I’ve always felt that comics and sword and sorcery have had an uneasy relationship, in much the same way that sword and sorcery is often difficult to translate successfully on the screen. There is something about the (sub) genre that, for me, is best expressed in the written word or, perhaps, because only the superficial aspects of s & s make their way onto the screen or onto the comic book page.
This is not to say that there have not been notable successes – Roy Thomas’ lengthy run on Marvel’s Conan or his work on Red Sonja springs to mind, Estaban Maroto’s often surreal adventures of Dax the Warrior (aka Dax the Damned), Mike Mignola’s adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories or the short lived Sword of Sorcery by Denny O’Neill and Howard Chakyin which also dealt with Leiber’s loveable rogues Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser – but, in general, I think that once you’ve seen one muscle-bound barbarian you’ve seen ’em all (step forward Claw the Unconquered, Dagar the Invincible, Wulf and the Death Dealer). Adaptations of well loved texts and characters often suffer badly – Elric has appeared in comic form from a number of publishers, as indeed have other Moorcock characters such as Hawkmoon and Corum but with limited success, similarly Kull and Solomon Kane and Almuric from the Robert E. Howard stable have rarely been treated well.
However, in every medium there are exceptions to the rule, and one notable exception is Conquering Armies by Jean-Claude Gal and Jean-Pierre Dionett which first appeared in Metal Hurlant/ Heavy Metal in the 1970’s. Intelligently written and beautifully drawn, Conquering Armies is a short collection of tales about the titular force that, like Dax the Damned have a distinctly European feel about them (hardly surprising since Gal and Dionett are French and Maroto is Spanish) and are less concerned with the superficial aspects of sword and sorcery and more to do with the psychology of the characters and their world.
In fact, there is much in Conquering Armies that goes unexplained – like the classical definition of a fanatic (one who redoubled his effort when he has forgotten his aim) the exact purpose and raison d’être of the armies is never fully explored, for them it is enough to fight and to conquer. But, then again, these are not ‘military’ stories in the accepted sense – in one story the army is defeated, not by a rival force, but by a city they have taken without a drop of blood being spilled, in another we see the army itself on a long, hungry, retreat, a third sees common soldiers turn upon their own commander at the very thought of plague. Often relentlessly downbeat (something, perhaps, to do with the European psyche), these are often stories about the cost of victory rather than the victory itself, where symbolism is equally as important as narrative.
Above, all Conquering Armies is a visual treat and Gal’s artwork is often stunning – intricate and detailed eschewing muscular heroes in the same way that Dionett’s writing avoids overt stereotypes – and is far removed from both American and British comics of the time.