Caravan of the Damned Review

Caravan of the Damned by Chuck Dixon, Castalia House, October 4th, 2023

Caravan of the Damned is the second story by “The Legend” Chuck Dixon published by Castalia House. Earlier this year I reviewed his first The Siege of the Black Citadel which I enjoyed and thought compared favourably with Robert E. Howard’s original stories. This latest release also gets my recommendation but read on if you want to know why.

I want to begin with a lengthy but relevant aside by quoting “The Legend” himself on writing new stories using the beloved source material of other writers taken from a video published at Unauthorized.TV on September 6th this year. He was answering the following question:

Why do you think some writers completely disregard previous characterizations of characters, regardless of whether they were principal (say Batman/Bruce Wayne)  or secondary (Jimmy Olsen, Harvey Bullock?). 

DO you think it is to pick a bone with the character’s creator or rather a teenage like rebellion against what was established, or just plain laziness?  

Dixon’s response is long and worth quoting at length but I am transcribing from the video and I have edited his response for clarity. The words are all his own.

I put it down to laziness and narcissism. 

When I would be assigned a character to write or asked to write a character — even if it was a character I had read for years and felt very conversant with and very familiar with — you know, someone like Batman or Green Arrow or Conan or The Punisher. Well, I’m switching from reader to writer now so I’ve got to look at the character in a different way. I’ve got to think harder about this character because I’m going to be creating new adventures. I’m not going to be recalling stuff I’ve read. I’ve got to create new stuff with this character which requires a deeper exploration from my own point of view of what that character is. Now that’s not to say that my own point of view will intercede in the work it’s just, I have to reach my own personal understanding of this character. And then present them in a way that the reader expects them to be presented. Present them on model, inside the template that everybody is used to, paying a lot of attention to continuity and all the rest of it. And then try to exceed the reader’s expectations within that framework but not violating it. 

It’s easy to just take a character and deconstruct them or destroy them or do a fish out of water story with them. That’s easy. Writing a compelling, escapist fiction featuring that character in their classic form without violating it takes a little lifting. It takes some thought, it takes some contemplation. It takes an understanding which is why I only really, generally take on characters I really like or I appreciate because I don’t want to have to learn to like a character.

It’s narcissism and laziness. It’s thinking I can do this better or I can phone this in and it’ll be just fine. It’s Batman! It’s like pizza, how do you ruin it? Well you can ruin pizza. We all know that. We’ve all had Papa Johns at one point in our lives when we were desperate and there was no other choice. So I guess it’s laziness, narcissism and a level of contempt for what they’re writing. Like this is good enough for them. And the narcissism part is writers who think, “I’m going to make my mark on this character. This character has been around forever and now I’m going to make my mark. I’m gonna have Batman wet his pants and that will make me famous. Everybody will be talking about it.” Yeah, everybody will be talking about it but not in the way you thought. You made a chump of yourself having Batman wet his pants. This is idiotic. It’s not what anybody wants to read.

It’s like I said, nobody wants to read a stupid Batman or a stupid Superman story or a stupid Spider-Man story where they’re idiots or they have flaws. These are characters that are paragons. They are ideals and they have to remain that way but that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting in their own right. If you have a deep understanding of who they are. If you have an understanding of the nuances of the character and can bring them out to a readership that already loves them. How hard can that be? Just give the readers what they want and then your job is to give them more than they expected.

It seems pretty simple to me but that’s the work of writing. It’s not just thinking things up and putting them on the page it’s thinking about the audience, what they expect, what’s come before, the creators that came before you. And anybody who writes with contempt for the creator of the character they’re writing — they need to find another job. Go work for UPS or something because you don’t belong in comics if you don’t have any respect for the people who built the house that you’re roaming around in.

Now the above is all in the context of writing comics but this obviously applies across all of media and no less to his current work on Conan. Think about all the lazy Hollywood films that simply take a popular cartoon character and place them in the “real” world instead of considering the actual source material. Masters of the Universe, The Smurfs, Sonic the Hedgehog and many others got the lazy fish out of water treatment in live-action adaptions. Then there are the legion of origin stories of which Conan has been subject to two though the source material contains very little about Conan’s origins. For the narcissism there is no better example than the current woeful state of comics where self-inserts are the norm and sell about as well as plant-based bacon. For contempt, look no further than Blood of the Serpent by S.M. Sterling which I also reviewed earlier this year where both the author and publisher showed clear disdain for Robert E. Howard’s work despite using his name to sell it and one of his best stories to anchor it.

So the above from “The Legend” himself should explain his success more than further words from me could. I’d actually say the above should form part of the contract for any writers creating new works for beloved franchises. Of course the owners of these franchise for the most part only care about mining what ever value they can before discarding them and making sure nobody else can do better — an attitude that goes beyond money-making and is clearly malicious.

Now onto the book itself.

The Siege of the Black Citadel ended with Conan heading east from Koth and Caravan of the Damned finds our hero in the desert south-east of Zamora where he is travelling as the head of a group of cutthroats out for plunder. So it is conceivable that this is a direct continuation but nowhere is it stated and as with Howard’s work, it is not really necessary as this story stands on its own. Conan’s group soon comes upon a caravan in search of plunder and a jewel is found in the form of the young Princess Ravona on her way through the desert to be gifted to a prince of Zamora. This sets in motion an intense chase across the arid lands in the hope they can ransom the young princess. Betrayals, desperate fighting and otherworldly horrors all feature but I will not go into further detail as it is still a new release and absolutely recommended for fan’s of Conan.

Caravan of the Damned is roughly the same length as Dixon’s first book and as in Book 1, he quickly establishes the characters and setting and rushes straight into the action. It also includes a number of illustrations by Ademir Leal who also did the cover for The Siege of the Black Citadel. I understand the latter has (or soon will be) re-issued with illustrations too. These are all excellent and capture both the character and the action very well and will be especially appreciated by fans of the Conan comics.  

Beyond this, I have little more to add. I think Dixon’s own philosophy explains why he has done such a good job imitating Howard’s work while still bringing original ideas into the story. I have no doubt that his next book, The Pit of the Blind God will be just as good.

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