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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Conan Chronicles Controversy

While I enjoyed reading The Chronicles of Conan: Volume 1, I couldn't help but be reminded of the controversy that surrounds this series.  Two factors have bestirred the passions of Conan comic book fans.  The first is that, while similar series' include each issue's cover, Dark Horse Comics (who are publishing this series) has chosen not to do so for The Chronicles of Conan.  So the reader's introduction to each story becomes the first interior page of each comic: not an insurmountable obstacle to a reader's enjoyment, but the absence is felt.  The second, however, is more serious, as instead of including the original coloring, Dark Horse has hired contemporary artists to recolor Barry Windsor-Smith's original drawings.

Our introduction to a recolored Conan in Chronicles.

Now I have nothing against the new coloring of the artwork.  In fact, I found it stunning.  But then, I enjoy the coloring in those old issues as well.  The original coloring was done simply, as computers weren't accessible to comics publishers in the original 1970s, and there's a beauty in that simplicity.  They remind me of simple sketches enlivened with watercolors.  Whereas this new coloring hits you with its power and boldness, I find the older coloring charming and relaxing.  

An example of the original coloring from
"Conan The Barbarian" Issue 39.

But there's more at work here than the choice to recolor the drawings.  Aside from the fact that we're not seeing part of the original artwork (or should I say, the art of the original colorists), in the process of updating the colors Dark Horse has removed the stories from the time in which they were created.  When you page through an old comic book, you are transported back into the era in which it was made.  After every few pages, you find a page or two of advertisements for products or services.  You get to read a few letters that the publishers felt best reflected their readers' sentiments, and reader feedback helps shape a given title's direction.  When you study the panels with their simplistic coloring on yellowed newsprint, you feel a connection with the child (or teen or adult) who pulled that comic off the spinner rack and plunked down his fifteen or twenty cents for that issue.  What would an old Marvel comic be without Stan Lee's goofy soapbox, announcements from the famous bullpen, reminders that the best way to ensure you don't miss a single issue is to subscribe, and of course, those one-page story-advertisements for Hostess treats (featuring your favorite superheroes)?  Well, you'll likely never get those with a compilation, but at least you should get the original coloring.  An artist labored long and hard over that coloring work: it represented not only his or her best efforts, but also the best printing technology then available that a comic book publisher could afford.

Another gigantic gator/dragon, this time from Chronicles.

"Watch out, Conan!  He's hot on your tail!"

So, unlike other compilations, The Chronicles of Conan series is an anachronism.  Barry Windsor-Smith's artwork looks like it could have been drawn yesterday, and the colors are so fresh and vibrant that they don't politely request, but demand your attention.  Not only are they jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but the new colors also stand a better chance of attracting younger readers to the series, hooking them on the character, and hence, getting them to buy today's Conan comics.  Don't get me wrong: unlike many enraged Conan fans, I love the new coloring.  But, as with the absence of the cover art, the new coloring reminds me that I'll probably never see the old version--that I'll probably never see the stories the way they were originally produced--and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find that disconcerting.

But then, I'd also be lying if I said that I'd let the brilliant new artwork keep me from buying The Chronicles of Conan: Volume 2.  

Dragon Dave

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