Writer: Kurt Busiek
Illustrator: Cary Nord
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A critically acclaimed and highly entertaining return to the Hyborian Age, with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord at the helm to translate Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories into comics.
Valiant fans, take note: Conan’s world is the genesis of a lot of stuff that you love. OG Marvel fans, take note: blasphemously, these are better than the Conan comics you grew up with.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Everyone’s favorite Cimmerian grabs life by the throat as he journeys north to the frozen wastes to test his mettle against men, gods and the elements. Among other things.
It hasn’t been long since Conan left his native land to chase the stories of adventure and wonder his grandfather told him about - namely, the northerly paradise of Hyperborea, where the gentle endless sunshine and idyllic paradise of existence sees men at their peak. Conan must slay his way through Aesir to get there, and when he arrives it’s not quite what he expected.
The tone. Busiek and Nord absolutely nail Howard’s changeable barbarian, and a young Conan is a delightful thing to behold. His humor, moods and dreams are at work in these early stories, and while never idealistic, there’s something gently youthful and pure about him as his hopes are dashed by the brutality of magic and civilization.
Nord knows how to draw a kinetic hero, and Conan’s physique is constantly on display. Kudos to Busiek for tossing a “pantherish” in there to describe the man, too.
Something old, something new and a little borrowed, to boot. Busiek weaves a full narrative out of one of Howard’s original tales and even gives the origin speech a little depth, too. I don’t trust that snake-eyed adviser, and neither should you.
The colors. Even waist-deep in snow and blood and offal, Conan’s world is vibrant. The Aesir are sun-drenched and fierce and the Hyperboreans are the perfect shade of withered ennui.
The ladies. Female physique was just as important to Howard as his endless descriptions of Conan’s heaving thews, and Nord pays special attention to the voluptuous bodies while making sure Conan’s as scantily clad as they are.
This town bites. Busiek understands the appeal of the barbarian, and Howard’s disdain for the trappings of civilization. The Hyperboreans are cruel and withered husks of their former selves, their paradise a sham and their gods a sick punctuation mark on their existence. Howard was dead set against the softness and guile of the men around him in life and it bleeds through very clearly in his stories. Busiek captures it in these comics exceptionally well.
The lettering hits that operatic note without too much padding in the balloons or dominating the page with text.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Strong violence might not be the best for very little ones, but these might be fun to read together if your kiddo is looking for some adventure stories.
While Nord hits some of the melodrama very nicely, facial expressions often look a little weird or jarring in the heat of the moment. It’s hard to draw in such detail on a timetable, and with no inks to boot. Nevertheless, while Conan is a man of many faces he’s often a little googly-eyed for my taste.
We lose a little detail without inks. The vibrancy and subtle changes in color palette save it, but the art can get washy. Nord’s line fluctuates in looseness at times, and inks would help reign that in.
With such detail in some of the battle scenes, there’s one at the beginning where Conan’s outfit isn’t quite right from one panel to the next. It might feel nit-picky, but those details are important in these stories and they occasionally stand out.
Conan’s a man of few words at times, and he’s chattier in this version of his youth. There are a few small moments where focusing in on just the dark threat of murder in his eyes would be best served with a wordless panel.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
There is something in Conan for everyone. I repeat, there is something in Conan for everyone. It’s deadly serious, completely ridiculous, wildly imaginative and endlessly entertaining. Sacking cities, wooing women, drinking and fighting and killing and chasing gods and dreams - these stories are what we cut our teeth on as comics fans, and with Busiek at the helm there’s excellent control and sophistication at play to balance Howard’s more problematic takes on culture, race and gender.
I span oodles of reading demographics in comics right now, and it’s possible to appreciate the man who will someday rule Aquilonia as a study in gender, sexuality and high adventure, too. Ask me how!
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith
Astro City by Kurt Busiek & Brent Anderson
Monstress by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
If you like the art:
X-O Manowar by Robert Venditti & Cary Nord
Incursion by Andy Diggle, Alex Paknadel & Doug Braithwaite
Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Kurt Busiek – Writer
He’s done most of your favorite titles at Marvel and DC, and his creator-owned series, Astro City, houses the seminal non-Big 2 superhero universe.
His characters often grapple with memory, grief, madness and the nature of humanity without losing sight of that ephemeral weirdness that makes comics so great.
He’s a lot of fun to talk to on Twitter, and endlessly generous with his knowledge of the medium.
Cary Nord – Artist
He won an Eisner for his work on this book for Best Single Issue.
If you’ve read and loved Daredevil in the past couple decades, you’re likely familiar with his work.
Outlander: He’s a Canadian, from Alberta.
Dave Stewart – Colorist
He’s currently working on Silver Surfer: Black with Donny Cates, Tradd Moore and Clayton Cowles.
He also worked with Kurt Busiek on their Superman run over at DC.
He has an adorable tuxedo cat.
Richard Starkings – Letterer
He’s a digital lettering guru, and is credited with being one of its pioneers.
He founded Comicraft in 1992.
Outlander: He’s a Brit, as many fine folks in the industry are.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
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