Conan The Barbarian #1
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Mahmud Asrar
Colorist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover Artist: Esad Ribic
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Review by Stacy Dooks
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian; black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it for as long as anyone deigns to listen: Conan of Cimmeria is my favorite fantasy character. Aragorn, Sturm Brightblade, Elric of Melnibone and all the various incarnations of the Eternal Champion are great and all, but Conan was first to the party, and I’ve loved that raggedy barbarian and his sword-swinging escapades since I first clapped my hands on an well-worn copy of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories at a secondhand bookstore many, many years ago.
High Fantasy (the fantasy stories of Tolkien, Weiss & Hickman, Brooks, etc.) is all well and good: nothing like a tale of capable and boon companions fighting to save the world from the forces of evil for love, justice, puppies, and all that kinda jazz. But my preferred fantasy genre, Sword & Sorcery, is the beer to High Fantasy’s champagne. Magic isn’t a tool to be hurled about by heroic wizards like your typical session of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s dangerous and will likely leave you insane, dead, or both. The heroes are less paragons of virtue and more mercenary, out for a good brawl, a good beer, and a good babe/hunk. The heroes of Sword & Sorcery are frequently in over their head, up against monstrous forces that see them as little more than irritating gnats to be swatted aside. It’s less Lothlorien and more Lovecraftian, but the thing of it is. . .heroes of Sword & Sorcery can win. And in the case of Conan, we see the skein of his life told in short-story form as he goes from a youthful thief to a pirate to a mercenary to a king. He’s a lot more than the Schwarzenegger movies and his portrayal in pop culture would have you believe. This brings me to Conan The Barbarian #1, the character’s return to Marvel comics after decades of absence.
Our story is essentially an introduction to the character of Conan of Cimmeria for those who’ve come in late: born in the cold north on a battlefield, destined to wander the world in search of new lands and adventures, of fortune and glory. Conan begins as a thief in the streets of Zamora and ends as the king of Aquilonia, the most powerful nation in the Hyborian Age, a mythical prehistory of the world set before recorded history. The story actually has a unique structure to it that I won’t dare spoil, but I will say fans of Jason Aaron’s work on The Mighty Thor are going to find the narrative’s use of time in Conan The Barbarian #1 to be familiar.
Conan was one of Marvel Comics’ earliest acquisitions in the 1970s and actually was one of the company’s top sellers for a while. It may not have pulled in Star Wars numbers, but Conan himself had two comics and two high-quality magazines, not counting the other characters in Howard’s stable like King Kull or Solomon Kane. But eventually interest in the character cooled off as the ’70s and ’80s gave way to the Chromium ’90s and Conan disappeared from Marvel’s roster, to be deftly handled by Dark Horse Comics for many years (seriously, while they’re in print I’d advise picking up as much of the Dark Horse Conan as you possibly can, particularly the Busiek/Nord and Truman/Giorello runs), but times change and now the Barbarian is back in the House of Ideas.
Conan The Barbarian #1 is a solid debut issue: Jason Aaron’s writing catches the tone of the character and his world quite nicely, aided with visual style by Mahmud Asrar’s absolutely killer artwork. If this is the slow burn beginning, I can’t wait to see when things really get off the chain. The colors by Matthew Wilson are bright and bold when in the thick of the action and moodily subdued when things get creepy. Travis Lanham’s lettering is solid, though I do wish they’d kept the device of having Conan’s words and letter balloons look jagged and rough to contrast the smooth speakers of the civilized Hyborian world, but that’s a minor nitpick. Wrap it all in a breathtakingly gorgeous cover by Esad Ribic, and I think it’s safe to say this debut issue doesn’t just make the scene, it kicks the door in and demands a flagon of mead.
The Verdict: Buy it.
Look, I’m far from an impartial source, but, if you like your fantasy comics big, bold, and fun, Conan The Barbarian #1 definitely deserves to be on your pull list. Pick it up, sit back with your adult beverage of choice, crank up the Basil Pouledouris Conan The Barbarian soundtrack and have a blast. Recommended.