The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi

Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.

Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.

Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.

Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.

Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.

The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).

In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.

By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.

Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.

It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.

The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.

So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.

King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.

If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.

When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.

The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.

If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.

Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.

The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.

Buona lettura cimmeri!

This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.

Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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“Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Tommaso Campanini

Una chioma simile la faceva sembrare una principessa orientale dipinta da Aubrey Beardsley; quando li sciogleva le arrivavano sotto le ginocchia e brillavano come se possedessero una vitalita propria.

Chiunque avrebbe pensato sen’zaltro a Medusa o a Berenice…
The Miskatonic Diaries: Nelle Spire di Medusa e altre storie 25

Such hair made her look like an oriental princess painted by Aubrey Beardsley; when she melted them she reached under her knees and shone as if they possessed a vitality of her own.

Anyone would have thought of Medusa or Berenice without any doubt …
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

There have been many graphic adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s work; adaptations of his revision tales are scarce, and it very unusual to run into two that cover the same story. However, there are two adaptations of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft“Medusa’s Curse” (1995) by Sakura Mizuki (桜 水樹氏) and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi (writing) & Tommaso Campanini (art), which is the title story to The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1—and it is interesting and informative to compare the two adaptations to each other, as well as to the source material.

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First story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

The title, to start with, is interesting: most Italian translations of “Medusa’s Coil” are titled simply “Medusa,” but the earliest translation listed in H. P. Lovcraft A Comprehensive Bibliography is “Nelle spire di Medusa” in a 1976 collection of the same name. The story itself hews closer to Lovecraft’s text than “Medusa’s Curse”: the setting is once more in the United States, in the early 20th century, and the main characters are Denis de Russy, his father, Frank Marsh, Marceline Bedard, and the nameless narrator. The character of Sophonisba, and all the other servants white and black, are absent. This is not to say that the adaption completely ditches the background of the original story:

C’era stata un’epoca in cui le capanne che sorgevano nella parte posteriore della proprieta—su un tratto pianeggiante ora sommerso dal fiume—avevnao ospitato fino a duecento schievi negri; sentirili cantare, ridere e suonare il banjo di notte equivaleva a cogliere il fascino di una civilta e un ordine sociale purtroppo estinti.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (25)

There was a time when the huts that stood at the rear of the property—on a flat stretch now submerged by the river—had hosted up to two hundred black slaves; hearing them sing, laugh and play the banjo at night was tantamount to grasping the charm of an unfortunately extinct civilization and social order.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Yet here there are some differences from the original story as well. Whether this was an issue with the translation or a deliberate twist by Massimo Rosi isn’t clear, but the character of Denis de Russy is given a little quirk:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “Medusa’s Coil”

Un giovanotto romantico ribelle, pieno di sentimenti che probabilmente lei definirebbe antiquati. E le assicuro che non era facile tenerlo lontano dalle ragazze negre!
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

A rebellious romantic young man, full of feelings you would probably call antiquated. And I assure you it wasn’t easy to keep him away from black girls!
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

While it is an inversion of Lovecraft’s original text, this formulation adds a bit of foreshadowing to later developments in the story.

As with “Medusa’s Curse,” the graphic adaptation greatly compresses and somewhat linearizes the original narrative; we never see the unnamed narrator arrive, by the time the story starts he is in the house with the elder de Russy, who is telling their story. The contours of the narrative, as with “Medusa’s Curse,” follow the general outlines of a romantic tragedy, right up until the point of the murder.

As in the original story, Marceline hardly gets any speaking lines. In “Nelle spire di Medusa” however, what she says has more portent than the dialogue Lovecraft gave her:

Voi tutti dovreste stare molto attenti se cantassi le vecchie preghiere o cercassi di evocare ciò che dorme a Yuggoth, Zimbabwe e R’lyeh. Ti facevo più prudente.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

You all should be very careful if you chant the old prayers or try to evoke what sleeps in Yuggoth, Zimbabwe and R’lyeh. I used to make you more cautious.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Marceline Bedard in this story is more fully involved with the Cthulhu Mythos, or at least more openly conversant; while she doesn’t quite take Soniphisba’s place in ranting about “Marse Clooloo” and invoking Shub-Niggurath, there the Mythos element is more prominent, especially with the more compact narrative.

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Sixteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

We never see the first two murders, not in the original story and not in the two adaptations. That lends an almost Gothic atmosphere as the elder de Russy has to follow the bloody trail back to Denis, and provides some great visuals…and it’s also where the story transitions from the romantic-tragedy to something weirder, where the hints of the supernatural cult background become shockingly, terribly real.

Which leads to the inevitable reveal…or, perhaps more accurately, the confirmation of what the readers already know, or have guessed. That the painting, as in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” will be the mirror that reveals the truth about Marceline. In the original narrative, Lovecraft had this final confirmation placed at the very end of the story, and used it as a sort of double revelation as to both the truth of Marceline’s supernatural affiliations and, almost as an afterthought, her “passing” as white. As with “Medusa’s Curse,” Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini move the reveal of the painting forward, so that the subsequent events flow naturally without requiring a flashback or other device to show what the painting looked like before its destruction.

Appena ho visto il quadro ho capito ciò che era e il suo ruolo nei tremendi segreti che si tramandano dai giorni di Cthulhu e dei Grandi Antichi…

Segreti che furono quasi cancellati dalla terra quanto Atlantide sprofondò tra le onde, ma che continuano a serpeggiare in certe tradizioni nascoste, in certi miti e riti esclusivi che si celebrano nel cuore della notte.

Vedi, non era una ciarlatana: sarei stato contento che lo fosse, invece era proprio quello che diceva.

Era l’antica, orribile ombra a cui i filosofi non hanno mai osato dare un nome… l’essere di cui il Necronomicon fa solo cenno, ed e simboleggiato dai colossi dell’isola di pasqua.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (44)

As soon as I saw the painting I understood what it was and the role of him in the terrible secrets that have been handed down from the days of Cthulhu and the Great Ancients …

Secrets that were almost erased from the earth when Atlantis sank in the waves, but which continue to meander in certain hidden traditions, in certain myths and exclusive rituals that are celebrated in the dead of night.

See, she wasn’t a charlatan: I would have been glad she was, but that was just what she said.

She was the ancient, horrible shadow to which philosophers have never dared to give a name … the being of which the Necronomicon only mentions, and is symbolized by the colossi of Easter Island.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

“Medusa’s Curse” side-stepped the racial reveal by eliminating the “passing” subplot of the story completely; “Nelle Spire di Medusa” chooses to address it by making it purely visual. Marceline’s race is never mentioned once in the text, and she is continually depicted as being light-skinned and with straight hair. If the reader goes back through the story and examines her features closely, they might find facial features which are ambiguous…but there is no shading that differentiates her from the rest of the characters. She basically does pass as white, even in death, except in the painting itself where she is deliberately shaded darker, with frizzier hair, and in the close-ups more pronounced features…but this aspect is never given any textual relevance.

It is a device that can only rally work in a graphic medium: it puts the onus of the issue of race on the reader as to how to interpret the painting, and thus how to interpret Marceline Bedard. Technically accurate to Lovecraft’s original, yet a new interpretation that presents a degree of ambiguity as to where the true horror in the story lies.

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Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

There is a bit of action in the ending, as the elder de Russy’s narrative draws to its close, the supernatural vengeance is culminated, Riverside house meets its “Fall of the House of Usher”-esque demise, and we are left with the disquieting ending where the narrator wonders at what ghostly events had replayed themselves…both “Medusa’s Curse” and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” play out these last few story beats fairly faithfully.

There’s no reason not to. It sounds weird when talking about one of Lovecraft’s least-loved stories, but once an adaptor resolves the question of how to handle the Marceline Bedard’s portrait (and all the issues bound up in that), the remaining narrative structure is cobbled together from bits and pieces that are almost too familiar: young woman marries into a family, big isolated house in the country, a friend arrives to set up the love triangle, a bloody double murder resolves the love triangle, a supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave, the house burns down, it was all a dream…or was it?

These are all very familiar story elements for anyone that’s ready a good chunk of weird fiction or Gothic fiction; they’re not all usually mixed together, but you can see the prototype of this kind of story in, for example, Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from The King in Yellow (1895). The use of the Cthulhu Mythos and the revelation that Marceline Bedard is “passing” as white are novel to the story, but they also really don’t mesh well, and the slightly convoluted narrative structure that Lovecraft used to express the ideas unnecessarily conjoins those two plot threads, which is what makes the revelation of Marceline’s portrait both so memorable and so terrible: the one-drop rule is put on the same tier as some of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.

So if you just look at the story without that racial element, the rest of the story structure tends to fall into place fairly easily. Subtraction is the route that “Medusa’s Curse” took“Nelle Spire di Medusa,” however, goes for intimation. The story is technically very faithful to the original text, but it does so in a way that refuses to spell out the racial prejudice that underlay the original story prompt by Zealia Bishop. Whether or not that is enough is a question for the reader…and there are other questions readers might ask themselves:

Would it have been better if Marceline’s skin had not been shaded in? Will every reader of every adaptation of “Medusa’s Coil” go into the story looking for hints to her race? Would they have if they didn’t know that was the revelation all along?

You can read a Mythos story more than once, but you can only really experience that culminating confirmation, the ripping-the-band-aid-off sensation, the first time. Once you know what there is to know about “Medusa’s Coil,” there is little “shock” value left…it is only a question of the skill of the writers and artists that do the adaptation, and how they choose to handle the subject matter.

Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini both do a more than adequate job on all the technical aspects of this adaptation: the narrative is relatively faithful, the pacing is right despite the front-loading of exposition and the relative death of action that are hallmarks of Lovecraft stories, and Rosi makes some clean cuts and welcome additions that tighten the narrative. Campanini’s art, in clean black-and-white except for the shaded segements of the portrait itself, are very pleasing; you can tell he put a lot of thought into the framing and layout, with a real preference for floating panels set above and in front of a larger illustraton which makes the reader sit back a little and take it all in. If I had to voice a criticism, it’s that Marceline’s hairlength is depicted inconsistenantly…it looks very short in many shots before her death…but chalk that one up to artistic license.

Tommaso Campanini uploaded the raw, textless art for “Nelle Spire di Medusa” to their DeviantArt gallery.

The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1: Nelle Spire di Medusa et altre storie (2019, Weird Books) is available on Amazon Kindle; the hardcopy graphic anthology does exist, but is a little harder to get in the United States. 


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

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