Friday, April 20, 2018


Script and Art: P. Craig Russell
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski | Letters: Galan Showman
Based on the story “The Jewels of Gwahlur” by Conan creator Robert E. Howard.

As noted when I "digitally unboxed" it a few months back, I picked up 2005's CONAN AND THE JEWELS OF GWAHLUR in a Dark Horse Conan sale simply because the cover jumped out at me and the story sounded interesting. Plus, despite his long and distinguished career in comics, I'm pretty sure I had never read any sequential work by P. Craig Russell, and I wanted to rectify that. I've seen pinups by him and I've seen him ink other pencilers here and there, but when it comes to pure, unvarnished Russell as plotter, scripter, penciler, and inker, this story marks my first exposure.

(I mean, yeah, technically he's adapting an original work by Robert E. Howard, but you know what I mean.)

The story finds Conan, working as he often does in the capacity of a mercenary, as a general in the kingdom of Keshan. But his true purpose in the backwater nation is to steal its legendary treasure, a cache of jewels called the Teeth of Gwahlur. However Conan finds himself up against a rival in this quest, the sinister Thutmekri. When Thutmekri tells Keshan's king that peace with neighboring Zimbabwei could be achieved with some of the Teeth provided as a show of good faith, Conan realizes the villain's true plan, to get the king to reveal the location of the sacred jewels, and then steal them.

Conan takes advantage of Thutmekri's plot when the king sends his priests to the isolated and long-deserted city-temple of Alkmeenon, where they are to commune with its oracle, Yelaya, and, if necessary, bring back the Teeth of Gwahlur. Now knowing where the Teeth are hidden, Conan sets out ahead of the priests and reaches Alkmeenon before them.

I must admit here that I'm not exceptionally well read in the realm of Conan's adventures. He's a character I've long had an interest in, though. I've read a few of his comics here and there, but I've never looked at any of the Robert Howard source material -- so I have no idea whether this story is your typical Conan tale in any way, shape, or form, though I can say it's got a different mood and tone than most of the comics I've perused. It's essentially a mystery story starring the mighty Cimmerian, which seems like a really cool idea.

Conan finds a mummified man outside the temple, then heads in. As he slinks around the deserted complex, he comes across a beautiful girl clothed as the oracle, but soon realizes she's actually an agent of Thutmekri, in place to dupe the incoming priests. Conan wins the girl to his side and has her change her orders to the priests. Leaving her to her task, he continues to explore and finds Thutmekri dead and beheaded outside the temple.

I won't give away any more, since the story is a genuinely compelling read as Conan plays detective, uncovering the mystery of the temple, encountering the "real" oracle, and exploring hidden catacombs beneath the ground. I will say that there's no magic involved here; everything in the story has an earthly explanation, so no cheats are employed.

And the artwork is beautiful all the way through. Russell's cartooning is terrific and he plays with fun page layouts consisting of larger and smaller panels mixed together. He really sells the idea of this isolated, sprawling temple in a way that makes it feel totally deserted and spooky. The colors by Lovern Kindzierski are gorgeous and lush, too.

If i have only one single complaint about the entire affair, it's that Russell's Conan doesn't look all that much like the character as I envision him. I know Conan has been interpreted by many artists over many years, and there probably is a "right" way to draw him based on Howard's original texts -- but to me, the definitive image of Conan is the huge, hulking barbarian illustrated by John Buscema. Conan in my mind's eye is built like He-Man (fitting, since the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE toyline was originally conceived as a licensed Conan line), but Russell's version of the character is significantly leaner and lither than the Buscema archetype. In fact, thanks to the jungle setting, Russell's take tends to look more like Tarzan to me than Conan.

However, this is a pretty small nit to pick in an otherwise wonderful, moody story. As I said, I've never read any of Howard's original works, including the tale on which this adaptation is based, so I can't speak to faithfulness -- but judged on its own merits, this is a really enjoyable comic.

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  1. Russell's actually being fairly accurate to the stories where Conan's appearance is concerned, especially in the stories where Conan is younger. The comics version is pretty damned definitive in terms of his look, and the movie versions have been pretty muscled, but Howard's Conan, in his youth, was much like this.

    I am a massive and long term P. Craig Russell fan-going all the way back to his work on Killraven in the 70s-and no one adapts a story from prose to comic like he does. I'm reminded of the story Neil Gaiman tells about how Sandman #50, an Arabian Nights riff, came to be with Russell on the art. Gaiman basically started writing a short story to get the feel right, but hadn't scripted it. He sent what he had written to Russell and apologized about the lack of script, and Russell just said "Write it as a story, I'll adapt it, I love doing that." Russell turned out what I think is the best issue of Sandman, and did it without a script. Just adapted a story by Neil Gaiman. P. Craig Russell is amazing.

    1. Hmm, I think I have ESSENTIAL KILLRAVEN laying around someplace. Maybe I should take a look at it!

      Interesting story about Gaiman and Russell. It's not really the same, but it reminds of the stories about how Roy Thomas would just send the actual Robert E. Howard Conan stories to John Buscema for him to adapt, rather than sending him plots he'd written himself.

    2. Killraven is kind of dated these days-of course it is-but back in the mid-70s that stuff was state of the art, especially Russell's work. Don McGregor's writing is a bit of an acquired taste-the prose gets a little purple-but in a lot of ways, Killraven anticipated a lot of early 80s comics.