The heroes created by Robert E. Howard have gone through many manifestations, from magazine serials to story collections to film and comics. Comics seem to have provided particularly fertile ground — there are adaptations of Howard’s stories, stories developed from Howard’s sketches, and original stories built around his characters, all created by different writers and visualized by different artists. Dark Horse Books has begun reissuing these comic series, providing a welcome overview, particularly of Solomon Kane, Howard’s first creation, and one virtually lost in the shadows of Kull and Conan.
The first of these volumes, The Saga of Solomon Kane, presents adaptations from the 1970s through the 1990s, all originally published by Marvel Comics in various comics periodical series, mostly The Savage Sword of Conan. Kane himself is somewhat unusual for a sword-and-sorcery hero, particularly when we consider Howard’s later creations: not a barbarian, but a civilized Englishman of the time of Edward VI and Elizabeth, and, necessarily, Mary, whom Kane would have regarded ambivalently, at best: she was Catholic, he a staunch Puritan. His adventures took him not to fabled kingdoms beyond the reach of history, but to real places — England, France, Portugal, North Africa, and the darkest parts of the Dark Continent. Sworn to serve as the strong arm of the Lord, Kane used every means in his reach — usually his pistol and rapier — to rid the world of evil, whether it be human or supernatural.
The stories themselves are certainly in the spirit of Howard, both those adapted from original stories and those based on his sketches. There’s somewhat of a nostalgia element to this collection — it’s a black-and-white collection, and although the various stories were drawn by several different artists, they are definitely in the ”illustrated story” mode and from the vantage of recent comics — over the past decade or so — definitely seem dated. The art, however, holds its own rewards. Many of the artists — Howard Chaykin, Brett Blevins, Steve Gan, David Wenzel, Colin MacNeil, Neal Adams, among others — have created renderings that rely on a strong line and a marked sense of motion that adds to the visual interest of the panels.
One highlight is the final story, “Death’s Dark Riders,” which originally appeared as a two-part serial in 1994 and pairs Solomon Kane and Conan in a supernatural adventure. Roy Thomas developed the story from one of Howard’s fragments, and Colin MacNeil’s drawing establishes a suitably surreal mood, marked by deep shadows and a high degree of abstraction. Quite sophisticated and quite nice.
The stories are presented in order of publication rather than chronological order, so there is a disjointed quality to the narrative flow that would not be particularly remarkable if the collection were not graced with a “biography” of Solomon Kane as an introduction, including notes indicating when certain stories occurred in his life, and were it not for the numerous transitional paragraphs linking the stories into a continuous flow — or attempting to (it takes Kane two or three tales to finally make it to Frankenstein’s castle after he initially begins the trek). Consequently, the stories have to be taken as separate narratives rather than episodes from a life, a characteristic brought into sharp relief by the (necessary) inclusion of that biography and one that doesn’t particularly add to the appeal of the volume.
The Chronicles of Solomon Kane has the virtue of containing stories by only two authors, Roy Thomas and Ralph Macchio, most of them by Macchio. These all date from the 1970s and ‘80s, and include several pieces that had appeared in black and white and were redrawn for color publication (“Hills of the Dead,” “Blades of the Brotherhood,” “Wings in the Night,” and “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” a poem which seems to be extraordinarily popular with anthologists, although it recalls nothing so much as Kipling’s more rambunctious efforts — it appears in two different versions in the Saga). It is also in many respect a more “modern” view of Howard’s stories, both in script and graphics, which seem somehow cleaner and more open.
The first three stories in this collection are actually two different treatments of the same story, the legendary “Red Shadows,” dealing with one of Kane’s African adventures, the first, in two parts under the titles “The Mark of Kane!” and “Fangs of the Gorilla God!” (I have to take the exclamation points as a pulp comics flourish), by Thomas with art by Howard Chaykin, the second by Macchio, drawn by Steve Carr and Brett Blevins. It’s fun to compare the two just to see the range of treatments that Howard’s stories can lend themselves to.
Again, this is a volume in which the writing and the graphics are of a high order, although they don’t have the edge I’ve gotten used to from more contemporary comics. This impinges on that phenomenon known as “reverence for the classics,” but in this case it’s fully justified: these are very good adaptations that maintain the flavor of Howard’s originals while effectively translating them to a new medium.
It’s not really fair to compare these two volume, although I obviously found the temptation irresistible. They reflect, I think, part of a transition from the real pulp comics, action/adventures in black and white, to the more sophisticated treatments we are used to in more recent graphic literature. The Saga is somewhat less contemporary in feel than the Chronicles, but maintains a distinct identity of its own. They are both still firmly in the realm of the illustrated story, but are very good examples of the form.
(Dark Horse, 2009)