Songs of the Dead and Other Tales collects the Songs of the Dead miniseries by Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman (originally released by Dark Horse Comics), as well as a number of other one-shots and short stories featuring Conan doing what he does best: kicking ass, partying hard, and occasionally saving all of creation from abominations beyond the stars.
I’m a big fan of the classic Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard. Many of those tales were deeply rooted in cosmic horrors and shared elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and some elements of this collection really lean into that, particularly when it comes to the main storyline. Songs of the Dead finds Conan on the trail of a series of magical artifacts, all the while evading the clutches of a mad wizard, hordes of the undead, and various beautiful distractions. Although this story is pretty much entirely Lansdale and Truman’s creation, it still packs in a ton of recognizable elements and clever callbacks to Howard’s oeuvre. The two creators also inject this story with a heaping dose of comedy, which may or may not play well to fans of the more stone-faced incarnations of Conan the Barbarian.
In Songs of the Dead, Conan is a total wise-ass, often taking stock of the danger he’s in and finding a way to make fun of it. This is a version of the barbarian who has seen it all in his time traversing the earth, and nothing really seems to surprise him anymore. While the character is often portrayed as humorless and beleaguered, this story takes Howard’s portrayal of a man with an almost terrifying lust for life and runs with it.
Even though he seems annoyed by the constant interruptions and double crosses, Conan comes alive during battle. This aspect of the character is brilliant sold not only by Lansdale’s wry sense of humor, but by Truman’s exceptional illustrations. Conan moves with a fluidity in this story that seems almost unnatural for a man of his size and strength, which makes the battle scenes even more exciting. He’s almost always pit against impossible odds, and even though we know he’ll come out on top, the fun of these sequences is seeing how he brute forces (or connives) his way to victory.
Where the humor kind of becomes grating is where Conan’s companion, Alvazar, is concerned. While it makes sense to give Conan someone to bounce his thoughts off of, Alvazar’s cowardly lion routine gets real old, real fast. And unfortunately, he feels like he doesn’t have much of an arc in the story. You almost expect every to change around the ever-stoic Conan in these stories, but Alvazar just kind of remains an annoying jerk for the entirety of the story. Still, Songs of the Dead is easily one of the most entertaining modern Conan stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I’m almost embarrassed that it took me so long to get around to it.
Next up is the two-part Conan the Barbarian: Island of No Return from Ron Marz and Bart Sears, which almost reads like a parody of the very concept of the character. Marz’s Conan is kind of a headstrong oaf, constantly barging his way into scenes and killing whoever is unlucky enough to be between him and the treasure he seeks. The dialogue doesn’t quite work for me in this story, either; Conan has never been a paragon of appropriate behavior and his enemies even less so, but it’s truly rattling to see a character refer to someone’s “fine ass” during a supposedly serious moment.
Meanwhile, Sears’ Conan is a wild bundle of muscles and grimaces. The scenes where he’s kept in shadow have an interesting air of mystery to them, but all of that is lost the second he hauls himself into view. While the fight scenes that dominate much of the story are fun, there’s not much about this take on the character that particularly strikes me as interesting. However, I did enjoy the story’s sense of urgency, which sees Conan moving from one set piece to the next with reckless abandon.
The rest of the stories in the collection are a mixed bag, with some of them feeling like they cover similar ground to one another, to varying degrees of success. However, they’re still worth checking out, particularly for the ways in which each artist interprets the character and his world — some of them are much more fanciful than the others. One of the biggest highlights is the 8-page Conan: Trophy, which features some striking artwork from Marian Churchland that makes it stand out as a singular read among the rest of the collection.
If you’ve never given Conan a read before and you’re looking for an entertaining adventure with plenty of action, supernatural shenanigans, and outlandish humor, then Songs of the Dead and Other Stories is a great place to start. It’s also a fun time for seasoned fans of the titular barbarian who have enjoyed Marvel’s Conan comics and the original Howard stories, but who may also want something a bit more off the beaten path.
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