Sunday Slugfest: Solomon Kane #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Jon Judy, Paul Brian McCoy, Robert Murray, Jason Sacks
"The Castle of the Devil: part 1 of 5"

Jon Judy:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Robert Murray:
Jason Sacks:

Jon Judy:

Solomon Kane would like me. I'm a virgin.

Well, that is to say I'm a virgin to Solomon Kane. Never read any of Howard's Kane stories, nor have I ever checked the character out in other media. So I went into this with no preconceived notions, other than a vague notion that Kane is a murdering Puritan. That, by the way, is thoroughly redundant. Religious extremism always destroys lives, whether direct murder is involved or not.

Anywho, from what I can gather, Solomon is a pasty-face, uber-creepy, ye-olde Puritan who wanders the world killing evil people. That brings me to my first criticism: Dark Horse might have provided us with some sort of synopsis of the premise in the inside front cover, or somewhere, to make this more accessible to new readers.

Back to my anywho. So, anywho, Solomon is wandering the Black Forest when he comes upon a young lad who has been hanged but is still clinging to life. Kane cuts him down and learns the boy was left hanging there by the neighborhood Baron. Kane heads off to get some answers from his royal-ness, and along the way befriends a traveling Limey traveler who looks a whole lot like Garth Hudson (wiki it, kiddies). They crash with the Baron for the night, and he seems to be a perfect host. He also denies going around and hanging kids.

Okay, as readers we know at this point that one of two things is going to happen: either Limey or the Baron… hey, "Limey and the Baron"; that would make a great name for a 1970s pop band. Wait, where was I? Oh, yeah… So we know either the Limey or the Baron is going to turn out to be hiding a sinister secret, and that they will attempt to do Kane in before being struck down by The Avenging Albino Who Is Not Elric.

Since we know where we are going, the question now is, how well do the creators do the job of getting there. The answer: not bad.

Allie's script is solid, stumbling only in the ending to the first issue. We conclude with the one-two shot of a panel depicting Kane praying and another showing the exterior of the castle. Yeah. Whoa. Gripping. Can't wait to spend my $2.99 to find out how that prayer ends. Or if the castle falls down. The point is that as far as endings to a first act go, this one is a little... quiet. But Allie's dialogue is solid and the story is, until the odd ending, well paced.

As for the art, Guevara's work here is well suited to the story. It's even a thematic match, as he uses few solid blacks and lots and lots of "sketchy" lines, which make the illustrations look a little like engravings. That's a neat approach given the setting, but at times it can be obtrusive when it comes to the storytelling. None of the characters seem to "move," to exist beyond the page. They seem like stiff etchings, which is fine for anything not requiring a show of emotions or actions. Consider, for example, the first panel of page three, wherein Kane slashes at a bad guy with his sword. Based on the arc of the blood and the speed lines, he appears to be slashing upwards. However, his arm is straight out to his side, and it looks as though he has simply stuck it out there, not as though he took a slash at someone. One of the other problems with Guevera's inking style is that there are few solid, clear distinctions between the contents of each panel, and when one combines that with the muddy coloring things can get confusing. In this same panel, for example, Kane's sword is no more defined or brightly colored than the speed lines it leaves in its wake, giving the impression at first glance that Kane backhanded his assailant and then drew his arm back to his side.

This stiff quality is also problematic when it comes to reading characters' facial expressions. What are the Baron and his wife feeling - or trying to look like they're feeling - in the last panel of 17? Your guess is as good as mine.

Having said that, those problems are few and far between, and let me once more emphasize that Guevera's art is a thematic match for the story. In fact, and I don't know if this is Guevera's doing or if Allie scripts this exactly, but most of the pages are laid out so that there are multiple tiers of panels in the middle tier of each page.

I'm being about as clear as the muddy coloring on this book, aren't I?

Take page 1, for example. Panels 1 and 2 are on the top tier of the page, panel 3 is on the left side of the middle tier, panels 4-6 are on the right side of the middle tier, then panels 7 and 8 are on the bottom. So instead of reading left to right until the end of each tier and beginning at the left again on the next, our eyes move left to right, down, left to right, down, down, down, down, and left to right.

Guevara uses a variation on this technique on 10 pages, and the cumulative effect is a sense of something being "off-kilter," of not moving smoothly. It's a comic book equivalent of the old German Expressionism filmmaking technique of turning the camera so it was at an angle. By disrupting our normal reading process, Guevara lends Allie's story an aura of the sinister, a needed contribution considering that, really, this issue is all set-up to some larger story, and doesn't even end on a suspenseful point. Nevertheless, the feeling of danger is palpable throughout, leaving me sufficiently intrigued to try the next issue.

And when you consider my lack of interest in the character, that's saying something. They left me wanting more when I didn't even want any to begin with.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Just to get it out of the way, "The Castle of the Devil" is a story fragment by Robert E. Howard. There's really nothing to it. In fact, the entire fragment is adapted in four pages (from the moment John Silent finds Kane resting on a rock, to the moment where Kane says, "Your speech is wild and Godless, but I begin to like you.") of this issue. That's it.

By the way, "The Castle of the Devil" was also "completed" in Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan #19/4 (June 1977) by Don Glut and Alan Kupperberg, and in short story form by Ramsey Campbell back in 1978. As you can probably guess, since there's really not much there in the original fragment, both stories are radically different from each other, and from what we're getting here.

I don't know about you, but to me, this is an odd choice for a mini-series introducing the character to a new generation of readers. I mean it's not like Kane is well known to begin with (unless you're an REH junkie like I am). I would have preferred to start out with adaptations of at least a short story or two, before Allie started making up his own stories whole cloth.

Well, I guess it's not going to be entirely Allie's story since he says he's also going to be including another REH fragment entitled "Death's Black Riders" where Kane jumps out of the way of a hooded, glowing-eyed horseman, who then speeds off, leaving Kane wondering what just happened. That's the entire fragment.

I suppose that since there are only nine complete Solomon Kane stories, along with four fragments and three poems (by Howard, at least), you don't want to rush through them. By the way, the corrected original versions of them all are collected in the lovely The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, published by Ballentine Books, if anyone's interested.

But back to this comic.

The story is interesting. But just barely. We really don't find out anything about Kane's character, other than he is a bad-ass (of course), and very, very righteous. We really don't find out anything about any of the characters beyond their religious affiliations (for the record, there's at least one Catholic, one Muslim, and one Puritan (our boy Kane)). There's clearly something shady going on at the Castle of the Devil, but there are only the vaguest of hints as to just what that something is. I'm guessing werewolf. But Marvel's 1985 mini The Sword of Solomon Kane featured a story involving werewolves in the Black Forest (where this story takes place), so that might be a little awkward.

It's probably not about a werewolf.

Regardless, the story lacks a hook, lacks any action beyond the opening scene of Kane slaughtering some generic brigands, and doesn't really provide any reason to keep reading further issues. Although it does look very nice.

Guevara provides full pencils with no inks, and Dave Stewart does the color art overtop, and it is very pretty. Even the nasty gory bits. Guevara's strength is in the settings, and I'd almost recommend this book just for the art. But while the art is good, it isn't great. There aren't any real stretches of his artistic muscles (beyond the gorgeous backgrounds and set designs). The layouts are clean and easy to follow, and Solomon Kane's look is very cool. But that's down to Robert E. Howard's character design. It really can't be screwed up.

I feel bad about coming down so hard on this book, because I really wanted to love it. The character is great, providing a lot of interesting possibilities for stories, as well as for character exploration and development. Making your hero a bad-ass, sword-wielding, pistol-packing, Puritan fanatic on a mission to destroy Evil in the name of God, was daring when Howard envisioned Kane, and his stories are pretty much the founding work in pulp horror action/adventure. Allie's version, however, seems rather bloodless this time out, and I'm not sure I care enough to see if he can up the ante in the future issues.

Robert Murray:

I'm not very well versed in the lore of Solomon Kane, the punishing Puritan who wantonly wanders the Earth, encountering adventure and mystery near and far (Take that, Robert E Howard!). I had bought a copy of the Solomon Kane mini-series produced by Marvel when I was teenager, and I really never thought much of it. Kane was portrayed as an unlikeable hero who had no human traits I could relate to. Imagine Jonathan Edwards with a musket, and you're getting warm. So, what would bring me to pick up this latest issue produced by Dark Horse Comics? First, it's (duh) produced by Dark Horse Comics, who have done a terrific job with Conan, another Howard franchise. Second, this first arc (if not more) is written by Scott Allie, who has been a staple on Team Hellboy for years, though I've never read any of his personal writing. Last (and definitely the most shallow reason), the beautiful cover by John Cassaday reeled me in on thirty-pound test. What did I find within the covers of this first issue? Quite simply, I found a good start, but nothing that made my jaw drop to the floor in astonishment. The writing's solid, the artwork is moody, and the characters are ultimately compelling. While I understood the artists' decision to portray Kane's world in unending gray tones, I don't think this tactic held my attention as a reader well, especially considering the slow pace with which the story moves.

However, the issue does start off with a bang! The wolves come for Solomon, and I don't mean the canine sort. He dispatches bandits with gory fervor, including a disemboweling and a face slash (if you’re keeping score at home). The action looks very Howardesque, with lots of sword slashes and Kane's grim demeanor resembling a pasty and emaciated Conan. After the bloody intro, we get to the meat (no pun intended) of the story, as Kane encounters a boy hanging from the gallows and cuts him down, which leads him to the Castle of the Devil, the name of this particular story. Kane carries the "name of the devil"; Why wouldn't he be drawn to the Castle of the Devil? On the way, he meets a man named John Silent, who is anything but, lending some much needed levity to all the seriousness in Issue #1. Allie made a wise choice incorporating this man into Kane's travels, even if his archaic speech sometimes doesn't work too well ("Know you not whither you are bound?"). This could be due to direct translation of Howard's words to the graphic medium, which I'm here to say it doesn't work well at all. Allie needs to make this project his own rather than a verbatim illustration of a Solomon Kane prose story. Moving right along, we encounter Baron von Staler and his wife, who invite Kane and Silent to dinner. During the meal, we learn about Vater Stuttman, a devil worshiper who occupied the abbey that used to reside on the castle grounds. Judging from the importance of this little tale, you know that this information is going to come back again in this arc. A devil worshiper, a Puritan... What do you think is going to happen? As Allie states in the postscript of this issue, there are lots of winks and nods to future story elements, but I don't think these potential plot points are very intriguing in a first issue context. In the collected edition, this intro will probably work well, but right now this slow plot development won't cause a reader stampede at the comic shop next month.

However, this is another example of a quality Dark Horse comic product, with solid writing and artwork leading the way, as well as another great coloring job by Dave Stewart. Mario Guevera's artwork has the right style and jaggedness to convey the harsh world of Kane, and Allie uses his vast comics senses to craft a fine example of an adaptation comic. But the sticking point for me--and probably for other readers--is the rigidness of the tale and the lack of excitement in both words and pictures. I think back to the first issue of Marvel's Red Prophet, and I think my reaction to both is exactly the same. In adapting a prose work to a graphic form, both Scott Allie and Roland Brown have forgotten to make the comic their own, establishing a style that will endear both old and new fans alike. I will be back to read Solomon Kane #2 because I think this will become a good series, but I think I'll also grab the prose version of this story from my local library, just to see how I would picture the events within the boxes.

Jason Sacks:

Dark Horse Comics has finally started expanding their line of Robert E. Howard comics with the premiere of a series starring the dour Puritan Solomon Kane. The expansion seems overdue, though the dark and brooding Kane is an odd match for the impulsive and vicious Conan.

Yes, this is an action series starring a dour Puritan. In theory, this isn't exactly the action-packed formula that made Conan such an icon in fantasy literature, but Scott Allie addresses that concern loudly and clearly within the first half-dozen pages of this issue. In the middle of the German Black Forest, the mysterious Solomon Kane is ambushed by a group of nasty Hessians, who Kane proceeds to slaughter like a group of stuck pigs. Kane may be sour-faced and unpleasant, but the man knows his way around a weapon.

There are some nasty things going on in that town, as Kane wanders across a boy hanging from a gallows far out in the woods. Kane saves the boy from his doom, but answers for that hanging aren't immediately forthcoming.

At that point the story begins to slow down a bit. Kane meets the roguish John Silent and soon finds himself at the castle of the mysterious Baron Von Staler. We know that the Baron will eventually prove himself to be evil, because the issue is titled "The Castle of the Devil," but the true extent of his Baron's evil is only implied in this issue. There's a lot of mood and foreshadowing, but it's unclear how the elements in this story will pay off.

Mario Guevara's art is presented un-inked and with wonderful coloring by Dave Stewart. The effect of these pages is a nice fit for the rest of the story – Guevara depicts the Black Forest and the Baron's castle as being nasty places where mysterious events always seem imminent. I really enjoyed how Guevara depicts Kane as all shadows and darkness personified.

Logically enough, this issue is mainly mood and setup. The characters and setting are introduced, and mysteries are set into motion, but very few questions get answered this issue. That's logical, of course, in an issue that adapts a REH short story and also sets up the characters. It will likely read better in the trade, but this is a nice setup for the series.

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