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Review: Conan the Barbarian #1

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #1

I was skeptical when Marvel announced they had reacquired the rights to publish comics based on Robert E Howard’s Cimmerian adventure. Conan is one of my favorite characters but Howard’s vision was a singular one and few creators have matched his best work let alone bettered it. Where else do you go after comics have adapted every good Conan story at least twice? How could new Conan comics be anything other than superfluous additions to a canon that didn’t need expansion?

Jason Aaron proves me wrong by approaching Conan in a way that is both original and familiar. Conan confronts the Crimson Witch, a supernatural foe bent on his destruction. It’s a thin plot but Aaron’s choice to set the story at two different points in Conan’s career elevates the material. The bulk of the action takes place when Conan is a teenage pit fighter, but fast forwards to his days as a middle-aged King. The change in perspective allows the reader to compare and contrast Conan’s attitudes towards life as a young man and an adult while giving us the fulfillment of a single issue story embedded within a longer, more complex story arc. There is also a promise implicit in the premier title: The Life and Death of Conan. I don’t imagine for a second that Marvel will kill off such a major property forever but I’m excited to watch the comic book death and resurrection narrative play out with Conan at its center.

Mahmud Asrar was the right artist to pair with Aaron’s bracing script. His line work is adept at capturing the brutality and sensuality of the Hyborian age, aided by Matthew Wilson’s palette of muted earth tones and brilliant reds. Letterer Travis Lanham’s copy is as easy to read as it is inconspicuous. This is an excellent comic, crafted by creators working at the peak of their skills. Any fan of Conan or Howard will find something here to love. The character’s long history should not intimidate new readers; they summarize everything you need to know out on the first two  pages. Conan the Barbarian is one of the best fantasy comic debuts in years.

It’s not a perfect book, however. The problem lies in context. The new Conan is a throwback to the days when Roy Thomas, Barry Smith and John Buscema first translated Howard’s work from pulp fiction to sequential art. There’s nothing wrong with that but I can’t help think Comics Gate will be happy to see such a work of apolitical adventure fiction dominating sales charts. Conan himself is too close to their ideal: a blue-eyed juggernaut who takes what he wants be it wine, women or the right to rule a nation by main strength. While there is nothing as offensive as racist caricatures or sexual violence here, there is also nothing to refute their presence elsewhere in the saga. It’s an uncritical appreciation of Howard’s work with no acknowledgement of its more problematic elements. I hope Aaron and company delve deeper in future installment because it would be a shame to see a comic with this much promise turn out to be just another pale pastiche.

Story: Jason Aaron Art: Mahmud Asrar 
Colors: Matthew Wilson Letters: Travis Lanham
Story: 8.5 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.75 Recommendation: Buy

Marvel Comics provided Graphic Policy with a free copy for the purposes of this review but I went ahead and bought one anyway.