Monday, August 29, 2016

Thralls of the Wolf Queen

It was a black day under a sky full of fire when the Wolf Queen came to the city of Avara. Her armies marched unstoppable through the fields and the dales, bringing fire and rapine and slaughter with them, and smoke boiled up on all sides of the walled city like a hundred funeral pyres. The defenders could smell the burning flesh of men and beasts, and they saw the masses of prisoners driven with whips ahead of the armies to be put to raising their siegeworks.

Actaon was no knight on that day, and he stood on the walls with many men who had fled to the city with family and all they could bear to take refuge behind ancient stone fortifications. When he and his mother and children passed through the gate, the walls looked so thick and heavy he did not fear that anything would breach them, but he had not yet seen the might of the Wolf Queen’s army. Now he looked on her battalions of steel covering the earth and saw the siege towers moving like giants along the roads, dragged by ragged bands of slaves, and he knew that the fist of the queen could indeed sunder the city.

And so when they called forth for every able man to take up arms in defense of the city, Actaon left his children with his mother huddled in a crowded house with a hundred other fearful refugees, and went to to the walls. He was older than the fearful young men, and it had been many years since he lifted a sword. Yet there were no swords to be had, only stacks of hastily-made spears with the heads still black from the forging.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Riddle of Steel

Beginning with the Lancer editions of Howard’s stories in 1966, there was a steady increase in the interest in the Sword & Sorcery genre, and in Conan in particular. The books kicked off the wave of S&S that went through the 70s and into the 80s, while the character and genre spread out into comic books and video and tabletop games. It was probably inevitable that eventually Conan – the poster boy for Sword & Sorcery – would find his way onto the big screen.

There was interest in a Conan movie as far back as 1970, as Hollywood knows a hot property when it sees one, and the 70s were a far more adventurous time for filmmakers than today. Budgets were cheaper, and censorship had been lifted, paving the way for the exploitation/grindhouse films of the era. Producer Howard Pressman really got things going in ‛75, and soon enough they had nabbed up-and-coming screenwriter Oliver Stone to produce a script, and they made what would prove to be the most important casting decision in the character’s history – they attached Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to star as the lead.

It’s hard to remember now, but at the time Schwarzenegger was a mostly unknown actor, having played in only a few small films with little in the way of dialogue. He had made an impression with the bodybuilding film Pumping Iron, but he was by no means a known quantity. He was a 34-year-old actor with a jawbreaking name, a thick accent, and a meager resume.

For better or worse, Conan was his breakthrough role, and the icon of the bodybuilder with the thick accent and few words became cemented in the popular consciousness as the archetype of the Sword & Sorcery hero. Even now, almost 35 years later, the image and iconography of the film has proved ineradicable.


It endures because – no matter the liberties taken with the source material – the movie is actually really good. The original script by Stone was highly fantastical, featuring Conan descending into hell and fighting legions of demons. Director John Milius pared this down to a much more real-world adventure, with only some fantastical elements. The result is a bloody, savage, highly entertaining adventure that is cleanly and clearly in the spirit of Howard’s work. Even if he might have cringed at the alterations to his characters and settings, the results are a film Howard would have no doubt enjoyed.

Part of this is the script, with the classic quotable speeches: “Conan, what is best in life?”, or “What is the riddle of steel?” It was written with a grim, fatalistic tone that did not skimp on either the violence nor the deeper philosophies that lurked behind the world and its characters. It treated the Hyborean Age as a real place, and took it and the characters seriously. Unlike other fantasy films of the day, there was little to no humor, no camp, no fuzzy cute sidekick to make toys out of. The studio had some trepidation about releasing it as an R-rated film, but Milius refused to compromise.

Another element, undoubtedly, was the score by the late Basil Poledouris. The studio had originally been planning to record a rock-based soundtrack, but Milius wanted a deep, classical, operatic score, and Poledouris delivered with what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest works of film music ever written – one that still makes waves and inspires imitators more than three decades after the release.

Not a lot of movies maintain cultural relevance so long after their day. Conan remains so because whatever else it did, it tapped into the grim, violent energy of the original character. No, Arnold did not and does not look like the way the character was described. But he embodied the brooding savagery of Conan in a way that connected with audiences. Milius paid more attention to Frazetta’s artwork than to Howard’s stories, but he created a world that looked and felt real. That was gritty and bloody and dark, inhabited by characters that were neither good nor evil, but only trying to survive.

The film was a hit, bringing in over $100 million dollars against a budget of around $16 million (a figure that seems incredible now). Two years after the film was followed by the much-less-good sequel Conan the Destroyer, and Conan would not appear in a film for another 27 years. The initial success kicked off a surge of schlocky S&S movies that ran through the 1980s, forever associating the genre in many minds with cheap effects, bad dialogue, and oiled-up musclemen. Sadly, this wave of poor imitators inflicted damage on the genre that has yet to be undone.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Breaking of Kings

Boru made his way uphill, using his spear to help him climb the steep slope through the thick grass. The sky was overcast and low, and when he looked around to the hills he saw the rocky peaks cutting through the clouds like stone knives. Ahead of him his guide climbed the last short way over the narrow pass, and behind him his ten thegns toiled to keep up, spears in hand and shields on their backs. They bore wounds without complaint, for each of them was as sworn to this path as he.

He crested the pass, and stood on the rocky earth and looked on the cursed valley. Just as the story spoke, there was the ancient tower, and the still black tarn beside it. The forest on the far side of the vale hemmed it all in and brooded dark and ancient. Only ravens called in this place, and soon there would be food for them in plenty.

His guide was a short man of the hills, with blonde hair and a dark face. He was younger than he looked, for the life of the hillmen made them old before their days. He gestured beyond. “There, the bloody tower, and the black tarn.” He smiled. “As I said. No one else but my clan knows the way, and no one will dare come here, save I and my brothers.”

“And you think I do not know you sent your brothers to find King Goros and guide him here?” Boru said. Before the man could move Boru lunged in with his iron spear and struck a terrible blow, cracking his breastbone apart and impaling him in blood.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Vengeance in Her Lair

There have been a lot of Sword & Sorcery painters, and I will get to many of them, but one of the finest and most enigmatic was Catherine Jones, born Jeffrey Durwood Jones in Atlanta Georgia. Called by no less a person than Frazetta “the greatest living painter”, Jones had a successful career and a sometimes difficult life, and overall has remained somewhat of an artist’s artist – appreciated by peers more than fans.

Jones first came to light in the 70s along with the cresting wave of S&S popularity, and she provided many illustrations of heroes like Solomon Kane, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Conan himself. She did comic line-art, marked by heavy use of blacks and complicated, organic linework, but her real strength and demand was covers. Jones was an amazing painter, with an understated style that often garnered less attention than artists with flashier, shallower work. Her look was layered, erudite, and complex, with as much influence from Klimt as from anyone contemporary.

Her work was moody and dark, with sharp details that shot through like lightning. She illustrated over 150 book covers, and rendered many Sword & Sorcery heroes, both well-known and obscure. Further, one can see her influence on other artists, from Frazetta himself to Sanjulian and Kelly.

Jones’ life was troubled. Married to Mary Louise Alexander for many years (who would later be widely known as comics writer Louise Simonson), Jones began to question her gender identity. After her divorce she moved into studio space in Manhattan with Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Micheal Kaluta to form a collective called The Studio. Virtually a template for artist collectives formed since, it captured all four of them at pretty much the peak of their powers.

After the Studio broke up in 1979, Jones became more interested in expressionism and fine art, and worked less. By 1998 she was ready to address her identity issues, and began hormone therapy and changed her name from Jeff to Catherine, and as Catherine she was known and will be remembered.

By 2001 she suffered a serious nervous breakdown, which cost her both her studio and home, and which took years to recover from. By 2004 she was working again, but her health deteriorated. She died in 2011 after suffering long ailments including emphysema and heart disease, and passed into legend.

Jones’ work eschewed the lurid details of the common Sword & Sorcery artwork and focused on complex color, texture, and a virtually unmatched control of light and shadow. Her work was murky, iconic, brooding, and menacing. Many more people have seen her work than know her name, and many artists walk in her shadow without even knowing it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Sons of the Blood Star

The land stretched out before them endlessly, turning from the sere yellow of the plains to the deep red of the desert. Around them the last few trees stood stunted and bent by the wind, and the last channel of the river lay like a rope of red mud, with scarcely a trickle of water down the center like blood. There were fourteen men in this company of mercenaries: twelve soldiers, one officer, and their prisoner.

The officer was a centenary named Malthus, and he did not like what he saw. On the maps this arm of the desert was narrow, and it would only take a few days to cross it. Even here he could make out the shadows of the stark hills in the north that marked the far southern edge of the Jeweled Kingdoms. They were close, and they needed every moment.

He looked at his men and saw they were weary but still steady. They sweated in their leather armor and bronze-crowned helms, but their grip on their spears was firm, and they eyes told no fear. The pack animals bore food in plenty, and there was enough water in their skins for the crossing, if they were cautious. His men were hard, lean border men. They did not shrink from a long march.

Malthus looked backward, over the hills and the golden-grass plains behind them, and he saw there still the plume of dust. The Jhagars were perhaps a day behind them, and they would gain quickly on their horses. He and his men were afoot, and they were at a terrible disadvantage in this country. If they tried to push west toward the coast, around the spit of barren wasteland, they would be overtaken. There was no way to know how many men were in pursuit, and he could not risk losing his captive.

Now he looked at the man who caused all this trouble. He was taller than Malthus or most of his men. His skin was a dark, reddish shade, like his fellow nomads, and his hair was black. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed, only the center growing long and braided. A heavy beam lay across his shoulders, his arms hooked over it and bound in place with heavy leather thongs. He was naked save for a loincloth, and his body bore bruises and the marks of the whip.

When Malthus looked at him, the prisoner lifted his head, and then Malthus had to force himself not to shudder at the sight of those black, blank eyes. This was Vha Shar, the war-shaman of the Jhagar horsemen, and he made Malthus flesh creep.

“You will not wish to go into the desert,” Vha Shar said, his voice unnaturally deep and jagged, like broken obsidian. “Not in this place.”