Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: The Chronicles of Conan, Vol. 2: Rogues in the House and Other Stories

Review The Chronicles of Conan Volume Two Rogues in the House and Other Stories Roy Thomas Barry Windsor-Smith Robert E. Howard Conan the Barbarian Marvel Dark Horse Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Roy Thomas
Artist: Barry Windsor-Smith
Collects: Conan the Barbarian #9-13 & 16 (Marvel, 1971-72)
Published: Dark Horse, 2003; $15.95

At the end of my review of the first Chronicles of Conan trade, I worried that, going forward, the story-telling patterns I was beginning to notice could potentially grow stale within a few issues. Luckily, my fears weren’t at all justified in that respect. This second trade in Dark Horse’s effort to collect the original Marvel series from beginning to end is everything I could ask for story-wise, although it has some crippling issues in terms of presentation (more on that later).

In Rogues in the House and Other Stories, writer Roy Thomas continues to use Robert E. Howard’s original Conan prose stories as the primary basis for the comics. However, he also adds a great deal of his own flavor by filling in the chronological gaps with stories of his own, as well as with adaptations of Howard stories which originally didn’t feature Conan at all. As with the first volume, Thomas’s stories fit so nicely into the Conan mythos that it’s hard to tell which stories are his and which are Howard’s (at least for those of us without a huge reservoir of Conan knowledge).

Each issue could theoretically be read on its own without much confusion, but Thomas’s attention to chronology is beginning to make for a very interesting overarching plot. That’s what I liked most about this book – seeing the story progress and the character of Conan develop from issue to issue. A significant portion of this trade takes place in the same city and features an impressive number of recurring characters, with one adventure leading directly into the next.

The highlight of the book is the double-sized story “Rogues in the House,” in which Conan must find his way out of a monster-filled, booby-trapped palace along with the city’s corrupt ruler and the leader of the ruler’s rebel opposition. It’s really interesting to see Conan forced to interact with characters so unlike himself (without fighting them, that is), and for a few minutes the story almost made me wish I could see how Conan would fare on a superhero team like the Avengers or the Justice League, as ridiculous as that may sound.

There isn’t a bad story in the book, to be honest, but among my other favorites are “The Garden of Fear” and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” In the former, Conan must rescue his female companion Jenna (who joined up with Conan at the end of the first trade) from a winged, man-like creature in a tower surrounded by deadly, man-eating flowers – and he ultimately does so, with the help of a pack of woolly mammoths. In the latter (which is based on one of the few original Conan stories I’ve actually read), Conan is the last man standing at the end of a vicious battle, and when he sees a beautiful young woman, he begins to chase her through the frozen wasteland – but is she real, or just a figment of Conan’s battle-wearied imagination?

As you might have picked up, there’s a surprising amount of variety to the stories in this trade. Unfortunately, all of that is rendered almost moot by the patently awful job that Dark Horse has done in “restoring” these comics. Honestly, in all the time that I’ve spent reading comics over the years, this is one of the very worst treatments of older material I have ever seen in a collected edition. First of all, the original colors have been thrown completely out the window – instead, digital colorists have applied a repulsive “airbrush” style to Barry Windsor-Smith’s artwork, complete with pedestrian-looking color gradients that could only ever be created with a computer program like Photoshop. The result is a book that looks nothing like any comic would actually have looked in the 1970s – nor, for that matter, how any sane person with the gift of sight would color a book today.

Furthermore, Dark Horse’s colorists didn’t even follow the original color guidelines. Clothing, hair color, backgrounds, etc. – almost everything has had its color changed for this collection, without any explanation. They’ve even changed the thin black lines that Windsor-Smith occasionally drew on his characters to indicate streaming blood to a bright, garish red hue – something that never would have been acceptable in a Code-approved comic book at the time of Conan’s original publication. Nonsense like that not only betrays the original integrity of these comics, but it’s somewhat insulting to the reader. I appreciate the trouble, Dark Horse, but I really don’t need to see bright-red blood spraying everywhere like a Mortal Kombat game in order to understand that this comic has violence in it.

Worst of all, the colorists have inexplicably decided to actually erase portions of Windsor-Smith’s linework. It’s most obvious in the “Rogues in the House” issue, but it occurs throughout the rest of the volume as well. It absolutely baffles me to see such a heinous job done with the presentation side of this book, especially when the colorists who worked on the first trade were perfectly adequate and respectful of the source material. I hope future volumes in this series will return to that first batch of colorists, because if I find out that any more of them feature the work of this coloring team, this will be the last book in the series that I read.

There’s no denying that the stories in this volume are excellent, but this is one case where the abhorrent art reproduction simply can’t be ignored. As much as it pains me to tell anyone to pass up these great stories, the truth of the matter is that I think anyone truly interested should wait until Dark Horse gives this collection a properly re-colored second printing.

Rating: 2 out of 5


  1. oh man, I was thinking about picking these up and that's just really disheartening to hear. So sad!

    I hate shitty computer recoloring. Why do they even do it? I just don't understand.

  2. I don't understand it's really disappointing, because these stories deserve so much better.

    On the more positive side, I just did some research and apparently the coloring in the third trade is better, but still not perfect. Frankly, though, I've learned not to expect "perfect" re-coloring from major comics companies -- they don't want to potentially lose sales on popular characters like Spider-Man and Batman due to yellowed, pulpy-looking reprints, and I can understand that. (The one notable exception is the Superman book I reviewed a few weeks ago, which is an admirable experiment by DC.)

    I've actually flipped through the first Chronicles of Kull trade, and that book uses a much more faithful reprinting style. In fact, at certain points it looked like I was reading a bound copy of the original comics. Even if future Conan volumes are in line with the less realistic sort of re-coloring that Marvel and DC tend to do, though, I could still accept that. But erasing lines drawn by the original artist? That's just not acceptable.

  3. Wow Marc, this review was like a bait-and-switch. I've had very few comics ruined for me by ugly art, but on the rare occurences when it happens, it's really jarring.

    That said,"The Garden of Fear" story sounds amazing. Thanks for the review, and for supporting Conan!

  4. I'm not really a purist - I don't think it has to be pulpy and yellow. I just want them to treat the material professionally. In some of these books I've seen such hamhanded coloring jobs - why can't they just give it to a professional colorist? The kind they have on their ongoings? There are certainly plenty of them that know how to use good flats.

  5. Funny thing is, the colorists credited at the beginning of the book are apparently from Udon, which is normally a pretty professional and talented studio. In fact, I really enjoyed their art on Deadpool in the early 2000s, which was about when they did the re-coloring for this book.

    Thanks for the comment, Kello! "The Garden of Fear" is actually one of the issues that was adapted from a non-Conan story by Robert E. Howard, which would explain how much different it is thematically from some of the other stories in this collection. That said, I think it's still very much in keeping with the spirit of Conan. I'll have to check and see if it's been re-adapted in any of the character's post-Marvel series.

  6. I'm glad you're continuing on the series. I wouldn't say it would require a huge repertoire of knowledge on Conan to know what's Howard and what's not, since Howard only wrote 21 complete stories (and five fragments). If you mean the non-Conans turned into Conans, though, then I think you have a point.

    Not having experienced the original Marvel run - bit before my time - I wasn't initially aware of the art changes until after I bought it. It is a terrible shame, and the stories deserve to be reprinted properly. I recall there was a huge tome of Barry Smith's Conan run (Conan: The Barry Smith Archives, or some such), that might have the original colouring.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Taranaich! That's interesting, I didn't realize there were so few. I have the first of Del Rey's three books collecting Howard's Conan, and I just figured that with that many pages the number would be higher. But yeah, I think adapting the non-Conan stories was a really good idea on Thomas's part.

    I did look into the two-volume Windsor-Smith Archive set back when they were first released -- I remember there was quite a bit of controversy over them. In its original solicitations, Dark Horse claimed it would be reproduced from the original pencils and with the original coloring; not long before the first volume came out, they said this would no longer be the case. I'm not sure if that means the books ultimately came out with the same re-coloring as the trades, or if they've been re-colored by different people now. I'll have to investigate, because now I'm curious!

  8. Unfortunately the two volume hardback complete Barry Smith set has the same shoddy coloring as the Conan Chronicles, causing me to pas it up. And I really really wanted a hardback set of the Smith stuff. Not happy.

  9. A warning: The large hardcover reproductions, which were originally solicited as using the original color palette used in the Marvel Comics' did not see fruition. Instead they printed these books with the revised color commented on here. They ran into complications scanning the art and adapted the color change and finally threw in the towel. On the plus side the line work that seemed to fade out in the Chronicle editions were somehow returned and the first volume of the two had the color tweaked down a notch making it look markedly better. The second volume, unfortunately has no such altering but seeing as the line work is stronger it's still a decent collection. Also, the Archive set has all the covers and the artwork is reproduced from the original covers.
    There are other bonuses that make them worth owning, especially since it's highly unlikely that we'll see these stories reproduced with the integrity required to make them the best they could be. This is it and I doubt we'll see them again. Make of that what you will. I have them but it's hard to say "Buy 'em, NOW!" I have them because frankly I see no hope of seeing them reprinted again.

  10. Thanks for the information, Charles and Rick! It's unfortunate that we have to settle for less in this case, but as you seem to be getting at, Rick, something is always better than nothing. It's nice to hear that the Archives contain the original covers as well, because the lack of covers in the trades is a serious detriment.

    Thanks again to both of you for stopping by. Hope to see you around in the future as well!

  11. I didn't mind the recolouring too much - it gave the art a depth that it didn't have in the original printings. What I really objected to was the omission of the 'Conan The Barbarian' banner at the top of some of the splash pages, which made them smaller on the page. Also, in some of the later volumes, some stories have beeen completely relettered so shoddily that they abound with spelling mistakes. The books would've been a whole lot better if they had included the covers, and if whoever relettered some stories could spell.

  12. That's terrible to hear about the lettering in future volumes, Kid, and I didn't even realize Dark Horse had messed up the mastheads in this one. I was already on the fence about picking any more of these books up, and this isn't helping at all...

    By the way, do you have any thoughts on the restoration for the Chronicles of Kull series? I perused a few volumes at the store a while back, and noticed that Dark Horse took a very different approach to the art in those books.

  13. I haven't seen the Chronicles of Kull, I'm afraid, so can't comment. On the Conan books 'though, I bought the first five volumes, but took volume five back for a refund because of the shoddy computer lettering. Can't Dark Horse afford a proofreader?