Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Guiu Vilanova
Colors: Michael Atiyeh
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
What They Say:
Xuthal, the city of eternal dreamers, is enthralled by the powerful black lotus plant’s mystical properties. When Conan and Natala learn the truth behind the sleeping citizens, can they escape or will they be doomed to share the city’s fate?
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
The dreaming city, Xuthal, lies in the middle of the desert outside Stygia. Once home to thousands of intelligent, technologically advanced people, its population hovers in the hundreds, the majority of them living their lives in the dreams induced by the oil of the black lotus. They sleep, they wake, they eat and love, and then sleep again, disappearing from the real world one nap at a time. The only one who remains awake is Thalis, a Stygian woman the Xuthals rescued from the desert. It is Thalis who tells Conan and Natala of the city’s history, and of the dark, ancient God that stalks its halls—Thog.
Most of the story revolves around worldbuilding, and it’s a testament to Van Lente, Vilanova, and Atiyeh that they made an issue that is roughly 75% talking be just as interesting and exciting as one dominated by action. Xuthal is equally wondrous and horrible. The settlers that created the city possessed vast scientific knowledge and technology, but as soon as they built the city, their focus turned inward and their lives became dominated by black lotus dreams to the point where their descendants tolerate the existence of a man-eating God that periodically preys on them.
And for my money, Thog can eat the lot of them. As a writer and professional daydreamer, I have no problem with them living a rich fantasy life, but their mindless, sheep-like attitude irritates me (Conan calls them out for this and their decadence), and their treatment of Thalis horrifies me. Although there are women in Xuthal, Thalis is exotic—not just because of her nationality, but because she fully exists in the waking world. The issue makes it clear that the dream world—while rich—is ephemeral and bloodless. Thalis possesses life and verve and because of that she is “the only thing for which a man among them will forgo his lotus dreams for a space.”
The flashback panels where we see Thalis’ rescue and introduction to Xuthal society are highly disturbing depending on one’s point of view (a point that Thalis herself makes in response to Conan’s dismissiveness of the Xuthal’s decadence). However, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I see panels that place me in Thalis’ point of view and a group of leering, groping men are staring right at me. Or the scenes where a men queue up to her bed, waiting their turn.
Thankfully, the comic presents Thalis as being in control of the situation, so that somewhat ameliorates the potential creepiness. However, the threat of gang rape by an entire city now hangs over Natala, and that gives me the jibblies.
So far this story arc has been odd in the way it depicts women. As I mentioned in the last review, Natala went from being a strong, capable woman ready to drag Thoth-Amon down to hell with her, to a more traditional, cowering woman dependent upon Conan. Thalis troubles me as well, because she fits the archetype of the seductress, ready to screw, manipulate, or murder to get what she desires. Now I want to make it clear that I don’t think this is intentional on the part of Van Lente. I’ve read too much of his work to think that he’s being sexist. It could be that I’m projecting onto this work certain assumptions or am reading into it aspects that aren’t actually there. It could also be that there are only two women present in the story, so there aren’t enough characters to provide a greater sense of contrast.
Those issues aside, I am enjoying this story arc. It makes for a nice change of pace from the previous one, and the worldbuilding and the atmosphere are excellent. Vilanova and Atiyeh do an excellent job of making Xuthal feel like a real place and injecting it with a sense of character and mystery. This arc is worth reading for the setting alone.
Although I find some issues with the way women are presented in this story, I’m still enjoying it. Van Lente has been doing a bangup job on Conan, and Vilanova and Atiyeh work great together. Right now, the setting is the main draw for me, but I’m also looking forward to seeing Conan bring this city to ruin. Dr. Josh gives this a…
Age Rating: 13+
Released By: Dark Horse
Release Date: May 27th, 2015