Once upon a time there was a young English illustrator who wanted to draw comics. He wanted to draw comics badly enough that he came to America with little more than the clothes on his back and a sheaf of drawings, and went to the offices of Marvel Comics. They thought the drawings were OK, and managed to find a few jobs for him here and there, but. . . .
There was also a young and very junior editor who managed to talk the senior editor into a series based on the character Conan, the creation of Robert E. Howard. But, since the budget was limited (because the young editor had spent too much on the rights to the character), the young editor wound up doing the writing himself. And because the budget was limited and there was a young, penniless English artist hanging around . . . well, the young English artist found himself with steady work.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Dark Horse Books has undertaken the task of reissuing this early series — it ran from 1971-1993; Windsor-Smith left the series in 1974 — in addition to its own Conan series. These two volumes are versions of the same series differing only in presentation (although the Barry Windsor-Smith Archive, the deluxe offering, offers more stories.) The Chronicles of Conan, Vol. 1 is part of the three-volume boxed set of Howard reissues that includes The Chronicles of Solomon Kane and The Chronicles of Kull, Vol. 1.
The stories were written by Roy Thomas, mostly originals (based sometimes on references from Howard’s other writings), and very occasionally adapted from one of Howard’s stories. (In these volumes, only “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The Twilight of the Grim Grey God” merit that distinction.) As Thomas notes in his introduction, it took him awhile to get into the swing of things — the first few are sometimes embarrassing. Plots are intelligently constructed — or at least, no more outlandish than one might expect, given the time and the genre — but one will look in vain for any great depth of character, although Conan fits in nicely with the fantasy noir tradition, although he’s a long way from being an anti-hero on the order of Moorcock’s Elric or Cook’s Croaker. His morality, such as it is, is based firmly in his own self-interest. Consider that Conan is a warrior, which calls to mind a set of high-minded ideals, but he is also a thief, which bothers him not at all. He’s also a barbarian whose mindset is relatively black and white, not unusual for comic heroes of the time. As portrayed by Thomas and Windsor-Smith, Conan’s reactions are swift, unhesitating, and little given to later examination. The diction, echoing Howard’s own “high heroic” mode (and with all the exclamation points that seem to be required in pulp fiction from a certain era) can be a bit off-putting for those attuned to more contemporary works, although for most of the stories, it’s perfectly appropriate. The stories do improve as the series progresses, and by the last few in the Windsor-Smikth Archive volume, they are good, tight, edge-of-your-seat adventures.
Barry Windsor-Smith’s drawing for this series is several steps beyond remarkable. For these volumes, he did the pencils, supported by Dan Adkins’ inks and color by a number of artists, but the credit for the basic design and execution rests squarely with Windsor-Smith. The color has been remastered for these books, giving a contemporary look to the graphics, smooth and richly modeled. What is most arresting, I think, is the sense of openness, the visual space that Windsor-Smith has incorporated into even the densest frames. Action scenes have a distinct sense of motion, and even though the layouts are still pretty much frame-follows-frame (although not rigidly so), there begins to be an almost cinematic feel to large portions of these stories, due in large part to Windsor-Smith’s adroit use of close-ups, shifting points of view, and even the occasional fragmentary detail. And this is without doubt the prettiest Conan ever, in any medium — this is the young Conan, tall, slim but heavily muscled, with big blue eyes and shaggy black hair. It’s no wonder that women are falling for him right and left. (I might add that physical attractiveness seems to be a given for all the characters — even the villains and monsters.)
This is one that’s worth checking out, especially the Barry Windsor-Smith Archive, with faux suede hardbound cover with inset illustration, but be warned: the complete of set of the Chronicles of Conan is going to take up a lot of shelf space (volume 32 is scheduled for release in August, 2016 — and that’s only the latest, not the last).
(Both Dark Horse Books, 2009)