REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian #10 by Jim Zub (W) and Roberto De La Torre (A)

After inexplicably and violently turning on his most loyal companion Brule (Conan the Barbarian issue #9), a prophetic dream returns King Kull to his senses. He rescinds the death sentences placed on Brule and Conan, and after apologizing for his episode of “mania” he urges both men to accompany him on an immediate ocean voyage to stamp out the threat posed by the black stone. An experienced pirate, Conan returns to shipboard life with gusto: rowing, drinking, sparring, and even dallying with an alluring archer in Kull’s employ. As Conan’s spirits improve, however, Kull’s mental state darkens. The closer Kull and his band of elite Red Slayers come to their destination the moodier Kull becomes. Brule and Conan worry that Kull may be “courting darkness” and becoming susceptible to the black stone’s corrupting influence.

Conan The Barbarian #10This issue was a transitionary one within the current story arc, mostly dominated by the ocean voyage. The cancellation of Conan and Brule’s executions and the speed with which any hurt feelings on their behalf melted away seemed abrupt. The sudden reversal makes the Conan vs Kull battle at the end of Conan the Barbarian #9 feel forced and artificial in retrospect, as if it were wedged in to give the previous issue a shocking climax rather than as a natural development within the story. It also could have been made more explicit that the seafaring expedition’s ultimate destination was revealed to Kull in his dream. How Kull knows where to head is underexplained, and the other characters seem remarkably pliant, signing on for a vaguely proposed ocean journey under a capricious, mentally unwell king.

On the positive side of things, the contrast between Conan and Kull is handled skillfully. Conan is significantly less morose than he was during the “Thrice Marked for Death!” storyline. While it’s not stated outright, perhaps seeing Bêlit one last time (Conan the Barbarian issue #8) gave the barbarian a sense of closure, helping him move past his grief. King Kull, on the other hand, is depicted as someone constantly feeling the immense weight of his royal position. Amusingly, given Conan’s eventual destiny to become king himself, Conan views Kull’s court as a “gilded cage,” quickly concluding that he would rather live and die a free man rather than accept the demands and responsibilities that come with the royal crown. True to his depiction in the original Robert E. Howard short stories, Kull is a more cerebral individual than Conan. Where Conan’s depression throughout the “Thrice Marked for Death!” arc is unusual for him, readers are given the sense that Kull often tends towards melancholy and self-imposed isolation. It will be interesting to see if Jim Zub manages to communicate that Kull’s dark moods and ambivalence to the throne are inherent to the character and not just due to the warping corruption of the black stone.

This issue’s essay by Robert E. Howard scholar Jeffrey Shanks provides additional background for King Kull and the publication history of stories featuring him. While the Kull stories were never as popular as the ones starring Conan, they have their ardent defenders. Howard’s Weird Tales contemporary H. P. Lovecraft is noted as being particularly fond of Kull among his friend’s creations, preferring him to Conan.

Instead of the usual letters page, the issue concludes with a brief interview with artist Rob De La Torre. None of the questions are particularly deep or penetrating, but as De La Torre’s art has been a highlight of Titan’s Conan the Barbarian comic readers may appreciate the insight into his influences and hopes for the future.

This was a solid issue that effectively contrasts Conan with his literary predecessor Kull. Conan may have been thrown millennia into the past, but as a barbarian-turned-conqueror Kull is also foreshadowing for Conan’s own future as king. Conan the Barbarian issue 10 ends on a strong note and I look forward to the next issue, but I am also growing slightly uneasy at the weight Zub is giving to the ongoing black stone storyline. I wouldn’t mind seeing Conan’s adventures embark on a different direction after the current arc concludes.

Read Conan the Barbarian #10 by Jim Zub (W) and Roberto De La Torre (A)

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Robin Marx

Robin Marx

Born in Spain and raised in the United States, Robin Marx has lived in Japan for more than two decades. He works in the video game industry, handling localization and international licensing. In addition to over a dozen video games, his writing has appeared in a number of role-playing game supplements. He lives with his wife and their two daughters. You can link up with Robin over at: https://mastodon.social/@RobinMarx

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