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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Super Blog Team-Up - What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

Savage Tales #s 2-3 (October 1973, February 1974)
"Red Nails"
Roy Thomas-Barry Smith

One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Happy Super Blog Team-Up, everyone, and thanks for stopping by! If you've come from one of my partners, welcome - take a look around. I hope you'll like what you see. This blog posts twice each week, generally with a review of some great black-and-white comics on Mondays, followed by an artist spotlight/appreciation on Thursdays. The schedule's obviously a bit different this week, but that's a good thing - Super Blog Team-Up is always a great day!

Today I'm featuring what many aficionados of black-and-white comics, or sword and sorcery, or... shoot - of a whole bunch of genres - see as one of the all-time classics. Back in 1973, Roy Thomas and Barry Smith crafted an epic adaptation of Robert E. Howard's magnum opus (my perspective): Red Nails. Released over a four-month span and dominating two issues of Savage Tales, Red Nails took readers' breath away with the raw violence of the narrative and the highly-detailed depictions of the events therein. Truly, I'd say when the careers of Thomas and Windsor-Smith are evaluated by history, this story will stand atop the stack of work either man produced.

If you're playing along for the first time, it's my habit to give a short synopsis of the plot, followed by a 3-tier collection of my thoughts and impressions of the material. Today will be no different, so let's get on with it!

100-Word Review:
Valeria is on a quest for loot. However, she finds herself in a predicament atop a butte - her discovery of a human skeleton is a mystery. She is soon joined by Conan the Cimmerian, who then helps her avoid death by a massive reptile. The two set off for a not-too-distant city in hopes of plunder, but find it deserted. Or so they think. The plot thickens as Valeria encounters a man who relates a tale of two peoples, seeking to kill each other off - to score more Red Nails. But it’s Olmec and Tascela who enter the story that provides the greatest tension. Both have their minds set on Valeria - Olmec for lust, Tascela for… immortality.


If you've not read this story before, I hope the page samples I've provided attest to its brilliance. The level of detail Barry Smith poured into this project is simply off-the-charts. As this would be his final Conan story (John Buscema had taken over the color monthly by this time), he didn't leave quietly. Which brings us to -

The Good: No sense in venturing too far from praising the art, so I'll continue. Wow. Just double-wow. When you think where Barry Smith started, largely aping Jack Kirby (one could do worse, I know) and then arriving to the style we were treated to in his latter-day Conan stories, the metamorphosis is almost unexplainable. To read the Conan the Barbarian color series from the beginning is to have a front row seat to a master honing his craft. I'd like you to be aware, through the many page samples I've supplied, of the level of detail in each panel. There are no shortcuts here - no panels without backgrounds, each box a work of art in its own right.

The adventure at the beginning of the story, with the "dragon", was enthralling and if that's all we'd gotten it would have been a splendid read. It was long, but really proved to be only an appetizer for what was to follow. So why so much time spent? The dragons, or at least knowledge of them, would come into play later in the narrative.

Smith also did a wonderful job of varying the camera angles, creating mood and even adding tension by the way he chose to depict each panel. I know I had no difficulty maintaining my interest in what is a very long story, or in discerning the action at any point. 

Something I really enjoy about Conan is the seemingly endless possibilities. Sure, Robert E. Howard used geographic names that were familiar to those of us who've studied world history (and mythology) just a bit. But that Howard's Conan lived in a fantasy version of those familiar places opened up the opportunity to use large animals (as here), wizards, demons, all manner of weaponry, armadas and armies of all sizes and characteristics, and so on. And that the Conan mythos did not rely on continuity as did most four-color superhero comics, our hero could be dropped into any setting at any time and with any ally or enemy. Even Tarzan was confined to the jungle (before Edgar Rice Burroughs decided he needed to visit Pellucidar); not Conan. Desert, jungle, high seas, cold north, forgotten city -you name it, it could be done. And probably was. Take Valeria, for example: she's just dropped into this story. Conan knows her, but there is no evidence of her in any previous Howard-authored Conan story. I like that.

So let's talk about Roy Thomas's script. I've read the prose version of Red Nails three times, the comic version at least that many. Roy didn't have to take many chances here - Howard's original story was so solid, I think the strength of Roy's adaptation is that, for the most part, he left the story alone. Where Roy shows his skill is in the pacing - again, this is a looooong story at 58 pages. It never plays that way. Roy also gives us voices for each character in which we can believe said character would actually speak that way. And then Barry Smith made it happen, with facial expressions and body language. I know it's completely inappropriate in the age of #MeToo (or any age, truthfully), but the panels near the top of the post when Conan has become aware that the dragon is going to keep them on that butte for quite some time, and intends to pass the time with a little hanky panky, read as if watching a film. It's just perfect - the dialogue, pictures, camera angles... I said it previously - masterpiece.

Two tropes that appear in most Conan tales, sort of like bad guys using burner phones and good guys checking traffic cams on cop shows, are the protagonist getting ready to sleep with his/her eyes open and the use of a black lotus for mind-altering effects. Both of those are present in this story. I wore them like a pair of comfy bluejeans!

It's been said - not sure by who, but I'm sure we've all heard this - that a hero is only as good as his/her villain. That's probably true here. The menaces are many, from the dragon and the possibility of starving on the butte - to the forboding city and it's mysterious denizens. The Crawler adds to the "Holy...!" feelings, and then we meet Olmec and Talesca. Olmec is a big and scary dude. That beard is the envy of the boys in ZZ Top, for sure. But Talesca - she is the baddie that actually serves as the inspiration for today's review. As the SuperBloggers are discussing immortality and the thought that sometimes characters don't die, Talesca presents an interesting problem. Howard's plot, as mentioned above, had those who dwelt in the dark city fighting as two factions, killing each other to the point of extinction. Remember I said that the dragons would play a part later? They do and they don't - only because the creepy guys think they cannot leave their city. So they're stuck there. Which puts Talesca in a particular predicament. She needs to be rejuvenated with the blood of a supple young beauty. Enter Valeria.

The Bad: Well, Olmec doesn't look like he smells so good. I'd also, just thinking as a parent for a moment, definitely treat this story as being rated R. I'm not sure I'd have let my sons get their hands on this before they were at least 13 or 14. And to think this would have hit the magazine racks when I was only 7! There's a reason I never owned any of these black-and-white beauties as a kid!

But seriously now, I've only seen scans online of the colorized version of Red Nails from Marvel Treasury Edition #4. I do own the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan, volume 4 trade, and that has Red Nails in a computer-colored version. I can more easily take the four-color treatment than I can the computerized version, but I'd overall say that this story was meant to be read in beautiful black-and-white and it should only be enjoyed in that manner. Anything else, in my mind, detracts from the lines of the artist, which are splendid.

The Ugly: I don't have anything much to add in this section - in fact, I rarely do. But in regard to the quote by Nietzsche atop this post - Talesca had no relationships with any of the humans with which she lived. They existed in her sphere based on utility alone. No emotion, only self-preservation and self-renewal dominated her daily thoughts. At first we're led to believe that Valeria is the object of Talesca's intense gaze due to some romantic infatuation; we then learn that it is indeed because of Valeria's looks and physical prowess that Talesca has set eyes upon her, though not in the way we might have forecast. Like all those who seek to live beyond their prescribed times, Talesca eventually met her end. Unlike other characters in literature, however, Talesca found no release in death - only failure of goals unreached.

I've one more set of page samples, and then below that you'll find links to the other bloggers and podcasters taking part in today's festivities. Give 'em a click and leave a comment at their space. I know they'll appreciate it as much as I have this visit from you today. Come back next Monday, when I'll feature a review of some Bat-Manga!

Two Staple Gold: Jim Henson Presents- The Soldier and Death

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

The Superhero Satellite: Mephistos Whisper: The Immortality Of Peter and Mary Jane (One More Day)

Comics Comics Comics Blog: Dr. Fate 

Between The Pages Blog: Doctor Who @ Big Finish Productions

DC In the 80s: Young Animals Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal (1992 Six Issue Mini Series)

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode - Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

In My Not So Humble Opinion : It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

The Retroist Via Vic Sage: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella - Roses for the Dead

Dave's Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT - Jupiter Ascending commentary

Monday, August 26, 2019

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began, Chapter 2 - a Review

Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And Here My Troubles Began (1991)
"Time Flies" - Volume 2, Chapter 2
Art Spiegelman

In the 11 chapters that comprise Maus, today's material is the most important. You might see that as a judgment on my part, but I'll stand behind the statement. Art Spiegelman's emotions at the beginning of the chapter, languishing over the proper way to depict the events of his parents' lives while prisoners at Auschwitz, are juxtaposed with the then-present fall-out that had affected his adult relationship with his father. Several vignettes that get to the core of the hell that was the Holocaust drag the reader through a history-driven storm. As I've said in previous reviews, I have read Maus perhaps 50 times (maybe more). This chapter always requires several pauses for reflection and digestion of the material. Holocaust literature can be that way.

Because of the large volume of images included in today's review, I'm going to lead with the complete introduction to the chapter, as I feel it is imperative to one's understanding of not only Art's dilemmas, but to a greater grasping of the magnitude of the Holocaust.

100-Word Review:
Art Spiegelman struggles with the magnitude of presenting his father’s story. Wanting it to be truthful, tasteful, authentic, and accessible, Art is overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and inadequacy. Seeking input from his therapist, a survivor like Vladek, Art tries to wrap his mind around the “Auschwitz experience”. We see that series of events through the eyes of Vladek, as he narrates his own travails as well as those of Anja. Art shows the brutality of kapos and SS guards, and the mania of the last days of the Final Solution. In the end, we’re left shaken at the notion that anyone could survive that.
The Good: The scene(s) I've depicted at the top of the post really strike at the core of what this amazing book is about. From Art's grappling with Vladek's experiences to feeling incapable of depicting them with integrity, and then on to his feelings about his own life and relationship to his father and also to his father's memories... Those first six pages hold my attention every time I read this. Specifically, I think I've personally taken the most value from the therapist's demonstration atop the sixth page. If we search our own memories, we've all had those moments of abject fear, usually coupled with an intense surprise. I liken it to those days of youth when a sibling or playmate would lie in wait, often in the dark, waiting to pounce from the shadows with a hearty yell. That feeling of the hot rush through the chest, the rapid increase in breathing rate, and a belief that one could actually see one's heart about to pound through the rib cage... "It felt a little like that, but always." Man... my mind cannot grasp having that feeling of frightful distress, every moment of every day. And I thank God I can't grasp that.

A second important element of this chapter is Art's meticulous depiction of the physical layout and other aspects of both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Throughout the book, I've treasured Art's care in showing readers the hiding spaces and other important settings to the Holocaust experience. I'll break from the chronological display of art to feature samples of this narrative.

If you search "Auschwitz" using Google Maps, you can get an aerial view of the Polish city of Osweicim. You'll find Art's map to be very accurate. You'll also find that today, there is a subdivision of private homes across the street from Birkenau. When I was in Poland in October 2008, I was struck during our times in Osweicim that going past those camps was someone's daily commute. I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around that. You should know, too, that of the five gas chambers/crematoriums at Auschwitz, only the one at Auschwitz I still stands; the four at Birkenau were destroyed near the end of the war. One was blown up in a sabotage by the prisoners who worked in Crematorium IV; the other three were destroyed by the Nazis as the Soviets advanced on the camp.

An almost throwaway question and answer in this chapter really resonated with me when I was at Auschwitz I. Art asks Vladek about the orchestra that played daily as prisoners were marched in and out of the camp on their way to/from labor. Vladek remarked that he remembered no such thing - why would there have been an orchestra? Art countered that it was well-documented... And when I was there, signage exists at the very point where prisoners would have passed beneath the famous gate.

The issue of hunger was dealt with throughout the chapter. Dying slowly, sacrificing rations to save for later or to trade for other necessities - yes, a black market existed even in Auschwitz. These scenes tear at the heart; of particular note is Vladek's description of the contents of the soup and of the bread.

Vladek's care for Anja was another series of events that ran through this part of the story. Of importance was the benevolence of Mancie, a fellow prisoner but who had a bit of authority and could move about more freely. That she assisted Vladek in making contact with Anja, and then further continued to help them exchange notes - at great risk of not only their lives but certainly her own - showed that even under the worst circumstances some would strive to maintain the humanity of others. Notice in the sample below right that to be suspect of fraternization meant certain punishment - even death without question. Dead prisoners could always be rationalized by guards or kapos, especially as there would be little effect on labor requirements. After all, there was an almost-endless supply. Note, too, the final panel on that page, and scroll back to the photographs from the orchestra conversation - see how Art homaged the signage at Auschwitz I? In MetaMaus, there is a CD-ROM included and on that disc one can find the home movies Art and Francois shot while on a research trip to Auschwitz in the early 1990s. It's a great add-on to that book, and to the great Maus experience for the reader.


The Bad: In regard to the quality of the storytelling, nothing was bad. But I wanted to focus here on the randomness of the Holocaust. It's been said many times - it wasn't always "the best" who survived, nor was it "the worst" who died. It was completely random. And although Vladek was incredibly resourceful and able to make himself useful (see Art's discussion of this above, in the first series of page samples), his life still hung on the whims of the kapos and the SS. The vignette of Vladek becoming a cobbler bears this out, as he thinks he has saved his life to see another day. Yet, when the SS officer wants his boot repaired there is no margin for error. And that Vladek was rewarded, and complimented, flies in the face of everything we might have expected to happen. Now I'm back to the therapist's description of Auschwitz: "It felt a little like that, but always."

The Ugly: Lastly, I need to mention the terror of the camps. That feeling of impending death, not coming at some point, but imminently. It could be due to a mistake or to falling short of expectations, it could come at the flaring up of a kapo's anger, or a guard's sadism. But knowing - with all your mind and heart - that death was literally a second away, had to destroy one's confidence and faith. 

I don't know about you, but I'm spent after this. Chapter 2 always hits me that way, as I said near the top. Next month we'll begin to move toward the end of the war. That will bring it's own new troubles as we'll see. Indeed, the next chapter is titled, "And here my troubles began".

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