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Cross Plains Comics'
Worms of the Earth

A Review by James Van Hise

(Copyright 2001 James Van Hise - All rights reserved)

ROBERT E. HOWARD'S WORMS OF THE EARTH (October 2000) $9.95 -- Published by Wandering Star/Cross Plains Comics (8 1/2 x 11, 68 pages)

        When Cross Plains Comics was launched in early 1999, it was with much promise and expectation. They had a slate of books planned and the intent was to publish quality comic book adaptations of the works of Robert E. Howard which would be truer to the source material than what Marvel Comics had been doing for nearly thirty years. But right away warning flags went up when Cross Plains Comics announced plans for a Red Sonja comic book. When some REH fans criticized this publishing plan as a betrayal of what Cross Plains Comics had represented themselves as being, some people at the company became defensive, particularly when it was suggested that this Red Sonja comic would be a poor marketing strategy. As it turned out the Red Sonja comic was a poor marketing strategy. Only one issue was ever published (and then months late) and a planned volume of Red Sonja reprints was canceled. Other announced titles were also canceled, or delayed, so that within ten months the company all but ground to a halt. Behind-the-scenes in-fighting erupted among staff members. That there were problems early on was in evidence on the Cross Plains Comics internet newsgroup. Any type of criticism posted there was often met with angry outbursts in place of reasoned responses. Instead of saying things like "the books themselves will prove you wrong," critics were insulted, told they didn't know what they were talking about, or outright banned from the newsgroup. At one point it became difficult to join the newsgroup because the moderator feared that a new member might be a potential critic of Cross Plains Comics. I was once even accused of having joined the newsgroup under a phony name so that I could ridicule them, which is a complete fantasy (I was never on the newsgroup, either as a lurker or a poster). Ultimately they fell out among themselves and to this day some former Cross Plains Comics compatriots are not speaking to each other. The newsgroup has since become an ordinary comic book newsgroup rather than the public relations arm for CPC. Other Cross Plains Comics titles have since appeared, but they were poorly promoted and remain little known.
        Their newest title, Worms of the Earth, has been published in conjunction with Wandering Star (the British publisher of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane hard cover from 1999, as well as The Ultimate Triumph, a collection of REH stories with Frazetta illustrations). Interestingly, it was produced largely outside of the auspices of Cross Plains Comics as the art director on the book (hired by Wandering Star) received the newly colored Barry Windsor-Smith/Tim Conrad art from Cross Plains Comics, but then he designed and edited the book outside the control of Cross Plains editor Richard Ashford. Even the Tim Conrad interview and the Fred Blosser article were edited by art director Jim Keegan, as he designed the book. Jim also took it upon himself to add strong supporting material to the book so that Worms of the Earth would be much more than just a reprint comic.
        The main feature of the magazine is the thirty-seven page comic strip adaptation of the Robert E. Howard Bran Mak Morn tale. Adapted by Roy Thomas, the story was originally begun by Barry Windsor-Smith, who abandoned it after a few pages when he quit working for Marvel in the early 1970s. A couple years later it was completed by Tim Conrad, an artist so heavily influenced by Smith's work that it's difficult to tell where the work of one artist ends and the other begins. Originally published in Savage Sword of Conan in 1976, the strip first appeared in black and white. It has been newly colored by George Freeman and Laurie E. Smith, and they do an excellent job. Adding color to artwork which originally had gray tones is no easy task as the slightest error in judgment can result in a muddy print job, but here the subtlety of tones are maintained and the artwork remains clear and sharp. If that were all the book had it would still be considered a successful effort. But there's more. There are no less than half a dozen back-up features in the magazine, all profusely illustrated.
        There's a two page interview with Tim Conrad. A five page article by Fred Blosser on the history of this comic strip adaptation, which includes original Weird Tales pulp illustrations as well as different paperback covers. There's a twelve page interview with Gary Gianni (illustrator of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and the forthcoming book Bran Mak Morn: The Last King), profusely illustrated with Gary's REH illustrations. There's a four page article on Robert E. Howard by Rusty Burke (with rarely seen photos of REH crisply reproduced). A two page article on Project Pride in Cross Plains, Texas, (which has preserved the home of REH as an historic landmark) includes photos of the Howard house. There's even three original short bio strips on REH by Jim and Ruth Keegan titled "The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob." There's lots of color work in here and the issue is easily the nicest comic book related item about Robert E. Howard to appear in years.
        The front cover is an original drawing of Bran done by Mark Schultz, and the back cover is a magnificent Gary Gianni painting which will appear in The Last King. It's so good that one can only wonder why something like this hadn't been done before.

James Van Hise is a professional magazine writer and has published several books in the field of Weird Fiction, including The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard. He has been a long time member in several fan and literary organizations dealing with pulp fiction, including the Robert E. Howard United Press Association.


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