Dark Horse found a winning formula with their revival of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Take original Howard stories as the basis; expand them to include characterization, subplots, and continuity; and put the project in the hands of top-notch writers, artists, and colorists (i.e., Dave Stewart). They attempted to replicate that formula again with another Howard creation, Solomon Kane, but without the same level of success.
Death’s Black Riders is the second Solomon Kane release from Dark Horse, following Castle of the Devil. The story merges two Howard pieces–a fragment (“Death’s Black Riders”) and the full story Rattle of Bones. In the tale, Kane is riding through the Black Forest of Germany when he comes across gypsies being questioned by some locals.
From out of nowhere come the Black Riders who slay all but one of the locals. That one survivor then rides to safety with Kane, taking shelter in a nearby inn (Rattle of Bones). However, an inn in the Black Forest is bound to have a few skeletons in the closet–and with Kane involved, those skeletons are literal.
It is difficult to put my finger on what isn’t working with the story, as nothing is badly done. Scott Allie does a game job merging the fragment to the story, and Rattle of Bones is one of my favorite Solomon Kane tales.
Part of the problem may be that the hook is based too much on action. Kane is a deeper, more complex character than Conan, and requires a subtler hand. Conan’s motivations are easy. He is a primal figure. However, the Puritan Solomon Kane needs more time to be built as a character. Here, however, he appears galloping on horseback and never stops fighting until the last page.
The art is also lacking. Mario Guevara has a nice woodblock-feel to his lines, and in a few scenes it looks as if Solomon Kane has been hewn from the Black Forest itself, but the coloring is bright and garish. I think Guevara’s work would be better suited to a muted palette, without all the heavy purples and oranges presented here. Way, way too much purple.
Aside from the main story, Death’s Black Riders has a back-up piece illustrated by Guy Davis. It, too, just doesn’t have the right artistic feel. Davis gave everyone flat faces and they look like muppets half the time. I know Davis is better than this, so maybe he was rushed.
I liked the extra pages in this collections, showing the creation of the monsters who are never described in Howard’s fragment. Guevara and Allie clearly put a lot of work into getting them right, and creating something unique. Interestingly enough, they didn’t mention the influence I thought they would. When I took one look at that gaping, toothed mouth and the spindly bent arms and legs, I immediately thought of Miyazaki Hayo especially No Face from Spirited Away.
I have a lot of gripes about Death’s Black Riders, but I don’t want it to sound like a terrible book. I have hopes for Dark Horse’s Solomon Kane franchise, and I will keep up with the next release. Hopefully, they will find a better balance of Howard’s stories with deeper characterization, and an artists/colorist combination that matches the tone.