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Wandering Star and Cross Plains Comics'
Worms of the Earth

A Review by Edward Waterman
January 2001

(Copyright © 2001 Edward Waterman - All rights reserved)


             What am I doing writing another CPC review? Didn't I wash my hands of Cross Plains Comics and walk away in disillusionment and disgust after they dragged Howard's name yet again through the slimy mud with "creative" mood pieces that were in poor taste, and a complacent embrace (and, astonishingly, defense) of mediocrity and sloppy work? Didn't they  also have more reverence for themselves than the author whose work they were adapting? Well, yes. So why another review? Simply, because a friend asked me to write one and I owed him a favor. Even so, it was only after much contemplation that I begrudgingly agreed to write this review.

            My hesitation was mostly due to the fact that this friend of mine also happens to be Jim Keegan, the art director of this particular comic book. He's the guy who did all the layout, selected and helped edit the contents, wrote an interview, made all the decisions, and essentially put the whole thing together. You could easily and accurately say that "Worms of the Earth" is his book. Further, the  comic book was produced exclusively by Wandering Star, with whom I also have some affiliation. To give credit where credit it due, however, Cross Plains Comics did help out a bit by getting the story colorized, helping to arrange for an interview with artist Tim Conrad, helping to solicit the comic book, and of course paid for the printing.

            Reviewing the work of a friend is always a tricky proposition at best. Not only does one run the risk of alienating that friend, but the review itself becomes suspect as concerns of favoritism and bias rear their ugly heads in the reader's mind. I am keenly aware of this possibility, and have gone to great lengths to prevent any such prejudices from entering into my evaluation of this comic book. If this review seems harsh to my friends, I beg their forgiveness. My only goal was to offer a considered judgment rendered as honestly and objectively as possible. On this last point, I hope the reader will find that I have succeeded.  

Some Background

            The joint Wandering Star and Cross Plains Comics' "Worms of the Earth" is a reprint of a two-part comic book story previously published in the December 1976 and February 1977 issues of The Savage Sword of Conan (issues #16 and #17 respectively). Both parts have been combined in this reprint. "Worms of the Earth" was originally penciled by Tim Conrad and Barry Windsor-Smith, and newly colorized by George Freeman and Laurie E. Smith. The story was adapted by Roy Thomas.

            The original Robert E. Howard story titled "Worms of the Earth" was first published in the November 1932 issue of Weird Tales magazine, and subsequently published in Skull-Face and Others (Arkham House), Bran Mak Morn (Dell, Baen), Worms Of The Earth (Grant, Zebra, Orbit, Ace), Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors (Baen); and will very soon appear in Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Wandering Star). The tale was voted "Best Story" by the magazine's readers after its first appearance in 1932.

The Review

            The Worms of the Earth comic has an interesting mixture of qualities. The comic book contains a reprint of an old black and white comics story that has been colorized, two interviews, two essays, and a few unusual comic book type renditions of scenes from Robert E. Howard's actual life. As a whole, it's a mishmash, potpourri of enticing tidbits whose flavor, however, isn't always as savory as they look. Although the comic book is an improvement over what Cross Plains Comics has done in the past, there are still some flaws… as well as successes. Let's examine a few…

            The cover is strikingly well done! It exudes a feeing of both class and classic without giving it an air of being obsolete. It's a great cover. Perhaps the most impressive quality about the cover is the thought that went into the design. The only name on the cover is "Robert E. Howard." No other artists, no other writers. All the credit is given to Howard. This is eminently appropriate because, as a tribute to Robert E. Howard, no other name should appear on the cover. After all, without Howard this book, the art within, and all of the articles would not exist. The second interesting thing about the cover is the description that appears at the bottom. Only  a few die-hard Howard fans would notice, but the description is cribbed exactly, word for word, from the editor's description of the story found in Table of Contents of the original Weird Tales magazine! What a great idea! Imagine the amount of research, thought and concern that went into this cover. It's staggering to imagine and very appreciated.

            The contents page is no less thoughtful. Finally! Someone has credited an adaptation correctly! Instead of doing what most sloppy comic books have done in the past, this book does not credit Roy Thomas as the "writer" but rather as the person who adapted the story. The writer of "Worms of the Earth" is, has, and always will be Robert E. Howard. Thomas didn't write the story, he merely adapted it. The fact that Howard's name has been usurped and placed in a position of inferiority so often by would-be editors, adaptors, and posthumous collaborators can be looked upon as nothing less than a black mark against the entertainment industry. This comic book, at least, tries to set things right.

            In the comic book industry, where artists' rights are tread upon daily, this book also sets itself apart with a copyright statement that is a breath of fresh air. Wandering Star and Jim Keegan award all of the copyrights to their respective authors and creators, retaining no rights what-so-ever. In a previous interview with Cross Plains Comics, managing editor Richard Ashford stated that it was impossible for Cross Plains Comics to allow their artists and writers to retain the copyrights. How, then, were the copyrights in "Worms of the Earth" retained by the artists and authors? This disparity should come as no surprise to those who have been following the difference between what Cross Plains Comics says and what it does, and is yet another red nail in CPC's coffin. 


The Story

Art by Tim Conrad and Barry Windsor-Smith
Story by Robert E. Howard
Adapted by Roy Thomas
Colors by George Freeman and Laurie E. Smith

            Even though this story is a reprint, I thought I ought to make a few comments since it is a major part of this book. Unfortunately, there is no possibility for the writers or artists to take my suggestions and try to improve their work in the future, so I'll be rather brief in my analysis.

            First of all, the coloring of the artwork is stunning and brings the black and white inks alive with vitality. This is the only new addition to the piece, and Mr. Freeman and Ms. Smith should be very proud of their work. It is truly excellent. The only flaw in the coloring, and this may deal with the art design rather than the color, is that on what looks like the 9th panel of page 28, two or three blocks of words were mistakenly left in their original black ink and not inverted into white text. This, unfortunately, obscures two out of three text blocks, making them entirely unreadable. It is very fortunate that the lost text is not essential to the story, nor does its loss seem to hinder the tale's flow or drama. In fact, the first time I read the comic, I didn't even notice the mistake. Still, it is never-the-less an unfortunate error.

            The original story, as a whole, lost much of its potency in this comic book re-telling and is awkward and clumsy in more than a few parts. One of the most blatant examples of this is the conversation Bran Mak Morn has with a fenman on page 20. This specific scene does not take place in Howard's original story. The events shown here were originally written as a narrative prose from an omniscient point of view. Roy Thomas and Tim Conrad decided to take this narrative and convert it into dialogue. Unfortunately, the dialogue is stunted and comes off as a soliloquy from a coin operated, fortune telling gypsy machine. The fenman seems to answer questions that were never asked, and his words end up seeming disjointed and nonsensical. The sequence would have worked far better if a narrative, 3rd person approach, rather than 1st person dialogue, was used in this scene.

            Another inconsistency can be found on page 23, where the were-woman attempts to stab Bran Mak Morn, but her dagger is deflected by the armor concealed under his cloak. The blunder here is that the artist drew the hero without a cloak and yet the text was not edited to reflect the art (or visa versa). This is an example of very sloppy editing, more so because the error interrupts the flow of the story as the reader stops and wonders, "Where the heck is the cloak that the story mentioned?"

            The artwork in this adaptation ranges from mediocre to astonishingly excellent. I was surprised to read that the artist's (Tim Conrad's) favorite panel was in fact my favorite as well! The splash page titled "Curse of the Black Stone" (pgs. 18 & 19 ) is absolutely wonderful artwork and it speaks volumes about the artist's ability to capture mood and express sweeping drama. The colorists, too, did an admirable job in retaining the power of Conrad's artwork. This one page alone is worth buying this comic book. There are also many, many more excellent art panels contained herein, and if you are a comic art fan, I highly recommend you take a look at this book.

            Unfortunately, there are other concerns about the art that are rather troubling. I want to draw the reader's attention to page 13 of the comic book (and for additional panels, look at pages 21-panel 4, 27-panel 1, and 29-center panel, etc.). Not only does the artist draw Bran Mak Morn nude to convey a needlessly sensual mood, but he has the hero don an outfit that only a young woman would wear -- a chain mail tank-top and what looks like a bikini loin cloth with an odd string of silver balls hanging in front of his crotch… and this is what the hero wears for the entire last half of the comic book! A Freudian would have a field day psychoanalyzing the sexual symbolism in this artwork as a reflection of the artist's psyche. Tim Conrad mentions that he took some liberties with the way he portrayed Howard's characters, but really! This outfit makes the hero look like he's trying to win a beach bikini contest or the first prize in a flaming gay costume party! Add to this the fact that such apparel would be entirely inappropriate in the cold, windy environment of the British Isles, not to mention utterly useless in combat, and you have to ask yourself, "What the hell was Tim Conrad thinking when he drew this??" This depiction of Bran Mak Morn blatantly ignores Howard's description of his character, creates inconsistencies in the story, and actually does harm to the reputation of Howard and his work. If I didn't know any better, and if this comic book was my first exposure to Howard's work, I might conclude that Howard's literature, or at least his character Bran Mak Morn, was a flaming homosexual! This is deplorable. Not because it implies homosexuality, but because of how it misrepresents Howard's work. 

            As an aside, Conan Properties Inc. is no less a villain in this area of misrepresenting a character's image. The official, corporate image of Howard's Conan character is of a bare-chested, heavily muscled man wearing nothing but a fur loin cloth. First of all, Conan never, ever wore a fur loin cloth. Secondly, he does sometimes appear in loin cloth (i.e., underwear) when surprised or forced by circumstances, but for the bulk of the stories the character is fully dressed, and usually in full armor! Why this image of a mostly naked, fur diaper wearing barbarian has taken hold is a mystery. It certainly is not anything like Robert E. Howard's Conan -- but I digress…

            To conclude the story section of this comic book, even with the awkward language, the condensing and cutting of Howard's masterful prose, and the ridiculous wardrobe for the hero, the quality of the original story miraculously manages to show though. This adaptation is a step up from the typical Cross Plains Comics fare of poor or agonizingly mediocre comic book stories, and easily the best adaptation yet published by this company.

The Interviews

            The first interview featured in Worms of the Earth is with the primary artist, Tim Conrad, and was conducted by Steve Ringgenberg. At times, the article seems to spotlight the interviewer as much as the interviewee, but the piece is short (covering only two pages) and what little annoyance is felt by the lack of focus is quickly forgotten and supplanted by some interesting comments by Conrad. I would like to have read more, in fact. This interview is a worthwhile addition to the book.

            The second interview is much longer, covering eleven pages, and is a conversation focusing on artist Gary Gianni's work on the upcoming Wandering Star hardback, Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. It is better conducted and better written than the first interview, and Jim Keegan does an admirable job of guiding the conversation without dominating it. In fact, reading this interview gave me the impression of two men who know their subject eminently well, and who also have a camaraderie that oozes off of the page -- making the interview a real pleasure to read. 

            Gianni discusses his art and artistic obstacles he had to overcome when illustrating and painting the book, providing a rare glimpse into the making of an illustrated, soon-to-be collector's item. His comments are fascinating and thought provoking, raising interesting issues. One of these interesting issues has to do with a distinction Gianni makes between historical fiction and fantasy fiction in the context of Howard's work that has too long gone unchallenged. Gianni says on page 48, "Remember, Howard was writing fantasy fiction, even though it is somewhat grounded in historical fact." Howard did not write fantasy. He did not write about flighty fairies and elves. He did not write anything even remotely similar to Lord Dunsany's fairy tales, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories. What these people see as Howard's fantasy, is in fact historical adventure and speculative fiction. Period. Howard didn't create a brand new, make-believe world out of thin air like so many fantasy writers did, Howard took anthropological, sociological, historical, and mythological facts of his day and extrapolated what the world would have been like 12,000 years ago, or even 1,000 years ago. Howard had very few, if any, pseudonyms or imaginary words in his work because he meant for the words we use today to have been derived from an ancient, prehistoric time in the Earth's history. Further, he was a believer in the old maxim, "Myth has its basis in fact." Howard ran across myths of dragons -- and when we look at his work we find a story, “Red Nails,” featuring a dinosaur in a remote jungle who the natives call a "dragon." The dinosaur is gigantic, lumbering, and eminently real. No fire spewing out of its mouth. No wings. A realistic representation of a giant lizard just as our fossils of dinosaurs indicate. Howard often featured ghosts, demons, or even witchery in his stories, but do we not still have these things or people who believe in these things to this day? In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated May, 21, 1934 Howard says:

… we know so little about the universe, even the wisest of us. I've often wondered if, in the legends and myths of the ancients that have come down to us through the ages, there does not exist a foundation of truth, twisted and distorted beyond recognition.

     Suppose that at some immeasurably distant time a real civilization existed, whose builders were possessed of infinitely greater knowledge than ourselves. If some cataclysm of nature were to destroy that civilization, remnants of knowledge and stories of its greatness might well evolve into the fantastic fables that have descended to us. We know how distorted a fact can become, even when passed through the mouths of a generation of fairly well educated people; how much more, then, must truths be twisted into myths at the hands of savages and barbarians through the ages. Sometimes it seems to me that there might be a blind spot in our conception of history and pre‑history ‑ a whole undiscovered continent of facts, lying beyond our horizon; a vast, forgotten reservoir of knowledge, of which our modern sciences are but seepings, trickles from the greater store. I do not, of course, even put this forward as a supposition, but merely as a thought. 

           Yet Howard did put this idea forward as much more than a thought in his stories. Further, Howard never forgot that he was weaving a story, a story that might have been altered over the millennia to include supernatural events, but he also never forgot that his world and his stories were grounded in hard reality. For example, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated July 23, 1935 REH states:

It may sound fantastic to link the word "realism" with Conan: but as a matter of fact -- his supernatural adventures aside -- he is the most realistic character I have ever evolved. 

            Perhaps I'm being overly concerned with semantics since what Gianni says in the next paragraph makes perfect sense, but I have too often witnessed the entertainment community do untold damage to Howard's work using the rationalization that Howard wrote "fantasy," and therefore they have no responsibility to adapt Howard's fiction so that it makes sense -- either that or they take absurd liberties with Howard's work thinking that it was really "out there" in fantasyland. These artists and producers take their childish notions of fantasy and apply it to Howard's work without the slightest bit of research or idea of what Howard's literature is all about. Speculative fiction is based on reality, on hard facts, on history and actual knowledge of sociological and geological phenomena such as racial migration and continental drift. Howard was keenly interested in these topics, among many others, and was extremely well read. His fiction was not grounded in ethereal imagination, but rather was grounded in harsh reality and in history -- even if he included a supernatural or mythological element. The reality of the setting always took precedence over any fantasy or flighty elements in his stories. Even if the plot of the story revolved around a supernatural event or element, the setting, the characters, and their reactions would be designed to be completely realistic given their unusual situation. The speculation and extrapolations in Howard's fiction were always intended to be as historically and culturally realistic as possible.

            Another point Gary Gianni makes in the interview is regarding how he decided not to draw a creature that was featured in "Worms of the Earth," but rather to leave the description of the creature to the readers' imagination as Howard did in his tale. In a side note, Gianni mentions that actually drawing the creature would be a "cheap shot" and the kind of low brow, "typical sword and sorcery fantasy that everybody expects." I greatly appreciated this sentiment, and I whole-heartedly agree! Mystery and suspense are very important to maintain in a story as haunting as "Worms of the Earth."

The Essays

            I have surprisingly little to say about the essays included in Worms of the Earth. Fred Blosser's longer-than-it-needed-to-be essay, "Bran Mak Morn… Destroyer," is a retrospective look at Bran Mak Morn in the comics and an exploration and analysis of the Worms of the Earth adaptation. I was a little perplexed by one of Blosser's comments that Atla, the were-woman, had a "slatternly allure" in the story. Howard describes her dressed in tattered, dirty clothes, her skin was blotched and spotted in different shades, her eyes were yellow, and her teeth were filed to points. The idea that she is at all sensuous or attractive is ridiculous, as Howard writes later in the story that all human attributes fall away from her like a cloak in the night, and that Bran felt an involuntary shudder of revulsion as he touched her. She doesn't sound too appealing -- but some would quibble.

            Advocates of the were-woman's sex appeal point out certain adjectives that Howard used to describe her body, such as: "lithe," "supple," "sleek," and the fact that she had "red lips." Although these are words commonly used in romance fiction to describe femme fatales, in this story these words are used not to depict how attractive the were-woman was, but rather how snake-like and reptilian she was. Looking at the lines in question we find a definite link between Atla and the reptilian world: "lithe, almost serpentine motions," "supple twist of her whole body," "glided beside the king," and "her sinuous body swaying in a serpentine manner." Also remember Atla is only half human. Still, if pressed I'll concede the point. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and what is one man's half human, hideous abomination of nature is apparently another man's flower of beauty.

             I can't argue with Blosser's assertion that there is a "sexual current," but only for the obvious reason that Atla lusted after the king throughout the whole scene, and the couple did engage in sexual intercourse as a condition of a dark pact they struck.

            I also took some exception to Blosser's comment that Tim Conrad's depiction of the worms of the Earth (the subterranean creatures) satisfied Howard's scanty description of the creatures. A species or race of creatures that carved steps too small for human feet and who "slithered up and down this slanting shaft" sound more reptilian than bipedal or human. Conrad's version depicted a humanoid race of troglodytes that seem to have more in kin with H.G. Wells' Morlocks from the film, The Time Machine, than what Howard suggested. Still, I agree with Blosser's point that Conrad revealed the Worms too soon and in turn somewhat diluted Howard's carefully constructed mood of suspense and fear of the unknown. After all, what is not seen but imagined is almost always more frightful than something that is visible to the eye.

            Rusty Burke's "Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts" is standard Burke fare… a piece that is cooked until "well done." The essay starts off rather slow and pondering, but the tempo increases after each page until the essay ends and the reader is left wanting more, more, more! The article was well written and includes many fascinating details. I particularly liked the way Burke illuminated how the mysterious Picts were a central fixture in Howard's fiction, spanning from his prehistorical tales to his modern stories. A very enjoyable read.

The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob

            This was an unexpected bonus to the comic book. Included are three different short comic strips that illustrate three different, and unrelated events in Robert E. Howard's life. The strips were created by Ruth and Jim Keegan. For the uninitiated, "Two-Gun Bob" is a nickname for Howard that he and his friends used from time to time.

            Each strip is drawn in a style of comic strips that I'd characterize (probably incorrectly) as a style of the 1940's or 1950's. There's no flashy color, no dramatic poses, no superheroic pizzazz, and not a lot of detail. This doesn't make it bad, only very odd for the comics fan of today who is used to more modern commercial comic art. The strips are colored in a kind of light sepia, probably an attempt to give the strips a sense of being aged and from the distant past. Although I sympathize with the thought behind this, the color doesn't really have the desired effect and the comic strips would do just as well if printed in black and white.

              The selection of these particular events is interesting, and exposes the Keegans' familiarity with issues surrounding Robert E. Howard studies, and the misinformation about Howard that unfortunately has been common knowledge ever since the publication of L. Sprague de Camp's flawed, psycho-babbling REH biography, Dark Valley Destiny.  The first strip attacks, head on, the fiction that Howard was "crazy," and further, that he wanted to be viewed as crazy by his neighbors. This scene shows that Howard was as normal as the rest of us, or if nothing else, full of complex contradictions as all real human beings are.

            The second strip depicts a conversation that Howard and girlfriend Novalyne Price-Ellis had while on a drive, and illustrates yet another scholarly point that Howard may very well been joking or embellishing in many of his letters when he wrote of events and opinions. This point reflects an ongoing debate among Howard scholars about the relative veracity of certain comments in Howard's letters. Alternately, the strip could be illustrating the mere fact that Howard had a wry sense of humor.

            The third comic strip deals with a philosophical position that Howard advocated from time to time, namely, that it was better to die young than to suffer a lingering and pitiful death in old age. The stark light and dark contrast in this strip is symbolic of Howard's life. In the last panel, all the reader sees is a silhouette of Howard against a lit window pane -- implying how tenuous and delicate life is… as easy to snuff out as turning off a light switch.

             As a Howard fan, I appreciated the content and the effort Ruth and Jim Keegan have gone to in order to create these comic strips. They are meticulously researched and crafted, with the utmost attention to historical detail. However, I'm not sure how well they work as entertainment. Perhaps their greatest failure is the fact that these comic strips are not stories. They are instead isolated and fragmentary scenes cut from the life of a literary figure. They have no beginning, middle, or end. There is no development of characters, nor is there a series of events that flow to a climax. The comic strips are mere fractions of a story. Imagine walking into a movie theater halfway through the movie, staying to watch for 5 minutes, and then leaving. Would you enjoy the movie? Would you even understand what you saw? You might have seen something that was interesting or eye catching, but do you really walk away from the theater with anything? This brings me to my second point, the strips are far too short for these pieces of art to be considered entertainment, certainly not mass entertainment. The reader needs more time to orient to the new subject matter, to become comfortable with the new material so that he can settle in and enjoy the story. What I would like to see is a longer event from Howard's life that could be used as or structured as a short story. In order to do this, some narration or other linking literary devices may be necessary, and perhaps some liberties would need to be taken, but I believe it could be done while maintaining historical authenticity while at the same time delivering a stirring story. As long as I'm offering a wish list, I would also like to see one of these comic strips in full color just to see the effect.

               Having said all of this, I did enjoy these Adventures of Two-gun Bob and am very glad they were included in this comic book. They have a lot of potential.

 Art Design

            I am, of course, no expert on art, design, or layout. However, I know what I like, and I like this! Every page in this comic book is exquisitely executed. Just a really fine job! What really pushes the art design over the top is the attention to detail and the depth of research used to put this book together. Included as mere trappings littered throughout the book are photographs of rare pulp magazines from the 1930's. Not just the covers, but page shots as well. There are numerous photographs of the various editions of the Bran Mak Morn paperbacks, artwork from books relating to the subjects being discussed, examples of artwork from the upcoming Wandering Star Bran Mak Morn book, touched up text boxes offset and consisting of different colors, different textured backgrounds and borders, photographs of raw sketches, roughs, rare photographs of Robert E. Howard, photographs of rare books and ephemera, the Robert E. Howard museum, and the list just goes on and on. Simply put, as an example of a comic book whose purpose is to exalt the classic author Robert E. Howard, this book's look and content is stunning. Mr. Keegan has really outdone himself.

          In conclusion, if you are a Robert E. Howard fan and a comics fan, this book is for you! There is room for improvement, but without doubt, this is the best thing yet published by Cross Plains Comics; and its success is most certainly due to the extraordinary efforts of Jim Keegan and Wandering Star. Skoal!

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