killed this one for me. Chris Mitten's work was too loose, too stylistic for me. Especially with the human character, De Montour. Mitten's forest looked properly gloomy, and his mysterious stranger Le Loup looks appropriately menacing, but De Montour just looks badly drawn. He face has odd angles, and there are lines that just shouldn't be there. At times he almost looks like a playing card.
Or it might be the coloring. Colorist Michelle Madsen colored De Montour's face with solid blocks of color, so he comes off looking that one of those "color in the lines" projects you do as a kid.
Either way, artist or colorist, this one just didn't work for me.
King Conan: Two Birds…
This is the only original story in issue #5, and also the biggest problem. In "Two Birds…" Howard Chaykin made a cool little story. It's clever. It's sexy. It's brutal. It's all those things you want from a Howard Chaykin story.
The problem is, it just isn't a good Conan story.
Really, this story is so different from Conan it makes me wonder if Chaykin wrote "Two Birds…" with different characters, and just decided to re-skin the story to make it more sellable. For King Conan to keep a harem of virgins protected by eunuchs, and to play at palace politics instead of engaging in open combat — it just goes against everything Howard ever wrote.
If Chaykin had written this comic with some Arabian Knight Caliph or even some suave, fantasy King, then I would have enjoyed it. Praised it. But as a Conan tale it is an epic fail.
Oh, and for some bizarre reason Chaykin dressed Conan like Fred Flintstone. Really.
Dark Agnes: Sword Woman
Paul Tobin, Francesco Francavilla
By contrast, this story is 100% awesome. First up, props to Paul Tobin. He is the only one who credits Howard as the author of the tale. And props to Francesco Francavilla, who drew a really beautiful adaptation. If anyone wonders who the original red-haired she-devil with a sword was, look no further than the tale of Dark Agnes de Chastillon.
Both Tobin and Francavilla got that perfect blend of strength and beauty in the character of Dark Agness. I always thought Dark Agnes was a better character than Roy Thomas' semi-clone Red Sonja, because Dark Agnes is less of a look-but-don't-touch male fantasy object and is more of an empowered woman. In fact, anyone who sees Howard as sexist should really sit down and read his Dark Agnes stories.
I was impressed with this one. In fact, "Dark Agnes: Sword Woman" is what I wish every story in Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword was like. A well-written, well-drawn adaptation of an obscure-yet-cool Howard tale. Like "Men of the Shadows," this story is a three-parter and I am bummed to think how long I may have to wait until the next installment.
Kings of the Night
Roy Thomas, David Wenzel
There is nothing wrong at all with "Kings of the Knight." This is one of Howard's greatest adaptors, Roy Thomas, doing one of Howard's greatest stories, "Kings of the Night" which brings together his two heroes Bran Mak Morn and King Kull. Artist Da
vid Wenzel pulls off a perfectly good Barry Windsor-Smith impression and all is good.
The problem, of course, is that I have read this. Many times. This story was first published by Marvel in 1979, and has held up well. Great comic.
I know reprints are part of Dark Horse's business plan of Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword, and I don't mind them, but "Kings of the Night" takes up a lot of space.I would rather see a new take on the story. I would love to see Pete Doree and Sean Phillips — who did "White Death" in Issue #4 — take on Kings of the Nights. I would love someone else to have a shot at this.
As a reader, I want more self-contained stories. Because of the sporadic publishing nature of the comic, who knows how long well have to wait for the next installment of "Dark Agness: Sword Woman"? It was a long wait between issue #4 and #5. And I want a bigger mix of genres. This issue was almost all sword-and-sorcery, and I missed the cowboys, hard-boiled detectives, and desert adventurers from previous issues.
Oh, and Skull Face. I definitely want Skull Face to make an appearance. Maybe next time.
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.