It's kind of awesome that Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword even exists. It's not perfect — the quality is inconsistent, and like all anthologies you take the bad with the good. But the very fact that Dark Horse puts out an entire comic dedicated to Robert E. Howard's lesser-known characters — his boxers, gunfighters, noir detectives and sailors — is cool in its own right.
Howard wrote in pretty much every genre available. He wasn't a master of them all, but he didn't let that stop him. He was on a constant lookout for new markets, and if a magazine was buying boxing stories, then Howard would whip up a boxing story. All of his characters still had a "Howardian" touch. It has famously been said that every Howard story can be a Conan story; you just have to change the name and location of the characters. In fact, many writers have done just that over the years. I don't necessarily agree with that statement, but I can see the argument. Howard always wrote Howard.
Of course, Howard was at his best writing Conan, and Conan is in here as well. The famous barbarian gets two stories, "Conan and the Jewels of Hesterm" and "Conan: White Death." Both are excellent ("White Death" is one of the jewels of this collection), but there is already lots of Conan out there in the comic world. It's nice to see some of Howard's other characters step into the spotlight. In fact, if I had my druthers there would be less Conan in Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword.
I read all of the single issues for this series, but I think it works better as a collected edition. This comic comes out sporadically to say the least; you might find yourself waiting months between chapters. Here, you get all of the stories together, read straight through. There are twelve stories total in Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword Volume 1. The single issues also reprinted various '70s Howard comics, but these are not included. Also not included are The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob strips that tell the story of Howard's life.
The writers and artists are a mix of comic book superstars like Paul Tobin, Scott Allie, Dave Stewart, Tim Bradstreet, and David Lapham, with some relative unknowns like Pete Doree, Pop Mhan, and Ben Dewey. Don't let the famous names prejudice you — some of the best entries here are by people I had never heard of. They are talented creators with an obvious passion for Howard and his world. And that's who should be contributing to a comic like this.
There are a few standouts worth mentioning.
"El Borak: The Incident at Hakim's Rest" is my favorite in the collection, featuring Howard's desert fighter Francis X. Gordon a.k.a. El Borak. One of Howard's first creations, amazingly this is the first time El Borak has made a comic book appearance. Reading how smoothly the character fits into the comic page makes me wonder why no one thought to do this earlier. I've always loved the desert action genre — Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favorite flicks — and there are enough sand dunes and camel fights here to please anyone. Writer and noted Howard scholar Mark Finn makes sure El Borak's debut is a stellar one. Finn also does an introduction and history of El Borak illustrated by Tim Bradstreet that is a good read. I would love to see those two do a comic together.
"The Sonora Kid: Knife, Bullet, and Noose" is another amazing yarn. Jeremy Barlow and Tony Parker adapt this Howard Western and do a perfect job. I wasn't expecting to like this one as much as I did. The Sonora Kid has never been a favorite character of mind; just kind of a standard issue gunfighter. And as much as I love to watch Westerns, I rarely enjoy reading Westerns. Barlow and Parker must feel the same way, because they took this story into full widescreen; Parker's art in particular is dramatically cinematic. After reading this, I am sold on the Sonora Kid — I wish this were the start of an ongoing series instead of a short story in a collection.
"Conan: White Death" is the other star. Fully painted by Sean Phillips, with a story loosely inspired by the L. Sprague de Camps/Lin Carter story "The Lair of the Ice Worm," this is a perfect Conan comic. The story is the right mix of unsettling Lovecraftian monsters, good, spooky atmosphere, and a barbarian that will stand up to anything. This is the kind of Conan story that I love — the painted art is beautiful, with Conan coming alive on the page. I also enjoy this kind of short story for anthologies. Any anthology should have a couple of short, punchy yarns that break up the larger chunks of the ongoing series. I could do with about 10 or 20 more exactly like this.
Some of the stories are good, but not really amazing. Marc Andreyko's "Dark Agnes: Storytelling" is a decent yarn but doesn't do justice to the character. Paul Tobin actually takes over Dark Agnes later on and does a much better job. Andreyko's Agnes is more like an original character, and less like a Howard creation. She smiles too much. Joe Casey and Pop Mhan do able work on "Sailor Steve Costigan" who I've never really been a fan of — he's like Popeye without the mirth. It's not the greatest, but hey — I bet you thought you would never read a Sailor Steve Costigan comic.
The noir thriller "Steve Harrison: Pinot Noir" is a nice piece, but a forgettable. I honestly would have a hard time telling you what the story was about. Something with wine, obviously. The two horror tales, "John Silent in The Earthbound Dead" and "The Thing on the Roof" are okay. Aside from maybe "Pigeons From Hell," Howard was never a great horror writer. You need his friend HP Lovecraft for that. Howard's characters tend to be too robust for good horror — it's hard to be scared of something you can punch in the nose.
The only real loser in the bunch is David Lapham's "Brule: The Spear and the Siren." Lapham wrote the Kull comic for Dark Horse but he never really seemed to get a grip on the characters. This is another story of Brule the Spear Slayer acting not at all like Brule. Fabio Cobiaco's art is distracting as well; he changes styles mid-issue, which is kind of weird. This is even more noticeable in the trade than in the single issues — I had to look twice to confirm it was the same artist.
This first volume of Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword is mostly original stories inspired by Howard instead of actual adaptations. That was kind of weird for me. When you have a comic with a big ol' "Robert E. Howard" right there in the title, I expect adaptations of his stories. After all, if this was Hemmingway's Tales of Africa you would expect Hemmingway adaptations, not new stories trying to continue stories Hemmingway finished. Howard didn't live very long, but he wrote a hell of a lot. Maybe when the world is out of Howard stories to adapt they can go back to "based on … " — but we aren't even close. They haven't even done "Skull Face" yet!
Later entries in Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword DO have more adaptations, which is good
. Expect Volume 2 to have a lot more Howard in it. That said, Volume 1 is a solid collection with enough good stuff to please most fans.
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.