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HALL OF FAMEon February 9, 2004
"The Monster of the Monoliths and Other Stories," Volume 3 in "The Chronicles of Conan" reprints issues #14-15 and 17-21 of Marvel's "Conan the Barbarian." Actually, the term "reprint" is not exactly accurate because beyond allowing us to enjoy these classic comic books without taking them out of the protective plastic in which they are sealed, these issues have been recolored using computers to make them even better (clouds and shadings are not big time fun). True, I thought they went a bit too far when they colored the epilogue of "The Black Hound of Vengeance" (#20), but overall the effects are quite impressive, especially since the paper stock in this Darkhorse publication is of vastly superior quality to what these stories were printed on back in the early 1970s.
Basically "The Monster of the Monoliths and Other Stories" can be divided into three sections. First, there is the two-part adventure involving Robert E. Howard's Conan of Cimmeria and Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. Conan meets up again with Zephra and her father, the wizard Zukala from issue #5. The two sword and sorcery heroes from different words meet and after fighting each other in the first issue fight together against the Green Empress of Yagala in the second. Gil Kane's first pair of "Conan" stories is adapted by Thomas from Howard's story "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth." At the start of issue #6 there had been a quick little homage to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser when Conan interrupts a couple of thieves named Fafnir and Black Rat (the story was originally about Howard's hero Black Turlogh O'Brien and his pirate captor Wulfhere). Conan learns Fafnir is still alive and after their initial fights the two become brothers in arms for most of the rest of this volume. This first adventure has them helping the goddess Aala (a.k.a. the young girl Kyrie) regain her thrown and then dealing with the inevitable monsters and volcanic eruption.
The last trio of stories represents the beginning of Barry Windsor-Smith's final run on "Conan the Barbarian." "Hawks from the Sea" finds Conan and Fafnir involved in the siege of Makkalet by the armies of Tur1n, under the command of Prince Yezdigerd, son of King Yildiz. Conan gets to experience the Hyrkanian War from both sides, doing a mission to the Turanians in "The Black Hound of Vengeance" and then switching sides to encounter "The Monster of the Monoliths," which is inspired in part by REH's "The Black Stone." The prime interest, however, is how Windsor-Smith's artwork continued to evolve, and the marked differences we seen after a few months off of drawing "Conan," especially knowing what is yet to come in the Volume 4 is even better. Thomas' storytelling has improved as well and one of the chief joys of reading these volumes has been to see how well these stories have stood up over time.
Thomas writes a "Behind the Swords" essay that appears in the back of this volume and which talks about the history of each of these issues. He also points out the Kane's issues of "Conan the Barbarian" actually outsold what the celebrated Windsor-Smith issues had done to that point. More interesting are the recollections of how Windsor-Smith would draw things and then Thomas would have to make it work with the story and how the final pages of issue #19 were colored without being inked (which explains why they look so inferior). Thomas spends about as much time explaining the reasons why, for example, the last issue is inked by Dan Adkins, Craig Russell, Val Mayerik, and Sal Buscema, as where they got the ideas for various stories. The only serious complaint with these trade paperbacks is that the original covers are not included, which will be a particular shame when we get to the next volume and the conclusion of Barry Windsor-Smith's run on this landmark comic book.
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