Friday, April 29, 2016

CONAN / RED SONJA

Script by: Gail Simone & Jim Zub | Pencils by: Dan Panosian (#1-2) & Randy Green (#3-4)
Inks by: Dan Panosian (#1-2) & Rick Ketcham (#3-4) | Colors by: Dave Stewart
Letters by: Jimmy Betancourt at Comicraft
Conan was created by Robert E. Howard
Red Sonja is based on a character created by Robert E. Howard

At some point in the nineties, the rights to Red Sonja and Conan split apart. Sonja had been created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic series, but somehow her intellectual property was deemed separate from Conan's but also separate from Marvel's. Both IPs were allowed to make use of Robert E. Howard's Hyborean Age settings and concepts, but neither could use the other's title character. Thus, for close to two decades, Conan has been published by Dark Horse Comics while Sonja has had a home at Dynamite for about the past ten years. And for a while, rumor had it that Dark Horse and Dynamite were not willing to play nice for any sort of crossover.

So it was kind of a big deal in 2013 when the two publishers jointly announced a CONAN/RED SONJA mini-series to be written by the characters' respective ongoing writers, Brian Wood and Gail Simone, and published by Dark Horse. The series eventually saw print in 2015 with Wood replaced by Jim Zub, and a collected edition was released later in the year -- which brings us here.

The story by Simone and Zub follows Conan and Red Sonja across a handful of meetings spanning several years of their lives. The first encounter each other in their youth, a pair of brigands hired separately to steal a precious box from a corrupt prince. The container's contents are eventually revealed as deadly "bloodroot seeds", and the man after them is a servant of the evil wizard Thoth-Amon. Conan and Sonja are unimpressed, burning the seeds before they can be turned into a weapon of mass destruction, then killing their employer and going their separate ways.

We catch up with them again six years later during a period in Conan's life when the Cimmerian barbarian served as a pirate beside his lover, Bêlit, Queen of the Black Coast. Sonja, meanwhile, is a commissioned slaver-hunter alongside a woman named Annisia with whom she served as a gladiator for three years. The warriors cross paths once more on the high seas and discover a coastal town besieged by the bloodroot and ruled by Thoth-Amon. They defeat the wizard, but he escapes to fight another day.

These first two chapters are really fun and Simone and Zub do a great job of selling the stories as mere snapshots in the much broader tapestries of the characters' lives. Conan's history is well-documented thanks to the novels of Howard and the hundreds of comic books in which he's starred over the decades. Sonja, a character created, as noted above, for the Marvel series, is less set in stone than her Cimmerian counterpart, having appeared mostly in a series of regularly rebooted comics since the seventies. So while I'm familiar, at least in passing, with Conan's career, Sonja is more of a cipher to me. Nonetheless, the richness Simone and Zub bring to both characters allows Sonja's story to feel just as grand and mythological as Conan's.

And the artwork in issues 1 and 2 is outstanding as well. A couple years back I noted that the covers to DANGER GIRL: THE CHASE were drawn by Dan Panosian, and his work there was touted as a major feature of the series, but I wondered if he was really a draw these days since my main exposure to the guy was as an inker at Marvel in the nineties. I still don't know if the Panosian name moves a ton of comics, but I can pretty safely declare that he's now a draw for me, at least. His work is beautiful and sells the Hyborean Age perfectly. I don't know why he only handled half this series, but he is sorely missed in the subsequent installments.

Issues 3 and 4 are a single two-part story, set still more years later. No exact number is given this time, though narration indicates that both Conan and Sonja have matured considerably since their last encounter, and Conan himself is particularly sobered after a life of nonstop violence. Bêlit is long dead and Conan still pines for her. He and Sonja are reunited when a king, father of the prince they murdered in issue 1, has them captured by bounty hunters. But the duo defeats the king's men and slays him, then they depart his castle only to come into conflict once more with Thoth-Amon and the bloodroot. The wizard pits the warriors against each other, threatening that the loser's homeland will be destroyed. Naturally, however, Conan and Sonja find a way to thwart Thoth-Amon and win the day, eliminating the wizard and the bloodroot once and for all.

Despite the supposedly epic nature of these final two issues, the story and artwork fall a bit flat at this point. The series is much more entertaining in the early going, as we see a young and reckless Conan and Sonja engaged in adventures together. Neither of these characters wears maturity particularly well. I'm well aware that in the source material, Robert E. Howard himself describes Conan as a man "...with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth," but I find the melancholy side of the equation kind of uncomfortable. And Sonja as an even-keeled warrior rather than a hot-tempered she-devil just feels wrong.

That said, I do appreciate the scene where Conan and Sonja briefly seek solace in each other's arms, nearly consummating their ongoing flirtation before being interrupted by the bloodroot. By the story's end, both decide that their brief moment was a lapse in judgment and agree to be friends. I like the idea of these two, who are apparently so perfect for each other in both physicality and temperament, realizing that they value their friendship as comrades-in-arms too much to jeopardize it with a physical relationship.

Artwise, as I said, I'm not sure why Dan Panosian was unable to finish this series, but the visuals take a major dip when Randy Green comes aboard for issues 3 and 4. Green isn't necessarily a bad artist; he just isn't up to Panosian's caliber and the grand finale, pitting our heroes against Thoth-Amon in a confrontation apparently more than a decade in the offing, suffers from the absence of Panosian. (Panosian's covers on Green's interiors only rub salt in the wound.)

The story's a bit uneven by its conclusion and the artwork is most certainly uneven, split straight down the middle as well, but I'd almost say CONAN/RED SONJA is worth it for the first two issues at the very least. Zub, Simone, and Panosian turn in a fantastic effort on these two characters in their first pair of encounters, six years apart.

Next week, we'll find out if Dynamite's half of the crossover effort, set still more years later in this same timeline, can live up to the precedent set by the first two installments of Dark Horse's story.

Available from Amazon.

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