I have a confession to make. For the longest time, I thought Barry Smith, who did some random Marvel work along with the amazing Conan comics from the 70s, and Barry Windsor-Smith, whose elegant and stylish artwork appeared on so many series throughout the 80s and 90s, were two separate people.
In fact, I always assumed they had a father/son John Adams/John Quincy Adams-type of thing going, where "W" used his middle name to separate himself from his famous father who was in the same profession. Of course, I was wrong. Fortunately, Dark Horse Comics has cleared up any such misconceptions with their release of "The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives volume one."
Reprinting the first half of his legendary run on Marvel's Conan from 1970-73, this beautiful hardback puts Windsor-Smith's name proudly on the cover, corrects the coloring issues seen in previous reproductions, and delivers a fitting tribute to a ground-breaking comic. Almost like a smaller version of the Dark Horse Hellboy Library Editions rather than the existing Archive Editions, "The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives" comes complete with a faux-leather hardbound cover, the reproductions of all of the Windsor-Smith Conan covers, and a lengthy introduction by writer Roy Thomas.
Windsor-Smith's run on the original series truly shows the development of an artist and the evolving format of the American comic book. With the first few issues, Windsor-Smith is little more than a skilled Kirby-imitator, and writer Roy Thomas is just laying down chunky plots as if he were writing a standard 70s-era Marvel superhero comic. However, along the way something magical happened.
Thomas delved even deeper into Robert E. Howard's work, allowing more of Howard's richly detailed worlds and living characters to bubble up through the pages of the comic. Meanwhile, Windsor-Smith began introducing elements from the Pre-Raphaelite painters (like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones) into his work. He retained Kirby's dynamic energy, but used an artistry of line theretofore unseen in the comics world.
The two, Thomas and Windsor-Smith, hit that perfect groove of innovation and skilled collaboration that happens so rarely but always results in amazing comics. However, volume one of "The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives" does not collect the best of the Thomas and Windsor-Smith run--that won't happen until volume two with the beautiful "Frost Giant's Daughter" when Windsor-Smith really starts cracking home runs with every swing.
The first few stories in this volume are clunky at best, with neither writer nor artist really comfortable in the fantasy world. One story, "Zuakal's Daughter," pits Conan against a wizard who shares more with Dr. Doom than he does with Thulsa Doom. However, we do get to see the first snatches of brilliance here with such direct Howard-adaptations as "The Tower of the Elephant." We are also treated to the continuation of Lin Carter's penchant for adapting non-Conan Howard stories into Conan stories--as seen in "Twilight of the Grim Grey God."
Because Dark Horse is reprinting these stories as "The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives," I assume the two Gil Kane fill-in issues from the original run will be excluded from volume two. However, the "Red Nails" one-shot will be included, which is a fair compromise.
Now, Dark Horse already has a series of softbound collected editions of the Marvel comics Conan series, and the issues collected in this volume can be found for cheaper price in The Chronicles of Conan, Vol. 1: Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories. However, this trade paperback series is not without controversy--particularly Dark Horse's decision to re-color the series using modern palettes and techniques unavailable at the time of the original publication--such as deep shadows, soft glows and finder gradation of colors.
The decision to re-color stories in this manner hit hard with the purists who saw the new colors distracting from, or even covering up, Windsor-Smith's delicate line work. Others said that the old colors were garish and simple, and that Dark Horse's new color scheme was a clear improvement. Regardless, when The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives was first announced, Dark Horse promised that the stories would be "presented as they were intended, remastered using the original color palette!"
However, a quick glance through the book shows that Dark Horse's promise clearly did not happen. Changes were made with the re-coloring of the series. Nevertheless, this Archive edition retains the modern palette--with the broader range of colors and techniques--without obscuring Windsor-Smith's lines and intentions. Careful attention was paid to the placement of shadows and depth-of-field effects to make sure they did not compete with the original artwork.
Laying the three side-by-side, the original comic, the softbound collection, and this latest hardbound volume, it is clear that the current presentation is the superior version. As much as I love Windsor-Smith's comics in their original form, the colorist at the time was limited by the available technology, so Dark Horse's new colors are a distinct improvement. Purists probably are still going to be upset by the modern coloring, but I think you will be impressed if you give it a chance.