The great icon of fearsome 1930’s pulp sword-and-sorcery, Conan of Cimmeria has returned to Marvel Comics after a long and fruitful run over at Dark Horse. Under the pen of master storyteller Jason Aaron and being brought to life by the hugely capable Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson, the wily barbarian looks to be in good hands. Can Marvel prove that they have what it takes to once again deliver a satisfying “Conan The Barbarian” tale?
Written by Jason Aaron
Illustrated by Mahmud Asrar
Colored by Matthew Wilson
Lettered by Travis Lanham
BY CROM, THE GREATEST SWORD-AND-SORCERY HERO RETURNS TO MARVEL! From an age undreamed…hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet… Robert E. Howard’s creation returns to comics, in an epic tale as only MARVEL could bring you! Conan’s travels have brought him to the far reaches of the unknown, from his birthplace in Cimmeria to the kingdom of Aquilonia and all in between. As his fighting prowess allows him to carve his way through life, so too does it attract the forces of death! The all-new ages-spanning saga begins here, by writer Jason Aaron (THE MIGHTY THOR, STAR WARS) and artist Mahmud Asrar (UNCANNY X-MEN, ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT AVENGERS), as Conan’s destiny is forever changed!
If you’ve read some of Jason Aaron’s past work, the structure of this issue will feel familiar. Like his work on “Thor: God of Thunder”, Aaron tells a tale that covers both Conan’s early years and his later ones as a King. It’s a simple strategy, yet works here for reintroducing readers to the most well-known aspects of the character’s history. Aaron has very distinctive personalities for both iterations of Conan that play quite well in contrast to each other. The younger Conan feels very headstrong and arrogant, even a little rougher than we’ve seen him in previous years in terms of attitude. Aaron has given him a sharp tongue, spouting off one-liners at appropriate moments like “BUT CIMMERIANS NEVER PRAY! AND EVEN IF WE DID… CROM WOULDN’T GIVE A DAMN!”. It feels right within the Marvel style but comes off a little forced for this character, even considering that this is a young and brasher iteration of Conan. King Conan, on the other hand, is immediately complex and compelling. From choosing to look every one of his army’s victims in the face regardless of whether he killed them or not, Aaron shows readers that King Conan has been taught respect throughout his years since the first story, and perhaps shows more caution in light of his undead encounters back then. Both characters show the polar opposites of Conan’s fictional history, giving newer readers a well-rounded look into the Barbarian’s complex and evolving personality.
The setting and adversary of Conan in this tale are both classically rendered yet contemporary in tone. Aaron starts the story off in the tried and true arena with our titular hero tearing up a storm much to the dismay of betting onlookers. It’s a great way to display not only Conan’s fighting prowess but also to show the savagery of the ancient continent of Hyperborea, showing a grimy setting where greedy characters bet on which ‘savage’ will dismember the other first. The villain that emerges from this setting, the Crimson Witch, starts off as a classic femme fatale type watching from afar and making mysterious actions that steer towards Conan’s favor. The Witch comes off as intriguing and fierce as she stabs some over-eager men before calmly meeting Conan. Her dialogue can be a little ham-fisted at times, like when she woos Conan with “ALL THAT CLUMSY HACKING OF YOURS MUST HAVE RENDERED YOU QUITE EXHAUSTED. WITH NO STRENGTH LEFT TO MUSTER FOR ANY MORE OF THE… ROUGH STUFF.” but it immediately works on a younger and hotheaded Conan, and makes sense with how aggressively she needs him for her plans. Watching her turn into her terrifying, older witch form is fantastically classic, and then having her progress more into a zombie-like state after Conan slays her is chilling, showing Aaron’s control over suspense.Continued below
Asrar is a perfect fit for establishing a fresh look to “Conan The Barbarian”. Rather than steer into the painterly, grand style that Dark Horse relied on, Asrar’s style feels like a good combination of richly detailed fantasy art and super kinetic, bloody action. The first splash page embodies this look perfectly, showing worldbuilding in the drunken crowds above the pits and attention to detail in the fighter’s costumes, yet indulging in visceral conflict by showing Conan behead his opponent whilst blood erupts from the wound. Going on from here, I love the attention to detail in the masses of crowds. Asrar draws each one of them individually, all looking rowdy and full of testosterone, yet unique and interesting to take in. In the more intimate sections of the issue, Asrar can dial back the fast-paced action to sweeping, grand movements of romance. When Conan first takes the Witch to bed, he swoops her up with one arm whilst effortlessly tossing away her cloak with the other. What I love, however, is that we get the polar opposite in the following page, with the Witch revealing her true form in a dramatic movement whilst Conan still gracefully reels backward. It all feels effortlessly classical, yet Asrar gives it a lithe, modern twist.
What’s important to establish a book like “Conan The Barbarian” is that it doesn’t just slip into stereotypes and have every character have the same, rage-fueled face of aggression. Asrar gives each character a distinct visual look, including each iteration of Conan that gives the book a life-like quality. The younger Conan slips into these brooding looks the most often but it works within his more arrogant personality. What speaks best to this is when Conan is celebrating his victory from the arena, he sits looking nonchalant and dismissive, silently reveling in the air he has put up himself. In contrast, King Conan has some of the same nonchalant characteristics, but it doesn’t feel put on, rather gained through years of experience. Yet he has more of a softness to him, especially as he talks about going to walk amongst the dead of his opponents, reflected in his relaxed, shoulders-back body language. Similarly, The Crimson Witch has a good sequence of turning from flirty smiles to maniacal laughter and Asrar caps this off perfectly when Conan beheads her, leaving her with a shocked, just-post-laughter facial expression. There’s a lot of solid emotional work, throughout whole body expression, and Asrar handles it all deftly.
Matthew Wilson handles colors, bringing the book to life with a firey, bloody palette throughout. Oddly enough, the book starts out with a wintery spread, depicting the scene of Conan’s birth in the Cimmerian countryside. It’s accurate but feels totally separate from the rest of the book’s more vibrant reds. Once we move on from this point Wilson paints the rusty oranges of the Arena throughout the environment. It lends to the high energy feel of the action scenes and inspires readers to froth at the mouth just as much as the onlookers in the ranks. Some of my favorite color work here occurs during the sacrifice scene, however, when the Crimson Witch draws Conan’s blood. The red spirals up in tree-like patterns that look beautiful in stark contrast to the pitch black environment surrounding them, and blend well with the Crimson Witch’s own outfit.
“Conan The Barbarian” #1 proves that the hulking Cimmerian is in good hands with Marvel. Jason Aaron’s time-spanning storytelling works well to show both sides of Conan to new readers, while Asrar’s art combines elements of more classical pulp style art with frantic, high-energy modern comic art. It’s a good time to be a “Conan” fan, people.
Final Score: 8.8 – Aaron, Asrar, Wilson and the team present a fresh, time-spanning tale on “Conan The Barbarian” #1, proving the character is still in good hands.