Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Greg Ruth, and the issue is Conan #46, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated November 2007. These scans are from Conan volume 0: Born on the Battlefield, which was published in June 2008. Enjoy!
“Born on the Battlefield” is a strange beast. It collects issues #8, 15, 23, 32, 45, and 46, all of which tell one big story about Conan’s early days. It takes three years to complete, which is not the sole reason why I waited for the trades on Kurt Busiek’s Conan (and the subsequent volumes), but it did turn out to be a good choice, as I get the story all between two covers. That’s handy. And Ruth gets to paint some good, wholesome, old-fashioned violence, REH-style!
Conan leads the attack on the Aquilonians, and we get several pages of carnage. I love them all, but let’s look at a few examples. Ruth is still using brushes, so we get the vague silhouettes in the background of Panel 1 and the flames of the oil and pitch in Panel 2. This is less an impressionistic work than Freaks of the Heartland, though, so Ruth is a bit more concrete here, as we see with the Aquilonians’ armor in Panel 3. It’s a gray day, so we get the dull colors in the sky, but we also get some dull colors in the metal of the armor – this is armor that’s been through the wars, so it’s been dulled quite a bit through combat. Ruth does some nice work with the lines on this page. Panel 1 tilts us from lower left to upper right, giving us the impression of the wall looming over the clans and almost crashing down on them, even though they’ve surprised the Aquilonians. In Panel 2, we begin with the tribesman getting burned by the oil, and Ruth tilts the wall the other way, from upper left to lower right, which slides our eyes down the wall and makes the movement of the burning oil more frantic. In Panel 3, he tilts it the opposite way again, but this time we’re behind the Aquilonians on the wall, and because he tilts it from the lower left to the upper right, instead of looming over the tribesmen, it appears as if the Aquilonians are about to be tipped onto Conan’s allies, as their situation is a bit precarious. It’s really nice storytelling. Panel 4 is tremendous, as Conan gets a handhold on the top of the wall. Ruth is very detailed here, showing every line on his hand and even how ragged his nails are – Conan has no time for manicures! It’s a great panel, as it takes the grand scope of the battle and narrows it down to one man climbing the wall. That it’s Conan just makes it more bad-ass, of course, but the principle of the panel in the context of the page is what makes it work.
This is part of a nice double-page spread, but as my copy is a hardcover and doesn’t bend very well, added to the usual problems I have with double-page spreads on my tiny scanner, I decided to just use this part of the left side of the spread (right beneath this is the name of the story, “Over the Walls,” and we’re not missing much “underneath” it). Ruth gets to go a bit nuts in this issue, as a lot of it is a big battle, and so we get Conan chopping that dude’s head off with such force that it almost looks like the head disintegrates on impact. Obviously, Ruth’s dark paints obscure the dude’s head, which is still inside the helmet, but it’s still an impressive cut by our favorite Cimmerian barbarian. He shows the brutality of battle well, with the red paint flicked across the scene, making the blood messy and vivid, and the contrast between the armored Aquilonians, with their pewter coloring, and Conan’s bare, manly chest and its ruddier color, is quite striking. Ruth’s details in the background aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve seen in other books and will see tomorrow, but I wonder if that’s to show the chaos of battle a bit better, as down below, we’ll see some scenes with very nice details. Beats me.
More battle, and more exquisite brush work by Ruth. Panel 1 is tremendous, as Conan tears through the soldiers, and Ruth does some really nice work with his face. It’s certainly not an upset face, but it’s not quite triumphant either. Conan is young in this story, and he’s learning how to be a warrior, and this face is someone who’s remembering his fallen comrades (as Busiek’s script tells us), figuring out how to kill, and discovering that his feelings toward killing are somewhat complex. At least that’s how I read it. Ruth is quite good at making it ambiguous, which seems to be what’s needed here. Panel 2 is another nice panel showing the chaos of battle, and then Ruth gives us Panel 3, where some dude gets run through. Again, he uses nice details on both the killer and the victim, with the fur of the barbarian painted in well, while the nicer armor of the victim is decorated with fancier patterns. Ruth paints in red blood turning to black in the lower left, again showing the violence of the battle. Panels 4 and 5 are horrific but well done, as we get the silhouette of the warrior in the background of Panel 4 so Ruth can show the helpless woman and child in the foreground. He uses a lot of black to isolate the victims, and then he turns it around so that doorway in Panel 5 is the black hole where the bodies lie, while the warrior is in the foreground, cleaning his sword. The door remains roughly the same distance away from the reader, but Ruth turns our perspective around to highlight the victims and then the murderer cleaning his blade. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t really matter.
So Conan cuts off two heads with one stroke because he’s MOTHERFUCKING CONAN. I just wanted to show the panel because of that, but I do like how Ruth paints red all over his body. Conan has been busy!
Conan’s grandfather, Connacht, tells him of Ophir, and Ruth does nice work to show its opulence. As we saw above, his details on the battlefield were a bit off, but here he does nice work, with the merchants in the background of Panel 1 very nicely delineated, while Connacht and his compatriots are set apart well by their northern dress. The “goods” in Panel 2 are beautifully rendered, as Ruth paints in nice details on the bowl and, with that coloring, makes them all look a bit more precious (even though he’s using the color because it’s a flashback). In Panel 3, he draws lovely Ophirian woman, but notice that he also takes the time to make the balcony on which they stand very ornate, and even their skimpy clothing is richly textured. Ruth makes Ophir an exotic place, which is why it enthralls Conan so much.
The trades of Busiek’s run began with the same set-up: a minister reading the Nemedian Chronicles to his king (or sultan, I suppose), telling him tales of Conan. This set-up is drawn by Cary Nord, but at the end of this particular story, Ruth gets to draw them. He does good work with them, painting the “wazir” with pale tones, showing the man’s age and, perhaps, his moral character (Conan stories are rarely subtle), while the ruler is more healthy-looking. Ruth does good work with the facial expressions – the minister is scornful of anything Conan-related, so Ruth draws him looking as if he’s just swallowed a particularly sour lemon. The ruler is a bit softer, not only because he’s younger but because he’s had a more pampered life. Ruth does nice work showing these two characters, who appear only on this page. We’re already set up because we’ve seen them in other trades (and earlier in this one), but Ruth is able to get across their personalities quite well in only a few panels.
For the final day of Ruth’s art, I’m going to take a look at a phenomenal graphic novel he did last year. It’s so good, you guys. Just ask noted reviewer Seth T. Hahne – he’ll tell you! You can find more excellent comics in the archives!
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