Marvel Relaunches Conan the Barbarian

Yesterday saw the return of Conan the Barbarian to Marvel Comic’s fold with the release of Conan the Barbarian #1 or Legacy Issue 276. After reading the first issue I have a few thoughts.

Conan stormed into the world in The Phoenix on the Sword as published in Weird Tales in December 1932. Robert E. Howard’s creation was a great success creatively. Howard painted a savagely palpable world that we saw through the eyes of a restless northern barbarian. Howard continued to write Conan until his death in 1936, and afterwards, Conan continued to appear in print with pastiches from the likes of Lin Carter, Karl Wagner, and L. Sprague de Camp.

In 1970, thanks to Roy Thomas, Conan appeared in comic book form for the first time. Marvel continued to publish Conan stories, in one form or another, until 2000. Conan disappeared from comics until Dark Horse Comics took up his cause from 2003 to 2017. In 2018 Marvel reacquired Conan and now we have our first issue of the new Marvel incarnation of Conan.

The first story, written by Jason Aaron (Avengers, Thor) is grandly titled The Life & Death of Conan. There has been much written about the life of Conan, however, there is no clear idea of how he dies. To attempt to write the death of the iconic barbarian is an ambitious project.

Cover of Conan the Barbarian #1/276 by Esad Ribic from Marvel Comics (c) 2019.
Cover of Conan the Barbarian #1/276 by Esad Ribic from Marvel Comics (c) 2019.

This first story is drawn by Mahmud Asrar (Supergirl). I would say the artwork for Conan the Barbarian #1/276 is good but not exceptional. Asrar’s style is clear but is stylistic rather than realistic. This is not necessarily a bad thing but the images are less impactful as a result. There is also lacking in what Asrar chooses (or has been told) to show. Yes, there is large amounts of blood and several deaths, but the way the violence has been presented is 12A/PG-13 rather than 18/R.

An example of Mahmud Asrar's artwork in Conan the Barbarian #1. Marvel Comics (c) 2019.
An example of Mahmud Asrar’s artwork in Conan the Barbarian #1. Marvel Comics (c) 2019.

The story written by Jason Aaron is a decent start for a sword and sorcery fantasy and not atypical of Conan. We are taken between two periods of Conan’s life; when he is a young man and later when he is King of Aquilonia and how events of the former return to affect the events of the later. The story itself is interesting and has the potential to end up as something quite exciting. However, I found the use of language rather timid at times. Howard’s writing resonates with readers because his word choice leaves no ambiguity.

Aaron has not written a bad story and it’s the small details that dilute this story. Fortunately, it hasn’t been diluted too far. The essence of Conan is there and perhaps, given a few issues, Aaron will feel more comfortable to make his descriptions and dialogue more strongly worded to give it that true Hyborian tone.

The word that sums up this first issue of Conan the Barbarian for me is restrained. While this may be true it’s not unexpected. The original run of Conan the Barbarian was tamer than the more adult and graphic series The Savage Sword of Conan, and this may end up being the case this time around as well.

I would say the relaunch of Conan the Barbarian is a restrained success. If the writers, artists, and editors can be let off the lead a little bit, this series has the potential to run just as long as it did the first time.

Included in this first issue is the beginning of the first new Conan pastiche novella in quite some time. Author John C. Hocking wrote Conan and the Emerald Lotus which was published in 1995. Marvel has tapped him once more to write an original novella titled Black Starlight.

Cover of Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking.
Cover of Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking.

Black Starlight is to be published in twelve parts in Conan the Barbarian. This story picks up after the events of Emerald Lotus and precedes his upcoming new novel Conan and the Living Plague. The start of this new novella is one that typifies Conan and his many adventures; mystery, horror, magic, and violence.

My main concern about this novella is that since it’s being published in the comic book is that the editors force Hocking to throttle back the type of prose required to make Conan the barbaric joy it is to read. I’m sure we’ll know after a few issues.

Conan the Barbarian #1/276 is not an unqualified success for me, but it has the potential to become something that Conan fans, old and new, can look forward to for many years if given room to breathe. I hope Marvel allows this to be so.

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