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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Countdown To Conan Finale: The Last Of An Old, Dying Race, A Lost Ship & The Death of A Queen

Review: Conan the Barbarian #100 - "Death on the Black Coast!"

Conan the Barbarian #100 -
"Death on the Black Coast!"
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Countdown to Conana series ringing in the return of Robert E. Howard's popular Cimmerian to Marvel Comics. This review, written by Bob Freeman, is our final look back at Marvel's classic Conan the Barbarian.)

The Queen of the Black Coast is arguably the best of Robert E. Howard's Conan tales. What makes this one stand out? Howard certainly approached this story differently from any other Conan yarn. 

While his poetic prose harkens to his stylistic approach to The Frost Giant's Daughter, there is an obvious attempt to do more than create a mythological tale here. Howard was aiming for something grand, something epic. He was building a legend.

When confronted with adapting this to comics, Thomas chose to expand the story, developing the background characters and bringing the crew of the Tigress to life. It was an ambitious move, made all the more real by John Buscema and Ernie Chan's dynamic illustrations.

The Black Coast storyline was a tragic love story writ large. Thomas took the weight of Howard's words and breathed on those embers to create a beautiful homage that blazed as brightly as Bêlit's funeral pyre.

While I personally rank The Queen of the Black Coast as Howard's fourth best Conan story (behind Beyond the Black River, A Witch Shall Be Born, and Red Nails), the Marvel adaptation, from issue 57 - 100, is more than just ambitious — it's a brilliant extension, complete with a double-sized ending befitting such an epic tale.

Queen of the Black Coast originally appeared in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

Review: Conan the Barbarian #100

The Tigress heads into Kush up the Zarkheba River, where years before Bêlit's crew had discovered an abandoned ship, where one lone sailor, gone mad, had described a rich city upriver. Emboldened to now seek it out, Bêlit looks to Conan for approval. The Cimmerian nods silently in agreement and the Tigress advances into the Kushite jungle.

That night, while Conan and Bêlit talk about the gods, a giant serpent attacks the ship and, despite Conan's valiant efforts, pulls Laboto overboard and into the poisonous waters.
N'Yanga warns of an unknown and powerful evil on the journey ahead, but Bêlit is keen to press on. She offers to release any man of her crew from service if they wish to turn back, but all agree to follow their Queen on her quest. Conan takes sentry duty overnight and come morning spots black fanged spires rising up above a ruined city in the vine-choked jungle. As they debate, a winged ape-like statue sitting atop one of the spires moves and takes flight, causing fear to spread among the crew.

Bêlit and Conan lead a shore party into the city where they discover a blood-stained altar. Bêlit commands the altar-stone to be moved, suspecting treasure underneath. She lures Conan away from the task, secretly suspecting a trap. The men are all crushed beneath a column that collapses down upon them and Conan is startled to find her dispassionate about members of her crew dying in such a horrible fashion, and that she anticipated the trap. She orders the broken masonry removed and Conan and others work to reveal a hoard of gold and jewels.
One of the crewmen spots the winged ape flying away from the Tigress. Much to Bêlit's chagrin, Conan rushes back to find their water supply destroyed. Conan takes M'Gora and a group of crewmen out to search for fresh water while Bêlit and the rest gathers the loot and transports it to the ship.

While searching for water, Conan falls victim to the black lotus. He is beset by strange, alien dreams of winged beings who built the city in centuries past, but their great machines polluted the land and water. They evolved, becoming the fearsome winged apes, hunting primitive men from ancient times until the current age. Conan's vision even reveals the winged ape's attack of the Tigress crew.
Conan wakes and races off to where he had left his men, but finds only their discarded arms and armor. Then, from the jungle comes M'Gora, wild-eyed and raving. He attacks Conan and the Cimmerian is forced to slay him. Saddened, Conan finds the rest of his men dead, lying at the bottom of a deep ravine, their bodies broken on the jagged rocks below. He rushes through the jungle, racing back to the Tigress, only to find the rest of the crew slain, and Bêlit hanging from the galley's yardarm, dead, a necklace of blood-red gems wrapped around her porcelain neck.
Conan takes her down and lays her out on the ship, surrounded by jewels, then with bow in hand, takes the high ground and waits.

From the jungle comes a pack of hyena, and the Cimmerian cuts them down until he runs out ot arrows. Then, taking up his sword, he wades into the pack, cutting a path through them and bellowing out for their master to come. He watches as the winged ape approaches, circling overhead. Fate, however, is not done with the barbarian.
The earth begins to shake and the columns around Conan crumble. He dives for safety but becomes pinned beneath the crushing weight of a shattered spire, his broadsword just out of reach as the winged ape lands and advances on the trapped Cimmerian.

Suddenly, an apparition of Bêlit appears, standing between the creature and her fallen lover. She attacks, wounding the beast, giving Conan time to free himself. He grabs his sword, and kills the winged ape with a savage blow. The oldest race in the world is now extinct.
With tearful eyes, Conan sets the Tigress ablaze and watches as it sinks into the sea, taking his beloved and her vast treasure hoard with it.

CAPSULE REVIEW:  What an amazing conclusion to a brilliant adaptation of Howard's Queen of the Black Coast. The artwork and writing are astounding throughout, with the only misstep, in my estimation, that of Bêlit's apparition.

Described as "a glimmer of white" and "a tense pale shape", Bêlit is colored as if she were a vibrant and living being, not a spectre returned from the dead to rescue her beloved Cimmerian.

Still, the final pages are stirring to the soul and Thomas leans heavily on Howard's own words.

No hand was at the sweep of the Tigress, no oars drove her through the green water. But a clean tanging wind bellied her silken sail, and as a wild swan cleaves the sky to her nest, she sped seaward, flames mounting higher and higher from her deck to lick at the mast and envelop the figure that lay lapped in scarlet on the shining pyre.

So passed the Queen of the Black Coast, and leaning on his red-stained sword, Conan stood silently until the red glow had faded far out in the blue hazes and dawn splashed its rose and gold over the ocean.

A poignant end to both the story itself, and for Marvel's adaptation of the mighty sinewed Cimmerian's time at sea. Roy Thomas was so good at using Howard's elegant words and pacing the script to deliver a memorable experience, and Buscema, especially in this issue, was masterful at bringing those scenes to life.

There are so many great panels littered throughout this double-sized issue.

The small moments are so touching, like Conan and Bêlit's heartfelt discussion of the gods while they sat huddled on the deck of the Tigress, to the second panel on page 15, where Bêlit's expression is one of pain, longing, and realization that she is cursed with greed.
John Buscema outdid himself with the battle sequences in Conan the Barbarian #100.

Of course, this being Conan, the fearsome battles really stand apart, particularly Conan's conflict with the hyenas which is so dynamic and kinetic, but if I were asked to choose my favorite panel from the book, it is found on page 27, where the Queen of the Black Coast lies in state, surrounded by the treasure she so desperately desired in life, but that would have to comfort her in death.

Wally had asked me to choose my favorite Conan cover some time back. This was the issue I chose. It was layed out by Marie Severin, with pencils by Big John, inks by Ernie Chan, and colors by George Roussos. The lettering by the legendary Danny Crespi was such a nice, extra touch, as well.

If you could only read one Conan comic, this just might be the one.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate this issue an 9.5. On eBay, this issue was readily available for around $10.

As a final note, it has been such an honor to be able to share my thoughts on Conan with you and I would like to thank our host, Wally Monk, for giving me the opportunity and providing us with the forum to do so.

Robert E. Howard's Conan is, without question, my favorite literary character and he has been largely well-represented in comics by a whole, hoary host of brilliant creators, but none. I think, shined as brightly as the marriage of Thomas and Buscema.

That being said, I look forward to Marvel's next foray into the Hyborian Age and hope that they treat the character with the respect and reverence our favorite Cimmerian deserves. And that goes doubly for Robert E. Howard himself.

Alba Gu Brath - Bob Freeman (aka The Occult Detective)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Hellblazer #27: A Tale of Horror and Conscience

Saturday Night Shivers Review - Hellblazer #23 (DC Comics)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Saturday Night Shivers, a weekend feature at Paint Monk's Library, where we feature reviews of horror comics each and every week. This installment is written by Bob Freeman.)

I bill myself as The Occult Detective. I own the url and everything. Been a fan of the genre since I was a wee lad, growing up on a small farm outside of Nowheresville, Indiana. My first taste was probably The Sixth Sense, a tv series that ran in 1972, starring Gary Collins as parapsychologist Dr. Michael Rhodes.

As far as occult detectives go, its hard to do better than the Alan Moore created John Constantine. Constantine's a nasty bit of work. Don't believe me? Just ask him, he'll tell you straight. The fact that he might actually exist in some bloody way or another, based on the testimony of several creators who have worked on these comics is just icing on the preternatural cake.

Hellblazer works because when it's bad it's pretty good, but when it's good it's brilliant.

Take the issue I'm preparing to review for you, a floppy called "Hold Me". Written by Neil Gaiman, with surreal artwork by Dave McKean, we are presented with more than just a ghost story. It has layers of social commentary littered throughout, some to the fore, some to the aft, and that's something Hellblazer was very good at, mixing the real world and its foibles alongside the supernatural and strange.

A good occult detective traverses all these realms, for better or worse, and bloody well makes for a darn fine comic. Although iterations of Hellblazer and John Constantine still exist, it was that initial volume from Vertigo, all 300 of them, that sang the proper song.

Here's to hoping that magic can be recaptured at some point in the near future.

Review: Hellblazer #27
Our tale begins on a cold London night. Fat Ronnie and Sylvia, drunk and homeless, hunker down in a small flat, tearing down curtains to huddle beneath while they hold one another for warmth. They pay no mind to Jacko, who's alone and curled up near.

The scene shifts to John Constantine hailing a cab. The cabbie is a National Front poster boy and John, hearing enough, decides to walk the rest of the way to a party thrown in the memory of Ray Monde. John arrives shortly and the host greets him and introduces him to a woman named Anthea, an old friend of Ray.
Elsewhere, a child calls out for her mother. Someone is in her room. The mother enters to discover Jacko. He is cold and wants to be held. He draws the woman close, sucking the heat and life out of her. Jacko leaves the mother dead on the floor, her child wondering why she has grown so cold.
Back at the party, John thinks Anthea is interested in him. The conversation gets rather personal then she asks him to walk her home. Constantine agrees. Arriving at the housing complex, John notices a terrible smell from inside. Anthea explains a homeless couple were found dead in an abandoned flat, huddled together under a curtain. They had been there for months before they were found and had to be carried out in multiple plastic bags.

Anthea invites John into her apartment and she begins trying to seduce him. She mentions her flatmate and he suddenly remembers why her name sounded familiar to him. Anthea is a lesbian that Ray Monde often spoke of. This entire seduction was a ruse. Anthea and her lover wanted a baby and Ray had always thought highly of John, so she had hoped to father a child by him. Angry at being duped, he leaves in a huff.

In the hall, John runs into Shona. She is worried about her mother who is lying cold on the floor of their room. John agrees to look in on her for the child, discovering the woman dead. He leaves the child with Anthea, then goes off to search for the spirit responsible.

Breaking into the flat where the couple had passed, John is approached by Jacko who is cold and wants someone to hold him. John embraces the spirit, giving the homeless man in death what he had wanted in life, someone to care about him. He passes on and John is overwhelmed with emotion.

Constantine returns to Anthea's apartment and asks her to hold him.

CAPSULE REVIEW:  This is a brilliant example of a well written comic with a social conscience that delivers its message without being heavy handed. The supernatural element underscores the plight of the homeless and mentally challenged. Gaiman delivered a Constantine slightly out of character, but well within the realm of the man we had come to know through his appearances in Swamp Thing and the first 26 issues of his own title.

As for McKean's artwork, when I first read this nearly thirty years ago, I was not a fan of the art style. I was into artists like Adams, Byrne, and Buscema. This sort of scratchy, surrealistic approach did not sit well with my sensibilities, but the writing kept me glued to the page. Now, I have a much greater appreciation for the artist's approach and feel the mood it invokes is perfect for John Constantine. Where I had once felt a disconnect, I now resonate with McKean's kinetic line work.

If you've never read a John Constantine tale, this is a great place to start.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate this issue a 9. On eBay, this issue can sell between $20-80, but it was a free Halloween giveaway this year from DC Comics and can be snagged for less than $3.

Alba Gu Brath - BF (aka The Occult Detective

Thursday, November 15, 2018

An Ominous Dream, Thoth Amon & A Sea Serpent

Review: Conan the Barbarian #74 - "Battle at the Black Walls!"

Conan the Barbarian #74
"Battle at the Black Walls!
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Countdown to Conan, a series ringing in the return of Robert E. Howard's popular Cimmerian to Marvel Comics. Today's installment is written by Dean Plakas.)

Thoth-Amon, considered to be the Cimmerian's greatest enemy, visits Conan in his dreams.  He warns Conan against rescuing Belit's father, the true King of Asgalun.  The evil sorcerer shows Conan a vision of Belit's ship, The Tigress, engulfed in flames as a foreshadowing should Conan and Belit go on this quest to rescue her father. Awakening from his dream, or nightmare, Conan goes topside and comforts his brooding lover. Their conversation is cut short when a Stygian ship is spotted. After a short battle, the crew of the Tigress overcomes the crew of the Stygian ship and they burn it. 

The Stygian crew is questioned but none of them gives up any information or secrets about the Stygian capital of Luxur. One of the captive Stygians even commits suicide. All is not lost however as a slave girl named Neftha agrees to show the crew of the Tigress  how to get into the royal palace in exchange for her freedom. Here is where the bulk of the story takes place, off the coast of Stygia and the port city of Khemi.  Most of Belit's crew get into longboats and row their way into the port city of Khemi. The city is seemingly unguarded because of a festival honoring Set but then a giant serpent attacks! Conan comes to Belit's rescue, killing the beast on his own with his bare hands and blade, further cementing his reputation as Amra.
Safe from the beast, the pirates of the Tigress burn the Stygians warships but chaos ensues anyway, M'Gora leads most of Belit's and Conan's crew back to TheTigress . As for Conan and Belit, they stay behind with Neftha in the port city of Khemi and begin to make their way to Luxur. 

CAPSULE REVIEW: There's nothing amazing about the story and the writing but the artwork is outstanding, almost every page is eye candy. There is marked improvement on Ernie Chan's (a/k/a Ernie Chua) embellishments on John Buscema's pencils. Probably one of their best collaborations on a single issue ever. Every panel is full of background or foreground work, with rich texture and lush inks, and the issue is lavishly colored by George Roussos. The splash page is beautifully rendered but in turning the page there is a greater treat in a double page masterpiece by the artists.  It's a fine issue with beasts, brains, brawn, and beauties. I give an 8 out of 10.

“And this story shall also be told.” --The Wizard in Conan The Barbarian
- Dean Plakas

A Corsair Mutiny, A Giant Frog & Hidden Treasure

Review - Conan the Barbarian #73 - "He Who Waits...In The Well of Skelos!"

Conan the Barbarian #73
The Well of Skelos!
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Countdown to Conan, a series ringing in the return of Robert E. Howard's popular Cimmerian to Marvel Comics. This review is written by Andy Maglothin.)

Conan and Bêlit are in a small boat rowing toward the Tigress, discussing the recent revelation that her father is alive and held captive as a pawn in a political game.

As they reach the ship, they find the boarding rope already hanging over the side. This raises a concern which they realize is legitimate when they get to the ship’s deck and find Kawaku and others waiting for their arrival. This is not a pleasant greeting.

It seems Kawaku has stolen some of potions that were used to knock them out in Kelka, and Kawaku used it to poison the drinking water on the Tigress. Kawaku commands Chama to take Conan and Bêlit below prompting Conan to swiftly attack Chama, ultimately throwing him overboard.

Without hesitation, Bêlit takes action, attacking another Corsair and kicking him overboard. The battle continues until Kawaku takes the Cimmerian out of the fight by sneakily clubbing Conan on the back of the head. It's another instance Conan could have used his "yak helmet..." Darn it, Jenna! 
Kawaku explains that he and the other Corsairs are sick of assisting Bêlit and Amra (Conan) with hunting for treasure which winds up hidden in a remote location. Kawaku demands the treasure’s location, prompting Bêlit to literally spit in his face. Kawaku strikes her, and Conan begins to awaken from the sounds of the ongoing fray. He agrees to show the location of the treasure if they spare Bêlit.

The Shemite hellcat, disgusted with Conan’s response, tells him he has no right to offer the treasure to Kawaku since she had worked on accumulating it before ever meeting Conan. Bêlit pleads Kawaku to allow Conan to administer a lifesaving powder to N’Yaga.

Kawaku states he is placing two guards on Bêlit and demands the non-mutinous Corsairs to obey him or else she will be killed. Bêlit demands they stay loyal to her and not give in to Kawaku’s demands and fight his mutiny.
Without a word, Conan signals to the Corsairs demanding them to get to work with assisting Kawaku. A shocked Bêlit realizes the group obeys Conan as much (if not more) than her commands. The Tigress sails west in uncharted seas until they reach shores. Conan and a small group of Corsairs including Kawaku journey though the jungles. Conan realizes this is a no-win situation; not helping Kawaku leads to his and Bêlit’s death; but assisting will result in the same outcome.

Conan leads them on a journey deep into the jungle until they find a strangely shaped structure he and Bêlit aptly named “The Temple of the Toad.” Kawaku questions their judgment to hide treasure in such a strange, creepy place. Conan agrees, stating the location discourages wanderers from finding the treasures. He even notes how afraid the Corsairs are of the structure. Kawaku senses no danger and prompts Conan to continue with the journey. 
During their walk through the temple, they note strange, ancient writings on the wall and floor. They reach the center of the temple and Conan explains they lowered the treasure into a pit in the center of the room. Kawaku recognizes the Corsairs’ fear and decides he will descend into the pit. He reaches such a depth, he can no longer be seen…then suddenly there is a scream and the rope goes slack. 

After a few minutes, there’s more tension on the rope…even heavier than before. The Corsairs assume it is Kawaku and he’s carrying treasure. They quickly begin to pull him up….and realize it is a huge monster at the end of the rope. As Awogmu reaches to assist who he thinks is Kawaku, the monster grabs him by the head and flings him into the gaping pit.
A huge, slimy, frog-like monster crawls from the pit ready to attack. The shocked Corsairs forget about Conan and quickly pay for their lack of awareness. The frog creature emits an eerie, unearthly, loud, croaking noise as it attacks anyone in the way. It lurches to attack Conan and our favorite Cimmerian hurls the corpse of a dead Corsair at the frog-creature. Conan backs away a bit and the creature can sense his new onset of fear. They square off in combat with Conan’s heels almost at the lip of the pit. In a desperate move, Conan grabs the frog-creature and flings them both off the edge into the pit. Conan grabs the slippery edge of the pit with his left hand…barely clinging onto his own life. Using a will of iron, Conan hangs on and suddenly his wrist is grabbed by M’Gora. Laaranga and Bêlit are there to assist him out of the pit.

A relieved Conan is obviously excited to see Bêlit, who reveals how she escaped from her bonds and made it to assist Conan. They bury more treasure in a hidden spot under the floor of the temple and discuss their next adventure – and it sounds like Bêlit will continue to seek revenge for her father’s treatment.

CAPSULE REVIEW: Starting off with an impressive Gil Kane / Ernie Chan cover, the issue is a blast. There’s a fine balance between story and action.

This issue displays Thomas’ ability to develop characters, keep the story moving and add intensity all at the same time. His description of the fight between the frog-creature and Conan is intense, especially the end when Conan is hanging on literally by his fingers. The portrayal of Bêlit is entertaining, as she displays the strength of a warrior, but is still jealous of Conan’s wandering eye. If this were on film, the intensity of the Corsair lowering himself into the pit would make for an intense scene.

The Buscema / Chan team show off their talents in this issue with amazing pieces, starting with the opening splash page, continuing through the journey through the jungle to the Temple of the Toad, and the battle with the giant frog creature. Buscema and Chan compliment each other creating a texture rich environment and character features where the reader can sense the danger, emotions and intensity of the scenes.

Even the sound effect words for the creature: “GUH-RUNK” and “GUR-GORKK” mix Thomas’ writing, and the font / coloring into a sickening noise instilling fear into those in the area.

The final battle is intense and provides an amazing act of desperation and strength where Conan hurls the corpse of a Corsair at the beast. That scene depicts a desperate, savage, powerful person doing whatever he could to fend off the monster. Add in the final scene where Conan intentionally steps off the edge to end the battle and almost his own life and you have a thrilling ending to a solid comic.

On a scale of 1-10, I give it 8 Aquilonian Luna.

Living life my own way – Andy from Aquilonia

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Nim Karrak, A Treacherous Corsair & An Escape

Review: Conan the Barbarian #72 - "Vengeance in Asgalun!"

Conan the Barbarian #72
Vengeance In Asgalun!
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Countdown to Conan, a series ringing in the return of Robert E. Howard's popular Cimmerian to Marvel Comics.  This review is written by Bob Freeman.)

One of the unsung heroes of Marvel Comics was Marie Severin, whom we lost on August 29, 2018. She had worked on Conan before her coloring stints on issues 69 and 72, having added her considerable illustrative talents to the cover of issue 10. She served as an inker on issue 20 of Conan the King and was the colorist on the graphic novel Conan the Reaver. She was also instrumental on another Robert E. Howard property, Kull the Conqueror, having pencilled issues 2-10 of that series, and coloring various others.

Marie Severin's mark was all over Marvel, as a penciler, inker, and colorist, and her death earlier this year was a heavy blow to all who knew and appreciated her skill and professionalism. As I revisited this issue of Conan the Barbarian, I found her color choices sensible and dynamic, blending perfectly with the artwork, adding to the whole without distraction.

Realizing that Buscema, Chan, and Severin are all gone from this world makes one appreciate the legacies they left behind all the more. This is issue of Conan the Barbarian is a fine example of all their best efforts.

Review - Conan the Barbarian #72

Trouble is brewing for Bêlit. While she and Conan, along with the crew of The Tigress, successfully raid a Shemite vessel, the pirate Kawaku disobeys Bêlit's command to accept the surrender of any that call for it. He instead, murders one in cold blood, drawing the Queen of the Black Coast's ire. The seed of mutiny is sown.
Meanwhile, N'Yaga's illness worsens. Belit turns the ship back to Asgalun that she might retrieve healing herbs. Disguised as a weaponmaker and his wife, Conan and Bêlit enter the city, but finding a strong Stygian presence there, Conan presents themselves as acrobats and entertainers. Rasirith, finding their 'marital spat' amusing, grants them an audience with Nim-Karrak, who overthrew Bêlit's father, and the Stygian King's representative, Ptor-Nubis.
As Conan and Bêlit perform for Nim-Karrak, her hatred boils over and she snatches a sword from a nearby guard. Ptor-Nubis uses his Stygian sorcery to charm Bêlit, compelling her to attack Conan.

As the swordfight becomes increasingly more deadly, Nim-Karrak puts an end to it, ordering Conan to be conscripted as a soldier, whilst Bêlit is to be his concubine, at least until he tires of her. Once taken to his private chambers, Bêlit recovers the vial containing the herbs she needs to heal N'Yaga, then attacks Nim-Karrak with a chair, then breaks a wine bottle, prepared to kill the king with the jagged glass. Nim-Karrak begs for his life, swearing that her father is alive in the dungeons of the Stygian city of Luxur.
Bêlit is confronted by Ptor-Nubis, but she escapes before he can use his sorcery against her. She soon comes upon Conan. The barbarian makes short work of the guards who hold him and he and Bêlit steal away on a chariot. Escaping the city, Bêlit vows to rescue her father from Luxur, declaring "...if you will walk by my side, my lover, I'll find and save him though all the sorcerers of the Black Ring itself should stand against me!"

CAPSULE REVIEW:  So close to scoring a 10 on this issue. I docked it half a point because of the awkward weaponmaker/acrobat schtick and that odd moment when Conan is shouting while having a dagger clenched in his teeth, but otherwise this issue was absolutely brilliant. Roy Thomas paints a terrific picture, building tensions amongst the crew of The Tigress and political intrigue and plot twists as he really brings the Hyborian Age alive.

Of course, this is helped by the almost unparalleled artistic mastery of the combination of John Buscema and Ernie Chan. Only Alfredo Alcala rivals Chan for inking Buscema. Just look at that splash page. The black leaves plenty of room for the illustration to breath, while the feathering and shading enhances the pencils underneath.

This is a great transition issue, setting up so many exciting elements that will come to fruition in future installments. You can tell that Thomas has a plan with this title and he is crafting a masterpiece augmented by an art team that is able to deliver on his vision.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate this issue an 9.5. On eBay, this issue was readily available for less than $10.

Alba Gu Brath - BF (aka The Occult Detective

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Into the Borderlands" by Goodman Games - An overall great buy with some missed opportunities

Review: Into the Borderlands (Hardcover - Goodman Games - $49.95)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Paint Monk's Library provides regular reviews of comic books and occasional fantasy role-playing games. This review is by Wally Monk.)

If you asked me if I played Dungeons and Dragons I would tell that I used to, but haven't for many, many years.

I've always been more of a comic book guy, but I did spend the better part of my teenage years with a hardcover Players Handbook and Monster Manual on my shelf. I also collected TSR's RPG game modules - I never played those, but they gave me lots of ideas. They'd be read from cover to cover and I'd steal the ideas for my homemade game sessions.

Imagine my surprise while surfing Facebook Marketplace to come across a re-imagined - and hardcover -  version of "The Keep on the Borderlands" and "In Search of the Unknown," lovingly re-branded in a new book called Into the Borderlands. Apparently this is the first in a series of collections of old D&D modules by Goodman Games.

As I've had time, I've been perusing the book and have read through some of the creator interviews in the front. The book is not without some glaring errors, but it's easily worth the $50 price of admission. If you've ever played D&D, this is a book you should have on your shelf.

THE PROS - As you open the book, you're treated to several interviews with people from the industry. Beginning with Luke Gygax, son of the late Gary Gygax (author of D&D) and including Mike Carr, the original writer of B1 - In Searth of the Unknown, the interviews are a treat to read.

Goodman Games was very thorough, too, including not only one but two editions of B1 - In Search of the Unknown (the original version with the monochrome cover and the reprint with the color cover) as well as samples of the different covers in the back of the book.

For players who are into the current edition of D&D, there are conversions of both B1 and B2 to the new game system. Since I'm not currently a player, I won't speculate on how well an old fashioned dungeon crawl fits into modern RPG play, but I'd imagine it is pretty old school and would appeal to older players.

There's a lot of good in this book, and it's well worth picking up. Sadly, the bad needs to be explained too, although the problems are something Goodman can easily address if they choose to do so in later printings or future installments. 

On some pages, the margins are too
tight to read a page without opening
the book as wide as possible.
THE CONS: There are some big ones, but this book is still worth it. What I found most troublesome were typesetting issues, which require the reader to really "fold" the book back to read some pages. The margins were typeset far too close to the inner binding and it would have been nice if they were 1/4 of an inch farther away. It would have made for much easier reading. The interviews were especially tough to read because of this. 

Other reviewers have noted sporadic blurriness in the scans of some module pages. I did not find any pages that were too difficult to read because of this, in fact, if I hadn't read this complaint in other reviews I wouldn't even have mentioned it. The reproductions of the old material are fine, in my opinion, and unless you're looking for things to be upset about, I'm pretty confident you wont have any issues with the scans.

Boring "full page" stat blocks could
have benefited from TSR's original
two column format.
The biggest missed opportunity here is the overall layout of the book and the sparse attention given to the 5E conversion of the original modules. The 5E conversions are very basic, with no fancy layout and inconsistent artwork by multiple artists. I would have loved to see included a "5E" version of each module, complete with new cover and interior art and stat blocks. While I know this would have increased the production costs exponentially, I would have been happier to pony up $79.95 or $99.95 for something like that. Heck, you would have had a built-in market with new players (which, since this is marketed as "Original Adventures Reincarnated" I believe was the intention!) had more design attention been given to the 5E adaptation inside. 

Many of the tables are awkward, taking up full pages instead of using the old-school column format. Ah well, I guess you're not going to get perfection in a 300+ page book for only $50! (Did I say that it's only $50? I think I have several times.)

CAPSULE REVIEW: Despite some glaring flaws, "Into the Borderlands" is a delightful book for collectors, old-school gamers, and new 5E players alike. It's a joy to have classic adventure modules from my childhood collected in a hardcover, nicely-bound volume. The production quality, from the paper used to the full-color glossy covers is first-rate. Some may prefer a magazine-type paper stock, but I find the thick nearly cardstock paper used here is far more durable and less prone to bending and dog-ears when its used regularly. 

I am already itching to get my hands on "Isle of Dread," the second volume in Goodman's "Original Adventures Reincarnated" series. One of my fears is that Goodman will release a few of these, only to have their license pulled by Wizards of the Coast. Perhaps the line will be successful enough that we'll see more than one re-release of classic modules per year. I would without a doubt buy each and every one.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd give this book an 8.5. To purchase a copy, visit the Goodman Games website at They are also accepting pre-orders there for the next volume, "Isle of Dread.

As always, I am - Wally (AKA Paint Monk

Rest In Peace, Stan "The Man" Lee - 11/12/18

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Ashtoreth, Corsairs & A Sea God's Vengeance

Review: Conan the Barbarian #71 -  "The Secrets of Ashtoreth!"

Conan the Barbarian #71 -
"The Altar of the Damned!"
((EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Countdown to Conan, a series ringing in the return of Robert E. Howard's popular Cimmerian to Marvel Comics. Today's installment is written by Dean Plakas.)

We find Conan, Belit, and members of the Black Corsairs imprisoned in a dungeon, recovering from drugged wine given to them by a tricky priest named  Akkheba. The bloodthirsty priest informs them that he plans to sacrifice them to the goddess Ashtoreth.  
They are quickly rescued by Belit's sub-chieftain M'Gora and crew member Kawaku. The two men have discovered an escape hatch to the dungeon cells through which Conan and his imprisoned companions crawl to safety. 

Conan and crew make their way to a cliff where Conan spots the Tigress and her skeleton crew awaiting their return, but while Belit desires to go back to the TigressConan has other ideas. 

The Cimmerian prefers to return to and punish Akkheba, take the gold and jewels owed to him and the crew of the Tigress for protecting the city (which Kawaku agrees that Conan should do), and save Aluna from the clutches of the evil Kelkans.  

An insanely jealous Belit believes that Conan's real reason to return is to rescue the lovely Aluna only, but he quells her doubts with strong words and a kiss. She believes him and orders her men to the ship as she and Conan make their way back to the city. 
Unfortunately, after fighting and killing several guards on their way into the city, Conan and Belit find Aluna has been sacrificed by the priest Akkheba, who manages to escape from Conan and Belit. 

As they search for him, they hear a woman sobbing. They climb the stairs, following the sound to the top of the tower. Conan comes across iron bars, and as he has done before in earlier tales, he breaks the iron bars with his bare hands and they make their way to the tower room.
There they find Astarta, a young woman who reveals herself to be Ashtoreth. Belit and Conan do not believe her to be Ashtoreth, so she tells them her story (via flashback). She reveals that she is a foreigner who was wed to a sea-god. The sea-god gave her immortality and she believes the sea-god destroyed her coastal city along with many other islands when he grew angry with Atlantis and had it swallowed up by the oceans. He spared her life and made sure she washed safely ashore on Kelka. Unfortunately when the island priests discovered her, they mistook her to be the goddess Ashtoreth.  She tells Conan and Belit that the high priests have kept her imprisoned and abused for generations. She also tells them that their magic has kept the sea-god from hearing her calls for help.
As they talk, the Barachan Pirates, led by Auro, return to the city and start fighting the guards. As Conan tries to avoid getting involved in this battle, he and Belit are met by Akkheba and his guards. They fight. Akkheba tries to escape again but Conan and Belit give chase. Cornered, Akkheba is about to face Conan's wrath when an angry Belit robs Conan of his revenge and kills Akkheba herself.  

With the wicked priest dead, Astarta/Ashtoreth's powers return and in a foreign language she calls out to the sea-god who hears her calls to bring the seas down on the island. She advises Conan and Belit to flee for their lives.

As the island crumbles, we learn that Kawaku found Auro's pirates on the far side of the island and that Kawaku encouraged their attack on the city as a distraction - so that he could steal the gold and jewels. He insults Conan and Belit. An angry Conan knocks Kawaku unconscious and he carries him as he and Belit run to the shore. The three crew members of the Tigress board a longboat and make their way to their ship and safety. 

CAPSULE REVIEWThis tale is freely adapted from the original story The Marchers of Valhalla written by Conan creator Robert E. Howard.  It's beautifully illustrated with pencils by John Buscema and inks by Ernie Chan, who was credited for his inks on Buscema's earlier Conan issues as Ernie Chua.

An interesting tale, but nothing really new here from Roy Thomas..Conan in a dungeon cell? Done. A jealous Belit? What else is new. Woman washed up on shore mistaken for a goddess? Check. Conan breaking iron bars with his bare hands? Seen it already. Crooked high priests? Done, and we'll see plenty more of them. Sacrificed damsel? Yawwnnnn. Towers tumbled down and a city destroyed by magic? Seen that too. 

Far too many familiar themes here. If this were the first Conan issue I read or owned I could see giving it a 8 out of 10, maybe higher, but because there is really nothing here I haven't seen for the last 35 issues I give it a 6 out of 10. Copies were available on eBay for $5 or less.

“And this story shall also be told.” --The Wizard in Conan The Barbarian
- Dean Plakas

In Honor of Those Veterans Who Served

To all the men and women who served the United States in war or in peacetime, thank you for all that you have done.

As always, I am - Wally (AKA Paint Monk)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Family Member Sacrifice & Vampire vs. Ghost!

Saturday Night Shivers Review - Tomb of Dracula #23 (Marvel)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Saturday Night Shivers, a weekend feature at Paint Monk's Library, where we feature reviews of horror comics each week. This installment is written by Bob Freeman.)

I grew up on a farm in rural Indiana and was a voracious reader. This was long before the internet, of course, and television was limited to a couple of snowy channels on a black & white set. Books were my escape and read just about anything I could get my hands on.

I went through a period, around 1973-5 when I devoured a bunch of "women running away from castle" books. You know, gothic romances. I loved them, and why not? Dark Shadows trained me to appreciate the genre. Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt were my favorites.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered The Tomb of Dracula at Cain's Sundries. The first issue that caught my eye was number 23, which, naturally, had a woman running away from a shadowy Victorian mansion, an enlarged Count looming over the scene. I was enthralled and eagerly dropped my two-bits for the comic, discovering the wondrously dark and foreboding illustrations of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer inside.

I was smitten, becoming a lifelong fan of what is arguably the best horror comic ever written. Let's have a look at what caught my eye, shall we?

REVIEW: The Tomb of Dracula #23
Picking up the action where Chillers #1 concluded, we find Count Dracula and Shiela Whittier standing over the corpse of Lord Henry, the British parliamentarian who had served the Count for years.

In a recap, we discover that Henry betrayed the Count, arranging for him to take over Ms. Whittier's Castle. The Count learned that Shiela was being tormented and abused, and was under the impression that Henry was the culprit, but it was all some sort of trap, however, and Lord Henry committed suicide in Dracula's presence even as an ominous laughter filled the castle.

Shiela is suddenly attacked by an unseen force, leaving her cut across the face. Dracula takes her to bed to rest, musing that she will be a useful servant to do his bidding. He reflects on his encounter with his daughter Lilith, and of Shiela's innocence, when he is interrupted by a knock at the door. He opens the door, finding no one there, but is suddenly grabbed by an invisible presence that pulls him out of the room.
Dracula is thrown over the balcony, but transforms into a bat. Hearing Shiela scream, he races back to the room to discover she has been roused by ghosts.

She explains to Dracula that she is haunted by the ghost of her uncle, Alestar Dunwick. After her aunt and uncle's death, she was willed the house. She moved in with her boyfriend, but the young man was uneasy about the house, sensing a frightful presence. His fears were proved to be true when he was thrown down the stairs and killed by unseen forces.

Dracula leaves her then to feed. He allows a motorist to run him over, then feeds on the driver when she advances to see if he was injured.
Meanwhile, Shiela explores the castle only to be confronted by the spirit of Alestar Dunwick.

Alestar explains that he is not her uncle, but in reality her father. He tells of how he was murdered by Shiela's mother and that he returned, assuming the form of her lover and driving the woman to suicide and taking her money... money that had been his.

He eventually remarried and spent the years keeping track of Shiela. Dunwick reveals that he had sold his soul to Satan for earthly power and planned to sacrifice her soul to his infernal master.

Dunwick takes her to the basement, to the altar of his Church of the Damned, where finds the bodies of those he had sacrificed before her in an attempt to reanimate himself once more.
Shiela tries to flee so Dunwick assaults her, using his unholy powers to animate the debris littering the estate and hurling it at her. Dracula arrives and fights his way through the phantasm's attack, grabbing Dunwick's mummified corpse and crushing it against a wall. With the body destroyed, Dunwick's soul is drawn down into Hell.

"How could you end my life so... How could you?" Dunwick moaned. "You're a Child of Hell as I am."
"I am Dracula, ghost," the Count replied, "and I am a greater Hell than you could ever imagine."

CAPSULE REVIEW:  Man, that was a lot of story crammed into 18 or so pages. Not only was all of Chillers #1 recapped, but a wealth of subplots and convoluted story points were juggled and deployed masterfully by Marv Wolfman.

This is an art form long lost on modern comic scribes, I'm afraid. In an age of decompressed stories, this one issue would surely have spanned a half dozen modern comics.
Of course, Wolfman had two consummate draughtsmen in Gene Colan and Tom Palmer to deliver what had to be a maddening task to pull off, but that's what made Tomb of Dracula so special. It was bold and fearless, delivering beautiful art and very adult themes with a very edgy style that was unlike anything else at the time.

Dracula was brilliantly re imagined as both a hero and villain in this title, with his dashing, Jack Palance-like looks, his sense of honor, but more importantly, his hunger.

Colan and Palmer's art style on this was truly remarkable, though, admittedly, I think it looked better in black & white. That's not a dig at colorist Petra Goldberg (more commonly known as Petra Scotese). She really did a masterful job of breathing life into the work, but, the mood I think was better served in grayscale. I feel the same regarding Conan's turn at Marvel, but I digress.

For my first foray into Tomb of Dracula, this issue was a mind-blowing, mind-altering experience. There was just so much to take in, so much backstory that somehow Marv Wolfman and company were able to translate in just a few pages. That's a neat trick.

If you've never given The Tomb of Dracula a look, you're really missing out. While writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman get all the love for their adult, literary approach to comics, it was Wolfman who struck first and every bit as well.

On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate this issue an 8. On eBay, Tomb of Dracula #23 was available between $6-15, but you can pick up the trade paperback of Tomb of Dracula Vol. 2 from Amazon, featuring issues #13-23, plus Werewolf by Night #15, and Giant-Size Chillers #1 for less than $10.

Alba Gu Brath - BF (aka The Occult Detective

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