Review by Jamie McNeil
Think Conan the Barbarian and you might think Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Millius’ 1982 cult film, while Jason Mamoa certainly looked the part for the 2011 remake. Both films were inspired by pulp stories written by author Robert E. Howard, widely considered to be a progenitor of sword and sorcery. The character’s increased popularity and move from literature into film actually owes a great deal to the comic series published by Marvel from the 1970s to the 1990s, superbly curated by Dark Horse in The Chronicles of Conan.
Writer Roy Thomas acquired the rights from the Howard Estate and set to work on the script, Barry Windsor-Smith (hired mostly because he cost less than first choice John Buscema) illustrating the barbarian in a way that would set the series apart. When Dark Horse acquired the rights for Conan they digitally restored every issue published under Marvel, and thanks to technological improvements display just how good it is.
Volume One introduces us to the brooding raven-haired Cimmerian. ‘The Coming of Conan’ is set a year after his first battle, when Conan is a mercenary for the Aesir in their constant border wars against the Vanir. An ancient shaman and a mysterious stone stone give the young warrior his trademark distaste for sorcery. ‘Lair of the Beast-Men’ is the weakest tale here, but at the same time vintage sword and sorcery, the title speaking for itself.
The first adaptation of Howard’s original stories is ‘The Twilight of the Grim Grey God!’, a tale concerning the passing of ancient gods, the fall of kings, and the chaos of war. Thomas and Smith really coalesce here, more evident in their next adaptation of ‘The Tower of the Elephant!’ Nominated for Best Story in 1972, this is classic sword and sorcery with towers, wizards, mystical artefacts and arcane creatures. It’s also quite an emotional piece, and Smith’s artistry expresses the story in sync with Thomas’ dialogue. The comely wench Jenna appears in ‘Devil-Wings over Shadizar’ and features over the next few issues. ‘The Lurker Within!’ adapts another Howard tale (The God in the Bowl) and runs over into ‘The Keepers of the Crypt’, both of which heavily feature treasure, sorcery, wenches, monsters and more wenches.
Thomas both adapted and wrote his own stories and, while most comics were dialogue-heavy during this period, the verbose style is a nice flourish that suits Conan rather than impairs it. He had no special powers, little to no sense of humour and was morally very grey, yet Thomas slowly developed Conan’s personality into someone very relatable. Smith in turn had an artistic vision, employing big frames to help create a moody and intense atmosphere. This Conan is lithe and muscular, Smith convincing you that Conan can scale walls and engage in combat with remarkable agility. The artistic progression is just astounding over these first eight issues, the digital re-touching for these books improving the quality a hundred-fold. While the writing and artwork is still developing here, Smith went on to win the SHAZAM award for Best New Talent and Thomas the award for Best Writer. Their prime collaborations are still to come, but readers are in for some cracking stories.
The series continues in Rogues in the House and Other Stories. These tales can be found in The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives Volume 1 also by Dark Horse, and additionally in Essential Conan published by Marvel.