"Conan the Adventurer" Season 2 Part 1 - By Ishtar's Beard, What an Improvement!
I will freely admit that I didn’t walk into Conan the Adventurer Season 2 Part 1 with very much enthusiasm, considering the lukewarm reception I gave season 1 of the show. It might be lowered expectations, the shift in direction and tone of the show, or the fact that all the episodes on this set are credited to Jean Chalopin (best known for Mysterious Cities of Gold), but whatever the reason, I am happy to report that these first 13 episodes of the second season are substantially stronger than the first season. In fact, the best compliment I can pay to season 2 of Conan the Adventurer so far is that the three best episodes on this 2-disc set feel like they came straight from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself, minus the bloodletting, skull-cracking, and lusty carnality.
At the end of the last season, the evil wizard Wrath-Amon had been dealt a stinging setback by Conan and his friends: the baby phoenix Needle, the acrobat Jezmine, the Wasai prince Zula, the wizard Greywolf and his siblings Sasha and Misha (both turned to wolves by Wrath-Amon’s magic), the winged warrior Falkenar, and the stocky Vanirman Snagg. However, like most serial cartoons of the late 80’s and early 90’s, Conan the Adventurer is less about progress and more about the illusion of progress; after the first two to four episodes of the series, you can jump straight to this season without missing anything really important. Conan still seeks the downfall of Wrath-Amon and a way to reverse the effects of the Spell of Living Stone entrapping his parents and grandfather. Meanwhile, Wrath-Amon seeks the Star Metal that Conan and his compatriots carry, intending to use it to unleash his master, the dark god Set.
Admittedly, the season’s first episode “Tribal Warfare” inadvertently serves as a showcase for the show’s nasty tendency to mix the extremely smart with the extremely stupid this season. Conan and Snagg return to their homelands to find the Cimmerians and the Vanirmen close to war, driving a wedge between the two as they each side with their native tribes. It’s all a scheme by Wrath-Amon to get both sides to reveal any hidden caches of Star Metal, but while the inter-tribal strife feels surprisingly authentic, it also seems like a plan rather too complex for its stated goal, especially when the plot hinges frequently on Wrath-Amon’s serpent men successfully impersonating Cimmerians and Vanirmen to their own tribesmen. Conan and Snagg also come off as rather too thick-headed when they come into conflict themselves instead of just asking each other the obvious questions that would have revealed Wrath-Amon’s deceptions. The good news is that the smart stuff in this episode is much better than anything the first season managed, and the dumb stuff isn’t any worse.
There is a comparable smart/stupid blend in several other episodes as well. In episode 2, “The Curse of Ahx’oon,” one really wonders why the obvious treachery of Zula’s cousin Gora hasn’t ended with Gora getting several sharp objects inserted through his body. Episode 6, “Thunder and Lightning,” is probably the worst on this set, centering on the idea that Conan can’t control his horse Thunder and sends him away, thus leaving him to be taken in by a fake horse sent by Wrath-Amon. No, really. However, this rather weak setup does lead to the return of the genuinely creepy villain Skulkur and a truly threatening trap for Conan. The subsequent episode, “The Crevasse of Winds,” requires Needle to do something incredibly stupid just so he can redeem himself by the end of the episode. His actions do not endear, especially considering what an annoying character he was before. Episode 9, “Isle of the Naiads,” is just trivial, as Conan and Snagg visit the island of the title seeking a cure for Conan’s parents, only to be cursed to lose all their strength by a grumpy rock troll. Then Wrath-Amon and his winged slave Windfang arrive to lay siege to the island, assuming that it must be important if Conan is there. Urgh. The following episode, “In Days of Old,” lifts a common sci-fi/fantasy plot by throwing a wizard who robs Conan and Greywolf of their youth; it’s not bad, but not great, either.
However, the remaining seven episodes on this set are significantly better, mostly because they draw heavily on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories while trimming some of the more lurid elements. Easily the best episode on the set is saved for last: “The Treachery of Emperors” features a truly freakish sorceror terrorizing a slightly spoiled princess before Conan intervenes to rescue her, only to have the girl’s father go back on his word to reward Conan with a kingdom for her rescue. It’s all sourced straight from Howard, from the terrorized princess echoing the story “Black Colossus” to the moral that “civilization” is anything but. Episode 8, “Hanuman the Ape God,” is essentially a more kid-friendly take on Howard’s rightly famed story “The Tower of the Elephant,” with a bizarre being of tremendous power getting bound up in human affairs. The episode is equally successful on the new terms required by syndicated kids TV. Episode 5, “The Red Brotherhood,” combines the lead heroine Valeria from the novella “Red Nails” and the pirate queen plot elements from “Queen of the Black Coast,” with a dash of the supernatural island threat from “Iron Shadows in the Moon.” Elements from “The Tower of the Elephant” appear again in “The Master Thief of Shadizar” as Conan and Jezmine enlist a thief extraordinaire to break into a wizard’s tower. It also happens to be one of the show’s few nods to continuity, since the villain is a familiar face from season 1 of the show.
Other episodes borrow less directly from Howard. The prose Conan always had an uneasy relationship with gods and wizards, so it’s fitting that the moral of episode 4, “The Vengeance of Jhebbel Sag,” centers on being wary of involving the gods or other supernatural powers in the affairs of people. Unfortunately, the execution of the tale is less satisfactory, as Zula summons his totemic god only to lose control of him to Wrath-Amon. The smart outweighs the stupid, but there are still a few plot twists that evoke major eye-rolling. The theme of losing control of supernatural powers also plays out in multiple ways in episode 11, “Birth of Wrath-Amon,” which flings Conan back in time to witness the rise of his nemesis. Finally, the sense of human tragedy and futility that pervades “Earthbound” is another thematic lift from Howard. In this rather poignant episode, Windfang manages to lift the curse which afflicts him, returning to his former human form as the Kothian general Venturas. It’s probably not much of a spoiler to reveal that this transformation is short-lived, especially since Venturas’ return to Koth yields a bitter cup for him to swallow as he learns all that he has lost in his 200 years of servitude. His origin story episode in the first season was one of the few standouts, and this expansion on that story again turns him into a genuinely tragic figure.
As with the season 1 set, Conan the Adventurer Season 2 Part 1 splits 13 episodes across two discs. The presentation is about as good as can be hoped, considering that the show clearly didn’t have much of a budget to work with and the masters probably weren’t kept in very good condition. Still, Shout! Factory includes their usual niceties, like the best cleanup they can manage and sensible chapter stops within episodes. Unfortunately, there are still no bonus features included at all. The introductory animated DVD menu also takes an excruciatingly long time to finish loading.
It’s quite rare to see a show turn around so thoroughly from its first season to its second, and the general upward trend of Conan the Adventurer Season 2 Part 1 bodes well for the subsequent episodes. I still doubt that Howard’s iconic barbarian could be brought to afternoon kids’ TV intact, but this early part of season 2 gets much, much closer than I would have thought possible after the disappointment of season 1. In fact, I think you can happily start this series with this set, missing out only on the setup that “Windfang’s Eyrie” from the first season establishes for “Earthbound.”