As part of his run on Conan Kurt Busiek sifted in stories produced with artist Greg Ruth concerning the barbarian’s younger days. When serialised they served as pleasing interruptions to the ongoing continuity and adaptations, while allowing extra time for regular series artist Cary Nord. Few suspected at the start that the occasional treats formed their own continuity, nor that the title was literal. The opening story sees Conan’s birth on the battlefield after his pregnant mother Fialla has prevented the death of his father Conaldar.

Busiek builds well around what’s known of Conan, an early example being Fialla instilling him with reverence for the Cimmerian god Crom, who watches all from a mountain top. Beginning with a Conan hanging around with other village kids, over a succession of stories Busiek builds the characteristics associated with the adult warrior, not just fighting skills, but the knowledge of when not to fight and when something other than brute force is required.

It’s suitable that in dealing with a younger Conan that Ruth isn’t what might be associated with a Conan artist. The power is undoubtedly there when needed, but Ruth always shows the consequences of violence, as per the sample page’s encounter with a big cat. The blood runs freely, but it’s a more honest vision of Conan’s hacking and slashing world than is usually seen in comics, and sometimes leads to exceptionally gruesome scenes. Ruth can provide an eye-catching image, the spread depicting Conan’s first encounter with sorcery an especially dynamic example, but tends to concentrate more on the movement of combat.

As Conan grows, Busiek reinforces comparisons with wild creatures, a chapter titled ‘Wild Cimmerian Bull’ having a double meaning, and he builds toward the tale of Conan’s first major battle. Robert E. Howard only mentioned Venarium in passing, although other writers, notably Harry Turtledove with Conan of Venarium, have fleshed out details. Busiek isn’t beholden to them though, and rounds off his own plots in the course of a phenomenally visceral battle spectacularly illustrated.

There’s more sword than sorcery to Born on the Battlefield, but that shouldn’t put anyone off. Busiek and Ruth deliver a plausible and compelling development of the brooding loner, and depart with him fully grown and ready to take on the world.

The stories are also available in the Epic Collections Out of the Darksome Hills, and The Heart of Yag-Kosha, and are included in Conan the Barbarian by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord Omnibus.