Review: ‘Conan: The Hand of Nergal’ by Truman and Giorello
There have now been eight generations of teenage boys to thrill to the exploits of [[[Conan]]], one for each decade since he first appeared in [[[Weird Tales]]] in 1932. The oldest cohort is likely mostly dead; the youngest one will mostly wander away once they get drivers’ licenses or beer-purveying fake IDs. But Conan endures – some of those fans do stick around, and there are always new ones. And, even though Robert E. Howard – remember him? The guy who created Conan and wrote the stories about him that were actually good? – has been dead for more than seventy years, Conan stories keep appearing.
Why, I have one right here:
Conan, Vol. 6: The Hand of Nergal
By Timothy Truman and Tomas Giorello
Dark Horse, October 2008, $24.95
Dark Horse, when they got the Conan comics license some years ago, rebooted the series, to follow Howard’s hero starting with his earliest adventures and to adapt or include Howard’s original stories along the way. (The intentions of the long-running previous series, from Marvel, had been intermittently the same, but twenty-three years leaves room for a whole lot of “more or less,” and they’d gotten pretty far in Conan’s life. I’m not sure why there’s no love for the older Conan, King of Aquilonia – especially since Howard’s very first Conan story was about that part of his life – but, in comics, the preference has always been for the young, half-naked barbarian.) [[[The Hand of Nergal]]] reprints issues 47 through 50 of the Dark Horse series – along with one of those most bizarre manifestations of the modern comics scene, the “#0” issue published much later than #1 – and sees Conan still quite young.
Hand of Nergal is based on a two-page, two-part untitled fragment – the title is from Lin Carter, when he “adapted” it into one of his own third-rate Conan stories – that’s currently available in [[[The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian]]]. I’ve just glanced at it myself – it’s two bits of atmosphere, with no plot: Conan finds an unconscious hot babe on a battlefield, and gloms her with his sweaty paws, while, meanwhile, a city named Yaralet is vaguely uneasy about nothing that gets described.
Truman had a pretty free hand with that; he does reprint the entirety of the fragment, in an obvious typewriter font, as if to say “check it out – actual Robert E. Howard words!”, but the rest of the plot was up to him to work out.
In telling his version of the story, Truman pulls together some standard Howard furniture – the lord of Yaralet, Prince Than, is mightily-thewed but over-civilized, and his main advisor in this story, Atalis, is good with words and sorcery (neither of those ever a good sign in Howard). Than is to be married to the gorgeous – all women are young and gorgeous in Conan comics, and wear no more than the scruples of the publishing companies and/or the Comics Code require – Princess Ereshka of Koth, who is on her way to Yaralet with an entourage of soldiers.
And ready to meet that entourage is a company of Than’s men, led by the redoubtable old commander – again, all decent leaders of soldiers in Howard are redoubtable old war-hounds, close to their men, unassuming but intensely wise in the ways of war – Bakat. Conan wanders into Bakat’s camp, in his usual passive-aggressive way. (He says, translated a bit into the modern idiom, “Oh, I’m sorry! Did you have guards out there? I didn’t even see them. Now, you several hundred armed and armored men, give me some damn food, because I asked for it.”)
Bakat manages to keep a melee from breaking out, and that’s good for him, because it means he gets to live a few more pages. (Battling Conan is always fatal; it’s his name on the cover, after all.) But the hideous lurking horrors come out before long, and blood and ichor flow like water across the battlefield.
It’s a Conan story, so you can guess where it goes from there. Sorcerers are treacherous, young heirs are never the equal of their dead fathers, nubile wenches writhe at the thought of being despoiled or slain by various horrors, and Conan strides through it all – sandaled feet, yadda yadda yadda – swinging his sword to either side and coming out unscathed in the end.
Giorello draws a good Conan, a fine battle scene, a suitably hideous lurching horror, and a quite fetching nubile damsel – so he makes, all in all, an excellent artist for Conan. Truman’s work is similarly workmanlike: he’s telling a story that’s very much like dozens of other Conan tales, by Howard and others, form the past eight decades. He gets the job done, and hits all the right notes, but one’s left wondering if this is all there is to Conan. (And, again, I’ll mention the older Conan, who has a kingdom to worry about, and not just his own appetites – he’s a more complex, more interesting figure, for all that the comics world likes to ignore him.)
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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