REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian #1

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Today sees the release of the first issue of the latest Conan the Barbarian title from Dark Horse Comics. The new series from writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan is an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story, Queen of the Black Coast. Originally published in the magazine Weird Tales in 1934, the new comic series (Volume 3 from Dark Horse) will expand on the original story and will run through 2014.

Spoilers for Conan the Barbarian #1 will follow.

KevinMLD: So this is indeed an adaptation. I’m not sure if all of Dark Horse’s Conan books are direct adaptations, but I know some of Busiek’s work came right from the original stories.

PTB: I’ve never read a Conan comic book before, but it was a big Marvel property when I first started reading comics years ago. It’s hard to believe Dark Horse has been publishing Conan comics since 2003.

KevinMLD: I was a big fan of Dark Horse’s first Conan title when Kurt Busiek was writing it. It was a really fun series at the time, but I dropped it when he left the book.

PTB: It’s funny you mention “the book” as there’s now a whole line of Conan books being published at Dark Horse. Much like their Star Wars line, the various Conan books are set during different periods spread across his lifetime.

KevinMLD: I know there were a lot of Conan comics published when I was a kid, but for most of the years that I was actually reading comics, he’s been absent so it seems crazy to me that the character is able to support multiple titles even if they’re set in different eras of his life. Of course when you know that Conan will eventually become King Conan, each early years adventure poses very little danger to the character. Though the same thing can be said for any “Year One” type story and yet there have been some great ones at other publishers over the years.

This particular series caught my interest due to Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Vertigo roots.

PTB: Brian Wood has been on my radar recently as he’s writing an X-Men: Regenesis book called Wolverine: Alpha and Omega that also ships today. I’m not familiar with his work, but I definitely recognize his name from his strong comics pedigree (Channel Zero, Demo, Local, DMZ, Northlanders, and The Massive). Wood is credited for the script here as this is an adaptation, and I liked that the seal of Howard’s official license appears unobtrusively on the cover. It’s a nice way to acknowledge and inform. I also found the use of typewriter font unexpected for the narration in a Conan book, but it’s appropriate when you consider it’s adapting a short story from the 1930s.

The book features a strong cover image from Massimo Carnevale who we’ve seen work on a number of Dark Horse titles, including Orchid, Buffy and Dollhouse. Once you get inside the book, Becky Cloonan’s art is an interesting combination of heavy lines and an unexpected openness. I believe this is the first time I’m seeing her work and I like it. It’s a good match for this story. Cloonan also provided a variant cover image that I think I prefer on its own merits. It’s more suited to the issue and series, but Carnevale’s is more typical of a first issue.

KevinMLD: I like the cover a great deal, but I can’t help but think Carnevale used a baseball card as a photo reference for Conan’s pose. I was a big fan of Cloonan’s work on Vertigo’s American Virgin. And in an era where it’s a challenge to find more than a handful of women employed creatively at Marvel and DC, it is certainly interesting to see Dark Horse employing a female artist on one of their most high profile launches in recent memory and a “macho” title like Conan no less. Maybe DC and Marvel will learn something from Dark Horse’s example if this title is a success. Having said that, if I remember correctly Cloonan had been the planned artist for a recently cancelled Doom book with Nick Spencer at Marvel.

The issue opens with Conan being chased by the Messantia Court Guardsmen and him leaping onto a ship leaving port to escape. When challenged about whether he can pay for the voyage by the ship’s crewmen, Conan threatens to kill everyone on the ship. That’s a pretty great introducion to Conan the Barbarian.

PTB: The thing that stood out most to me here is how talkative Conan is. This took me completely be surprise only knowing the character from other media.

KevinMLD: This is one of the things I’ve enjoyed about Dark Horse’s Conan as opposed to the films including the recent one starring Jason Momoa. Yes, he’s a total badass who revels in violence. But he’s also charismatic and there’s an infectious element to the fun he has chasing women, drinking and pursuing adventures with his comrades.

PTB: It was a lot of fun reading a chatty barbarian share his story with the crew of the Argus. Their dialogue also introduced some of the threats we may see as the series goes forward.

KevinMLD: I think it’s interesting that for the most part Conan explains how he came to be pursued by the guardsmen rather than Wood and Cloonan showing us the events in greater detail. It’s quite a tale and by seeing Conan narrate it to his new crewmen we get a sense of how they start to see him as more than just an intruder.

PTB: Conan #1 serves as a good first issue. It felt like you knew the title character in just a few panels even if you’re not all that familiar with his previous adventures. It also used a bit of mystery to drive the action toward issue #2.

KevinMLD: It struck me as a little light on action for a first issue of a new Conan series, but what it lacks in action it compensates for with character moments. And Belit, the Black Queen looks like she’ll be a powerful foe in the coming months.

Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian #1 is available today at your local comic book store and digitally later today. For readers in New York City, Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan will be signing copies of Conan #1 at Midtown Comics Downtown today from 6pm to 7pm.

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