Why Conan (the Cimmerian) Sucks, except when he doesn’t

I’ve embarked on a new project–a video review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first stage of it is re-watching the trilogy (of which I own the extended editions), and recording timestamps of all the scenes that stand out as being either really great, or (more often) really, really bothersome. I got about fifty-five minutes in, to a point where the ringwraiths are right on top of the hobbits but somehow said hobbits still escape… and this was just the latest stupidity I was forced to remember in what had been basically a one-problem-per-minute viewing. It was giving me a headache, so I went on to something else.

Fortunately, a book I ordered, a fancy-shmancy new Lovecraft hardcover, arrived in the mailey-oh.

So naturally, I’m going to talk about Robert E. Howard’s Conan character!

As it happens I own all three of the Del Rey/Wandering Star volumes (this is the first) and lately I’ve been perusing them, largely just because I wanted a break from all my usual gaming and cartooning and stuff.

Let me be frank: the Conan stories can be pretty fun. Essentially, what REH does is creates a world that is part pre-history, but also part-Lovecraftian. The best way to put it is imagine Middle-earth if it had Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu wandering around, and the nations of men (no elves or dwarves here) were not led by divinity but were instead just primal creatures who evolved into societies, like in the real world, except here civilization is seen as something aberrant.

This is the attractive power of the stories. They create a world that is dark, dangerous and mysterious. That’s not to say its evil–if you’re thinking of something like a Frank Miller or Alan Moore comic, you’re on something of the wrong track. There are virtues in the Hyborian Age, but they are more primal, driven partly by survival instinct, and virtues that are the result of civilization are seen as annoying at best due to how they can confound what should be straightforward matters (the opening of “Queen of the Black Coast” is a case in point).

Conan, then, is a traveller from Cimmeria, a land where civilization never reached, except in tales and rumors. He was born to a warrior culture, and for reasons never given has decided to go through the lands south of his home and see what they hold for him… and they hold plenty.

Conan is, in essence, the ultimate male power fantasy. He does what he wants, and has the muscles and skill with weaponry to back himself up. If he is to go down, he would prefer to go down fighting. He is neither good nor evil, but rather is something like an animal in man’s form. He is pretty much the man all nerdy teenage boys wish they could be. That he exists in a world full of dark tombs of eldritch abominations and pagan sorceries just makes it all the better.

…Then there’s the women, and we get to the part I hate.

Now, to Robert E. Howard’s credit, his females are usually not “damsels in distress,” and in fact are usually strong-willed and proactive, capable of fending for themselves whether or not Conan is there to save them.

That’s all well and good, but would it kill them to get dressed? Invariably, the women of these stories either start out completely naked, or else become so at some point in the narrative (and when they are dressed, its usually not in anything much better than being stark naked to begin with). And of course, these are always the most gorgeous women ever.

If I may rant for a second, I understand that fantasy is largely written for a male audience (or was back then). The problem I have with the fantasy genre is that the males in question are interpreted, at least by the authors, as being horny adolescents who will like anything with a decent rack. I remember reading the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, and after awhile it turned out everyone was having sex–not romantically, and in fact (if I remember right) without any real sort of buildup or development, just suddenly they all started doing it. Except Tasslehoff, of course, since hobbit sex would likely be seen as child porn by some nitpicky conservatives.

Even Robert E. Howard himself seemed to have this issue, since he wrote several disparaging comments about the male gender, and also expressed pride whenever he sold a story that “had no sex in it” (his words)–one such one being “Beyond the Black River,” one of the better Conan tales.

Am I a prude? No. What I am is a thinking creature, and whenever I see parts like this, I feel like I’ve been insulted. Like “Yeah, we know you’ll like this because it has tits!” When things treat me that way, it diminishes my will to keep on going. I’ve dropped plenty of anime for a similar reason.

This is just one part of the problem. Like I intoned earlier, I love the mysteries and places and cultures of the Hyborian Age, and I like hearing about the man who traverses them… but all too often, all the stuff that is actually interesting gets buried under the male pandering. Not just the sex, but also the “look at how handsome and strong this guy is.” The fighting and killing is all well and good but sometimes, it feels like the testosterone eclipses all the parts I really care about.

I’m not asking for a bowdlerization. Hell no–that would result in something as terrible as the Marvel Comics version of Conan, or the later L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter published fanfics. All I’m asking is for the camera to shift its focus a bit. To use an analogy, remember in AVGN’s “The Wizard” review when he expressed annoyance that the movie was showing two people talking when what he actually wanted to see was what game the kids were playing in the background? That’s sort of what I’m getting at here. Not just for Conan but for the fantasy genre as a whole.

The problem is not “sex is icky” or whatever the thirteen-year-old Tropers reading this blog are already thinking, the problem is that its mundane. Imagine watching an intense F1 race and all the sudden the race stops so they can talk about how green the grass is. I read fantasy for the fantastic–starfish aliens, magic rings, lands that never were (or maybe still are?) or new insights into the workings of the cosmos, and a mundane fact of life rearing its ugly head is an intrusion. Fantasy authors don’t feel the need to describe using the bathroom (well.. Stephen King does, but he’s a hack) so why this?

So, yeah, in a nutshell:

Conan is great fantasy, but it starts to suck when the “fantasy” gets overshadowed by other matters. Just like most authors who aren’t Tolkien.

(And how much you want to bet people are going to read this as prudishness despite my three paragraphs of extrapolation, because we all know the internet is mostly populated by half-literate teens whose brains are in their dicks?)

When You Wish Upon a Ring…

It’s been tough finding things to update about. I actually put up a new ramble on Zippcast, but didn’t link to it because honestly it’s not very good.

Since then not much has been happening as much as I want it to. I’ve been trying to take care of a new kitten named Flufflepuff, but she will either be friendly or be scared, just whenever she wants to be.

Recently purchased Salamander Portable, which is basically a companion to the Gradius Collection and includes Salamander, Salamander 2, Life Force, Xexex (YES!) and the MSX version of Gradius 2… and a partridge in a pear tree. This collection being exclusive to Japan, all the games are the Japanese versions, which is awesome in the case of Xexex (the North American version got fucked right up the ass).

I’ve also been re-playing the computer game Pool of Radiance, and in fact have been keeping a diary of it. I wonder if I should upload that diary here?

I’ve also discovered a novelization of Pool of Radiance in my collection which… actually starts out pretty good. It does however do one of my least favorite cliches: the main gets a ring that gives her three wishes, and she wastes two of them by accident. This time though it wasn’t quite so bad.

Anyway, when I’ve got more to talk about, I’ll post a real entry.

Talk to yas laterz!

Good Reads: First Blood by David Morrell

THIS REVIEW IS SPOILERTASTIC!
If you intend to read this book and want it to be a surprise, then you may not want to read this review any further.

Incidentally this kinda goes for the movie too, since I do discuss differences.

I’m gonna confess something right now: For as much as I preach the values of reading, I’m actually a very poor reader. I rarely do it, and when I do, I often have trouble sticking with books to the end without getting distracted. Sometimes this is my fault, other times its because the book just isn’t that good.

My copy of First Blood was ordered off of Amazon and came in the mail last Saturday. I cut open the bubble-mailer and turned to the first page… and didn’t stop reading until I was done. All right, I lie: I stopped to cook chicken. I stopped again to make a phone call and check my internet affairs. Yet each time, I found myself wanting to get back to the book as soon as possible.

Then, finally, I was at a point where I reached for the next page… and found only the back cover. I had been so caught up that the page count disappeared entirely from my consciousness, and that never happens to me.

Needless to say, I had good experiences with this book.

….

So let’s talk about the book itself.

David Morrell’s First Blood was first published in 1972 (or at least, that’s the copyright date), and from what I understand this may have been the book that launched his career. Many people are vaguely aware that First Blood was also the book that introduced the world to Rambo, one of the many screen heroes to inflame the imaginations of moviegoers in the 1980s.

In fact, First Blood was also the title of the original Rambo movie, and if you’re wondering how close it is… well, it’s somewhere in the middle. In terms of the events as they play out, a lot of the same things happen, but they happen in different ways, or at different times, or for slightly different reasons. Rambo still gets into a private little war with the sheriff of Madison, Kentucky, but here Rambo and Wilfred Teasle have multiple meetings before Rambo finally gets arrested. Rambo is naked when he escapes prison (because they tried to shave him as soon as he got out of the prison shower) and has to talk a moonshiner and his son into giving him clothes and a rifle. Rambo still gets trapped in a caved-in mine at one point, but in the book he caused the cave-in himself by knocking out support beams, in order to escape pursuers. The final confrontation takes place in a field, not in the police station. Probably the most famous difference (and this is one almost all hardcore Rambo fans have at least heard of at some point, but I’m still gonna say SPOILER WARNING) is that in the book, Rambo dies.

But probably the biggest difference is the morality and the psychology. Now, the movie had a very clear theme that this whole thing was one-big-fuck-up and both Rambo and Teasle were culpable, but in the movie its made out that Teasle is kind of a dick and Rambo is just a guy trying to get along in a world where he’s despised for no reason. In the book though, Teasle is actually kind of a nice guy, while Rambo comes off as dickish–repeatedly coming back into town just to force a confrontation, his only excuse being that this is the sixteenth time he’s been harassed by law enforcement just for petty reasons, and even though he admits to himself that Teasle was actually nicer than the other cops who’ve hassled him, it just happened that this time, Rambo wasn’t gonna let it slide.

I have to admit that even though Rambo is the instigator here, I still feel sympathetic for him. I mean there’s two types of people in the world: You’re either the kind who is harrassed by everyone, picked on just because you’re different… or you’re the one that does the picking. I won’t lie: One reason I love First Blood–both the book and the movie–is because of the revenge fantasy aspect, just seeing a man pushed so far that he decides to get back at society and teach them a lesson. It’s something I wouldn’t mind doing myself, sometimes.

There’s one more thing though: In the book, Rambo actually DOES kill people. The first person he kills–one of the cops–is an accident, but later in the book he starts doing it on purpose, and he’s kinda schizo on whether he feels remorse or not, even arguing with himself about it but for the most part, being okay with it.

Which brings me to Teasle. While the movie made hints that Teasle wasn’t completely a dick and was actually a good cop and a nice guy outside of his dislike of “strangers,” the book humanizes him completely. That guy who had the bloodhounds? Was a dude who adopted Teasle after his real dad got killed in a hunting accident and who Teasle saw as a father figure. Oh, and Teasle is going through a divorce right now but the wife may still love him. There’s genuine love here. Yet he also comes to understand Rambo by the end, and by the end he doesn’t even hate Rambo either.

So yeah, in the movie, Rambo is the protagonist and Teasle is the antagonist (with humanizing hints), and in the book its reversed.

Colonel Sam Trautman was another major character in the movie, popping in with advice for Teasle but not really making it clear whose side he was on. In Sylvester Stallone’s commentary on the movie’s DVD, he claimed that book-Trautman was “like Dr. Frankenstein, desiring to kill his creation.” I’m not sure I agree–Trautman in the book came off as similar to his movie incarnation to me, although it is clear he’s trying to help them catch Rambo, that same undercurrent of “I want him taken alive” is still there, that sorta-sympathy. Even though, yes, it’s Trautman who delivers the killing blow (because he saw Rambo firing on someone and had no choice).

I want to make one thing perfectly clear: None of these differences are meant to say “this version is better.” They’re just differences that exist. The movie is awesome, and apparently it was built on an awesome foundation. If I had to choose between recommending the book or recommending the movie, I would say “do both.”

….

What made the book fun to read though, was Morrell’s way with words. The humanizing bits and the psychology and the intense chases were all very good, but it was the way Morrell worded things that made it all click. He has this style that feels stream-of-consciousness yet very clearly isn’t since the book is cohesive (stream of consciousness tends to be nonsensical and random), and almost demands to be read aloud, in a voice that sounds like it’s on the verge of excitement. Just a sample (note: The cops call Rambo “the kid” for some reason):

He circled the hollow and crept up from behind, and something was more than wrong. Shingleton wasn’t there, and Mitch was flat on his back in the water, his throat neatly slit from ear to ear, his blood steaming in the cold. Shingleton. Where was Shingleton? Worried and tired of waiting, he must have gone after the kid too, and left Mitch, and the kid came up and slit his throat to kill him quietly. The kid, Teasle realized, the kid must be very close. He crouched and spun, and the sight of Mitch, the frenzy of trying to protect himself from all angles made him want to cry out, Shingleton, get back here. Shingleton! Two men facing in opposite directions would maybe see the kid before he rushed them. Shingleton, he wanted to call.

Grammar nuts would probably go crazy, because a lot of Morrell’s voice relies on things like run-on sentences, one-word sentences or ones that don’t have a complete object-verb structure but you still know what they’re talking about, and other things that give a feeling of intensity, like there’s just too much going on for people to care if they’re putting periods and commas in the right place. This especially enhances the parts where Teasle and Rambo are beginning to become delirious because of their wounds and infections as a result of said wounds, and start suffering from things like missing time (being somewhere without knowing how they got there, although it usually comes to them soon enough) and events seeming to happen out of order, and thinking they had accidentally said something out loud… it’s very intense reading, is all I can say. I know that fake critics and review blurbs have made “intense” almost a meaningless cliche but I honestly can not think of a better word.

….

I will say it one more time, First Blood is a good book that spawned an equally good (if somewhat different) movie, and I can not recommend one above the other. You should really go for both. I’m not just talking to the Rambo fans here–screw it, First Blood is a thing that survives outside of being the beginning of a franchise, and should be appreciated outside of those bounds. Who knows, it might even turn you into a Rambo fan… or a Morrell fan.

Death and Return of Superman, The (Novel)

!!!SPOILER WARNING!!! I can’t say what I want to about this book without giving away parts of the plot, so continue at your own risk!

The Death and Life of Superman, by Roger Stern (and, of course, based on a story arc from the comics) is one of those books that is a nostalgic classic for me, despite being… well, I can’t really say it’s bad, but it’s not exactly good, either.

As you might’ve guessed, this is a novelization of the story arc where Superman is killed by a monster named Doomsday. Now, I want to say upfront that I actually like the first part of this book, and this is one of the book’s strengths: Roger Stern wrote this with newcomers in mind. So unlike the comic version, which starts in medias res with some shit going down, the book starts off with a worker contemplating suicide… and then an accident nearly kills him. Superman’s timely intervention not only saves him physically, but emotionally as well, driving him to give his life purpose. Besides setting up a development later in the book, this is the kind of storytelling I like, hitting both the visceral thrill of the timely rescue as well as the emotional depth.

From there, the book slowly gets going, giving readers time to get caught up on the people who will be involved. We get short backstories on anything important going on in the DC Comics universe–by the time Doomsday is wrecking things, we’ll know who the members of the Justice League are, what the Cadmus Project is, what exactly is going on between Lois and Clark, a brief look at Superman’s childhood, and that Lex Luthor is dead but Lexcorp is now run by his son, who is really a clone. All this is delivered at a solid pace where the reader has enough time to digest it without feeling overwhelmed. It almost makes DC Comics feel like a rich mythology and not just a bunch of crap some underpaid old men were forced to crap out on a monthly basis.

Then, of course, Doomsday appears. While the whole “yeah, there was this monster buried underground and somehow nobody noticed” thing is a little sketchy, the monster itself is sold as a valid threat, utterly wrecking everything it comes across, seeming unstoppable. I never thought a superpower fight scene would work in written form, but this book proves it can.

So, the whole thing starts out really strong! …But then the middle portion is where the problems appear.

Of course, DC Comics’ writers were tasked with the question of “What would happen if Superman died?” And naturally, their answers verge on the cynical. Crime runs rampant. People lose hope. The world starts to go to hell. Everyone becomes full of fear and loathing.

There is one scene in this section that gets it right–a woman throws some puppies in a river, but then a bartender who admired Superman dives in to save them, and he manages to save one. This is the kind of thing I would’ve liked to see more of, a sort of “keeping hope alive in spite of being dealt the biggest blow of our lives” angle. Instead, the novel prefers a bleak outlook. In my experience, this is typical of comics, and its one reason the medium gets tiring.

But the middle portion isn’t too bad. It’s still pretty fun, and there’s a few bright spots here and there.

The ending is where I have my biggest issue.

As comic readers likely know, eventually four new superheroes–all modeled after Superman, although only two claim to actually be him–show up on the scene. At the same time, Superman’s body disappears, and the novel tells us right off that some failsafe device from the Fortress of Solitude reclaimed it and took Superman there to regenerate (he’s solar-powered, like Captain Planet, ya see). So we actually get to see Superman as he recovered, along with getting a nice, pseudo-scientific explanation of his recovery. Then, it turns out a new threat is approaching–an alien named Mongul, which… the book helpfully informs us is someone Superman has fought and beaten before.

Here is where I feel the writers clearly had no clue. This is just not a satisfying conclusion to the story. It just isn’t. A novel like this should end with a big, triumphant “Oh yeah, Superman is back baby!” feeling, but here, it feels like its just another day. And I can trace the entire problem to both the “scientific” recovery and the fact that Superman came back to life in time to beat up someone he’s beaten up before.

If I were writing this, here’s how I’d do it:

The world is starting to feel hope again. People, inspired by the four new Supermen, find their inner heroes–they help old ladies cross the street, they pay each others mortgages, they start to smile again–then, Doomsday comes back to life and goes on another rampage! It’s another time of terror, but the people feel confident that the four Supermen will protect them. The four fight the monster, and are slowly worn down, but they don’t give up. People on the street even pitch in by throwing rocks at Doomsday. Then, suddenly, just as things seem their blackest, a red-and-blue bullet shoots through the sky and begins pummeling Doomsday! It’s the REAL Superman, and he’s come back, not because of some silly pseudoscience but purely because the human race has proven, through their hope and courage, that they deserve a Superman! And this time, he destroys Doomsday! Completely. Entirely. Unambiguously. It is a glorious victory for the entire human race.

Tell me that doesn’t sound better.

But then, I’m thinking purely along lines of “what would be a good story?” I also have the benefit of not being burned out, not being someone who has to do this for a living, not having to listen to corporate mandates or please the merchandising department or any of that. So I’m giving the writers the benefit of the doubt: Maybe their hands were tied.

Bottom line is, this is one of the best comic-based stories I’ve ever read, but its also one that (in some ways) exemplifies the problems with the comic book medium. It comes recommended to those who have even a passing interest in comic book superheroes. Last time I checked, the book was not hard to find, having been reprinted in 2004. It should go for $10 or less online, probably even less.

I guess the obvious question now is “what’s better, this or the original comic?” I can’t really answer that question. I tried to read The Death of Superman graphic novel at a library once and it, just… I couldn’t get into it. It just felt so snore-inducing. I don’t know what it was that gave me that impression, but there it is. So all in all, I would recommend the novel over the comic.

And maybe in my next entry I’ll go back to talking about video games. I’m so close to beating both Thunder Force IV and Thunder Force V, I just need to learn how to beat the final bosses…