Monday, July 13, 2009

Comics: Blame it on Kane.

Though he was never popular enough to achieve the iconic status of Conan, pulp legend Robert E. Howard's grim vigilante Puritan Solomon Kane has managed a thoroughly respectable run in the comic medium. Through the 1970s and 80s, the lanky and dour anti-hero appeared in no fewer than eight different Marvel Comics titles, even doing battle with Marvel's Dracula in Dracula Lives!, the ironically short-lived follow-up to Marvel's popular Tomb of Dracula series. The property lay fallow for more than a decade. In 2006, Kane's copyright holder sealed a deal with Dark Horse to bring grim avenger back to the funny books. Dark Horse's first Kane story arc – an adaptation of an unfinished Howard story fragment called "The Castle of the Devil" – ran though 2008 and is now available in the trade.

From the pulp-tastic cover to the final bonus story, Solomon Kane: The Castle of the Devil is a solid product. Benefiting from a tight script; art that fuses traditional illustration with the new nervous line sketchiness of the South American invasion; and a plot full of werewolves, Satanist, and demons; Kane hits an admittedly tiny, but indubitably sweet spot. The comic adaptation, written by Scott Allie with art by Mario Guevara and color by Dave Stewart, not only finishes Howard's story in a satisfactory manner, but uses the medium's visual elements to strip away some of the awkward purpleness of Howard's prose. Lean and efficient, the comic adaptation gives the original a fresh narrative ruthlessness.

The story arc opens as all good pulp tales should: with a fight. A sleeping Kane is attacked by a trio of men. The taciturn wanderer dispatches them with all due gore. He continues his travels the next day. He encounters a young boy on a gibbet and cuts him free before the boy is choked to death. Shortly thereafter, he encounters a chatty bon vivant by the ironic name of John Silent, who quickly becomes Kane's traveling companion. After his encounter with the three would-be assassins and the nearly-hanged boy, Kane has decided to discuss a baron's traditional duties to properly maintain a civil atmosphere of order and peace with the local power: Baron von Staler. Kane and Silent travel to his castle, known in the region as "The Castle of the Devil," and are greeted with surprising warmth by the Baron and his exotic Arabian wife. Of course, this friendliness hides dark secrets buried in the past of the castle. Before long, Kane is clashing with dark magicians, werewolves, cultists, and a quartet of bat-winged demons.

Good times.

As chaotic as the story gets, Allie keeps things streamlined as a possible. Though the dialogue contains "Easter eggs" for fans of the original stories and novels, Allie wisely avoided the reoccurring cast of heroes and villains that filled the Howard's originals. He also stripped Kane of magical items and powers, something that Howard did not do but that I think actually work thematically with the simplicity of Kane's character. In a world of shapeshifters and complicated supernatural bargains, it fits with Kane's literally Puritanical persona that he would trust only his skills and his mundane tools to get his work done. Allie also deftly avoids the relentlessly purple Howardian prose that has sunk many would-be Howard adapter. By trusting the art to communicate Howard's descriptive passages, he can cut down on the more florid touches and focus on plotting and effective dialogue.

Mario Guevara's art is crisp and his character designs suitably distinguished. His cadaverous Kane is especially nice, showing a nice contrast to the hulking Conan for which Howard is more famous. Guevara gets great mileage out of simple page layouts, maximizing narrative clarity (until the end, when the action sometimes overwhelms him and he loses the narrative flow). Stewart's somber palate completes the package, giving the art a pleasingly craftsman-like feel.

The collection also includes a stand-alone Kane story, "The Nightcomers," and a collection of concept art early sketches. I'm not immersed enough in the minutiae of comic to be the right audience for the background materials, but I though the extra story - a ghost story that emphasizes mood over action - was a welcome inclusion.

2 comments:

Joel Jenkins said...

awkward purpleness? I beg to differ. Howard's descriptive and vibrant prose was set him apart from other writers, and is one of the things that makes his stories such a pleasure to read.

CRwM said...

Joel,

Howard's enduring popularity is strong evidence that many feel the way you do. However, for my taste, I found Howard's descriptions overly ornate, sometimes almost to the point of self parody. The last Conan story I read - I'm now forgetting the title, but he's in the Howard equivalent of North America, in a keep trapped between Indians and pirates - the description of Conan was so florid as to come off as gay erotica. (The punchline being that, after this is-it-hot-in-here description, the pirate captain "ejaculates" Conan's name and an oath.)

This isn't to say that Howard's writing doesn't have its pleasures. It does. But I put him in with author's like Lovecraft: pulp masters whose distinct styles were not always an advantage.