Chronicles of Conan Vol. 1: Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories

Written by Roy Thomas
Some chapters based on stories by Robert E. Howard
Penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith
Inked by Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Dan Adkins, Tom Sutton, and Tom Palmer
168 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse Comics

When people talk about Robert E. Howard’s character of Conan, the first thing to leap to mind is usually a movie by a certain Governor of California. If you ask a comic book fan, though, they’ll probably think of the comic published by Marvel for quite some time—and specifically the original issues by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Now that Dark Horse has the Conan license, they’re reprinting those classic stories in a series of four volumes. For people like myself who weren’t reading comics at the time, it’s great to finally see just what all the fuss is about.

Conan is a warrior from the lands of Cimmeria, traveling through the wilderness of the Hyborian Age. Wherever Conan travels, adventure is sure to follow, be it other-dimensional creatures, magicians, slave traders, or enchanted towers. The one thing that all will learn is those who cross Conan’s path will definitely live to regret it.

You can usually tell a bad production of a Shakespearian play by the way the actors speak. They treat the language in a very stilted way, over-emphasizing words in an attempt to make it sound grand, but inevitably just sounding silly. That’s often a problem one finds in fantasy novels as well, where fancy-sounding words and elaborate language scares people off for its sheer silliness. That’s the initial impression I got from Thomas’s stories; overly flowery language and words you can’t imagine anyone saying without laughing. The further I got into the collection, the less it seemed to appear, especially whenever an issue was adapting a story by Howard instead of coming entirely from Thomas’s imagination. This is very much a collection of stories with two creators (Thomas and Windsor-Smith) finding their feet and figuring out just what the heck it is they’re supposed to be doing. Towards the end they’ve almost got it, but those early stories are more than a little rocky.

Like with Thomas’s stories, Windsor-Smith (or just Smith as he was when he worked on Conan the Barbarian) is finding his way in these early issues. Those expecting the elaborate, finely-detailed art that we get from Windsor-Smith these days will no doubt be disappointed when they see The Chronicles of Conan‘s early stories. Don’t get me wrong, Windsor-Smith already had a keen sense of storytelling and anatomy, it’s just that the art itself is ultimately… average. I’d just about given up on thinking we’d see the Windsor-Smith that I’ve come to appreciate when we got to the “Tower of the Elephant” story itself. We see the tower itself… and for a split second, you can see Windsor-Smith’s entire artistic career mapped out in its ornate crystals and sparkles of light. As the tower collapses into a thousand shards of glass, the patterns that Windsor-Smith create remind you that yes, this is the same artist. From that point on, the art begins to really improve; characters have strands of hair instead of a gigantic solid mass, facial expressions become more refined and interesting, and you can tell that Windsor-Smith is starting to really enjoy this book. The added energy makes all the difference, and by the end you’re just starting to see why people got so excited about the twenty-four issues of Conan the Barbarian that he and Thomas did together.

Chronicles of Conan Vol. 1: Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories is a real proverbial mixed bag. For a book that starts off so cringingly, it’s a real joy to see it improve with each chapter. Tellingly, though, the most interesting thing in the entire book is Thomas’s essay about how the comic originally came to be, with behind-the-scenes anecdotes that will remind you of a DVD commentary with the amount of history and knowledge being shared. Most importantly, by the time I’d finished the entire volume, I started to understand just why Dark Horse picked up the Conan license. There’s a lot the right creative team can do with the character, and it’s easy to see why there’s so much sentiment attached to these comics. I’m definitely going to be keeping my eyes open for future volumes, because if the rate of improvement continued with each issue, the next couple of volumes should be quite good indeed.

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