Review by Frank Plowright
For fans of swords and sorcery seeing new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories is always a treat. However, The Cimmerian offers the additional joy of presenting artists with a long track record in Europe without much, if any of their work previously having been translated into English. Two more are supplied in this volume. Anthony Jean’s career began in the early 21st century and he’s toned down his cartooning for a more realistic Conan. Valentin Sécher’s track record isn’t as long, only stretching back to 2011, but his form of illustrative realism is both very much in the tradition of French historical comics while taking in the influence of illustrators.
‘Beyond the Black River’ sees Conan in his mercenary days protecting a colony he knows is doomed due to lack of reinforcements committed to the local fort, aware that it will eventually be over-run by the Picts, but in the meantime he’s tasked with killing a sorcerer. Mathieu Gabella is mistakenly credited for art when his part is adapting Howard’s story, but he’s worked with Jean previously on the medieval mysticism of La Licorne’s four volumes. Jean’s Conan is deliberately distanced from the long-haired brute in a loincloth. He’s given clothing and a haircut, but maintains his imposing personality in what’s a fantastic artistic outing. Jean takes the mood of the original short story and delivers an expansive rendering, with atmospheric locations and detailed environments, much taking place in darkness. The sorcery present accounts for giant beasts, grandly supplied by Jean.
Conan’s capabilities are viewed through a young settler named Balthus, whom he first meets in the forest, and then accompanies on the mission to deal with the sorceror. It’s a dark and unpredictable tale given a real world anchor via the background of political expediencies, and this stirring adaptation is a real triumph.
‘Hour of the Dragon’ is a longer story, a complete serialised novel in Howard’s original form, and also known as ‘Conan the Conqueror’. It’s set late in Conan’s career when he’s ruling Aquilonia, and there’s a plot to depose him via the sorcerous resurrection of a ruler from a previous era, a cruel and malicious man named Xaltoun. This isn’t a story greatly rated by Conan experts due to its retreading familiar ground, which gives it a disjointed feeling, but more so than many others seen in The Cimmerian Julien Blondel doesn’t feel constrained by Howard’s work. He cuts some dull discussions, contracts the time it occupies, and he realises combining so many aspects found in a good Conan story makes for plenty of visual opportunities, which Sécher grasps amazingly well. The sample art shows his willingness to supply battlefield detail well beyond the effort other artists would make, a great cinematic sweep, but that also applies to his small panels, each an effective portrait. Blondel and Sécher combine for one hell of a grand statement.
There’s been some great work in previous volumes of The Cimmerian, but this is the best combination to date. As ever, the comics are accompanied by the original story text, and by the covers to the serialised issues. All four volumes are also combined in a slipcase edition.