Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chapter 13: In which I discuss comic books and archenemies

Allow me to channel this guy for a moment.

I am a huge comic book nerd. However, my tastes tend to be pretty selective. I could never stomach superhero comics, which always seemed like lazy writing to me. Nobody ever ages, nobody ever dies, nothing ever changes. It's porno for geeks, basically. I grew up reading Elfquest, then moved onto Warren Ellis as a teenager, read some manga along the way, became addicted to Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated, delved into the indies like Bone and Cerebus. No single character have I followed more than the comic version of Robert E. Howard's immortal hero, Conan.

I recently read The Spear, a collection of Tim Truman's Conan comics. I love the Dark Horse stuff. These guys know sword & sorcery. The battles, monsters and beautiful women come fast and furious. Not only that, but they have a fidelity and understanding of Howard's vision that very few do. Its taken almost a hundred years for Howard's work to get that kind of respect, but it was well worth it. So I picked up the trade paperback, read through, enjoyed Conan's adventures, and afterwards found myself...sighing.

The whole collection is stories that set up Conan vs. Thoth-Amon. The writers have decided that there needs to be a Lex Luthor to Conan's Superman, and they've chosen the old stalwart.

First of all, its been done before. Back in the 1960s, when L. Sprague de Camp decided to franchise Conan and make a bunch of pastiches, he made Thoth-Amon the baddie. He even changed the ending on a Howard story to set up a conflict with the Lord of the Black Ring. This rivalry extended into the Marvel comics. Roy Thomas and the other writers at least did a better job in setting up the rivalry. There was plenty a "Conan the Barbarian" cover which featured the archmage shooting cliched magical energy blasts at the Cimmerian. It continued all the way into the "King Conan" comic. The very last issue of "King Conan" was, you guessed it, the final battle with Thoth-Amon. Alan Zelenetz, one of the better Marvel writers, set up a very interesting storyline in "King Conan." In the end, after all kinds of intrigues, it is revealed that the Machiavelli pulling all the strings is...Thoth-Amon. And Conan gets to kill him...again!

Anybody who was a kid in the 90s remembers the "Conan the Adventurer "cartoon, where Thoth-Amon had a giant snake staff and looked like Serpentor from "G.I. Joe." All he was missing was the "Cobra-lalalalala!" chant.

This kind of "defeat the evil dark lord" storyline is not in line with what Howard wrote. At some point I intend to write an essay about how Howard wrote fragmented epics. Although his stories are self-contained, there is always a main arc when dealing with any Howardian hero. Thus, there is a feel of the epic when the stories are read together. This is accomplished without consistent settings, with very few returning characters, and certainly without Voldemort-style recurring assholes.

Conan's stories have an arc, as well. Due to their episodic nature, it is not a quest to defeat a great enemy and save the world, but a character arc. Conan goes from being a murderous barbarian with contempt for civilization to a king with responsiblilities. In the final story in the Conan chronology, the novel The Hour of the Dragon, King Conan faces an evil wizard for control of Aquilonia. It is not Thoth-Amon, but a one-off baddie named Xaltotun. The thrust of the narrative is not Conan slaying yet another wizard. The Cimmerian, dethroned and offered a chance to become a freewheeling wanderer again, instead takes all the skills he has learned in his career as a thief/soldier/pirate/general/king and uses them to fulfill his duty and free his people. The wizard is the catalyst, but his defeat is not the goal of Conan's life.

I believe Thoth-Amon is mentioned three times in Howard's stories. In one of them he is even a character. The first time he is mentioned, Conan is a teenager; the last time is in Hour of the Dragon, when Conan's in his 40s. In none of these yarns does he face Conan. What de Camp did, and what Truman is doing now, is basically taking a piece of window-dressing from the Howard stories and expanding it into a dark lord. Can't a powerful wizard just exist in the world without becoming Conan's nemesis? Howard certainly thought so.

Why do we need these characters in our narratives? The archenemy is a comic book-style motif. It differs from the fantasy dark lord only in that, ultimately, the dark lord will be killed. Slaying him is absolutely necessary, else dark forces sweep the earth. Comic book heroes need villains who they can battle in perpetuity. Superman needs Lex Luthor. Flash Gordon needs Ming the Merciless. The Fantastic Four need Dr. Doom (who you think would just give up after being defeated by the Four however many hundred times). Batman needs the Joker (a guy whose killed thousands of people in a single metropolitan area, yet surprisingly has not been beaten to death by the police). Bugs Bunny needs Elmer Fudd. Apparently, Conan needs Thoth-Amon.

The good people at Dark Horse have made sure to make Thoth-Amon a Big Bad by shoehorning him into Howard stories pretty much the same way de camp did. Apparently every bad thing that happened during Conan's kingship was a plot by him. I'll keep reading the comic, because they do quality stories. I just wish writers could move beyond these formulas. Think how much you could explore a hero when his motivation goes beyond "I need to kill this guy." Or how much you can explore a villain when his goal is more nuanced than "I want to rule the world!" Conan is a barbarian, and for much of his career a self-serving rogue. He doesn't need an archenemy providing a throughfare for his life, and sure as hell doesn't need a dark lord.

And since they're going to have Thoth-Amon in more stories, they must have him wear the hat. Coolest hat ever.

1 comment:

  1. Man, I stumbled upon your recent Urshurak post, and on a whim searched for any other articles that mention Conan (I'm a Howard fan myself). You're a man after my own heart!

    You have encapsulated perfectly one of my greatest grievances with Dark Horse's run. I have more than a few problems, mostly in regard to details, but turning Thoth-Amon into Conan's Skeletor is insulting and simplistic. Thoth-Amon is so powerful that if Conan made an enemy of him, he probably wouldn't survive. Thoth isn't a Xaltotun or Tsotha-Lanti to gloat over his victims: he kills swiftly, economically and ruthlessly. Hell, the demon he sent to slay Ascalante nearly killed Conan, and it was only through the intervention of an immortal sage eternally opposed to Set that Conan even had a chance: imagine what would happen if Thoth was trying to kill Conan!

    The problem with a long-running nemesis is that it can make both hero and villain look unforgivably incompetent: the hero for allowing the villain to escape and plot time and again, the villain for never being able to put the hero away. Thus Conan, who has made a career out of taking out his enemies in short order, and Thoth, a sorcerer supreme, come across as incapable morons. Sometimes it can work: Holmes and Moriarty, for instance, work fantastically because both are similarly ingenious, and neither truly has the upper hand. So too in cases where it's a leader of the resistance against an evil emperor like Flash Gordon and Ming: Flash can have his small victories, but never bring down the empire, while Ming can dominate entire worlds while being unable to deal the death blow to a wily resistance.

    With Conan and Thoth, though, it doesn't work, and it's un-Howardian to boot. What frustrates me is that there is so much one can do with Thoth that would be richer and more satisfying than just making him another villain for Conan to fight. Howard seemed to have big plans for Thoth: not only does he appear (albeit offstage in all but one) in three stories, more than any other villain, but he was in an early draft of "Marchers of Valhalla," and his ring was a central plot device in a modern detective yarn. For whatever reason, this never worked out, but it's clear that while Thoth is hardly alone in terms of being a powerful wizard (Xaltotun and the Master of Yimsha appear to be far mightier, for instance), he occupies a preeminent position in the Hyborian Age.

    But no, apparently status quo is God, and Thoth must be Conan's nemesis. *Sigh* Ah well. And let's not get into why they decided to give Thoth snake-eyes: what, were dark, soulless eyes not "evil" enough?

    As an aside, Thoth-Amon never deigned to insult himself by appearing on Conan the Adventurer: he was replaced with the very transparent substitute Wrath-Amon, and later with the even more egregious Ram-Amon.