Spotlight Sunday 1.6.19

Spotlight Sundays

Conan the Barbarian #1
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Mahmud Asrar
Cover: Esad Ribic

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world, like blue mantles beneath the stars…”

The Nemedian Chronicles

The “Welcome Back” video at the top of the post, is of course, a reference to the return of the Spotlight after an end-of-the-year absence, but more importantly it refers to the return of a certain black-haired, sullen-eyed thief, reaver, and slayer with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths whose sandaled feet have trod back to where they belong.

To be clear, I have greatly enjoyed the continued adventures of the wandering Cimmerian published by Dark Horse Comics over the years, but to me, Marvel feels likes it’s Conan’s home. It was Marvel that first introduced me to the character when I was a kid, and one of the things I’ve treasured most in recent years is the addition of the reprinted volumes collecting Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan that I’ve added to my library.

As much as I’ve loved the original stories by Robert E. Howard, and the assorted novels written by others who followed in his footsteps, Marvel Conan is my favorite Conan.

Sometimes in life you find that there is something you never knew you wanted, but then, when you have it, you can’t imagine how you ever lived without it. Jason Aaron writing Conan is one such example. My exact words when I learned that this was happening were “Fuck yes.”

And with this debut issue, as is to be expected, this perfect pairing does not disappoint.

Aaron’s Conan is exactly the Conan I wanted – needed – in my life: a straightforward yet sardonic savage who, in his way, is more civilized than the urban sophisticates among whom he so often finds himself.

With Conan, Aaron takes a narrative approach that is similar to one he’s used to great effect in Thor, telling a tale that takes place at different points in the life of Conan, with a young Conan making an enemy who later returns to haunt the older King Conan.

After a brief introduction, which includes a montage of images of Conan at Marvel throughout the years, and shows us his birth on the battlefield in Cimmeria, and the end of his life as the king of Aquilonia, we find a young Conan doing what he does best in a fighting pit in Zamora.

The melee ultimately leads to just two remaining combatants, Conan, a giant of a man, even larger than the Cimmerian. The audience favors the larger of the two, but an attractive young woman puts her money on the Northman, and while it initially appears that she did not gamble wisely, Conan soon rewards her faith in him.

The men who took the woman’s bet are less than eager to pay what they owe, and are instead intent to take her money and whatever else she has to offer. That works out about as well for them as fighting against Conan did for the corpses in the pit.

As Conan enjoys the fruits of his labor – he took half of his winnings in gold, and the other half in wine – the mysterious woman approaches him and he turns on his patented Cimmerian charm.

Sullen-eyed and iron-thewed, but not-exactly silver-tongued.

Still, because he’s Conan, one thing eventually leads to another, and the two make their way someplace a bit more private.

And because he’s Conan, that one thing eventually leads to another, and the woman turns out to be a hideous old crone in disguise who poisons him and drags him down to a subterranean altar that is older than even Atlantis or Acheron to sacrifice him to the elder god, Razazel, the Red Doom.

(This is why I don’t date anymore.)

After a quick test to make sure that Conan is Mr. Right – unlike the corpses of all the Mr. Wrongs that are strewn about the place – the witch learns that Conan’s blood is to her god’s liking and that, as she saw in a vision, the Cimmerian will die in this place, but before she can provide the rest of the blood and finish raising the god, Conan breaks free, and after battling his way through the reanimated warriors he separates the witch from her head and makes the long climb back to the surface.

We then jump ahead in time as King Conan surveys the damage on the battlefield after Aquilonia put down an attempted invasion by Turan.

He’s distracted by a couple of weird kids who are loading up a wagon with corpses.

Conan approaches them to tell them that collecting corpses is a weird thing for kids to be doing, but is soon interrupted by a familiar face – the Crimson Witch who tried to sacrifice him to Razazel, While her head is once more – somewhat precariously – attached to her body, she is considerably less chatty, but no less fearsome, swiftly killing King Conan’s guards, and managing to fend off his deadliest blows.

The king makes the mistake of turning his back on the weird kids and gets two knives in the back for it, and we end with the kids preparing to load him on the cart and haul him back down to the subterranean temple to finish what was started so many years before.

The issue is rounded out with the first installment of a serialized prose novella by John C. Hocking. I haven’t read it yet, but its mere existence is a welcome bit of nostalgia, as this was the sort of thing that was often done in the Marvel years, particularly within the pages of SSoC.

Speaking of which, Marvel has big plans for Conan, which includes two additional Conan titles: a new Savage Sword and an Age of Conan mini-series starring Conan’s one true love, the Pirate Queen Bêlit.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I love most about Conan is that, as an archetype, he’s a character who can work in almost any kind of story, not limited to the confines of his specific genre. Marvel recognizes that, and is busy reintegrating him into the larger Marvel Universe, which was always a big part of the appeal for the character in his previous tenure at Marvel. Conan – and the Hyborian Age – will be making an appearance in the mini-series Avengers: No Way Home, further establishing his triumphant return.

Another reason I love having Conan back at Marvel – and, again, I have nothing but love for Dark Horse’s efforts; they kept the torch burning, after all – is that so many tremendous artists lent their talents to the telling of his tales during that time. John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Alfredo Alcala, Ruby Nebres…the list goes on and on.

That tradition continues with the fantastic art of Mahmud Asur, who brings a dynamic – and brutal – approach to the storytelling, with explosive action and deft rendering of the handful of quieter scenes. I particularly love the wildness in the eyes of his Conan that makes it clear that while he may appear calm, this savage Northman is anything but tame.

As he always does everywhere, Matt Wilson knocks it out of the park with his brilliant colors, making every page feel blood-soaked and adding a visceral grittiness to the art.

To my eternal shame, I seldom focus on the lettering when I do these Spotlight posts, even though I know from experience just how important having a good letterer is. Travis Lanham does a phenomenal job here, helping to make this book the triumphant return it is (and I needed it to be).

The cover by Esad Ribic captures the feel of the classic covers from the novels and serves as the ideal wrapping on this perfect gift from the gods*.

I don’t know that there’s any need for me to say anything more about the story from Jason Aaron. It’s Conan. It’s Jason Aaron. ‘Nuff Said.

This is a great start to something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, and I’m eager for 2019 to be the Year of Conan.

As always, special thanks go out to my comic shop, Comic Logic Books & Artwork. Please remember to support your local comic shop, and if you need to find one, click here.

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*Most likely just, like, Mitra and maybe Ishtar. Definitely not Crom. Crom isn't one for gift-giving.
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