Monday, April 30, 2012

Andrew J. Offutt: The Conan Pastiche

Introduction: Around the age of 12, I read a steady diet of Conan pastiche. A Conan pastiche (to me the word "pastiche" sounds like a good cheese) is a story featuring the character Conan, but not written by Howard (although a pastiche is not a cheese, some Conan pastiche are indeed cheesy). It was not until the recent publication of Howard's works in their unadulterated entirety that I made the move from a "works of Howard fan" to a "Robert E. Howard fan". While I am now solidly in the camp of REH Fans, I am not a pastiche snob, meaning, I will give a pastiche a good shake without immediate dismissal. Some recent lucky finds at a yard sale have given me liberty to dive into the realm of Conan pastiche. Some works I am re-reading after 25 years, others I am reading for the first time.

The Skinny: Conan and the Sorcerer and Conan The Mercenary were written in 1978 and 1980 respectively. They were published by Ace Fantasy, written by Andrew J. Offutt and featured about 50 internal illustrations each by the artist Esteban Maroto.  They were written as "Mercenary" being a sequel of sorts to "Sorcerer"; however, Offutt recaps the events of "Sorcerer" in "Mercenary" well enough that either could be read independently of the other. A third book exists, The Sword of Skelos, that I have not read which makes a trilogy. Andrew J. Offutt has written much Howard pastiche for the character Cormac Mac Art and is also known for his stories adding to the "Thieves World" series, particularly for the creation of the character Shadowspawn. Offutt is also well known for editing the Swords Against Darkness volumes. Esteban Maroto is no stranger to Howard's creations either. He created the famous chain-mail bikini worn by the Howard inspired, but Roy Thomas created, character Red Sonja and was at the forefront of the "Spanish" invasion of comics during the 1970's. His early works were featured in the Warren Publishing titles Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella.

The plot (SPOILERS ALERT): The two stories take place shortly after Howard's tale "The Tower of the Elephant", feature a very young Conan (his age is placed at 17 in the books) in search of wealth and adventure. The plot of "Sorcerer" has Conan trying to steal a relic called the Eye of Erlik from a sorcerer's tower. While doing so, he stumbles across two other thieves who beat him to the prize; however, it is Conan who is caught by the sorcerer, one Hisarr Zul. Zul is a sorcerer that steals men's souls and forces their soulless bodies into his servitude. Conan encounters some of Hisarr Zul's soulless guardians and is freaked out by them. As punishment for his attempted burglary, Hisarr Zul steals Conan's soul and traps it in a mirror. He then places Conan on a quest to steal back the Eye of Erlik from the thief that made off with it (a lovely she-thief named Isparana). In "Mercenary", after recovering the Eye of Erlik and slaying Hisarr Zul (events which occurred in "Sorcerer"), Conan has recovered the mirror that holds his soul, but is still separated from his soul within. He sells his services to a young, lovely lady noble named Khastris. Conan journeys with her to her homeland in hopes that her cousin, the Queen of Khauran, can join him with his soul (he learned from a sand lich in "Sorcerer" that one way of retrieving his soul is to have the mirror shattered by one wearing a crown). In Khauran, he gets embroiled in a sorcerous plot to take over the kingdom.

The Good: Offutt does not attempt to imitate Howard; instead, he writes in his own voice. This is something I prefer in pastiche versus someone trying to sound like Howard. While Offutt is not, in my opinion, the strongest of writers, he is accomplished enough to push a "Howardesque" yarn along. Complementing Offutt's writing are a healthy dose of illustrations by Esteban Maroto. See examples (with my apologies for my slip-shod photography):
Conan battling the Sand-Lich (Conan and the Sorcerer)

Illustration of Isparana of Zamboula (Conan And the Sorcerer)

Conan rescuing Lady Khashtris from night assassins (Conan the Mercenary

Conan brooding over his murdered lover (Conan the Mercenary)

The Good (continued): The highlight of both short novels for me was Conan's encounter with the Sand-Lich. An indestructible creature clearly out of his league, Offutt doesn't miss a chance to highlight Howard's character and his defiance of death and giving up. All in all, Offutt writes a fast paced yarn, full of well written fight scenes. His portrayal of Hyborea is well done, written with simple, yet effect prose.

The Bad: While I found "Sorcerer" an enjoyable, if forgettable read, "Mercenary" held far less appeal for me. There were three main reasons for this. 1. "Mercenary" lacks a memorable villain. There is a sorcerer introduced in the prologue of the story, but he never makes another appearance. In the prologue, the sorcerer uses his dark arts to make an aging baron appear years younger. The baron hopes to use his young appearing form to strengthen his place in a circle of nobles that have denied him respect and power. It is never explained what this mysterious sorcerer is gaining from this. 2. An interesting back story is set up with the Queen of Khauran, each generation will see the birth of a witch that must be killed. Because of this curse the Queen kills her own child. This has much potential, but is not exploited in the story and rests as back ground noise. 3. Offutt has Conan playing detective in this story, and in the climax, Conan disguises himself as a seer in order to ensnare plotters against the throne in a trap. This rung untrue for me. While I recognize that Conan, as told by Howard, was more intelligent then most give him credit for, it just didn't seem very "Conan-like" to me.

The Ugly: The biggest crime committed in the two short novels occurs in "Mercenary". Offutt commits the crime of "telling versus showing". In about three short paragraphs, he narrates a tale of how Conan is kicked out of the courts of Khauran, falls in love and later in that chapter, broods over the murdered corpse of his young lover vowing that from here on out he will not fall in love. It was way too much story crowded into a short narrative chapter.

Odd Observations: The sand creatures that Conan battled in the 2011 movie Conan the Barbarian share a similarity to Offutt's Sand-Lich in "Sorcerer"; I wonder if there was an inspiration here? The 1997 - 1998 TV series Conan the Adventurer, features as a main villain a sorcerer named Hissah Zuhl (played by Jeremy Kemp). The names Hissah Zuhl and Hisarr Zul strike a certain similarity that again makes me wonder, was Offutt's idea aped for the series?

Conclusion: While I wouldn't recommend these stories as a nice jumping on point for potential Howard enthusiasts, I would recommend them at least as decently written pastiche without glaring non-Howardian faults. The illustrations by Esteban Maroto help elevate them on the list for Conan pastiche collectors, if not as must-haves, then certainly as entertaining curiosities.


Mike D. said...

Awesome..I read this yesterday...looks great here.

Xonan said...

Both pastiches have been adapted in B&W in SSOC , by Buscema and friends first then by Maroto.
Honest review!

Hissar Zul & Isparana weren't a bad addition to Conan's world at all, but I wouldn't say the same about Khastris, she appeared rather bland to me.

Xonan said...

Hissar Zul arc is in Savage Sword #53,54,55 , adapted by Roy Thomas and with art by Big John and his pal Rudy Nebres in n°53 and then with Ricardo Villamonte in n°54,55, R.V. showing a dark heavy inking. Issue 54 has H.Z.'s bro Tosiah Zul attack him as a sand lich.

Maroto (pencils and ink) drew the part involving Khastris in Savage Sword #217 & 218, adapted again by Thomas. Maroto's style is somewhat much less good than his extraordinary illustrations in the paperback (one of them became a classic advertisement for Marvel's play by mail game). His comics version is on the sketchy side and proportions are not respected, he had better days.

For those who haven't grabbed these adaptations years ago, do so and compare Thomas' version to Offutt's !

Reis O'Brien said...

I'd just like to officially welcome Kilsern to CROM! and say thanks for such killer writing!

We got a new contributor, gang!

Xonan said...

I wasn't clear on one point: "H.Z.'s bro attack him", I meant attack Conan.
Tosiah (or rather what he has become ) and Conan finally agree on a plan which will profit to both of them , to finally get Hissar once and for all..
Won't say more, check it up!

The TV series "Hissah Zuhl" has nothing in common with Hissar Zul apart from the name. He shares with the 1981 movie villain Doom the murder of Conan's parents, and apart from that, zilch.
The TV Zuhl appears and acts like a generic medieval heroic fantasy sorcerer, nothing more nothing less, I couldn't find anything linking him to something in the original stories or the pastiches, the scenarists could have inserted him in a Nintendo platform game "plot" , it would have been better off.

Xonan said...

Hi there Kilsern!

Kilsern said...

Hello to all and thank you for the warm welcome! I am excited to be a part of the Crom! team, a place where my enthusiasm for Conan and Robert E. Howard is matched and/or surpassed.

@Xonan, I am slowly making my way through the Savage Sword of Conan reprint volumes published by Dark Horse Comics. I look forward to reading Roy Thomas's take on Offutt's stories; although, I am currently on volume 3, so I have a ways to go before I get there.

Thank You again to all.