Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Brian Ching, Guiu Villanova
Color: Michael Atiyeh
Letters: Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
What they say:
Fred Van Lente adapts Robert E. Howard’s ”Xuthal of the Dusk” and ”A Witch Shall Be Born.” A heartbroken Conan travels to the desert to peddle his sword arm and seek ancient treasure. But there will be little time for mourning when Conan encounters his nemesis, the Stygian necromancer Thoth-Amon! Collects Conan Vol. 18: The Damned Horde (Conan the Avenger #7-12), Conan Vol. 19: Xuthal of the Dusk (Conan the Avenger #13-#19), and Conan Vol. 20: A Witch Shall Be Born (Conan the Avenger #20-#25).
Content: (please note that content portions may contain spoilers)
Losing Belit has sent Conan’s world into disarray. He finds himself wandering through the desert with no water and only the mute slave girl at his side. Usually, this would mean the end, but not for this rough and tumble hero from the wilds of Cimmeria. Via flashback, we see that Conan has come to his current predicament by assaulting a large city with a band of raiders, only to be double-crossed by a man from his past who wants the slave girl for himself. What is unique about this series is the fact that a good portion of the narrative is split away from the main hero. Diana, the slave girl and her sister Natala, were once part of the ruling family of Nemedia. In their story, we see them at the heights of civilization only to be cast down as slaves. Great work by Van Lente here because it forms an attachment to someone other than the hero, which we see again with Janissa the Widowmaker. Once Conan reunites the sisters we get a peek at the mastermind of Diana and Natala’s hardships, Thoth-Amon! The high priest of Set has been the hand behind the sisters’ plight since jump street. Thoth-Amon unleashes a plague that consumes Conan’s band of raiders. While Conan heals in a cave, the wizard takes form, ensnaring the barbarian with a giant snake and absconding with the young Natala. With a gigantic snake constricting his body Conan manages to snap one of its fangs, plunging it upwards into its brain. With the band of raiders under the effects of a spell the assault the Cimmerian before realizing that he has been infected by the deadly plague.
The deadly wizard has taken Natala to the ‘hoard’ that her late husband uncovered through years of research. What he didn’t know was the translation was horde. An immense hoard of Set’s first followers, each a powerful reptilian, engulf the wizard and his unhappy guest. Stumbling through the wastelands Conan and Diana stumble upon the horde and the Cimmerian leaps into action side-by-side with his archnemesis, Thoth-Amon.
Which brings us back to the opening pages of the Away in the distance a sprawling town of towers and high walls comes into focus. The inhabitants, an ancient civilization addicted to black lotus, spend the majority of their lives in a trance produced by the plant. Guiu Villanova takes the helm on pencils here and being a huge Darick Robertson fan, it was an epic shift change from Brian Ching’s more comic style.
I’m not sure how many times Conan has met a mysterious woman in a crypt, but that must be his kryptonite because he ALWAYS gets sucked in (bad pun) by them. Thalis, the only real lady of the evening in the tripped out city, kidnaps Diana and tries to feed her to a great beat Thaug. Conan swoops in at just the right time, taking the atrocious monster down before climbing from the highest tower with the damsel firmly in tow. Accosted by a sandstorm, the fleeing pair is forced to take up arms with yet another roving band of raiders.
It’s taken time, but Janissa the Widowmaker finally reappears after several years. Janissa lost her family to brigands because she couldn’t defend them. In her grief, she turns to the Bone Woman, who places Janissa in a living hell, only to spit her out as a fierce warrior. I won’t go into detail about the training, but it’s INTENSE and heartbreaking. She arrives and goes round and round with her old friend Conan, as a symbol of their friendship. As the titanic clash comes to an end, the Bone Woman makes her say. Thinking her dead, Janissa wasn’t expecting the ancient Nazu to lay siege to their temporary lodgings.
Taramis is the noble queen of Khauran, and she is about to have a change in lifestyle. Unbeknownst to her, she has a twin sister. She was informed that the child died at birth, but that’s not makings for a good story. Salome is the doppelganger and also a powerful witch. She changes identities with Taramis and ruins the kingdom of Khauran with her betrothed, the loathsome Constantius. Conan, who is the head of Taramis’ royal guard, gets his bell rung and wakes up crucified in the desert. This section reminds me of the Tree of Woe scene in Conan the Barbarian. It weirdly links the two with a change in art styles and places our hero in a familiar situation. The Cimmerian is freed by a local outlaw and over time takes over his band, leading it against the corrupt queen and her lecherous beau.
I can’t say enough how well Fred Van Lente has adapted and created one of my favorite heroes. His pairing with Brian Ching was inspired and has created some legendary Conan moments that stand up with Robert E. Howard’s original. The art styles in the book aren’t limited to Ching. Guiu is quickly becoming an in-demand artist, and with pages like he turned in here, I can see why.
Age Rating: 14+
Release Date: November 14, 2018
Released By: Dark Horse Comics