This week I take a break from looking at past Superhero comics from the Big Two and take a look at one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, a character who, like Sherlock Holmes and Superman, has been the star of film, prose, and most importantly comics. This week, I look at the character Conan the Barbarian, and his great story told by Dark Horse Comics.
Conan was created in 1932 in the pages of Weird Tales, by writer Robert E. Howard, a name synonymous with adventure stories of mystic lands in not only his Conan stories, but also stories about Kull the Conqueror of Atlantis, caveman-like Bran Mak Morn, and hunter of the supernatural, Solomon Kane. Howard’s adventure tales were published in the precursor to comic books for adventure entertainment, the Pulp Magazines from the late 20’s through mid 30’s. Through his stories and multiple characters creations, Robert E. Howard became known as the “Father of the Sword and Sorcery,” a genre made most popular by his Conan stories.
Flash forward to October 1970, when Conan makes his comic debut in Conan the Barbarian #1, written by Roy Thomas and penciled by the great Barry Windsor-Smith. Conan would be one of Marvel’s most successful titles in the following years, having an ongoing series titled Conan the Barbarian running for over 23 years and spanning 275 issues, as well as 12 annuals. There was also the Savage Sword of Conan series, a black and white mature reader’s comic magazine published by Marvel that ran for 235 issues, and a King Conan series lasting 55 issues. Additionally, he had a number of mini-series, newspaper strips, and graphic novels. After about 30 year hiatus from the 40’s to 70’s, Conan was back bigger than ever for the last quarter of the 20th Century, courtesy of Marvel comics.
In 2003, Dark Horse Comics gained control of the Conan license, which in my opinion, is the greatest thing ever to happen for Conan comics. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen Conan comics taken to a whole new level under the tutelage of Dark Horse. In the Marvel incarnation, Conan was portrayed as a near invincible, confident, almost demigod like character. His strength and invulnerability were on near Hercules levels. Now these Marvel series were great, but Dark Horse has really raised the bar. Tackled by writers like Kurt Busiek, Mike Mignola, Timothy Truman, Roy Thomas, and Brian Wood, Dark Horse has added a whole new side to the Cimmerian, showing a more mortal Conan, who, while still stronger than most men, struggles as he journeys as an adventurer, thief, pirate, and king.
The Dark Horse run started with the series titled “Conan” which ran for 51 issues, a 0 issue that served as a prologue, and then 50 ongoing issues. The second series continued the great run and characterization of the first volume, titled “Conan the Cimmerian,” which again had a 0 issue, as well 25 ongoing issues. Volume 3 was titled “Conan: Road to Kings” which ran for 12 issues and saw Roy Thomas, the writer who brought Conan to Marvel success (and the creator of Red Sonja), revisit Conan. The current volume being published is volume 4, titled “Conan the Barbarian,” and is slated for 25 issues, and has issue #20 coming out September 18th. This series has been written by Brian Wood, and I cannot recommend it enough, it is my FAVORITE title on my current pull list. Seriously, go check this one out and find out what you’ve been missing.
But enough about the great current series, this piece is called ‘Retro Review” after all. And so I’m going to look at the first couple of story arcs of the Dark Horse run on Conan.
I was really excited when the first arc of Conan came out from Dark Horse, it had been a couple of years since we’d had a Conan series, and I was in need of a Conan fix. Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord, and Dave Stewart did not disappoint. I opened up the first issue to be blown away by Nord’s incredible pencils, which are the perfect fit for Conan and the Sword and Sorcery genre. Take those uninked Nord pencils, and have them colored by the greatest colorist in the comic industry, Dave Stewart, and we have the best artistic take on Conan since Frank Frazetta’s amazing paintings. Take that beautiful artwork and add it to what is in my humble opinion, the best work of the talented Kurt Busiek’s career, and you have the best damn take on Conan we’ve seen since Howard introduced the character in the 30’s.
Busiek & Nord’s first arc adapts Howard’s tale “Frost Giant’s Daughter” and also references another Howard tale “The Nemedian Chronicles.” The story opens years after Conan’s life, with a spoiled prince uncovering a monument to Conan, along with some ancient scrolls, chronicling Conan’s life from soldier for hire to one day king. Despite the discouragement of the young prince’s Stygian wazir, the youth is captured by amazement of this Conan character, and craves to learn more from the scrolls they uncovered. The reading of these scrolls leads to the first time we see Conan, fighting with the fury of a wolf on an icy battlefield, as he butchers a battalion of red bearded Vanirmen. Conan saves an Aesir village from pillaging by their arch enemies the Vanir of Vanaheim, slaying 5 men, and forcing them to retreat. He then joins the hunting party of blonde men of Asgard when they return to their burned village, and helps them track down the red haired raiders. This leads to Conan’s encounter with the Frost Giant’s Daughter, as she appears to him after bloody battle on the snow and ice and teases him as he chases her through the icy mountains. From there, Conan travels past the icy Northlands to mystic and fabled green lands of Hyborea, a sunny paradise of euphoria, akin to the Garden of Eden. Of course, not all is as it seems in paradise, and Conan has to overcome impossible odds to escape with his life. He then continues his quest to see the wonders of the surrounding lands that his grandfather had told him tales of in his youth.
These travels lead him through many lands, from Asgard to Aquilonia, faces gods, magic, and ancient evils as he fights and pillages his way to a living. We see Busiek and then Timothy Truman adapt Howard’s stories such as God in the Bowl, Tower of the Elephant, Hall of the Dead, Rogues in the House, and other Howard tales. .
I cannot recommend this series enough, especially the first 7 collected editions, which collect the first volume of Dark Horse’s take on Conan, as well as the supplemental stories that feature tales by comic creators like Eric Powell and Bruce Timm.
Volume 0 “Born on the Battlefield” collects issues #8, 15, 23, 32, 45 & 46
Volume 1 “Frost Giant’s Daughter & Other Stories” #1-6 & the first 14 pages of #7
Volume 2 “The God in the Bowl & Other Stories” the last 8 pages of #7 & #9-14
Volume 3 “The Tower of the Elephant & Other Stories” #0, #16-17 & #19-22
Volume 4 “Hall of the Dead & Other Stories” #24-25, #29-31 & #33-34
Volume 5 “Rogues in the House & Other Stories” #37-38 & #41-44
Volume 6 “The Hand of Nergal” Collects issues #47-50
The supplemental collections are:
“The Blood Stained Crown” Collecting issues #8, #26-28 & #39
“The Spear & Other Stories” Collecting issues Conan FCBD 2006, #35-36 & #40