Long before Dark Horse got the rights to publish “Conan” comics, Marvel had the rights themselves and published hundreds of them from the 70’s through the 90’s. The vast majority of these were written by Roy Thomas, who is at this point a living legend for his contributions to the superhero genre based on his work at the company. After the conclusion of the Truman/Giorello run on “Conan the Cimmerian” Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson approached Thomas to write another story featuring the character, which eventually morphed into the twelve-issue “Road of Kings” series, the first half of which is collected here. The end result is pleasingly familiar, showcasing the work of a man who has a firm grasp on Conan and his genre, but it also lacks the grit of the previous volumes.
When we last left everyone’s favorite barbarian, he was embarking on a new career path as a pirate with an appropriately motley crew. That lasts about as long as you’d expect and it’s not long before Conan finds himself on The Road of Kings to deliver his current woman Olivia back to her father the King of Ophir for a handsome reward. Along the way he has to deal with a one-eyed tentacled beast guarding a merchant’s treasure, said merchant’s sword-armed henchman, an amphibious beast in an underground cave, a worm with a thirst for gold, and the sorcery-fueled ambitions of Olivia’s step-mother. Now this might seem like an insurmountable set of challenges for some, but for Conan it’s just a busier-than-usual week.
Though the stories themselves aren’t anything special by the standards of the Dark Horse “Conan” comics, Thomas still packs them with enough adventure and humor to make sure that they’re never dull. He also likes to throw in a twist or two to keep the outcome from being too obvious. Sometimes it falls flat, as was the case with the torturer’s true plans in the fourth issue, but other times they’re actually pretty clever, like Conan’s encounter with the sorcerer in the final issue. One constant throughout the volume is Thomas’ gleefully overwritten dialogue, which would feel out of place in today’s superhero comics, but is right at home in this over-the-top fantasy world. Yes, this is place where an exchange like, “Lean closer and I’ll whisper it to you -- WHILE I BITE OFF YOUR EAR!” not only works beautifully in context, but is also expected.
So while Thomas brings a lot of good stuff to the table, it’s regrettable that the art isn’t up to the title’s previous high standards. Mike Norton isn’t a bad artist, his work here is never less than competent, but the man’s style is too clean for Conan’s world. Yes, there’s plenty of bloodletting and fantastic sights to behold, but it winds up feeling somewhat sterile in comparison to the raw intensity of Cary Nord and the detailed grit of Tomas Giorello. If their work is the “major motion picture” then Norton’s is the “made for TV movie.”
Even if the art is a letdown, the title is still good fun by “Conan” standards. It’s not an essential read, but it was entertaining enough to make me look forward to the second half of Thomas’ run. Of course, Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan recently relaunched the series, and I’m betting that’s when things will start getting REAL good again.