Review: Conan The Barbarian #1 Crush Your Enemies, See them Driven Before You, and Hey Check out that Half-Naked Goth Chick!

Writer by:  Brian Wood
Art by:  Becky Cloonan
Colors by :  Dave Stewart
Letterer by :  Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Cover by :  Massimo Carnevale
Publisher:  Dark Horse

Conan is awesome. I have very fond memories of seeing the movies when I was a kid. I remember first seeing a trailer for Conan the Barbarian  while I was laid up in the hospital getting over an intestinal flu. I couldn’t wait to get better and go check it out in the theaters.,The first was an epic sword and sandal classic like no other before. It had demons, giant snakes, cults, orgies, magic, and a brilliant score. I even liked Conan the Destroyer, which was vastly inferior as a movie, but equally brutal in terms of monsters, battle, and blood. It was more a quest kind of adventure that felt like a dungeons and dragon module. There was bizarre cults, wizard battles and human sacrifice. One of the first comics I ever bought was a Conan one from the early 80’s. It what first got interested in drawing. I even read a few of Robert E. Howard Conan novels with Frazetta covers which were a bit tough for a junior high-school kid like me to get through. They were dry, light on monsters and really kind of drawn out with lot’s of talk of wenches and ale. That was the first time I kind of got let down by the character. So I gave the books a pass, eventually got into other things and kind of forgot about Conan. When this new 2011 Conan movie came out I was disappointed again. I took me 3 times just to get through the thing, I kept on falling asleep. Whatever magic pull Conan had on me when I was younger had all but vanished. I know that Dark Horse had been keeping the Conan comics alive and kicking since the early 2000’s. The covers have always been great but I’ve never been compelled by writer or interior art to get it a proper shot. When I heard that DMZ and Northlanders writer Brian Wood was on scripting and Beck Cloonan was on art duties I thought I’d give it a crack. I was a big fan of early DMZ and I’ve read a handful of Northlanders books that really kicked ass. I figured if anyone could get the tone right it would be Brian. Becky Cloonan I’m not so familiar with. I’ve seen some of her art for her mini-comic Wolves that looked really stark and cool, so why not.

I wasn’t expecting this. Not in a million years. Wood and Cloonan have reinvented Conan into a likable self-aware rogue. He’s like your drunk friend that’s always at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting into fights, and causing a shit-ton of trouble, escaping with a few bruises and good story to tell. Not a frat boy, mind-you, more like the punk kid from the wrong-side of the tracks kind of friend. The dude that always had your back in high school, but broke anything that you lent him and never paid you back. Conan is impulsive and selfish (he’s a barbarian)but has a pretty big heart and ego to match. He just escaped from a clusterfuck on to a boat, and basically hi-jacks the thing in order to escape the wrath of a corrupt city guard. There’s a brief showdown with the captain which leads to nice exchange:

“Have you silver to pay for passage, barbarian?”

“I pay with Steel.”

This attitude feels right at home with the Conan I know and love from the movies. Yet it’s different. He’s got a bit more a playful almost light-hearted spirit. He’s not a burdened by tragedy and fueled by revenge like in the movies. Nor is he as dim-witted. This is more than I bargained for. I genuinely like this version miles above the original movie Conan. There’s a lot more depth and swagger to him. He’s not just a brute that can kick-ass, but someone who can con his way out of situation if he need’s to. He does that here. Conan regaled the captain and crew with a tale about how he was drunk at a tavern while the captain of the guard was killed over the mistreating of  a maiden. He was passed-out and picked up because all other suspects left. Sobering up in the court he realized how fucked he was about to be and grab his sword and battled his way out of there, only to be chased to the boat. He wins over the crew with his story.

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Nathan_Explosion_vs_conanCloonan’s Conan (say that five times fast) looks like a healthy Nathan Explosion from Dethklok. He’s in his early 20’s and doesn’t have the muscle-bound body builder physique that is commonly associated without the character. He kind of just looks like a viking dude with long straight black hair that can kick some ass. At first I wasn’t so sure Cloonan’s style was right for this book. There’s any early double-page spread of Conan looking over his should during a chase that looked rather simplistic and crude, and did not evoke feeling of the epic age of Hyboria. There is a few spots where this happens and the set-piece backdrop fails to impress.  Her simplified cartoony-style just doesn’t work with a straight forward composition. Let’s face it, a lack detail does not take the breath away. However when she brings it in to the close-quarters and talking heads, you can get the real personality of the people she draws. Their expressions come through and tell the story in an economical way. I immediately know who Conan is as young barbarian. I get that the striking Queen of The Black Coast is an insane and sexy succubus and the captain is solid guy just trying to make his way in the world. Dave Stewart’s coloring compliments Cloonan’s emotive combination of dry-brush inking and fluid lines with a desaturated color palette. It completes the whole package and tone of the book and firmly places it on the fresh side of “indy”. You can tell straight-away this is not your typical sword and sandal Conan and runs a bit off the beaten path.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PQ6335puOc?rel=0]

Even thought this a different direction for Conan it’s a good set-up issue. My main critique of this right now is that we are missing battle, grandiose backgrounds, and a bit of fantasy. Off-beat or not, those three ingredients are crucial to a successful Conan. I think we’ll get them soon enough, but I  could have used a bit more of a taste in the first issue. In the meantime there’s a lot that’s working right now. Conan’s personality is different from what I remember but it works. It makes him a bit unpredictable and therefore more interesting. I suspect some traditional Conan fans might have an issue with it though. Conversational dialogue style blended with romanticized narrative caption makes for easy and enjoyable read. The sexuality of the Queen of the Black Coast leaps off the page and in to your lap. She is simply stunning. That gothic beauty will keep all the fanboys coming back for more. Becky Cloonan rendered her in the most compelling way imaginable and really heats up the pages of book with her presence. All in all the Conan reboot is a solid first issue and has me hooked for more.

Story: 7/10
Art: 6.5/10

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Matthew Sardo
As the founder of Monkeys Fighting Robots, I'm currently training for my next job as an astronaut cowboy. Reformed hockey goon, comic book store owner, video store clerk, an extra in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' 'Welcome Back Freshman,' and for one special day, I was a Ghostbuster.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Robert E. Howard only wrote one Conan novel, “The Hour of the Dragon,” and since the last ways I’d describe that tale are “dry,” “light on monsters” and “drawn out with lots of talk of wenches and ale” I’m pretty sure you’re referring to one of the innumerable novels written by another author, which were taking up shelf space all through the ’70s and ’80s.

    In fact, this story is a direct adaptation of one of Robert E. Howard’s most celebrated short stories: much of the things you give praise to the comic (Conan being more intelligent, wily, etc) were straight from the original. “Have you silver to pay for your passage/I pay with steel” is almost verbatim, for instance. There are lots of little differences, but the basic sequence of events is the same.

    The only thing which I do have issue with is the “likeable, self-aware rogue” characterisation of Conan: this is consistent with a more mature, confident Conan, but at this stage in his career (in the original story) he’s a bit more guarded and self-conscious, though still with a sense of entitlement and very brash. You see this more gregarious, charismatic, fun-loving Conan in later (chronologically) stories like “The Pool of the Black One” and “The Devil in Iron.”

    • Al, thanks for the thoughtful comment and straight up schooling me. My memory is admittedly blurry from my junior high days when I was reading Conan books. I never read the “Queen of The Black Coast” story so I honestly couldn’t tell what was from the original and what parts were adapted. Looks like I have some homework to do!

      You’re obviously a fan, have you read the comic? Aside from the slight mis-characterisation of Conan did you have any other issues with it? What did you think of the art?

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