Spreaker Widget

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Conan the Barbarian #1 - 6

In 2018 the publishing rights for the character Conan the Barbarian was returned to Marvel Comics after a long stint at Dark Horse Comics. Marvel published Conan comics from the 1970s through the 1990s before the rights were sold to Dark Horse. Conan’s popularity has sustained for almost a century, therefore Marvel knew that the acquisition of Conan had to be accompanied with a powerhouse book to please fans. The books that have resulted from this transaction are an absolute treat for any fan of the most famous barbarian in history. Prior to 2018, Dark Horse produced many quality Conan storylines and titles. With Conan the Barbarian and its accompanying titles, Marvel has matched if not exceeded expectations.
Conan has endured as a popular hero because he views the world in black and white terms: evil must be punished (severely) and good must be protected. Conan is an anti-hero in that he is a murderer and a thief, and yet he is the hero because, in the end, he always makes the choice of the greater good while protecting the defenseless. 

The first issue opened with the briefest of introductions to the character. Page one depicted Conan’s hectic birth as his mother’s village is being raided by invaders, and the second page portrayed King Conan seated on his throne. The first two pages of issue one demonstrated the scope of the forthcoming story: this would not be a linear tale of Conan’s life, but a story that is told from different points in Conan’s journey to his own death. On the third page, we find a young, battle-worn Conan fighting a horde of warriors for money. A beautiful woman watches nearby, taking great interest in the Cimmerian. Taking advantage of his weakness for the opposite sex, the woman seduced Conan and lured him away from the public eye. In private, she is revealed to be an ancient witch who sought to sacrifice a great warrior to her god, Razazel. Conan managed to kill the witch and escape from her nefarious trap. Flash-forward decades later, and King Conan encountered the same witch and her offspring who announce that Conan’s fate is to be sacrificed to their god. The cliff-hanger ending of issue one is continued at the end of every subsequent book, implying that Conan’s death is inescapable. 

In Issue #2, Conan fought alongside an army of Picts (a fictional aboriginal tribe) against a swarm of giant snakes, unaware that the Red Witch’s children were watching from afar. The third book told the story of a seventeen-year-old Conan who was imprisoned and waiting to be executed in the Nemedian border town of Red Tree Hill. Guilty of stealing gold from the local townspeople, Conan had no right to plead for pardon and yet fate spared him of his sentence. In Issue #5 Conan is stranded at sea, facing an onslaught of sea monsters, and in #6 Conan is appointed the commander of a king’s army in need of a bold leader. Through each adventure, for what appears to be most of Conan’s life, the Red Witch and her children lie in wait.

In the previous paragraph, I purposefully skipped Issue #4 so that I could draw special attention to this comic. I’ve been reading Conan comics for most of my life and have loved the character since I watched the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies with my father as a youngster. This comic is quite possibly my favorite Conan story ever. Jason Aaron wrote a story in which Conan the Barbarian became a vigilante hero. Conan is frustrated and stifled by his role as a king. What used to be his greatest aspiration has now become a disappointment due the monotony of ruling a kingdom. In a desperate attempt to relive his days as a vagabond defender, Conan disguises himself and slips away in the night to punish evildoers in his kingdom’s streets. But even then, Conan’s fate is being influenced by the Red Witch.

Conan lives in a world where a myriad of gods exists. However, Conan stands out among his contemporaries as a monotheist in that Conan believes in a single god, Crom. Conan pronounces his allegiance to Crom while also cursing him as an absent, impetuous deity. In life, we can sometimes feel like God is not there for us - like God is distant. However, we must remember that, unlike Crom, God is ever-present in our lives and is always in pursuit of his creation: us. In Psalm 23:4 and Deuteronomy 31:6, God promises his people that he will never leave them; that he will always be by our side. 

In the same way, just as God pursues his people, another stalks mankind in an effort to keep them from knowing God. The Bible describes Satan as a roaring lion who hunts his prey, seeking to devour them (1 Peter 5:8). In this story, Conan is stalked by the evil Red Witch who seeks Conan’s demise. Throughout his life, this evil presence has been in the shadows watching and waiting for the perfect time to strike. In the same way, the devil waits for a moment of weakness to put temptation in our way and ruin us. Unlike Conan, we have awareness of this threat and we can defend against it. As 1 Peter 5:8 also says, be on your guard. Moreover, we have a God that is not absent but acts in our defense and who offers his power to defeat our adversary (Ephesians 6:10-17).

- Terrific storytelling.
- Compelling characters.
- Great art.

- Eroticism/Partial Nudity
- Scenes of Violence
- Witchcraft/Occult Imagery

Story/Plot: 9.5
Writing: 9.5
Art: 8.0

Bottom line: Conan the Barbarian is a fun adventure across a vast timeline. This book is certainly not appropriate for a young audience, but will absolutely thrill fans of the character and the genre. The writing and art are top-notch, setting a high bar for future Conan titles. Amazingly, each of these six issues could be read as a singular story without previous knowledge of the ongoing storyline. But I purport that any reader who picked up an issue of this story would want to read the rest of the run.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance

In 1981, the Jim Henson company set out on a daunting, never-before-attempted task. Henson’s dream was to make a fantasy adventure film that was completely absent of human actors - the cast was to consist entirely of puppets. Inspired by the art of artist Brian Froud, Henson and his team dreamt up the world of Thra. What resulted was nine months of pain-staking work that culminated in a masterful film called The Dark Crystal. The film was released in 1982 and was not received with great acclaim nor with disdain, rather an ambivalence that must have been disappointing for Henson and his team. However, over the years The Dark Crystal has developed a strong following as a “Cult Classic”, becoming a favorite to fans of multiple generations. In 2017, Netflix announced that they would be producing a prequel series to The Dark Crystal. Moreover, it was made known that the new series would be produced in a means faithful to its predecessor: void of human actors, with practical effects and puppets. This news was absolutely wonderful to fans of the original film, with anticipation growing over two years of waiting for its debut on August 30, 2019. The resulting series is a masterpiece of cinematic artistry and a love letter to Henson, Froud, and the others who created the original film. 

The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance takes great care in sculpting the world of Thra, going deeper into the cultural structure of both groups of main characters: the Skeksis and the Gelfling. For centuries, the world of Thra was kept in balance by a powerful crystal under the watch of Aughra, an ancient and benevolent sorceress. From another world, the Skeksis came to Thra and made a deal with Aughra in which she would be allowed access to cosmic knowledge in exchange for guardianship of the crystal to be transferred to the Skeksis. But the Skeksis were a selfish and corrupt lot who used the crystal to unnaturally extend their lives, thus corrupting the crystal and disrupting the balance of Thra. In a desperate attempt to attain immortality, the Skeksis turn to their devoted subjects, the Gelfling, using the crystal to drain their life force, or “essence.” One Gelfling, Rian, discovers the Skeksis’ scheme and sets out to convince his people that the Skeksis are evil and not to be trusted, thus inciting a war between the Gelfling and the Skeksis.

The plot of the prequel series revolves around the journeys of three Gelfling: Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton, Rocketman, Kingsman: The Golden Circle), a Skeksis castle guard who holds the only proof of the Skeksis’ betrayal; Deet (voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel, Game Of Thrones, Maze Runner: The Death Cure), a cave-dwelling Gelfling with a strong connection to nature; and Brea (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy, Glass, The Witch), a Gelfling princess who discovers ancient truths that support Rian’s claims about the Skeksis. By joining forces, these three find the power to lead the Gelfling in a rebellion against the Skeksis.

There are many exciting voice talents who contribute to Age Of Resistance. Notably is the legendary voice actor Mark Hamill, famous for his role as The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, as the Skeksis scientist. Simon Pegg, the voice of Buck in the Ice Age series and star of Shaun Of The Dead, provides the whiny voice of Chamberlain, a central character in both this series and the 1982 film. The speaking role of Skeksis emperor is provided by Jason Isaacs, known for his roles as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter film series and Captain Hook in the 2003 film, Peter Pan. And finally, the legendary puppeteer Kevin Clash, famous for his roles as Elmo on Sesame Street and Baby on the TV series Dinosaurs, is both a performer and voice actor for Augrah. The puppeteers on this project consist of newcomers, legends of the industry who also worked on the original film, and even a YouTube sensation who was asked to do a bit part. The talent in Age Of Resistance is palpable, as the performances of the puppets is so full of life that it makes the depth of the story completely convincing to the audience. The director, Louis Leterrier, states that his desire was that the audience would forget that they were watching puppets. For this viewer, that was precisely the case.

The cinematography is beautiful, maintaining a look and feel that is modern but faithful to the original film, feeling as if one transitions over a 40 year period from one into the next. The set design is remarkable. The world feels tactile and real, like it really exists. This one of the many advantages to producing this series using practical sets and effects. One marvels at each new scene, taking in that someone had to meticulously design and construct each set. For example, the library in which Brea researches Thra’s history contains thousands of books and documents strewn across the floor and stacked around the room, not just on shelves. Shelved books could be made as single pieces, but it is obvious that these books were created with more care and attention to detail. A triangular book of Skeksis history makes an appearance that contains pages upon pages of actual text and hand-drawn graphics. The music in this series is wonderful and, like the camera work, is reminiscent of the preceding movie. What is likely my only qualm about Age Of Resistance is the absence of the theme from The Dark Crystal by composer Trevor Jones. There are slight homages to this theme within the score, but I was awaiting a moment where the swell of that score would sound. Alas, it did not. 

Perhaps this Henson fan’s love for the creators and the material causes a certain amount of bias, but the plot of this series was every bit as engaging and dramatic as any show of its like or not. I often found myself on the edge of my seat, with my jaw gaping open, or pressing the “play” button on my remote to get to the next episode as fast as possible.
It is highly recommended that any fan of this series watch the included bonus feature documenting the making of Age Of Resistance. The stories of those involved in the production of this series and how they got involved is titillating. According to this documentary, Age Of Resistance is the most ambitious, most expensive, and largest production of its kind. Netflix has been so generous with allowing creative control to the producers of the original content that it borders on irresponsible. They have green-lit so many projects in the past five years and created a myriad of original content that no one person could consume if they set themselves to the task. On the other side of that coin, this fan is so appreciative for Netflix’s executives being so magnanimous and optimistic and allowing project like this one to be done. The creative control allowed to the Henson company and the writers of Age Of Resistance are why this project turned out so masterfully.

The most shocking revelation in watching this series was that I expected the tenth and last episode to end with a set up for The Dark Crystal. Much to my surprise, it did not. Age Of Resistance tells the story of just that: the Gelfling’s revolt agains the Skeksis. The most exciting aspect of this realization is that a second series must be in consideration, one that will end, as fans of The Dark Crystal know, in tragedy for the Gelfling.

Jim Henson was not a religious man, nor a confessing believer in God or any faith. Fans of Henson’s work such as The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, and The Muppets have likely picked up on Jim’s leaning towards a universalist or naturalist worldview. Henson’s work, particularly The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock are fraught with ideas of “all is one” and elements of mysticism. Even the beloved song sung by Kermit the Frog, “The Rainbow Connection”, alludes to this type of view. This considered, it is no surprise to see these elements repeated in Age Of Resistance. The Gelfling’s history and traditions speak of equality and “all is one” ideas. It is proposed that when a Gelfling dies that their spirit, or essence, returns to Thra, suggesting that they are one with their planet. The Skeksis (originally conceived to represent the seven deadly sins) are depicted as glutinous, greedy beings. The emphasis of their voracity is placed on their impact on Thra and the crystal more-so than on themselves. However, there are two moments in this series that are shockingly gospel-related, albeit almost certainly unintentional. Both instances come from moments involving Thra’s protector, Aughra.

In episode 3, growing suspicious of the changes in Thra during her absence, Aughra travels to the Skeksis’ castle to confront them about their misuse of the crystal. Aughra confronts the emperor and the other Skeksis, as they enjoy a spa treatment serviced by slave labor, and declares that the crystal has been abused and therefore Thra is out of balance. The Skeksis defend themselves, stating that they have been generous to Thra and used the crystal to bring order and advancement. Aughra responds, “You speak but know nothing. Or is it you know and speak nothing?” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:7, “They want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on.” Paul is warning his readers to be weary of those who speak as if they have knowledge but, in reality, do not, because they have not taken the time to learn the truth and apply it to themselves. The Bible is laden with warnings against speaking without discernment and wisdom (Ecc. 10:12, Prov. 10:19, James 1:19, Eph. 4:29). Jesus himself states in Luke 6:45 that “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” It is of the utmost importance that, before we claim to speak truth or wisdom, that we compare our perceived truth to the word of God to see if it matches up. In this case, the Skeksis were not speaking the truth because they knew that they had used the crystal for selfish gain but did not want to admit fault. We do this on a daily basis - reasoning away our wrongdoing so that we will not allow ourselves to feel conviction. Psalm 19:12 asks that God would reveal our “hidden” sins, the sin about which we are in denial. The Skeksis knew the truth but refused to admit it. Contrarily, it is important that if we know the truth, we speak it. Too often those who have discovered the truth keep it to themselves and never declare it to the outside world. Jesus said in Mark 16:16, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” The author of Philemon writes, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Those of us who know the truth have a responsibility to speak it.

In the beginning of episode 9 there is a direct metaphor of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Like many superhero stories and fantasy tales, a hero offers up their own life for the sparing of others’. As the Skeksis prepare to kill Brea and her two sisters in order to drain their essence, Aughra arrives with a proposal. Aughra explains to the Skeksis that her essence is much greater than that of the Gelfling and would prove much more effective. She continues that if the Skeksis will spare the Gelfling, she will give up her own life and essence. In form, the emperor asks, “You would give up your own life for a few of these worthless Gelfling?” Aughra responds that the crystal can not take her essence, she must give it of her own free will. In the Christ role of this metaphor, Aughra offers her own life to spare the innocent. Paul explains how Jesus Christ did this for us in Philippians 2:7-8, “And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” Jesus did this so that we may have eternal life with God and the forgiveness of our sin (Ephesians 1:7-8). The difference between us and the Gelfling? We are not innocent (Romans 3:23). We are guilty in the eyes of God, but Jesus’ sacrifice offers us forgiveness despite our unreservedness (Romans 5:8). In this moment, Aughra personifies the sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross by offering her life for those that she loves.

Overall, I award Age Of Resistance a ten out of ten. The production value and storytelling are absolutely top-notch. Fans of the original film will be pleased to find the same amount of wonder and adventure, if not more, that its predecessor. Parents beware, there are a lot of truly scary moments in this series and it may not be suitable for children under the age of 7 or so. Personally, I can not wait until my daughters are just a little older so that I can share this series with them. If you have not already, log on to Netflix and watch episode 1 - you will be hooked.