“Helm” / “Conan’s Favorite Joke”
Writers: Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza
Artists: John Severin, Bruce Timm
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
I realize the 19th issue of Dark Horse’s Conan just hit the stands, but if I may comment belatedly on Conan #18…
It’s an exemplary issue for a few reasons:
1. It’s a exceedingly entertaining “stand alone” issue. Most readers under the age of 25 right now are probably asking, “what’s a ‘stand alone’ issue?” It’s an issue that presents a complete story between the covers. In other words, the story does not continue into (or continue from) another issue. No, I’m not crazy. Complete comic book stories CAN be told in 22 pages (Hell, Conan #18 tells TWO stories in 22 pages…, although granted, one of these stories is a quick “set-up/punchline” endeavor). Believe it or not, a few decades ago, comic books regularly presented complete stories in one issue. There were no four or six issue story arcs. I swear to you, my beloved readers, I am not yanking your chain; you can see for yourself by perusing any of the DC Archives or Marvel Masterworks collecting issues from the 1960s/70s.
And don’t get me wrong: I can enjoy the multi-issue story arc just as much as the next serial fiction addict, but too many publishers/editors no longer recognize how enjoyable these self-contained issues can be for readers (as well as how well these issues can pull in new readers).
2. The man who provided the artwork for this issue’s main story is the legendary John Severin, who, if you’re not aware, has been drawing comic books since the late 1940s. Conan #18 presents the work of a man who will forever be recognized as one of the most prolific artists in the history of comic books (contributing significantly not only to Silver Age Marvel Comics but also 1950s EC Comics) and is currently 83 years old (born December, 1921). I wish one tenth of today’s comic books presented artwork as finely detailed and nuanced as what John Severin provides in this issue. Most impressive are the painstaking cross hatched shadows that can be found in EVERY panel. By “every panel,” I mean EVERY PANEL in the comic book. I’d be hard-pressed to name a younger contemporary artist who cross-hatches with the kind of frequency (and effectiveness) I see here. The clear and varied facial expressions that Severin provides are also noteworthy: anger, fear, concern, shock, exhilaration, annoyance, guile, intrigue, conceit. And I can’t stop turning back to the beginning of the issue and a two page spread, portraying two forces charging each other at the edge of a town. A spectacular wealth of detail is supplied within this chaotic melee.
3. The main story “Helm” is a clever narrative in which Conan doesn’t even appear. Instead, the story follows the path Conan’s helmet (which he lost when ambushed by giants in a previous issue) takes from person to person as it gets found, stolen, purchased, confiscated, prophesized about, and, of course, worn in battle. An archer at the beginning of the story claims, “[it’s] bad luck to wear armor someone’s died in,” and at that point, a reader might believe an ironic story about a “cursed helmet” is unfolding (even though we are aware that Conan didn‘t die in that helmet). However, the story is not about irony or cursed objects influencing someone’s fate but about how uniformly violent and hopeless Conan’s world is, where everyone‘s fate is the same. Throughout the story, the helmet indeed protects none of its wearers from being robbed or killed. Whether someone lives or dies depends on happenstance: crossing the Hyrkanian border at the wrong time, being an inhabitant of the wrong village that is about to be attacked by overwhelming forces, finding oneself instead of one’s comrade the target of an enemy archer. In Conan’s world the wearing of a helmet does not improve one‘s chances of remaining alive. There is no sufficient protection against violent chance.
This short story’s theme along with the incomparable workmanship of John Severin’s artwork creates an exceptional issue. If you were waiting for the “perfect” issue before giving Dark Horse’s Conan a try, this may be it. It’s worth your time to see if your retailer has any leftover copies.
What did you think of this book?
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