Saturday, 7 March 2015

Comics Adaptations of Robert E. Howard's Queen of the Black Coast

Robert E. Howard's Queen of the Black Coast is one of his most memorable stories and it has - deservedly - been adapted several times, most famously by both Marvel and Dark Horse in their Conan comics. Both of them attempt to extend the story from the original: instead of a single quick short story, they add to it and attempt to show how influential it was to Conan's character. They both also moved the story in Conan's chronology so that it takes place in his youth. Howard's original told a story that spanned a long time of Conan's life in mere four chapters, so this attempt to expand upon it is very welcome. A third adaptation was made by Petri Hiltunen, a Finnish comic artist.

The approaches the adaptations took are very different. I'll use this chance to provide an overall look of all of them and will then continue to give the reasons why I think one of them is a far more successful retelling than the others.

Roy Thomas and Steve Buscema

Marvel published their adaptation as part of their Conan the Barbarian comic series in the late 1970's, spanning almost 40 issues between issues 58 and 100 (the story took short breaks every now and then). Roy Thomas and John Buscema are the legends behind the adaptation and they decided to stress the importance of the story by adapting the first chapter in issues 57 and 58 (Belit appears in the latter part) and the three last chapters in the issue 100. The issues in-between show Conan's and Belit's deepening relationship as they wreak havoc on the Black Coast and take part in numerous more or less fantastical adventures - a tribe of crocodile riders, flying mothmen and intelligent crab-people being some examples. They also show Belit's revengeful, greedy and jealous sides on many occasions, deepening the character and making the relationship one of the most memorable episodes in Conan's history.

Petri Hiltunen published his adaptation in the early 1990's, and instead of expanding the story like Marvel and Dark Horse did, he chose to do a direct transfer instead. The text is almost directly lifted from Howard's original and the adaptation is therefore truest to it in many ways. However, Hiltunen also made one controversial decision: from the middle of the third chapter onward, he dropped all explanations and text and let his illustrations tell the finale of the story. Also, being a direct adaptation, there is only a single scene where Conan's and Belit's love is shown to the reader and - as it is shortened from the original - it fails to convey the emotion to a large degree.

Dark Horse adapted the same story in their 25 issue Conan the Barbarian series in 2012-2014. It was written by Brian Wood while the artists were many. The adaptation also presented the first chapter of the Queen of the Black Coast at the beginning of the series (first three issues) and then used the middle issues to expand upon the story until finally returning to Howard's original in the last three issues. Here, Conan's and Belit's adventures are generally more grounded and less fantastical than in the Marvel adaptation, which is a good thing for the most part. However, the stories are also less coherent, focussing mainly on showing how Conan's and Belit's relationship is "challenged" several times along the way. They also include a lengthy story where Belit and Conan take drugs and see a vision of what their life could be like if they grew old together.

However different the storylines that Roy Thomas and Brian Wood wrote, the greatest difference between their adaptations - and to some extent that of Hiltunen - is the characterisation of both Conan and Belit. Roy Thomas' and Hiltunen's descriptions of the characters are arguably closer to the source material. Howard wrote that Belit...

". . .was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian's pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian."

Petri Hiltunen

Roy Thomas' Conan is not stained by the weight of civilization and is thus stronger and more capable than civilized men whose natural nature is pulled down by the yoke of civilization (e.g. not having to fight to survive). Belit is strong and beautiful (somewhat influenced by 1970's perception of beauty), although she is drawn with a tan skin instead of the ivory white as Howard described and she wears an animal skin loincloth not unlike the gear Marvel often drew Conan wearing. Conan's and Belit's relationship is depicted wonderfully with Conan slowly rising from being a mere "lover" into being Belit's "love".

Hiltunen's adaptation does not give the characters as much room to grow as the two other adaptations, but his Conan is strong and decisive, just like Howard described him. Belit, however, is shown as somewhat of a freak with face paint and facial jewellery that was never described in the original and the drawings do not convey the image of goddess like beauty that Howard described. Insofar as her characterisation is concerned, Hiltunen's Belit hits the cues of the story, but her motivations and world view do not become as clear as in Thomas' adaptation. Hiltunen's Belit is the only one who wears the type of clothes described by Howard, the latter two adaptations shying away from showing too much nudity.

In Dark Horse's series, Brian Wood's Conan is much further away from Howard's original. He is not the man hardened by war and strife since his very birth that we know, but a youth tormented by his emotions and feelings, self-doubts and fears. In Howard's terms, Conan is now tormented by the same things that civilized men are and he is no longer a product of Cimmeria, a land that hardens boys into men before they reach puberty. This is illogical also in the continuum of Dark Horse's own series, since the earlier series have shown him as more grown-up and closer to Howard's vision. Belit, on the other hand, is shown as much darker and dangerous person, harder to get to know, than she was in the other adaptations and even in Howard's vision. Most of the time, the art shows her as a somewhat freakish creature and one cannot shake the feeling that the artist took some ideas from Hiltunen's adaptation. The relationship between the two characters doesn't really develop. Instead, the writer tells us on numerous occasions that Conan loves Belit, but this is rarely actually seen on the pages of the story.

Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli

Overall, I feel that the original Queen of the Black Coast story melds more easily with the additional storylines thought up by Roy Thomas. This is partly due to the fact that he adapted several of Howard's other stories (non-Conan stories) and turned them into Conan/Belit stories. Thus, he managed to keep the voice of Howard always present even though the stories were not officially Conan/Belit stories to begin with. And this connection shows also in the stories that he penned himself. Whereas in Brian Wood's adaptation, the final chapters of Belit's life really stand out from the preceding stories - they are very much different from the stories and style that Wood created himself. Part of this change could, of course, be due to the negative feedback that Dark Horse received for how Conan's character had been turned into that of a civilized weakling, but not all of it - after all, Wood takes freedoms with the ending of the story that are necessary for his vision of Conan the Weakling, but these are additions that would have felt very much out-of-place with any of the Conans that are closer to Howard's original.

I have included images of the same scene in all three stories with this article, so that you can judge by yourself. In addition, here's the original from Howard himself:

Belit shuddered. "Life, bad as it is, is better than such a destiny. What do you believe, Conan?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

"But the gods are real," she said, pursuing her own line of thought. "And above all are the gods of the Shemites—Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish, for he was born in ancient Shumir, long, long ago and went forth laughing, with curled beard and impish wise eyes, to steal the gems of the kings of old times."

"There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria—" she rose lithely to her knees and caught him in a pantherish embrace—"my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you – aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!"

A scream rang from the lookout in the bows. . .

This scene is one of the most memorable in the story and what you see in the "quotes" provided is that while all writers shortened the original, Hiltunen and Roy Thomas stayed closer to Howard's own powerful language and Thomas managed to create, in my opinion, a far more emotional and believable scene. In Hiltunen's adaptation, the art feels almost unnecessary (generally, his art is very stiff), and while Wood's chosen main illustration is undoubtedly one of the high points of the adaptation, the problem here is that it draws the reader's attention away from the words, rather than complements them.

Thus, it is my opinion - which I hope I have argumented sufficiently above - that the Marvel adaptation of the story of Conan and Belit is superior to the ones by Hiltunen and Dark Horse. Not only is the writing better than Wood's, Roy Thomas is also closer to Howard's intention of Conan and Belit as characters. And, on top of it all, the art is consistently better than that of the Dark Horse and Hiltunen's versions. After all, why would you choose to read a comic adaptation of a novella length story, unless the art made it worth the effort?

And if my rational points don't sell my opinion well enough, consider this: Before writing this article, I read all three finales (in Hiltunen's case, the entire adaptation) on the same day. Only one of them got a tear in my eye. Guess which one it was.