Review by Rob Walton
Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were first published in Weird Tales Magazine from 1932, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the character gained traction in the pop culture imagination through a series of paperbacks from Lancer/Ace, which caught the attention of Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics. The 1960s age of superheroes was winding down and the industry was ready for something new. Thanks to the growing popularity of Lord of the Rings, that something was Conan.
This volume reprints the first 26 issues of the colour comic along with ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ and ‘The Dweller in the Dark’ in their uncensored black and white magazine versions, so collecting Barry Smith’s historic run in its entirety with the original colours restored. Thomas’ ten page introduction provides the complete backstory as to how Conan became a comic.
Smith began his career as a Jack Kirby clone and Kirby’s influence is felt in the early stories, but Smith evolves quickly. His first masterpiece, ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ showcases him as a gifted storyteller. His ornate art infuses the tale with genuine pathos, as memorable now as it was in 1971.
‘Rogues in the House’ is the next highlight, seeing his storytelling become more cinematic, drawing in “real time” with panels that mimic frames of film, achieving powerful moments of near animation. Unfortunately, the effort required to draw at such a sustained level put a strain on the production and Thomas had to assign a number of inkers to some stories in order to keep to schedule, so the quality of the finished art is inconsistent. The latter half of ‘Hawks from the Sea’ was reproduced directly from Smith’s pencils. Happily that is not the case with ‘Rogues’ inked with a deft brush by Sal Buscema. ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ sees Smith ink as well as colour the story. The results are stunning, and the adaptation of one Howard’s most famous tales is superlative.
Smith’s swansong is ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ famous for its introduction of Red Sonja (even though she quietly debuts in ‘The Shadow of the Vulture’). Once again, Smith pencils, inks and colours while reaching new heights of style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, among others. The final two stories wrap up the epic eight chapter ‘War of the Tarim’ storyline, bringing John Buscema on as artist. Paired with Ernie Chan (Chau)’s inks, they would take Conan to subsequent heights of popularity over the next several years.
Not to be forgotten, ‘The Coming of Elric’, features Conan clashing with Michael Moorcock’s famous creation. Plotted by Moorcock, the story works well and concludes on a poignant note. Thomas pays close attention to the secondary characters throughout the series, where both men and women are equally heroic, ambitious, scheming, thieving, and ready to exploit any situation to their advantage.
Drawn from a literary source, the stories don’t suffer badly from dating, and both story and art hold up very well. The quality may vary according to taste, but the consistency overall remains excellent. This volume captures all the early excitement and expectations of an industry-changing course as readers and artists matured and were ready to venture away from the comfort of their superhero soap operas into the unknown realms of magic, myth and heroic legend. Generous extras are offered, including reproduction of original art, essays, and even more of Thomas’ personal recollections.