Steel is always steel and Conan is always Conan, but not all stories live up to the character.
What They Say:
When a case of mistaken identity leaves Conan accused of witchcraft, the Cimmerian finds himself the target of the powerful and deadly Agara—witch hunter of Kush! But as the warrior and the wizard quarrel, an evil force plots to eliminate them both!
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Brian Ching
Colors: Michael Atiyeh
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
For a time life was very good for Conan. He had a lover and equal with the pirate queen Bêlit, and together they ransacked the coast of Hyborea and took what they pleased. But, as historians and poets alike love to tell us, all good things must come to an end, and Conan is once again alone—his beloved and their pirate crew dead. Aimless, Conan wanders to the land of Kush where, after a legendary drunk, he wakes up to find his clothes and kit stolen and his body painted with tattoos. The Cimmerian chases after the thief, but when he reaches his target he is attacked by the witch hunter Agara, whose auguries have lead him straight to the warrior.
In proper comic book fashion, the two fight. Agara might have beaten Conan with his magic (sanctioned by the Gods, thus elevating it above witchcraft), but the witch—backed into a corner by the two fighters—sends a horde of zombies after them in order to effect his escape. Agara and Conan join forces to track down the witch, and their hunt leads them to a necropolis that may prove to be their final resting place.
One of the aspects of Conan’s character that makes him so popular is his consistency. It’s very hard to screw up his character or tell a bad Conan story so long as the writer understands what makes the Cimmerian tick, and realizes that he and his adventures are really rather simple at heart. The worst Conan stories try to add too much complexity and motivation. For example, as much as I love the original John Milius, Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan movie, it wasn’t really a Conan story.
Thankfully the writers, artists, and editors at Dark Horse understand this and they have done admirably by Robert E. Howard’s barbarian. And this is the reason why I can dive right back into this series despite the fact I haven’t kept up with it in the past two years. Conan is consistent when written well (as he is here) and it doesn’t take much to get up to speed on where he’s been and what he’s doing.
In this particular issue we have one of my favorite Conan themes: his distrust of magic and wizardry. There’s a great line near the end of the comic where Conan says, “Wizards! Pfah! Your power waxes and wanes with the moon—while steel is always steel!” This attitude speaks to Howard’s longstanding distrust of civilization. Wizardry could easily been construed as a metaphor for education and the general trappings of civilization: it’s mutable, it’s unreliable, and it’s rarely effective. Steel in this case is like barbarism: it’s honest, it’s strong, and it’s reliable. As a worldview it’s rather masculinist and more than a little fascist, which actually makes it rather appealing. It’s the power fantasy of the superman—the man who through strength of will and body cleaves a path for himself through the world, takes what he wants, and cares nothing for the consequences. In the real world, of course, this is problematic to say the least, but in a fantasy, it’s invigorating.
Now that all being said, the real reasons why I enjoyed this story were the fact that it starred Conan and the great, kinetic artwork of Brian Ching. As much as I like Fred Van Lente as a writer, if this were a story about some generic barbarian (say, for the sake of argument, Skyhawk the Untamed) and not Conan, then my enjoyment of the story would be far less. It’s not because Van Lente did a poor job telling the story, it’s just that this is a rather by-the-numbers Conan tale. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but when you’ve consumed as many Conan short stories and comics as I have, it becomes a case of “been there, done that.” There are, however, two plot threads that should make the rest of the series interesting: first, Conan is haunted by his lost Bêlit. He sees her ghost and it’s intimated that he is the reason why she remains: his grief pins her to this world. That could make for some powerful stories in the future and it fits quite well with Conan’s character. The second thread is Agara’s request that Conan help him in hunting down the witch. Conan’s natural antipathy towards magic alone makes this more than the regular mercenary job he typically takes and contains the seeds for potentially rich inner and outer conflicts in the issues to come.
In addition to that, Brian Ching’s art is incredibly fun to look at and suits the character and story very well. His style reminds me of one of my favorite modern Conan artists—Cary Nord—even if he does draw the barbarian slightly smaller. There’s a rough-hewn quality to his line work that fits the rough-hewn quality of Conan, and yet the manner in which he portrays movement is incredibly fluid and dynamic. In general his style is more expressive and there are panels where he uses broad forms to suggest more than tell. He has a real eye for knowing when to when to add detail and how much. Plus, his Conan is ugly. Conan is an attractive character, but more due to his personality and physical power than the beauty of his face. There’s one panel in particular that I enjoyed where Conan devises a particularly nasty way to dispatch his enemies using a forge and bellows. The grin on his face is hideous and very, very Conan.
While the story itself is a pretty by-the-numbers Conan tale (sorry Fred Van Lente, I’m a big fan!), the art, the strength of the character, and the plot threads laid here pave the way for stronger issues in the future. At the very least, it’s a fun, exciting adventure story starring everyone’s favorite Barbarian, and there are definitely worst things in the world than that. Recommended.