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Hey, Conan has a gun OH MY GOD CONAN HAS A GUN – What If? #43

March 3, 2012

Okay. Does this “Conan with Gun” cover beat out the classic “Apes in Coonskin Caps” masterpiece? Heresy, I know, but I’m having an existential-level crisis over which would be more worthy to go above my theoretical mantel. It might come down to a coin flip. The one thing I’m certain of? That Bill Sienkiewicz must have been smiling from ear to ear when he was slapping his brushes on this sumbitch.

This comic is that rarest and most fragile of things: a What If? sequel to a What If? story. In the original tale, chronicled here a little over a year ago, Conan was shot forward to 1977 New York City, during that year’s infamous blackout. In the midst of that metropolitan darkness, he pummeled rioters with sofas and bedded a hot lady taxi driver. It was a fun ride to say the least. This sequel posits that the rooftop Guggenheim lighting bolt, which shot Conan back to his own time in that story, didn’t work, and Conan was thus stuck in the (old) present.

There’s an old Jack Handey “Deep Thought”: “If you ever discover that what you’re seeing is a play within a play, just slow down, take a deep breath, and get ready for the ride of your life.” This is a What If? within a What If?, so perhaps that counsel applies. Perhaps not. Deploy the wisdom at your own discretion.

Peter B. Gillis scripted and Bob Hall artified this follow-up. The lightning bolt that rocketed Conan back to his ancient environs in the other reality, in this one zaps him into unconsciousness, making him easy pickings for the don’t-know-how-lucky-they-are gendarmes. A tight shirt and some even tighter slacks later, and a believed to be insane Conan is ready for his arraignment — but no mere Night Court set can hold him:

And out the window he goes. He takes a bullet in the escape, so he steals a giant knife from a pawn shop to do some rooftop self-surgery, Rambo-style:

AND WE’RE OFF. A nice effort, but Rambo, who cauterized his wound with flaming gunpowder, is still the king.

Conan starts his new life by making the best of things within the New York underworld, starting off by pickpocketing (keeping the coins while tossing the green paper is his first rookie mistake) and becoming (Warning: More Stallone Ahead) what Mickey Goldmill once gutturally called “a cheap, second-rate loan shark!” No surprise, he’s pretty good at it (no “waste of life” for him), and his English becomes fluent in no time.

With this success (which transpires in less than a page) comes a measure of prosperity, and Conan has his Scarface moment as one of the criminally nouveau riche, buying gaudy crap that he thinks conveys his bigshot-ness. And Danette, the hot broad from the first installment? He pays her a visit:

And that’s the last we see of her.

If there’s a bright side to this rejection, it gets Conan out of those God-awful clothes. (No idea what he did with the leopard. Maybe he ate the damn thing.) He decides to get back to his badass roots, while still working in the realm of crime. To this end he recruits some (literal) muscle at a Black Power gym, and forms his new gang. Ladies and gentlemen, I GIVE YOU THE BARBARIANS:

And the Jets and the Sharks just wet themselves.

They stake out their turf, running the protection rackets and low-level organized crime long favored by neighborhood toughs. But this bores Conan, and he decides to go for a big score at one of New York’s fine museums. This gets the attention of none other than Captain America:

For those of you who always longed for a Conan vs. Captain America slugfest, this comic delivers. Who wins? It’s mainly a stalemate, though Conan ends hit BY CUTTING THE GOOD CAPTAIN IN TWAIN:

Yet Cap lives to fight another day, and his arm still functions. The world of comics, you know?

All this has done is necessitate a second showdown, and the two combatants agree to meet alone, where Conan lays out his anti-authority motivations and CA gives his “I feel the good in you, the conflict” rejoinder:

But the cops and the Barbarians show up and make a mess of things before this mutual admiration society can resolve anything. Conan’s number 2 gets gunned down, and the out of time Cimmerian has to go on the run. Cap lets him flee, yelling to Conan that the Avengers are in the phone book, and that’s something that Conan ponders as the story comes to an end(?):

Conan in the Avengers. Commence imagining.

This story is a disappointment, an example of a sequel that should never have been made. The first, with a script by Roy Thomas and art from John Buscema, obviously had bigger names on the marquee, though past success is never a guarantor of the same in the future. What this one most lacks is Thomas’ sense of fun, of when to ramp up the ridiculous and when to pull it back. There’s a remarkable through-the-motions feeling in this second go-around. It might boil down to lack of freshness, though Conan’s transformation to gang-leader would have to be considered by most readers as being too quick.

Also, I remember reading once how upset James Cameron was that characters he had created for Aliens (Hicks and Newt) were casually discarded for Alien³. There’s a taste of that with Danette, who gets the perfunctory Elizabeth Hurley/The Spy Who Shagged Me dismissal. Gone and forgotten. Perhaps Mr. Gillis wasn’t comfortable writing sex scenes for a character who was modeled on Thomas’ wife. Whatever the reasoning, her grounding presence is missed. (I can’t believe I just wrote that about a comic book love interest. Most of the time I want to jettison them out the nearest porthole.)

We’re left with Conan as (un)common crook, which, if logical, makes for dull storytelling. Conan shaking down local deli owners for protection money is less than compelling. And the Captain America insertion, while welcome and intriguing, is too little, too late. In the end, this is more Descent 2 than The Empire Strikes Back. And I’d like to point out, at no point does he hold a gun.

Ah yes. That cover.

I’ve decided between the cover painting and the Planet of the Apes offering. I’d keep the apes above the mantel, as that’s just too stupendous a conversation piece. I think I’d hang the Conan in a room where, when you turn the light on, it would be the first thing that you see. Conan and his revolver and his terrifying spikey helmet: THAT’LL CLEAR THE SINUSES.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2012 6:05 pm

    Sort of goes to show that 43 issues of What If? is a few too many.

    Thanks for all the scans — Bob Hall looks pretty good here. Certainly no John Buscema, as you mention, but very serviceable. But overall, this looks like an ’80’s Marvel, you know what I mean?

    Doug

    • March 5, 2012 3:45 pm

      I like the What If? concept, but while there are seemingly infinite story possibilities, there are limited good story possibilities. This one is definitely part of the first, and much larger, category.

      Agreed on Hall. His Conan is a good Conan.

  2. March 28, 2012 1:34 pm

    conan wearing a pimp suit & walking a cheetah is my all time favorite comic panel.

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