Saturday, April 20, 2013

Nostalgia Review: Conqueror Of The Barren Earth 1

As mentioned in my introductory post, throughout the course of the series of The Barren Earth backup stories running in the pages of The Warlord, we saw the progression of our protagonist, Jinal Ne’ Commar, from civilized, genteel intellectual to shrewd, desert warrior as she adapted to the harsh circumstances of her new life on Earth.
By way of comparison, consider this image of Jinal from shortly after her arrival on the Barren Earth…

jinal_early
So fragile!

…to this, from the last page of the final backup story, which led directly into the mini-series we’ll be focusing on:

jinal_later
So fierce!  (Not my scan, by the way)

As she speaks of conquering the entire godforsaken world here, at this stage in her life, we believe that she is up to the task in a way that we never would have if those words had been spoken by the Jinal who was lost and alone in the desert.
In part, we believe that – if we read the backup stories – because we’ve seen what she’s been through and what she’s been able to accomplish.
However, much of that belief is inspired by the artwork.  While both pages clearly depict the same woman, there are subtle changes that indicate that she is not the same woman at all.  The latter depiction lacks the softness of the former, showing a woman who is not afraid and confused, but rather one who is determined, and perhaps slightly unhinged – an idea supported by the expressions of concern on the faces of her companions – and even the blue of her uniform is a darker, deeper shade.
As I said, it’s not my intention to delve into the backup stories, but I did want to at least include this much to give you some idea of the kind of changes that life in this harsh and unforgiving world have forced Jinal to undergo and where she stands as we take a look at the first issue of the mini-series, which has a cover date of February, 1985.

836213
I kind of want Jinal to refer to people as "primitive screwheads."

Conqueror of the Barren Earth, “The Ravager!”
Written by Gay Cohn
Art and Cover by Ron Randall
Edited by Ross Andru


We open not in the blistering heat of the desert planet that Earth has become, but rather in the cold depths of space as a small craft comes to the end of its long journey.  The flight recorder from the ship “Renewal,” the doomed vessel that brought Jinal to Earth, followed its preprogrammed path back to its point of origin after the destruction of the ship, reporting on the last known position and status of “Renewal” to the leaders of the humans who left Earth behind millennia ago.
We meet a woman named Admiral Rizek, who reports the details of the flight recorder’s information to the Senate, proving them – and us – a recap of the events that kicked off the backup stories.
In the course of this expository monologue we learn that Jinal was the protégée of the Admiral, who reminds the Senate that the loss of so promising a young cadet would be “a tragedy for the Confederation.”  Sure, for the “Confederation.”  It seems clear, particularly when we find the Admiral left alone with her own thoughts, that Jinal has rather more significance to the Admiral than just being a favored former student.  We’ll get into that a little more in a bit, but the more significant aspect of this part of the narrative is that the Admiral states that now more than ever it’s important that they follow through with their plan to recover Earth, as there is the danger of Earth falling into the hands of the Qlov.  She recommends that a second mission be attempted, this time under her personal command.
When we return to the Barren Earth, we find Jinal and her companions, Skinner, Renna, Yisrah, and the reptilian Barasha and his mate Lur, caught in a frigid sandstorm and seeking shelter in a cave.
While Skinner and Barasha head back out in search of dinner, Jinal discusses her dismay at the refusal of the Old Ones to offer their assistance with Yisrah, who suggests that perhaps the Old Ones had their reasons and that it’s possible that Jinal’s people have misjudged the Qlov.  Jinal reacts to this angrily, as her people have been at war with the Qlov for more than 3,000 years.
”Believe me, Yisrah – after fighting so long we’d be glad to negotiate!  But all the Qlov understand is death!”
Yisrah defers to her judgment in the most passive-aggressive way possible, and excuses himself to attend to his equipment, leaving Jinal alone with Renna.
Renna points out to Jinal just how difficult it will be for Jinal to unite the world, pointing out that life on the Barren Earth is hard, and that it’s even harder for women.
The discussion turns to the topic of Skinner, and the rivalry between the two over his affections – which, to be honest, was largely one-sided, as Jinal never really seemed all that interested in Skinner – and Renna concludes that there’s been too much that’s happened for them to give in to jealousy.

In my reviews of Amethyst I wrote about some of the possible subtext in the relationship between Amethyst and Turquoise.  I don’t think that was something I picked up on back when I originally read the comics as a kid, but was instead something I saw as I read it as an adult with a more jaundiced view.
Maybe that subtext was just more blatant here, or maybe it was because I was a little bit older when I read this than I was when I read Amethyst, or maybe it was some combination of the two, but even when I was twelve I picked up the subtext in the scenes featuring the Admiral wistfully wondering about the fate of “dear Jinal,” and particularly in this scene:

sisters
Almost like the set-up for a Betty and Veronica fan-fic.

Looking back, regardless of how blatant it was – it’s not so much subtext as text – I’m surprised that I picked up on it, because while I may have been precocious in many regards, I was, until I got into my later teens, more than a little clueless about this sort of thing.
Of course, even with that it was still a bit confusing, and more complex than it might seem at first.  The impression I always got was that Renna was suggesting some sort of polyamorous relationship with the two of them and Skinner, though even that would be more complex, given Renna’s connection to – and affection for – Chairman Mangle, about whom we’ll see more in just a bit.  Then you factor in whatever it is that was going on with Admiral Rizek…
Regardless, it was all very confusing for a hormone-addled twelve-year-old from the rural Midwest.
We don’t really get to see where this scene is headed, as they are interrupted by Skinner and Barasha returning from a successful hunt.
The next day finds them all making their way back to Arq, where Jinal plans to begin her conquest by teaching the people how to rebuild their lost technology, and with the access to the underground ocean of fresh water, Arq makes an ideal powerbase from which to expand outward.
Along the way they are attacked by marauders, and while Jinal is inclined to talk things out with them, they aren’t really in a mood to have a conversation.
The battle doesn’t last long, and while Jinal inwardly recoils at the constant violence of life on this world there is a disconnect between thought and action as she mercilessly slashes and blasts her opponents.
The odd thing about the marauders is that they were riding a type of giant lizard known as Slizeks, which normally cannot be tamed in the same fashion as the types of lizards that Jinal and crew ride.  They don’t really pause to think about it overlong, however, ultimately continuing on to Arq.
When Skinner first brought Jinal to Arq so long before, he had expected her to be overwhelmed by the dazzling sight of the “magnificent” city.  Instead, Jinal was heartbroken upon seeing the squalid remains of a dilapidated relic of a once-glorious past.  This time it's Skinner who is heartbroken as they find the city is little more than a burned-out husk, having clearly suffered some sort of siege.
Skinner initially suspects a betrayal on the part of the Harahashan, but Barasha cautions him to not quickly cast aside an uneasy alliance that was so difficult to forge, pointing to fields of crucified bodies.  “Harahashan do not do that!”
As they survey the carnage, they find that dead Slizeks and realize that the city was overrun by the same people they had just fought against.  They find a survivor who, with his last breath, tells them to meet with Chairman Mangle at the waterworks.
Departing from the city, they turn back to see a single name written in blood on the outer wall:  Zhengla.
Skinner vows to paint that name in blood on Zhengla’s tombstone.
Once they arrive at the waterworks they find a vast army preparing an assault on the assembled defenders.  Jinal and crew manage to break through the rear of the assembled army and join their people within the fortified area near the reservoir.
Meeting up with Chairman Mangle, they’re informed that he’s sent most of the survivors down into the depths of the caverns of the underground ocean, and has set explosives on the stairs leading to the caverns.
Barasha, meanwhile, learns that his own people have headed south for the winter, and he parts ways with his companions to seek his people out and bring them to aid in the battle against Zhengla’s forces.
Renna and Mangle say their goodbyes, despite the fact that she wants to stay and fight by his side, and once Jinal and friends are clear and his hand-picked crew of defenders is being overrun, Mangle blows the charges on the reservoir wall, sacrificing himself and washing away the front lines of Zhengla’s armies.  At that point, Skinner blows the charges on the stairs, and they assemble in the depths of the Earth on the shores of the underground ocean.
Yisrah speculates that Zhengla’s plan must have been to seize control of the ocean and use it as a base for further conquest, laying conduits throughout the desert and conquering the world, which was exactly what Jinal had been planning.
They don’t have much time to discuss things further, as one of the walls of the cavern gives way and fungus men known as the Mulge launch an assault on the survivors.
Even more distressing – and completely unheard of – is the fact that Zhengla’s men are fighting alongside the Mulge!
In the melee, Jinal is separated from Renna and Skinner – though not before Renna gets in a last bit of subtextual flirtation, even as Renna advises Jinal to do “whatever it takes” to “survive and win”  – and inevitably, despite her ferocity, Jinal falls, though she doesn’t stop fighting until she finally meets the man who has usurped her position on the path to the conquest of the Barren Earth, a leader of men and Mulge alike:  Zhengla Koraz.

zhengla
Please allow me to thrust my junk at you.

Up next:  The Captive!

Some Thoughts:If you’re thinking, “Hey, this kind of seems derivative of Frank Herbert’s Dune,” you’re not imagining things, as it’s clear that there are a lot of parallels.  I think it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand as a cheap imitation, however, despite the fact that, as we move through the remaining three issues, we will see even more similarities emerge.
After all, despite sharing many thematic elements, Conqueror is a worthy story all its own.
Besides, it’s a whole lot easier to read, and, frankly, more enjoyable as far as I’m concerned.
Still, I believe that the similarities – not only to Dune but to other works of science fiction as well – were by design, and that Cohn had intended for this to be something of a gateway to exploring similar works in other media without going the full Classics Illustrated route.
Of course, what really makes Conqueror worthwhile is its lead character, Jinal.
While I hate to resort to this kind of reductionist language, which maligns an underappreciated legitimate medium – comic books – I have to say that Jinal’s characterization is an especially progressive portrayal of a woman for a comic book.
Jinal is sexy, of course, but she’s not the kind of sexualized caricature that one might typically find prancing around in the pages of a comic book in an utterly impractical skimpy outfit striking hypersexual poses.  Jinal’s sexiness is not exactly secondary or beside the point, but it is a function of the rest of her personality.  It’s really her strength, her intelligence, and her determination more than anything else that makes her sexy, and, again, while being sexy is a function of who and what she is, it’s not the point, or at least it’s not the entire point.  Jinal doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of being a sexual object.
In fact, in thinking about Jinal, and other characters like her from that era, I’ve realized that she’s probably one of the biggest reasons that, as a writer and as a reader, I’m drawn to stories that focus on strong women as the lead characters.
(I’ve also realized that Jinal explains certain other things in my life, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss that.)
It’s probably worth mentioning that this issue of Conqueror wouldn’t really pass the Bechdel Test, as Renna and Jinal’s main interaction does revolve around a discussion of a man, but to be fair, he’s not so much the topic of discussion as he is the catalyst, and in their last scene together they do have a discussion that doesn’t involve a man.
There is, of course, an underlying element of sexuality woven into the main narrative, but, again, it’s not the point of the story, and, as mentioned, it’s rather complex.
This is another instance in which despite the fact that I often decry the excesses of the modern focus on decompression in comic book storylines I think that this is a story that could benefit from being slightly less compressed, as there’s a lot of worldbuilding that can’t be explored properly in the scant pages available, and of course that tangle of sexuality that is the Jinal/Renna/Skinner/Mangle/Rizek plot element would definitely benefit from further exploration.
As it is, the compressed nature leads to one of the areas of weakness in the mini-series, which is the number of pages that are filled to overflowing with expository dialogue or soliloquies, though to be fair, much of that is in place for the benefit of readers who might have picked up the mini-series without having first read the backup feature in The Warlord.
To get back to Jinal, in this first issue we can see some of the psychological strain that her life on the Barren Earth has taken on her, particularly in the sequence in which she and her friends face off against the Slizek-riding warriors.  While JInal’s first instinct – she’s trained as a diplomat, after all – is not for fight or flight but to engage in reasonable discussion, fighting seems inevitable, and it comes rather naturally to her and she’s clearly deluding herself if she thinks that she is somehow above the violence.  Even as she fights she thinks that there may come a point at which she gets used to the senseless slaughter but that it’s her hope that such a day never arrives, while being totally unaware of the fact that this has already come to pass.

The Art:
Before I sat down to write this I was thinking about how to describe Ron Randall’s artwork.  Overall, I like it – it seems to me to be almost a synthesis of the clean, yet detailed style of Brian Bolland and the heavy, dense style of Alfredo Alcala, both of whom number among my favorite artists, with perhaps a hint of Jan Duursema, who was the artist on Arion, Lord of Atlantis, the backup feature that preceded The Barren Earth in the pages of The Warlord before spinning off into its own ongoing series.
However, there are times when his anatomy seems a bit off and inconsistent, and some of his stranger uses of perspective brought to mind the work of the venerable Ross Andru, whom I recall reading had a particular problem with perspective, due, if I recall correctly, to some sort of vision problem.
So it struck me as a bit funny when I sat down and opened the comic up and saw that Andru actually served as the Editor for this comic.
In any case, perhaps because he served as the co-creator and performed the art chores throughout the backup feature run and the mini-series, I can’t really imagine anyone else providing the artwork for this, and he certainly had a flair for some of the strange, mutated creatures that inhabit the desert landscape – and he excels at portraying the landscape itself – of the Barren Earth.
I will say that I think the art would have benefited from what was then known as DC’s “new format,” which consisted of a better paper stock that allowed for greater clarity in the printing process.
Of course, the drawback with that is that the comic wouldn’t have been available in the outlets – grocery stores and gas stations – from which I purchased my comics, so perhaps it’s just as well that it was printed in the standard format.

2 comments:

Gary Cohn said...

Thanks for the nice words! It's gratifying that someone still remembers Barren Earth. I've seen the Dune reference before, but actually, although I'd read Dune years earlier, my thought was Barsoom. I wanted the Barren Earth to be my Barsoom and Jinal to be my John Carter.

There were indeed plans to carry forward with a 6-8 issue follow-up, EMPIRE OF THE BARREN EARTH, wherein Jinal and company conquered the universe, kinda.

Regarding the art... Ron was fresh out of Kubert School and showing all the promise that he's since fulfilled. Check out his TREKKER for proof. The color process was a mess, some new thing they were trying that was going to "improve" things but actually was over-saturated sludge. Ross Andru was a great editor and a lovely man, and he and Ron designed the covers together.

Otherwise, that's about it. I'm glad the "punchline" still works for you... an "oh shit" moment indeed. I'm very proud of Barren Earth all these years later, and now and then I google search to see if someone has something to say about it. Your blog came up, and I'm happy it did.--GC

Jon-Paul Maki said...

I need to check my comments more often!
Thank you for all of your amazing work over the years. I realized in talking with a friend about your work on this and on other things that you were actually responsible for a huge chunk of all of the stuff I loved as a kid.
Thanks also for leaving a comment and providing some background info. Now that you mention it, I totally see the Barsoom thing. Very cool!