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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and other stories

Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Cary Nord and Thomas Yeates
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letterers: Richard Starkings and Comicraft
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

What's it about?
Conan of Cimmeria is a barbarian, in the traditional sense of the term.  Fur covered, sword in hand, he sets out from his southern homeland to journey to the fabled lands of Hyperborea, to discover it's riches, wonders and women for himself.  On the way he gets caught up in a feud between the Aesir and the Vanir and his travels take an unexpected turn.

These stories are based on Robert E Howards original writings and follow the plots fairly closely.  It's your classic swords and sorcery adventure, filled with warriors, magic and mythological beings.

What's good about it?
Being a huge fantasy fan, I'm enamoured with the swords and sorcery, warriors, magic and mythological elements.  The plot is well crafted, the action has the right mix of violence, the concepts are large scale and there's a definite feeling of the epic about this book.  The mythology is dealt with nicely and we are introduced to a variety of Gods and Goddesses from the Norse and Celtic traditions.

This all lends itself to a textured, layered and multi dimensional new world to absorb yourself in. 

What's bad about it?
Because the stories are closely based on Howard's original Conan tales, first written in 1932, something has to be mentioned about the role of women in the book.  Each chapter starts with an image of the fabled Hyperborea lands, featuring warriors, kings and (presumably) concubines.  You can tell their role by the way they are posing and how they are barely dressed.

Each woman character in the text has a role as lover or seducer of Conan, but to be fair this isn't all they are.  Without providing spoilers, Henga is strong willed and independent, making her own choices about her life.  Iasmini is brave and cunning and her actions are integral to Conan's success.  The Frost-Giant's daughter is a beautiful seducer of men, but the inspiration from this quite clearly comes from Norse mythology, and is not merely an invention of a leching author.

The women within the book are all shown in various states of undress, but (usually) this doesn't come across as exploitative.  The artist's work revels in the masculinity of Conan and we are invited to gaze at his body just as much as the women's.  The whole thing can be read as an ode to a certain type of maleness, prevalent in the barbarian genre.

So, although on the surface it looks like the book is yet another male centric story, dismissive of the women involved, I am not convinced this is really the case.  The construction of the story is allied closely with Howard's original vision, and as such Busiek is constrained by what he can do.  I can only imagine that the artists were trying to tap into popular ideas and themes relating to what constitutes a swords and sorcery story.  The book could be improved by different (more fully clothed) depictions of the women, but on the whole this is not enough to put me off.  I'm usually quite easily put off, so make of that what you will.

What's the art like?
The colours are rich, the backgrounds are detailed.  The faces and bodies are expressive and the layouts are used to good effect.  Unlike other titles to have been reviewed on here, there is no overarching colour theme used throughout the book, instead the colourists fit the shades and hues used to the scene in which they are working on.  This works, and works well.  Take a look:

It's always nice to see character in the subjects faces.  This artwork is a million miles away from the traditional comic art and has been lovingly drawn by the creators.  Real thought has gone into each panel's composition and it's lovely to read.

Other information
Price: £11.99
ISBN: 1593073011

1 comment:

  1. "Because the stories are closely based on Howard's original Conan tales, first written in 1932, something has to be mentioned about the role of women in the book."

    It's important to remember that women being relegated to secondary status in society is not merely a reflection of 1930s prejudices: it's a sad fact of human history. Howard was merely reflecting that reality, that women were considered to be subordinate to men.

    Howard certainly didn't believe that: when he read an article about how "women can't be intellectual," he wrote a vigorous defense of great women in history, and how if women in his society were indeed "inferior" then it's because of men holding women down, not because of an inherent inferiority.

    Howard wrote of many strong women in his works: Dark Agnes, Red Sonya, Valeria, Tarala, Conchita, Helen Tavrel, and many more. Any of the "cheesecake" of the lesser Conan stories is a result of him deliberately pandering to the editor and illustrator of Weird Tales: with a little skin, they'd be more willing to buy the story and pay for it. Howard took great pride in his sale of "Beyond the Black River" precisely because it had no sexual content in it.

    And, just to note, Howard's warrior-women were always clad in practical attire. In "Red Nails," Valeria had more clothes on than Conan did!