Comic Picks By The Glick

Conan the Barbarian vol. 1: The Life and Death of Conan, Book One

August 24, 2019

You could ask, “Is this a good volume of ‘Conan’ comics?” and it would be a perfectly valid question.  A better one to ask would be “Is this volume of ‘Conan’ good enough to justify Marvel snatching the license away from Dark Horse?”  To the first question I’d say, “Actually, it’s fine.” To the second, my answer is, “Not by a longshot.” Dark Horse did right by the Barbarian for over a decade, and I didn’t think he needed another home.  Now he’s back at Marvel, with an A-list creative team in writer Jason Aaron and artist Mahmud Asrar on the main “Conan” book. It’s enough to ensure that this first volume is a decent read. Regrettably it doesn’t get much better than that.

For starters, its title of “The Life and Death of Conan” only works if you take a very generous reading of it.  We’ll see several random episodes of Conan’s life all while the main story builds to what almost certainly surely looks like his death during his time as King of Aquilonia.  On the plus side, this means we’ll get to see him fighting against, and then with the Picts against a horde of giant snakes, maybe witness what Crom’s mercy looks like, sail the savage seas against tentacled sharks, and possibly tell a king how Stygia should be invaded.


These are all the kind of adventures that you’d expect to see Conan having and Aaron even manages to give us some genuine fun along the way.  From seeing how he deals with the witch in the first issue, to the proper use of a preacher who comes to offer the condemned Cimmerian Mitra’s mercy, to the sight of Conan fighting alongside the Picts in battle, this volume certainly has its moments.  The problem is that in addition to being the kind of stories you’d expect to see Conan in, they play out the same way as well. These are “Conan” stories through and through -- nothing more, nothing less.


I think part of that is due to how big of a “Conan” fan Aaron is.  He’s preached his love of Marvel’s original run of comics featuring the Barbarian and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if his love of the character turned out to be part of the reason the company has the license again.  The stories in this volume show that writer certainly knows how to write a “Conan” story. Except it doesn’t feel like he’s adding anything new to the character or showing him in more interesting light. It’s like Aaron is trying to recapture the glory days of the “Conan” comics he used to read by… writing stories exactly like them.  The end result is certainly readable, but also uninspired.


It doesn’t help that a lot of the stories here, including the uber-plot, feel like the writer’s own “Greatest Hits.”  We’ve got the dual-timeline structure that he’s been playing with in “Thor.” The religious cynicism turned genuine affection in “Cimmerians Don’t Pray” has also been seen in “Scalped” and “The Goddamned.”  “The King in the Cage” also calls back to the kind of old man who’s going to do things his way also seen in “Thor,” “Southern Bastards,” and “Men of Wrath.” And if you’ve been reading Aaron’s work as long as I have, I doubt you’ll be able to suppress an eye roll when I tell you that he’s going back to the well of child villainy for the main antagonists of this storyline.


The good news is that Asrar does everything he can to make the art worthy of the Cimmerian.  He gives us a Conan who looks like he could really take all of the violence done to him and still have enough in the tank to come back and smash out a win.  Be it at scenes as unusual as a witch’s underground zombie-filled lair, the lush forests of the western frontier, the high seas cursed by mutant creatures, or the desert kingdom of Turan, he makes them all look fittingly enticing and majestic.  My only real gripe is that his art cries out for a brighter palette than the one Matthew Wilson seems willing to provide.


It’s also worth mentioning the efforts of Gerardo Zaffino, who does the art for “The King in the Cage.”  His ridiculously gritty art borders on expressionist at times, but it gives the story a feeling of drama that it doesn’t quite deserve.  That’s because any way you slice it -- and there’s lots of slicing here -- a story that has Conan literally sick of civilization is just plain silly.


The efforts of the artists ensure that Aaron’s playthrough of his greatest hits is never less than appealing.  Yet I’m left feeling that Conan deserved a lot better than this. If you’re a lapsed “Conan” fan who hasn’t read any of the Dark Horse stuff, then I can see you getting more out of this than me.  I think that what we got here was only fine. Maybe we’ll get better down the line.


Or in one of the other “Conan” books that Marvel is putting out.  Like “Savage Sword of Conan.” Let’s see… that’s got Ron Garney doing the art for the first storyline, and who’s writing it…


...Gerry Duggan?  Uh… ask me again in October.

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