Review by Frank Plowright
Enough time has now passed that Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord’s reputation surely ranks alongside the Conan the Barbarian comics produced by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith or those by Thomas and John Buscema, although there are far more of the latter.
Robert E. Howard wrote his Conan stories as if they were chronicles of times past, with Conan long dead, and Busiek uses that as his way in by introducing a Prince and his shady advisor discovering scrolls telling of Conan’s exploits. These characters recur, and also form a continuing tale. Otherwise Busiek’s approach is to construct events leading to and from the relatively few Howard stories he adapts, showing how Conan found himself in the City of Thieves, and the consequences of a trip to the Tower of the Elephant.
Busiek’s own stories vary in form, and offer plenty of surprises to fool the reader. By and large he’s keener on trickery and action than sorcery, but rises to the occasion when Conan is beset by magic, and with Red Sonja seemingly unavailable Busiek supplies the similarly talented, but just different enough Janissa, whose backstory is suitably horrific.
Those familiar with Cary Nord’s previous superhero work may have been sceptical about his having the qualities necessary for Conan beforehand. His first story, though channels the spirit of Frank Frazetta book cover paintings, and while some of his earliest work lacks the necessary power, he grows into the task, loose to begin with, but his pencils becoming tighter, he takes an almost painterly approach in concentrating on figures and expressions. Some early stories feature layouts from Thomas Yeates, and it’s after that period that Nord’s art really falls into place. The sample spread supplies a page from his earliest and final work from the Omnibus.
Other artists also contribute, primarily Greg Ruth on series of stories about Conan growing up, issued separately as Born on the Battlefield, and Kelley Jones drawing the tale of how Thoth-Amon became a sorcerer, issued separately as Book of Thoth. Jones has a shadowy horror style suited to the monster Thoth-Amon is and his gruesome creations, while Ruth’s greatest strength is the hack and slash of combat. The other noted artists are all fine over one or two chapters.
Fabian Nicieza collaborates on a single story, while Wein works on the longer Thoth-Amon disclosures, and Mike Mignola follows Busiek’s pattern in writing two stories leading up to an adaptation of Howard’s ‘The Hall of the Dead’. These all move quickly with Mignola’s creepy intrusions nicely drawn by Nord. The other Howard stories adapted all provide the titles for slimmer paperbacks containing some of these stories, The Frost Giant’s Daughter, The God in the Bowl and The Tower of the Elephant, while The Blood-Stained Crown collects some work from Busiek alongside stories by others. Two of Marvel’s Epic collections also present the material in cheaper paperback editions, Out of the Darksome Hills and The Heart of Yag-Kosha.
Oversized hardbacks are too common these days, but for Conan fans this is worth the money. While there’s some stuttering at the start, more on Nord’s part, it quickly evaporates, and these are Conan stories to stand the test of time, presenting the barbarian’s many moods, and not always in a good light, but always thrillingly.