Friday, May 6, 2016

RED SONJA / CONAN: BLOOD OF A GOD

Written by: Victor Gischler | Art by: Roberto Castro
Colors by: Alex Guimaráes | Letters by: Simon Bowland | Edited by: Joseph Rybandt
Conan was created by Robert E. Howard
Red Sonja based on a character by Robert E. Howard | In memory of Arthur Lieberman

A few months after the end of Dark Horse's CONAN/RED SONJA, Dynamite picked up the crossover reins for RED SONJA/CONAN: BLOOD OF A GOD. Written by Victor Gischler with art from Roberto Castro, this mini-series serves as a direct sequel to the story crafted by Gayle Simone and Jim Zub at Dark Horse, though it can easily be read on its own; enough backstory and recap is given that no one should feel lost within its pages.

The story begins many years ago, on the same day as the Simone/Zub tale. In that story, Conan and Sonja met as they stole a box containing Bloodroot seeds from the chamber of a corrupt prince. Here, we learn that the morning before the theft occurred, a moderately skilled mage named Kal'ang was directed by a blind shaman to steal one such seed from the prince. The story then leaps ahead many years (though just how many is open for debate as will be discussed below). Some time after their defeat of Thoth-Amon in CONAN/RED SONJA, the Cimmerian barbarian and the Hyrkanian she-devil cross paths once more, hired as co-generals for army of the kingdom of Kush. Sonja and Conan are to lead Kush's forces in an invasion of neighboring Stygia, which is ruled by Kal'ang himself, still advised by the blind seer.

Following an epic battle with giants and monsters, in which the entirety of their forces are killed, Conan and Sonja storm the castle of Stygia and battle even more horrific creatures, such as a giant three-headed rat and an enormous spider filled with many smaller spiders. All have been mutated by a strain of the Bloodroot. When our heroes finally reach the castle's throne room, they find Kal'ang killed by his advisor, now revealed as Thoth-Amon.

The evil wizard explains that at the moment Conan killed him the previous series, he transported his consciousness back in time ten years, inhabited the body of a dying blind beggar, and sought out an easily manipulated mage. Kal'ang's mastery of herbology allowed him to mutate the Bloodroot seed into a powerful mutagen while Thoth-Amon secretly built his power and manipulated events toward his revenge on Conan and Sonja. But when the wizard drinks all of the distilled Bloodroot, amplifying his powers by countless degrees and allowing him to open a portal stretching back to the beginning of time, Sonja shoves him into it and Thoth-Amon is lost to the ages.

While I really liked the first two issues of CONAN/RED SONJA, I felt the final two, featuring the duo's battle with Thoth-Amon, fell flat in terms of both story and art. As it happens, this mini-series features the sort of epic final battle I would've hoped for from the previous one. In a perfect world, with some slight modifications, Gischler's four issues follow directly from Zub's and Simone's first two to form the perfect Hyborean team-up between Sonja and Conan. Where the final battle in the first series felt too small and anticlimactic, this one, with its huge army, giant mutated monsters, and so forth, feels suitably epic.

The only issues I really have with Gischler's script are relatively minor: One, he features a scene in which Conan and Sonja nearly hook up before the big fight, only to be interrupted by an enemy attack. This mirrors a scene in the previous story, and perhaps that was Gischler's intent -- but he may have missed the bit in that series where Simone and Zub made a point of showing that Conan and Sonja decided they would be better off without consummating their long-simmering attraction.

And two, Gischler's timeline is way off here. In the first series, the second issue took place six years after Sonja and Conan met in number 1, and the third and fourth issues were set still more years after that. But here, Gischler implies several times that it's been ten years since Kal'ang stole the Bloodroot seed on the day Conan met Sonja, while Conan later states that it's been ten years since he defeated Thoth-Amon. So either Kal'ang is right and it's been ten years since CONAN/SONJA #1 (which seems unlikely given that would then mean that series' third and fourth issues and this series all occur within four years of CONAN/SONJA #2), or Conan is right and it's actually been twenty years since the day he and Sonja met. (Which also seems a little iffy; yes, they were described as young in CONAN/SONJA #1, but they were still clearly adults. Are they in their late thirties/early forties here? They sure don't look much older than usual.)

At any rate, neither story problem is a major sticking point and they don't detract from the overall story.

The artwork here is great as well, and a case of the interiors not being let down by the covers. All the covers depicted here are from Ed Benes, who drew a variant to #1 and the regular covers to #2 - 4. It should probably come as no surprise based on previous posts hinting at my artistic preferences that I would like Benes' artwork; I love that every person he draws, man and woman alike, has these completely, absurdly impossible body types. Well, Roberto Castro may not have the polish of Benes, but he certainly takes a cue from his mastery of the unattainable human form. His Conan is enormous, built like He-Man on steroids, and his Sonja is, I suppose one might say, "pneumatic".

Interior art by Roberto Castro.
All Castro's original characters have decent designs as well, and while the work seems a bit sketchy and unfinished in places, when it's good, it's very energetic and fun. Also, Castro is far more graphic in his violence than were Dan Panosian and Randy Green in the prior mini-series. I'm not sure if Dynamite is simply more lax about such things (those first six issues of RED SONJA I covered a couple weeks ago were over-the-top violent as well), but I have to give a few bonus points to SONJA/CONAN for the number of decapitations, dismemberments, and throat-sittings in its pages. These are acts I consider synonymous with Conan and Red Sonja, and their absence was felt in Dark Horse's effort.

If you asked me straightaway whether I prefer CONAN/SONJA or SONJA/CONAN, it'd be a tough call. I really, really loved the first two issues of the previous series; story and art were both terrific -- but it just didn't stick the landing. That said, I did really like its premise of showing three meetings between the title characters across a number of years, and in general I found the scripting from Simone and Zub stronger than what we see here from Gischler. This series, however, is one single four-part adventure, but it provides a completely enjoyable experience all the way through and has the benefit of a consistent art team across every issue as well. Castro isn't on the same level as Dan Panosian, and if Panosian had drawn all of CONAN/SONJA, I might rate it higher than SONJA/CONAN even accounting for the lackluster ending. But as it is, I think SONJA/CONAN ever so slightly edges out its predecessor if we're talking about which complete four-issue series I prefer.

But in the end they're both good and they both have some hits and misses. As a complete package, I like them quite a bit. It's really a shame the rights to both characters don't reside at one publishing house, but hopefully if these two mini-series sold well enough, Dark Horse and Dynamite will see fit to indulge in more down the line.

Available from Amazon.

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