I’ve always liked Solomon Kane better than Conan. There. I said it. Not that I don’t enjoy a well-written Conan yarn, but for the most part he’s just Robert E. Howard’s argument that “barbarism triumphs over civilized means” made flesh. Kane develops as a character. He starts out fighting against all the dark, supernatural elements of the world, but after a while realizes that not all sorcery is evil—the African shaman N’Longa proves to be one of his strongest allies, and a recurring character to boot. Given that Howard himself was pretty racist, living in the politically incorrect ’30s, that’s a pretty big step. Plus, Kane was the only Puritan who buckled some serious swash, packing a rapier and a brace of pistols.
When Dark Horse Comics began a new series of Conan comics in 2004, it was only a matter of time before Solomon Kane got the same graphic novel treatment. Kane had plenty of graphic appearances in the ’70s and ’80s, but has always been a successful second-stringer. And lo, in 2008-2009, Dark Horse ran a five-issue Kane story-arc called The Castle of the Devil.
The tale is based off one of Howard’s unfinished story fragments of the same name, totaling four pages in my Del Rey collected edition. Kane meets an Englishman with the badass name John Silent while walking through Germany’s Black Forest; Silent is put off by Kane’s stoic Puritan purity, but doesn’t have a real outburst until Kane reveals he’s pulled a dying child off of a local noble’s gallows. The local baron is feared by his peasants for miles around, who call his residence the Castle of the Devil. Kane, of course, wants to go meet this guy who thinks it’s okay to kill children. The graphic adds a scene before this, and finishes off the tale with some neat new twists: the castle is built on the foundation of a ruined abbey, and we have an overly-intelligent wolf, the lineage of a devil-worshiping priest, and the mysterious Baron to deal with.
The presentation is the same top-notch design Dark Horse brought to the Conan series. Colors are done by the same guy, Dave Stewart; here, his lush colors are infused with the Teutonic grimness of its Black Forest setting, the muted pallor of Autumn instead of the bloody mythic finery of Conan. Artist Mario Guevara brings a different and unique style to the franchise. His style is… sketchy and wavey; lots of lines without realistic details, yet very detailed in an abtuse way. I’d rate it around average, though many of Guevara’s elements are perfect for the dark, grim atmosphere. Maybe it’ll grow on me. There are a number of panels I love, and a few that look wrong to me—the style is a bit too exaggerated and ambiguous. But I could be alone on that front. Everything tends to blur together in a milky haze from the pencils and the subdued inks; it’s full of haunting imagery, but can be a muddled mess from Guevara’s line-y style.
Writing is by Scott Allie, and it’s within his transformation from fragment to full-length tale that the story succeeds and fails. Kane’s drive to talk to the Baron peters out, and the story meanders for several issues while Kane ponders the man’s virtue. He does precious little investigating; most things happen because John Silent takes a gamble on hanging out with the Baron’s pretty wife, and gets caught by the Baron’s henchmen. The moody atmosphere is perfect, but it takes a while before things start happening—like several others noted, I’m glad I waited for the trade paperback instead of buying individual issues, because the first few aren’t that interesting. Things heat up when Allie adds in new elements, leaving the book very end-loaded: it doesn’t have much meat, but it has a great climax.
The trade paperback’s got a HUGE art section at the back. The individual issue covers are mostly there—one of them’s up at the front—and we have an impressive selection of sketches. A lot of character design which showcases Geuvara transforming Kane from a buff Conan figure to a sleeker, more wolf-like protagonist; a page of weapon designs deemed a bit too “unrealistic” (a surprise to me, since the “realistic” pistols look weird as hell); and two fascinating pages which sketche the castle’s evolution. At the end, we have a short story called “The Nightcomers,” one of those proof-of-concept little ditties that shows all the artists and writers can work together. It’s short but succinct, filled with plenty of blood and Weird Tales supernatural phenomenon in its eight pages. I think its art is better than in the longer work.
So, a good selection of extras on-par with Dark Horse’s other trade collections; a lot of comic publishers include just a cover gallery in their trades, but Dark Horse offers a tad more.
The Bottom Line
I have some mixed feelings about the story arc, if you can’t tell. The story is a bit flimsy and unpolished, based off one of Howard’s weak fragments instead of a full tale. What Scott Allie did to make it into a complete story was laden with good ideas, but it’s missing that spark of intensity or feeling that would make it outstanding. My reaction to the art is mixed; it’s well done but not my cup of tea. In many ways it’s a good read with beautiful presentation, but it left me—a hardcore Kane fan—underwhelmed. The Castle of the Devil is middle-of-the road average, and somewhat forgettable. And I just can’t put my finger on why, since its individual pieces are top notch: dripping with atmosphere, badass action sequences, the monstrous adversaries are horrific, and the setting is brilliant. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Dark Horse’s Conan fare, which burst out on the scene fully-polished and intense; by contrast Castle of the Devil is a good read, but not the sheer greatness of Dark Horse’s first few Conan trades.