Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Savage Sword of Coraline

This morning the delivery guy-- middle aged, tousled black hair, short and stocky, all bundled up against the late winter rains but as cheerful as ever-- just dropped off my most recent purchases: Coraline, adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel by P. Craig Russell and The Savage Sword of Conan volume one, reprinted by Dark Horse from the old Marvel b&w magazine, apparently beloved by our president.

At first glance? Coraline is gorgeous. P. Craig Russell draws the mundane as beautifully as he draws the fantastic, and this story seems to allow one to bleed into the other. A very handsome book; I can't wait to dig in and get to reading it. This is the kind of book I'm generally talking about when I talk about "comics." A book book. Hardcover, nice slipcover, a self-contained story of the kind you could give to just about any non-comic reader and say, "Check this out and let me know what you think."

There's an odd visual dissonance to this book, though. When you see the animated movie Coraline, and it's all stylized and cartoony and moodily lit, something like black buttons for eyes creates a different effect than when you see the same concept rendered semi-realistically and frozen on the page in fairly brightly-colored comic book panels. Not that this is a bad thing; it's just really creepy. The pages with "Other Mother" give me same queasy feeling even the mild moments in those old Clive Barker short stories used to. Other Mother looks disconcertingly like Tea Leoni, as well.

But wow, what a lovely book.

The Savage Sword of Conan is an obese, economical volume with a lot of fantastic artists trapped inside its pages. Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema (frequently inked here by Pablos Marcos), Neal Adams, Jim Starlin and... strangely enough... Alex Nino, an artist whose work I've always admired but never associated with sword and sorcery. The most breathtaking pages are the ones where Alfredo Alcala inks Buscema. As a team, they blow all the other couplings apart. It looks like fine book illustration, lots of etching-style fine line work. Wondrous. Windsor-Smith's work doesn't fare as well. A lot of the lines just don't seem to have reproduced well here, and I'm guessing they didn't have the resources to gather the original artwork (if it still exists) and instead shot from old issues of the magazine itself, losing some resolution in the process. Too bad. It's not enough to wreck the whole book, unless you're pretty exacting. And I'm not. Not all the time, anyway.

The Boris Vallejo cover painting is about what you'd expect if you grew up in the 70s era of custom vans and airbrushed murals-- sun-bronzed Conan looks fierce in his horned helmet, wielding a blood-splattered scimitar while a nearly-naked woman in chains kneels helplessly behind him. They appear to be in two different light-sources, which is certainly intentional on Vallejo's part, and there's a mighty phallic spire rising directly behind the woman in what must be some blatant sexual symbolism. It's easy to admire the technique but then feel more than a little uncomfortable the subtext. Or, in this case, the text. It's not exactly subtle.

I noticed on a few hardcore Savage Sword and/or Conan fans criticizing this book for not being of archival quality. I can understand their point of view; I'm just not as into it or in the same way as they are. I dig this old stuff, but it's also the sort of material I prefer to get at a low cost (bear in mind I'm paying inflated import prices here in Japan, too, even with the more favorable exchange rate I'm getting these days).

In the U.S., you can get three of these fat bastards for under forty bucks and considering the page count (over 1500) and the artists represented, that's a freakin' bargain. And I seriously wish Dark Horse would do the same thing for the Marvel-Curtis Planet of the Apes magazine. "Terror on the Planet of the Apes" and the "Future History Chronicles" are just begging for reprints. The world must see these again! Do it big and cheap, just like Savage Sword and I'll love you for days.

With money!

The other book I received is Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago. According to the cover copy, Military Bookman has declared this to be "the best Patton biography," and it's one of the sources for the classic 1970 George C. Scott film. But it's beyond the scope of this li'l comic book blog...

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