After reading Conan The Barbarian #3, from Titan Comics, fans of Conan who, like me, are of a certain age, will remember well the flood of Conan pastiches that hit the shelves of our local bookstores and libraries during the 1980s. They had a character called Conan, and featured action and adventure…but were they close to what RE Howard created in the violent ferment of his mind?
Well…no. In many ways, while they were a gateway drug into sword and sorcery fiction, they weren’t particularly good examples of fantasy and certainly not good examples of the heights to which Howard took his seminal creation.
Which is why reading Conan The Barbarian #3 and the two earlier issues, is like being punched in the face by certain barbarian from northern climes. This is the real deal, folks. Writer Jim Zub has done something alchemical, pulling the essentials of Conan – that simmering berserker fury, that lethal physicality, that love of life and adventure and women – and poured them onto the page in one concentrated blast of pure action and adventure. In a way, Zub has brought to vivid life these fantastic words from Conan (and Howard):
“Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame crimson, and I am content.”
Conan The Barbarian #3 has that exultation for life running through it like a rich seam of gold in a darkened mine. His companion, the lush Pict Brissa, is his equal in her yearning for adventure and revenge, and the duo make a powerful and compelling team as they hunt for the undead Tribe of the Lost who have invaded Conan’s homeland and carved a bloody swathe through it.
Zub’s writing in Conan The Barbarian #3 is, like Conan, fierce and exultant, rich and vibrant, probably closer to Howard’s diction than any writer has managed in the 80 years since the character stalked out of the mists of the north and into fantasy legend.
Matching the writing is the artwork by Rob De La Torre. Conan and Brissa’s hunt through the Citadel of the Black Stone for answers brings to life a structure of darkness and menacing shadows, a twilit world with danger around every corner. Look at the opening page, as Conan and Brissa enter. The light behind them is fading, and all that is promised is a murky, cobwebbed gloom of vaulted ceilings and plunging abysses. In Conan The Barbarian #3, De La Torre breathes life into Zub’s words, creating an atmospheric, claustrophobic nightmare for our heroes. There’s a definite 70s feel to the artwork – it’s raw and primal, heedless of convention, with lots of shadows and hints of nightmares on the edges of panels.
The opening page contains my favourite image of Conan – hulking, yet panther-ish in movement, black eyed and sullen, ready to burst into red handed violence at a moment’s notice, full of pent up fury at what has been done to his people. Titan – give us a poster!
Conan The Barbarian #3 layers on what was introduced in the opening issues, deepening the mystery while introducing darker elements such as ritual sacrifice and the prospect of Thulsa Doom. There are moments of high action, as Conan and the prisoners he has freed run amok amongst the lizard men deep in their lair. And that cliffhanger – wow!
Zub and Rob De La Torre have done what few creators have done with Conan since Howard’s death – taken the raw elements that made the character, and breathed real and true and bloody life into him and his world. Conan The Barbarian #3 feels like Conan was under Howard’s hand. And what could be better than that?