Barbarians. Jungle Lords. Those guys.
It could be the time of year, I suppose. Late May and early June is when my Cartooning and Young Authors classes are putting together their final books of the school year, which means looming press deadlines for me as well as all the rest of the end-of-the-school-year crazy that hits around that time. Plus we have the Olympia Comics festival one week from today, and that means all sorts of field-trip headaches (multiplied by the raging return after two years of something I had thought well behind us, the Battle For A Field Trip Bus.)
Anyway. For whatever reason, I am seeking comfort and escape in the adventures of really burly guys who solve their personal problems largely by swinging swords around and dismembering their enemies, and sometimes they don't even bother with the sword. The fact that this is my comfy-chair relaxation reading of choice in times of stress probably says something terrible about me.
Anyway, because of all the annoyances I mentioned above, it's capsule reviews this week. Savage ones. Because, well, it's been that kind of week.
Conan and the People of the Black Circle by Fred Van Lente and Ariel Olivetti. The blurb: After an agent of the dreaded Black Seers of Yimsha assassinates the king of Vendhya, his sister Yasmina- now a queen- vows revenge! But her plans are derailed when Conan kidnaps her, and soon the Cimmerian has ruthless mercenaries, vengeance-crazed tribesmen, sinister sorcerers, and an entire army hard on his heels! Before it's all over, to rescue the very woman he kidnapped, Conan will have to confront the Black Seers inside their impenetrable mountain fortress! Adapted from Robert E. Howard's original novella, this is a spectacular rendering of one of Howard's best-loved Conan tales.
What I Thought: The original "People of the Black Circle" is my favorite Conan story that Robert E. Howard ever wrote, and it may even be my favorite Howard story of them all (although "Red Shadows" with Solomon Kane and "Sword Woman," introducing Dark Agnes, are right up there as well.)
But certainly, as far as Conan is concerned, I think this story is one-stop-shopping for all the things Howard did right, and it has almost none of the things that tended to wear out their welcome over the course of the original series. (No racism or gratuitous torture scenes to speak of, and not a feral ape or a perfumed scheming courtier in sight.) That's probably why I have it here in four different editions, this version from Dark Horse just being the latest.
I think it's the best of Howard's Conan stories because, among other things, the female roles are varied and interesting, the other supporting cast members are memorable and each is sketched well enough they feel like real people. (I kind of love Khemsa, the junior wizard that lets the nasty little slave girl Gitara talk him into running away with her to loot, pillage and conquer instead of just spending his days lolling around in the Black Tower of Yimsha being all evil and sorcerous. Because, really, if you're an evil wizard and you're not using your black magic to get rich and get laid, what's the point of being evil in the first place?)
The Devi Yasmina has always been my favorite of the Conan heroines, as well. She's got her own agenda, and she's not a whiner like most of the other Howard ladies not named Belit that hung out with Conan.
And once she's over the initial shock of Conan kidnapping her for ransom, she starts in on him to help her get her way.... not that Conan needs a lot of help to get pissed off at evil wizards. It's kind of his thing.
The main reason I invested in this hardcover, apart from my helpless love for this particular Conan story, is because I wanted to see what the Fred Van Lente version of Conan looked like, since he's taking over the regular title from Brian Wood. Big thumbs up from me. It's such a relief to see Conan acting like he should, as opposed to getting all weepy over a dead deer. My only caveat is that it feels a little too terse for a Conan story-- for once this is a story that really should have been six issues for the trade, but Van Lente does it in four, it's very stripped-down.
But apart from that one thing I like this book a lot. I especially liked the art by Ariel Olivetti-- the fully-painted pages have an animated-cartoon vibe that really works here, though I don't know if I want to see it on Conan all the time. Recommended.
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, illustrated by J. Allen St. John. The blurb: Tarzan loves Jane, but she has promised to marry another. Heartsick and lonely, Tarzan sails to Paris to learn the ways of civilization from his friend D'Arnot. On board ship--and later in the cafes and streets of Paris--he learns that the jungle is not the only place where savage beasts dwell. Before setting foot on French soil, Tarzan is caught up in a whirlwind of blackmail, attempted murder, kidnapping, and the intrigues of desperate men and beautiful women. When a secret mission takes him back to Africa, he struggles with a decision: Can he stay in the world of the woman he has loved and lost? Or does destiny call him back to his original African home?
What I Thought: Speaking of favorites, I think this may be my favorite of the original Burroughs Tarzan novels-- well, I think of the first five Tarzans as being really one long story, but this is my favorite installment, let's say. I mention it only because I recently was able to turn up an original 1915 edition from A.L. Burt that was kind of beat up-- I paid a dollar for it, though in the first edition with a dust jacket intact it's probably a $200 book, easy. However, repairing and rebinding old books like this is a craft project I enjoy, as I've mentioned before, and it's worth it to have the version with the J. Allen St. John illustrations. Sadly, no full-page drawings, only chapter headers, but they're still pretty cool.
The reason I mention it is because this edition is available for free as an e-book here in various formats at Open Library... you can even download it as a PDF if you want to see the actual book I have here in my hands with the nifty chapter headers.
Lords of Mars by Arvid Nelson and Roberto Castro. The blurb: Two legends of science fiction and fantasy literature collide in an epic crossover event! Tarzan, the legendary Lord of the Jungle, has claimed his title as a British nobleman, but his very life is threatened when a hunting excursion among high society goes disastrously wrong. Meanwhile, John Carter, the Warlord of Mars, responds to a veiled threat from his defeated enemies. Though separated by millions of miles, these champions of Mars and Earth are drawn together by a sinister cult and manipulated into a deadly confrontation. With their lives and those of their beloved Jane and Dejah Thoris on the line, can these iconic heroes put aside their differences and survive the Thern plot... and a thousand rampaging White Apes? Includes a cover gallery of over a dozen cover editions from the Lords of Mars comic book series.
What I Thought: I am extremely bitter still about the unfair complaints critics heaped on the John Carter movie that pre-sold it as a flop and pretty much made the Burroughs Mars novels radioactive as far as further film development is concerned. But one of the few happy outcomes of that is that Marvel/Disney let go of the ancillary adaptation rights, so now the Burroughs estate and Dynamite Comics have worked out their legal differences and we'll get more Burroughs-based titles from them without further hassle.
Why does this please me? Because Arvid Nelson is just killing it writing those comics. They're awesome, and the art has remained strong in spite of the variety of people working on those titles. These are close to becoming my favorite versions of the characters done for comics-- the only thing that keeps me from just saying it flat-out is the art. If the art equaled what guys like Joe Kubert and John Buscema have done in the past there would be no question. Even so, the Dynamite guys are doing all right; Roberto Castro certainly does a nice job here.
I've talked in this space before about how much I enjoyed Dynamite's other Burroughs titles Lord of the Jungle and Warlord of Mars, but those were mostly adaptations of the books. Lords of Mars is all-original and it's great fun. Everyone is in character, and if the old "Fight over a misunderstanding, then team up to take on the real threat" plot has a few miles on it, Nelson rings in enough interesting changes on the idea that it's still a lot of fun... in particular, he gives Jane more to do in this story than Burroughs himself did over the course of over twenty Tarzan novels.
What I liked about this is that she's still essentially the Jane of the books, but she's part of the story and not just a token damsel to be distressed.
The book's a lot of fun and you can get the trade pretty cheap. The only reason the trade collection is rated 'mature' is because of Dynamite's variant-cover thing-- they have this schtick of the "risque" variant for some titles, which in this case means a cover gallery with a lot of topless Dejah Thoris. (If you Google it, you'll see there is very little that is actually mature about the enterprise.) This is really damn annoying because my 6th-grade students would love this story but this gratuitous T&A stuff in the back means I can't take the book to school.
Apart from that caveat, I was mildly displeased that the story ended with some plots unresolved, but it's clear that there were intended to be further Lords of Mars installments. Now that the legal stuff's dealt with, I hope we see them soon.
Tarzan, an animated film written and directed by Reinhard Klooss. The blurb: Starring Kellan Lutz as the classic jungle hero and Spencer Locke as Jane, the story is updated to see Tarzan as the orphan son of billionaire adventurers who died in a plane crash, leaving him to grow up in the jungle, raised by apes. Meanwhile, Jane is the daughter of an African guide, committed to the conservation and preservation of the African jungle, and fighting against CEO of Greystoke Energies, a man who took over the company from Tarzan’s deceased parents.
What I Thought: I was a little annoyed about the needless changes to the story's milieu... this version of Tarzan takes place in the modern day. The plot is roughly the same as the original Tarzan of the Apes, but vastly shortened and, worse, 'updated,' in much the same way television shows like Elementary and Sherlock updated Sherlock Holmes.
I can understand the reasoning, of course, but it still irks me. Mostly because just ONCE I want a Tarzan movie with ape battles, jungle savagery, a romance, and a lost city. The closest anyone ever got was a low-budget film in 1998 with Casper Van Dien, Tarzan and the Lost City...
...and the 1970s Filmation cartoon.
You'd think after a hundred years someone would, I dunno, actually pick up one of the damn books and just do the story straight. Tarzan-as-conservationist never has worked for me, though it's an idea that shows up with increasing frequency. I like a savage, badass Tarzan that battles gorillas and leopards and so on, not one that worries about them and protects them from evil corporations looking to build ore refineries and whatnot.
All that said, the film itself is a cute story once you get past the updating stuff, and it really looks gorgeous: beautifully drawn and painted (or CGI'd, whatever you call it these days) and I loved the way they animated Tarzan to make his movements apelike.
It's fun for the kids and Julie liked it a lot. I probably would have liked it better if I could have shut off my inner fanboy that kept screaming how goddamn hard is it to just DO THE BOOKS when it's f'n CGI?? As it was, this film grew on me-- at least there were no musical numbers. Worth a rental, especially if you have youngsters of your own.
Tarzan In The City of Gold, by Burne Hogarth and Don Garden. The blurb: Burne Hogarth is one of the most famous artists in the history of comic strips - at the peak with Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon) and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant). In 1936 he followed Foster on the massively popular Tarzan comic strip, and set a new standard for dynamics and excitement. This is the first of four exclusive volumes that will collect Hogarth's entire run, beginning with Tarzan and the Golden City.
Restored and reproduced in an oversized format, these editions will finally do justice to one of the most lauded illustrators of all time, whose work has been out of print for more than a decade. Full-color restorations of the newspaper strips, reproduced in the oversized full-page format made popular by current collections of Prince Valiant and Popeye the Sailor. There are also historical articles from Scott Tracy Griffin, author of Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.
What I Thought: Best for last. This is yet another stunning archival comics collection from Titan Books, this time reprinting Burne Hogarth's incredible Sunday color comics from back in the 1930s. It's a gorgeous book, totally worth it just for the Hogarth artwork, but the stories themselves are better than I would have thought. They're very much of their time, but scripter Don Garden knew what he was doing.
The real star of the book is Burne Hogarth's art, of course, but the scholarly article from Scott Tracy Griffin that introduces the proceedings is interesting stuff too.
It retails for around forty dollars which is certainly a fair price for such a lovely hardcover, but you can drop it down to twenty-three or so if you shop around online. But if you love Tarzan, old-school newspaper Sunday strips, or just plain good adventure comics done in the classic style, you should check this out. A worthy addition to Titan's other reprint series like the Simon & Kirby Library and the Flash Gordon books.
And that's all I've got, this time out. See you next week-- not sure when, exactly, what with the last week of school and the Olympia trip and so on and so forth, but there'll be some kind of column up here, I promise. See you then.