Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Howard Criticism: The Dark Man, Part II Fanzines

This is part II of my look at The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies; particularly Volume 5, No. 2, August 2010. Part I was a short recap of the Roy Thomas interview in said issue. Part II is a short look at the article "Fandom at Crossroads: Johnathan Bacon and the Legacy of Robert E. Howard" by Lee A. Breakiron It is a recap of the article and it is my lamentations for the by-gone world of fanzines.

Breakiron's article is an interesting one on its own merit. It explores the history of the fanzine Fantasy Crossroads, which debuted in November 1974 and was the child of Johnathan Bacon. It was not always entirely dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard; however, REH did play a strong part of its contents. It followed on the heals of other fanzines which were dedicated to REH: Amra (which served as a "play-ground" of sorts for such big names in the Sword and Sorcery field as L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, John Jakes and Fritz Leiber), The Howard Collector (established by Glenn Lord) and Cross Plains (the product of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association [REHupa]).

According to Breakiron's article Fantasy Crossroads is best described as a "hobby publication dedicated to all aspects of fantasy but with a special emphasis on the life and work of Robert E. Howard" (Breakiron 118). Most of the Howard content consisted of poetry by REH or letters written by him or to him; some of the content that appeared in Crossroads was published for the first time, or at least had not been seen for quite some time.

There were some interesting items that appeared in Crossroads during its run. Some that interested me were  an article by Harold Preece titled "Women and Robert E. Howard" in which Preece records what he knew of Howard's interest and understanding of women (parts of which were later rebuked by Novalyne Price in her memoir One Who Walked Alone) and a series of scathing letter exchanges between Professor Dirk Mosig and L. Sprague de Camp in which Mosig tears apart de Camp's Lovecraft: A Biography. "...[de Camp's] detailed list of flaws includes 'amateur pyschodiagnoses' and 'colored by the author's hostile attitude towards his subject'" (124). On a side note, many would later level these same criticisms against de Camp for his Howard biography Dark Valley Destiny.

There was a good bit of fan art featured in the zine; unfortunately, the article only shared three examples, all covers and two are shared here, both of which I chose because they are by artists whose work I know:

art by Gene Day
 Gene Day is known to me for his work at Marvel Comics. He also illustrated one of my favorite Tunnels & Trolls solitaires, Arena of Khazan.
Richard Corben
Richard Corben is famous for many things, namely his work on Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. But to me, he will always be famous for creating his Den series featured in the animated movie Heavy Metal and of course the magazine of the same name.

Crossroads reached a good level of popularity and featured letters from the likes of John Jakes, L. Sprague de Camp, C. C. Beck (whom I revere for his work on Captain Marvel), Robert Bloch and Roy Thomas.

It was not the express purpose of Breakiron's article to appear in the same issue as the Roy Thomas interview, but considering Thomas' past, it is interesting that it did so.

Roy Thomas is a man who has done much for the legacy of Conan. His efforts rank with those of Glenn Lord, Donald M. Grant, August Derleth, L. Sprague de Camp, Frank Frazetta, John Buscema, Karl Edward Wagner, Rusty Burke. Before he got his big shot with Marvel, which pushed REH's barbarian further along the road to fame, he worked the trenches of fandom and published his own fanzine, Alter Ego.

In its day, Alter Ego was the premier fanzine. My personal experiences with AE have been second hand, mostly through the books of Bill Schelly. Bill Schelly was no slouch himself in the world of fandom. He would eventually produce the fanzine Sense of Wonder and if there were a fanzine that could rival AE in the world of comics, it was SoW. I would recommend Mr. Schelly's book Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom. It is not directly related to Conan nor Robert E. Howard, but serves as a great historical memoir about the bygone days of fanzines.

I envy those that were directly involved with fanzines. I can not deny the power of the internet. It is great that on my blog roll I have instant access to others' thoughts on some of my favorite subjects (Conan, REH, H.P. Lovecraft, Mythos Fiction, comic books and role playing games to name a few); however, it does not have the same appeal as opening your mail box to find a new issue of a fanzine that someone took the time to carefully edit (or maybe not), staple together and mail out. I would love to have the satisfaction of writing to fanzines and seeing my letters printed, it is akin to the few comics I have written to later see my letters printed in the mail page--it gives a sense of ownership of something that is important to you.

There are some pretty sharp folks that are producing zines to this day for role playing games. I would love to see a zine about REH and his creations, especially my favorite barbarian.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Howard Criticism: The Dark Man, Part I Roy Thomas Interview

I have a small, but always growing, section of essays and critical works about Robert E. Howard. For sometime now, I've had intentions of checking out The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. I finally made good on that intention and ordered a sample copy. I picked up Volume 5, No. 2 August 2010. I chose this issue knowing that there was a Roy Thomas interview, which was the main attraction for me.

The issue itself is just shy of 50 pages and features two articles: the aforementioned interview with Roy Thomas and an article that briefly looks at one of my favorite nostalgic items, fanzines; particularly, Fantasy Crossroads. Both features were entertaining and worth the price.

The Dark Man was started in 1990 by Rusty Burke (a name I am familiar with from several other Howard related sources). With the help of Necronomicon Press, Mr. Burke released the first issue. The particular issue in discussion here served as the 20th anniversary.

The cover art is by Bo Hampton and is from a portfolio of sample art he sent to Dark Horse Comics when they were looking for artists for their Solomon Kane comics.

This posting turned out longer than I anticipated, so will be done in two parts. In the first part, I will look at the Roy Thomas interview.

"The Man Who Helped Conan: An Interview with Roy Thomas", by Jeffery Kahan. The interview itself was a phone interview and tape recorded. I will cherry pick a few highlights that I enjoyed (JK = Jeffery Kahan, RT = Roy Thomas, comments in Bold are mine):

JK: Where did [the interest in Conan as a comic book character] spring from?

RT: It was really thrust upon me by the Marvel readership...we started getting a lot of letters...suggesting various things Marvel ought to buy the rights to...Marvel didn't generally license characters in those days...

Thomas goes on to say that Marvel mostly made up their own characters. This was before franchising was common. Conan, and all licensed properties, could have been ignored and Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith could have easily just made up their own barbarian character. If that had happened, things could have gone very differently for Conan.

RT: So we ended up having go after a Sword and Sorcery character...We figured Conan was probably out of our reach...[Stan Lee] preferred names like Kull and this other name I told him about, Thongor, which was Lin Carter's character...So we first went after Thongor. Lin Carter liked the idea of his characters being made into comics...but his agent did not like the $150 an issue that [Martin] Goodman had authorized me to offer for it.

Wow, Lin Carter really should have had a different agent. Just think, if his agent had accepted the offer, we could right now be Thongor-maniacs instead of Conan-maniacs! On a side note, Thongor did appear in Marvel comics, in Creatures on the Loose #22 (1973).

JK: Your collaboration with Barry Windsor-Smith remains a bit of a mystery. In his official online biography, he states that he drew the pictures and then added some dialogue in the borders and that you then added filler.

I love that word "filler" as stated by Mr. Kahan. It infers that Thomas didn't do much of anything and that Windsor-Smith did it all.

RT: I'm not saying that Barry is totally wrong. He tends to exaggerate--as we all tend to do, I suppose--his part of things, I assume quite sincerely, but he is still wrong.

 Thomas goes on to politely refute Windsor-Smith, and does so without "calling him out"; however, some of my favorite Conan comics are the Thomas/Windsor-Smith collaborations. I like most of the Thomas issues with artists other than BWS, but those with him remain my favorites and are, in my opinion, superior to most other Conan collaborations. I wonder just how much was due to BWS and not RT?  Thomas also points out, and I'm paraphrasing here, that memory is a tricky thing; therefore, Windsor-Smith might actually believe that he was the driving force behind Marvel's Conan the Barbarian. Mr. Thomas is exactly right. Memory is tricky and often events are different than how we remember them. With that in mind, how accurate is the memory of Roy Thomas?

Mr. Kahan asks him about a the various What If? appearances of Conan (vs. Captain America, vs. Wolverine, etc.). Thomas states that he was under constant pressure, mostly from Stan Lee, to bring in other characters from the Marvel Universe. At one point:

RT: [because] the book was doing poorly...we basically were told by Stan [Lee] that we were going to have  to bring Thor in....It made more sense than a lot of characters...Barry and I toyed with the idea of Thor having a little more primitive version of his costume. The thing is, right about that time, the sales suddenly took a bounce...[and] Stan stopped the push to get us to use Thor.

The Conan fan in me is glad that Thomas worked hard to isolate my favorite barbarian from the rest of the Marvel U, What If? appearances aside (which I enjoy), it's hard to marvel at Conan's strength when he is going toe-to-toe with the Hulk. I think bringing in Thor would have killed the comic (it was done, years later in an issue of What If?). To bring in Thor would have essentially changed the comic Conan the Barbarian  to Thor and the Barbarian. It may or may not, have put a serious dent in the popularity of Conan as a franchise; however, the Marvel Fan-Boy within really wants to know if Barry Windsor-Smith did any preliminary sketches of Thor wearing "a little more primitive version of his costume" possibly doing battle alongside Conan? If so, I'd love to see/own them.

Skipping ahead, Roy Thomas starts speaking of other actors considered for the role of Conan in 1982's Conan the Barbarian: Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and Michael York. 

I end with that, and a request. Could someone with art skills better than my own submit a rendition of A) Charles Bronson as Conan, B) Stallone as same and the one I really want, C) Michael York as my favorite barbarian. Please?


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

15mm Pict Miniatures

Copplestone has done it, and now I have no choice other than to order some!  These are absolutely spot on and beautiful!

Future releases are planned by Copplestone like a Wizard, Champion, Sabretooth Cats and Giant Snakes!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Conan Contemporaries: C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry

The publication of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane story "Red Shadows" in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales gave birth, unbeknownst to Howard, of the sword and sorcery genre. Between that year and 1934, Weird Tales (hereafter, WT) would publish more Solomon Kane stories and a smattering of his Kull stories, all of which landed squarely in the then un-titled genre. Of course it was the publication of "The Phoenix on the Sword", the first published Conan story in the December 1932 issue of WT that would cement him in history as the father of sword and sorcery. It was foreseeable that others would come along and attempt stories in the same vein as Howard's creations. While some of the stories of Clark Ashton Smith came close, the first person to take a serious stab at doing so was C.L. Moore with "Black God's Kiss" in the October 1934 issue of WT.

For a bit of autobiographical information on Catherine Lucille Moore, here is a quote from her short, yet entertaining "An Autobiographical Sketch of C.L. Moore":

"They found me under a cabbage plant in Indianapolis on the 24th of January, 1911, and I was reared on a diet of Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so you can see I never had a chance".

To that can be added that she left college during the depression and worked as a secretary at the Fletcher Trust Company in her home town. She was driven by the stories she grew up loving along with a fascination with the pulp stories of her time and turned that passion to writing. Her first professional sale was a Northwest Smith story, "Shambleau" in the November 1933 issue of WT (if you're not familiar, Northwest Smith is a character created by Moore. He was a rogue starship pilot that some consider an early progenitor of Han Solo of Star Wars fame -- I personally don't adhere to this theory, but it is a theory). Just short of a year later, she would unleash Jirel of Joiry.

"[Jirel] was tall as most men, and as savage as the wildest of them....The face above her mail might not have been fair in a woman's head-dress, but in the steel setting of her armor it had a biting, sword-edge beauty as keen as the flash of blades. The red hair was short upon her high, defiant head, and the yellow blaze of her eyes held fury as a crucible holds fire" ("Black God's Kiss).

From Moore's description of her, it is not too hard to see why Lin Carter, in his book Imaginary Worlds, called her a "gal Conan" with her savage fierceness and sword-edge beauty, this is understandable. While this is not exactly an accurate character description on Carter's part, Jirel was the first female sword and sorcery protagonist. I have a theory, but I have found no backing for this anywhere in print, that Howard's character Red Sonya of Rogatino from the historical adventure "The Shadow of the Vulture" (January 1934, The Magic Carpet Magazine) was an influence on Moore's Jirel of Joiry, perhaps more so than Howard's Conan stories--and I should point out that while Red Sonya did precede Jirel, "Vulture" was not a sword and sorcery yarn; thus, Jirel's place as the first woman warrior of sword and sorcery is firm, and it makes her the first character to be based on Howard's Red Sonya--ahead of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith's creation of Red Sonja for Marvel Comics. Of course, I assume a lot in believing myself correct.

It is interesting to point out that while Howard influenced Moore to create Jirel, she in turn might have influenced him to create Dark Agnès. Again this is theory not a proven fact, but it is known that he sent the manuscript for "Sword Woman" to Moore and that she enjoyed it and said she hoped that he found a publisher. The two characters are physically similar, but again, aside from an abandoned fragment written by Howard, his intentions for his Agnès de la Fère stories were that they be historical fiction, not weird fiction. As Howard Andrew Jones states: "[perhaps] he sent the stories her way because he sensed a kindred spirit, or because he wanted her to see he'd done something a little similar but hadn't been stealing from her. Perhaps he contacted her for a bit of both reasons" ("Howard's Journey: Historical Influences to Historical Triumphs"; Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, Robert E. Howard).

In any case, I don't think either writer would have taken issue with one or the other "borrowing" his/her ideas; after all, they were both part of the Lovecraft Circle. In the circle, H.P. Lovecraft made it common practice to borrow ideas from one another and then seed said ideas into their stories bringing about a sense of verisimilitude. Consider the stories in which Howard mentions the Necronomicon or Lovecraft stories in which Howard's creations are mentioned. There was a sort of free wheeling and dealing of the pulps in their day.

Moore would publish a total of five Jirel of Joiry tales between 1934 and 1936; actually six, if the story "Quest of the Star-Stone" is counted. "Quest" was a collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner (whose Elak of Atlantis stories will be looked at here in more depth soon) and was a perhaps one of the first cross-over stories ever written as it featured a team-up between Northwest Smith and Jirel. While the influence of Howard can be seen in the Jirel stories, both are people of action who take the fight straight to the source, to say that Jirel is a female Conan is misleading.

C.L. Moore wrote with an eye towards the supernatural. She, like Howard, was part of the Lovecraft Circle, and that influence is readily seen. Her stories build to something. There is a creeping of the plot, and by this I do not mean to infer that her plots drag, they do not; however, they do creep towards an often bitter resolution and suspense builds along the way. I defend my statement that her Jirel stories are sword and sorcery, but the action is often not in the sword swinging, the action is in the sense of suspense that Moore builds. I encourage you to seek out her Jirel stories and read them in sequence of publication (Paizo publishing has them for print in their Planet Stories line). Read together, they form a loose novel of sorts as each successive story often references events that took place before it.

A bit more biographical information is needed on Moore before I close this. Her marriage to Henry Kuttner ended when he died at a too young age in 1958. She would re-marry, but she disappeared from the science fiction community and stopped writing all together. In the early 70's she made a few appearances at conventions, but these were sparse. The sad truth was, she suffered from Alzheimer's disease and spent her final years in a coma. She died April 4, 1987.

Do yourself a favor. Read her stories. The Conan fan in you will enjoy "Black God's Kiss". It is a tale of a savage young woman, who wishes for revenge so greatly that she, literally, travels to Hell in search of it. You will enjoy it, and I believe you will read the other Jirel stories, and afterwards you may even seek out her Northwest Smith stories.

You will wish there were more.

I am extremely saddened to announce the passing of Ernie Chan

I am at a complete loss for words...Ernie Chan passed away....He was a fantastic artist and a wonderful guy...I met him at several conventions over the years. He was a sweetheart and had the most charming and captivating smile,Rest in peace Ernie. ( Ernie Chan July 27, 1940-May 16, 2012)

Saturday, May 12, 2012


One of our followers got him self some bad ass ink recently and sent me photos of his new tattoo to share with the minions of CROM. Accompanied with the photo's is a copy and paste of the e-mail sent in to me....enjoy. ;)

"Hello Mike,

As promised, here are some pictures of the Conan tattoo I had done last thursday.
I also included the cover of the 1978 What If comic (by John Buscema) that I got the picture from.
And there's also a picture of my Thor tattoo from a 1991 Thor comic (by Ron Frenz) that I had done last year.
Hope you like it!

cheers, Ralph Koppen, the Netherlands

Both tattoo's were done by Sascha Sevic at Dragon Tattoo in Eindhoven"

Cheers Ralph and thank you so much for sharing!!!

Friday, May 11, 2012

The passing of Tony Dezuniga - May 11 , 2012

In observance of the passing of legendary illustrator Tony Dezuniga. The staff of CROM send our condolenses to his wife and family.

Tony was part of the CONAN legacy as he illustrated many a tale and adaptation for Marvel comics’ Savage sword of Conan.
Tony’s work also included Jonah Hex and Shanna the she devil as well as many many other tales of the fantastic and spooky. His unique delineation was a trademark of style and was his signature as you could pretty much tell a Tony Dezuniga job with but a glance. Like so many other greats and legends Tony had a quality to his work unique unto him alone.
Tony Dezuniga will not be forgotten as he leaves behind timeless contributions in the field he loved and in the beautiful work that he created as his trade.

Tony was born in 1941. He was 71 years of age.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


When Joe Jusko does a CONAN piece you know it's going to be BAD ASS....I love all the textures he threw in there on the wrist band and sword and the dark side of the face....JUSKO and CONAN are a matched pair if you ask me. I have my favorites....and then I have my favorite.


People familiar with my blogs know I have a lot of interests and have been a fan and collector and appreciate all things in comics past and present. They'd also be familiar with the fact that....pretty much on each of my blogs....I have posts revolving around JOE JUSKO...the man gets around what can I say? Whether it's Sheena or Hercules or Tarzan....or whatever...Joe has done it and his work speaks really he has volumes and volumes of work!!!

If you wanted to put together a coffee table book of his'd need to be as big as a friggin' coffee table!!! Not to mention it'd need to be as thick as a mattress. Thanks for bein' great Mr. J...we're waiting for your next surprise!!!

Mondo Conan the Barbarian Poster by Jason Edmiston!

Via Here's a great quote:  Unlike "Blade Runner" or "The Thing," two films that have become critical hits in the 30 years since their release, "Conan The Barbarian" is still dismissed by many, and that drives me crazy.  I think it's a genuinely great film, and while it's not exactly my interpretation of Robert E. Howard's dark and strange pulp stories about the sword-bearing Cimmerian, I love what John Milius did with it.  It's one of my favorite performances by Arnold Schwarzenegger, too, and I think he benefits enormously from Sandahl Bergman's work in the film.  She makes him more soulful simply because of how she plays against him.

Art by Jason Edmiston. Special thanks to Super Punch for the link.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Andrew J Offutt's The Sword of Skelos

Fold out cover
Introduction: To round out my Andrew J. Offutt Conan pastiche, I hunted down a copy of The Sword of Skelos. Skelos is the third Conan novel written by Offutt. I wrote of the first two novels, Conan and the Sorcerer and Conan the Mercenary before. Sorcerer and Mercenary, were both published by Ace and featured interior art by Esteban Maroto. Skelos however was published by Bantam books, the third in a series of "The Fantastic New Adventures of Conan". Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings (reviewed here) was in the same series of books. The Sword of Skelos saw publication in 1979 and features only a sparse amount of interior illustration not done by Maroto, but by Tim Kirk. Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Mercenary and Conan: The Sword of Skelos make a loose trilogy. If you have not read either of the previous volumes, Offutt recaps both stories in this volume.

The Plot Skinny (Mostly Spoiler Free): The novel begins a few weeks after the events of Mercenary. Having regained his soul, (an event that occurred in Conan the Mercenary), Conan is in the city of Shadizar seeking his next adventure. While he is there, a thief named Khassek of Iranistan attempts to capture him. Khassek suspects that Conan is either still in possession of the Eye of Erlik, or knows where it is. In fact, Conan does still have the amulet. He has kept it hidden on his person. Conan agrees to travel to far off Iranistan with Khassek. He is promised that Khassek's employer will reward him greatly for doing so. During their journey, they encounter Isparana. Isparana is a thief introduced and last seen in the novel Conan and the Sorcerer. In that novel, she was a competing thief for the Eye of Erlik; actually, she stole it first and Conan later stole it from her and switched the true Eye for a fake given to him by the sorcerer Hissar Zul. When Conan had last saw Isparana, she was being escorted by a gang of five guards that Conan had left her with. In the book Skelos, Conan and Isparana form an uneasy alliance and travel to Zamboula together in hopes of obtaining a reward from that cities' ruler, Akter Khan.  In Zamboula they fall prey to the political mechanations of Akter Khan and the Stygian mage Zafra. Zafra has found himself in Akter Khan's good graces by providing him with an enchanted sword. Zafra enchanted the sword from secrets gleaned from the Scrolls of Skelos. With the enchantment, when the bearer speaks the words "slay him", the sword slays of its own volition, no wielder is needed.

The Good: Offutt's secondary characters are engaging, especially the sorcerer Zafra. In Offutt's bio in the back of the book he states: "he [Offutt] is...tired of aged, bald, ugly, sexless mages". Zafra is none of these things. He is young, older than the 17 year old Conan, but much younger than the average mage depicted in Sword and Sorcery tales. He plotted and killed his master and has just recently elevated himself from apprentice to journeyman (so to speak). I liked Zafra as portrayed by Offutt. The author set out to make a believable villain and he succeeded. Zafra is driven by the lust for power, a staple among sorcerers in sword and sorcery tales, but also he lusts for women. During the course of the story, he has an affair with Chia, or the Tigress as Akter calls her. Chia was another well done character that I enjoyed in the story. She is vile at times, but uses her wiles and station as favored consort to her advantage. Offutt creates a desert dwelling tribe for the story called the Shanki. They are Islamic in flavor and he does a swell job of presenting their culture in a rich, satisfying way.

The Bad: Isparana is the bad. Offutt tries to turn the relationship between her and Conan from nemesis to enemies, while trying to maintain a flavor of them being "frienemies". At times I felt he was doing this as a fishing for knee-slapper moments. It failed. I never found myself actually giving a damn about Isparana. Worse than that, I didn't buy Offutt's depiction of Conan as a brash 17 year old. At times he seemed the young reckless youth that just six months earlier scaled the walls of the Elephant Tower after killing a man in a bar fight because he made Conan look simple, and then Offutt has him coming up with master strategic plans to elude the khan's army. I just don't believe that Conan, as the youth he was at this point, was up for making grand schemes. Offutt tries to cover this up by having Conan say (after advising a Shanki warrior against brashness): "[I am] old enough to give advice I probably would not have the sense to take". This is a cop out, in my opinion. Offutt knows that Conan should be acting rashly, but his plot depends upon the young Conan giving sound advice and consequently, after giving said sound advice and after being advised against it, he storms off on a foolish mission only to be captured (again, plot needed).

Two more points on "the bad": Offutt built up Zafra and I looked forward to his confrontation with Conan; however, it was quick and less than satisfying. Also, he intrigued me with his characterization of Chia, and I hoped for her to be more involved in the plot, she was not and was "summarily" dealt with. While I enjoyed the ending of the book, it served as a moral point for Conan, it was rushed and seemed hasty.

The Ugly: The Eye of Erlik has been the object of much murder and intrigue (most of which occurs behind the scenes) and Offutt has built up its importance over three stories; however, like the Mask of Acheron in the 2011 movie Conan the Barbarian, the Eye doesn't do anything. Nothing. No magical powers. No, oh-shit we sure are screwed now moments, not a damn thing. Why was everyone so hot to get their hands on this amulet when it is just a piece of jewelry? A valuable one, but no powers. It was disappointing. I kept thinking while reading this, "the swords of Skelos sound cool, but I wonder what the amulet does?" Answer, not a damn thing and yet Khassek's employer (consequently, the identity of his employer is never revealed, but presumably he/she is the ruler of Iranistan) sends him forth with 20 pieces of gold, and a stash of gems and jewels to aid in his quest to obtain the Eye of Erlik at all costs. Not to mention, in the book Conan and the Sorcerer, Hissar Zul enslaves men by stealing their souls so they can act as guardians for the Eye, not to mention all the traps he had set to capture/kill would be thieves. Yet the damn amulet does nothing. Nothing.

Summary: It was an enjoyable read, despite the fact that there was no big revelation concerning the Eye of Erlik. There were some plot holes, and Offutt's Conan was not entirely convincing for me, but I did not hate the book. It was a stronger read than Mercenary, but was not as good as Sorcerer.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

B-List Barbarians: The Sword and Sorcery of John Jakes

While John Jakes is best known for his historical fiction, prominently his Kent Family Chronicles and his North and South trilogy, before he gained fame for his historical fiction, he was best known for his Sword & Sorcery stories.

Because of the Conan popularity "boom" of the 60's and 70's, it was not uncommon to see many titles featuring a "Clonan" type character and bearing the inscription: in the tradition of Conan. It was these sorts of stories that Jakes set out to write with his Brak the Barbarian tales. While these are not exactly Conan pastiche, they are of interest to hard-core Cimmerian fans. I will share two such works here: Brak the Barbarian and Mention my Name in Atlantis, two books by the same author that emulate Conan and REH in their own way.

I'm not sure when and to whom Jakes sold his first Brak the Barbarian tale, but according to Lin Carter, Jakes began writing Brak tales in 1963 and sold most of the earliest to the Ziff-Davis magazine Fantastic. The cover to the left is from the 1980 Tower publication of Brak the Barbarian. In its introduction, Jakes states that the title of the first Brak story was "Devils in the Walls" and he also freely admits that it was "...a Howard pastiche". Brak the Barbarian was Jakes first of five collections of Brak stories and first saw print in 1968 with Avon Publishing. It is currently out of print and it took much haunting of used book stores for me to acquire a copy.

I was curious about them for Lin Carter stated his admiration of them more then once. I respect and follow Carter's recommendations; after all, the man was the editor of the fabulous Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which I have not yet read a bad volume of, and I have read several. 

Brak the Barbarian proved to me that Carter's opinion is not infallible. I did not hate the book, but it was not worth the time it took me to find a copy. Brak is a collection of five stories: "The Unspeakable Shrine", "Flame-Face", "The Courts of the Conjurer" , "Ghosts of Stone" and "The Barge of Souls". The edition pictured above that I read is illustrated by Thomas O. Miller, whose art I am unfamiliar with. The stories are loosely connected in the sense that they are sequential, but they could easily be read separately. I gained the sense that Jakes performed much post-editing in an attempt to join them into a weak serial.

In this book, Brak has recently left his home in the north for the fabled land of Khurisdan based upon a flimsy notion that he is destined to do so. In each of the five stories, our hero - who differs from Conan because he has blond hair kept in a braid, and always wears his lion skin pelt (how did a barbarian from the north come across a lion skin pelt?) - in each story he encounters adventure. In the opening story "The Unspeakable Shrine" he does battle with an ancient evil sorcerer named Septegundis and the sorcerer's evil daughter Ariane; both worship the evil Yob-Haggoth. He defeats them, but it is promised that Septegundis and he shall meet again, perhaps in Khurisdan or before. Four more adventures follow and the fifth ends with Brak continuing his journey to Khurisdan.

I expected Brak to be a Clonan. With that I take no umbrage; however, the lack of originality was banal. These stories are in the vein of Conan with Lovecraftian imagery thrown in for spice, but they read like the poorest of pastiche. I am not against Conan pastiche. In hopes that the Brak stories grow stronger, not weaker, I will probably continue to look for them. At the very least, they read quickly. This one was great "airplane" fodder. I like books I can read in entirety on a two or three hour flight, and this one fit the bill.

A much more enjoyable read by Jakes is Mention My Name in Atlantis, 1972 Daw SF Books. From the back cover blurb:

The continent of Atlantis had troubles enough before Conax the Barbarian washed ashore. The king was on his last legs, his generals were plotting, there were those scary lights in the sky, and Hoptor the Vintner's favorite girl was being put up for auction on the slave block.

Then Conax, the self-styled king of Chimeria - a place nobody ever heard of - turned up at the auction with broadsword, his barbaric manners, and his hair-triggered temper.

John Jakes, author of Brak the Barbarian and many fast-moving novels of past and future, has written an uproarious cliffhanger that even Robert E. Howard would have approved...not to mention his legion of readers.

This book was as entertaining as its blurb led it to sound. It clocks in at 142 pages and reads in its entirety easily on a long afternoon sitting, or again on a two or three hour flight. I actually read this novel prior to Brak, and based upon it, I had higher hopes for Brak. In Atlantis, Jakes sets out to satirize the numerous volumes of Howard pastiche that were being published at the time. Note his dedication:

To the memory of the real Robert E. Howard who has been kept spinning in his grave for the last decade by the new antics of his favorite character's overactive ghost, not to mention his busy and admiring imitators.

Jakes' attempt makes for an enjoyable read. It is obvious from the get go that Jakes is even making fun of himself here. Note his description of Conax the Chimerical:

he was young with eyes of brighter blue...A mane of yellow hair reached well below his shoulders.

"Yellow hair", just like Jakes' own creation Brak. I liked Conax, perhaps because I am a fan of Conan pun characters such as Groo the Wanderer; however, it is the main character Hoptor the Vinter that is the real entertainment. Hoptor is a weasel always one step ahead of the law and his creditors. He makes his living by brokering deals, in fact his name is his livelihood. he often gets himself out of a sticky situation by convincing others that he can get them a great deal if they visit X merchant and "mention my name" (hence the title).

Based upon the enjoyability factor of Mention my Name in Atlantis, while I may or may not be done with Brak tales, I am not done with John Jakes.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings

 Introduction: Karl Edward Wagner (B: December 12, 1945; D: October 13, 1994) is most famous for his own Sword & Sorcery hero, Kane; however, he was a great friend to Conan of Cimmeria. 1976, saw the publication of Wagner's Legion from the Shadows, a pastiche featuring the REH character Bran Mak Morn. In 1977, being a harsh critic of L. Sprague de Camp's editing and re-writes of classic Robert E. Howard tales, Wagner edited three volumes of Conan stories for Berkley Press: The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle and Red Nails. These three volumes were pure REH with no rewrites. Between the years 1978 to 1982, Bantam Books published seven volumes of Conan pastiche. Volume four being The Road of Kings by Karl Edward Wagner.

The Skinny on the plot (spoilers free): A young Conan is rescued from a hanging by a band of outlaws that are allied with a revolutionary group calling themselves the White Rose. The White Rose are plotting a revolution to overthrow the despot ruler of Zingara. The revolution occurs with unexpected results with the help of a mysterious Stygian sorcerer. That is as much as I will tell you, and I foreshadow my summary here: find this book and read it!

The Good: KEW's description of the Pit is excellent. The Pit is a section of Zingara that ravished by earthquakes has sunken beneath the level of the rest of the city. It cycled all sorts of kewl ideas in my gamer mind. Wagner tells a fast paced tale that pulls you along. His created characters are interesting and well developed. 

The Bad: While Wagner's depiction of Conan didn't give me fits, I couldn't help thinking that his characterization of Kane seems more "Conanesque" then his Conan. This isn't enough though to keep me from highly recommending this book to fans of good Conan pastiche. 

The Ugly: Karl Edward Wagner was a great writer. If you haven't read his Kane stories, I highly encourage you to do so; however, they are a rare find and are often expensive to purchase when they are found. Unfortunately, this is the only Conan pastiche written by the late great Karl Edward Wagner.