Our hero is already in dire straits at the opening of Titan Comics’ Conan the Barbarian #4. The struggle between Conan and the high priest of the Black Stone cult has plunged them both into the deep emerald-green waters at the core of the temple. Tentacles rise to meet the barbarian as he sinks into the murky abyss, and he pledges to slay the cult’s misshapen deity, even if it costs him his own life. As he begins to drown, however, he sees a vision of an ancient Pictish chieftain. This echo from the past provides Conan (and the reader) with some welcome backstory. Conan learns more about the mysterious black stone that has had such a malign influence on the countryside, and how he has become embroiled in a hidden struggle against the occult dating back tens of thousands of years. While his ghostly benefactor is unable to provide Conan with direct aid, the brief conversation steels his resolve, and—lungs bursting—he swims down to meet his godlike foe.
Conan the Barbarian #4 is the conclusion of “Bound in Black Stone,” the first story arc in this latest Conan comic. Jim Zub’s narration was solid and evocative as usual. The ancient Pict is a figure that will be instantly recognizable to those who have read “The Shadow Kingdom” (1929) or Robert E. Howard’s other King Kull stories. Kull’s Thurian era is the distant past of Conan’s own Hyborian Age, and it was fun to see Zub link these two distant epochs. The essays by Jeffrey Shanks at the end of each issue go to great lengths to point out the connections between various corners of the Howard literary universe and, like Thulsa Doom being name-dropped in issue #3, it appears that Zub is very intentionally laying the groundwork for future cross-pollination between Howard’s heroes and settings.
De La Torre’s artwork maintains the high standard of quality seen in the previous issues. The forceful and dynamic posing of characters during the combat scenes was especially noticeable in this installment.
While I found Conan the Barbarian #4 largely successful, I was left baffled by some of the creative choices. The Pict warrior woman Brissa was one of the most talked-about elements of the new series, but she was completely absent from this issue. Mentioned briefly, but not shown. The tropes of comic storytelling being what they are, it’s painfully obvious that we haven’t seen the last of Brissa (Zub has hinted as much in interviews), but it felt like an unfair and anticlimactic way to handle an exciting supporting character.
The battle between Conan and the tentacled aquatic creature felt like another missed opportunity. Generally, in this situation a Conan the Barbarian reader would expect to be treated to some particularly impressive artwork, perhaps even a two-page spread revealing the blasphemous alien god in all its glory. Somewhat disappointingly, De La Torre delivers an unexpectedly subdued combat against a mostly hidden monster.
While my enthusiasm for Titan Comics’ Conan the Barbarian remains high, the finale of “Bound in Black Stone” didn’t quite attain the heights of preceding issues. The creative team have demonstrated their formidable capabilities, but this time it felt like they weren’t operating at full strength. I’m excited about the foundation Zub seems to be constructing for future stories and even upcoming titles featuring other Robert E. Howard heroes, but it seemed like the story’s immediate present was underserved. And Conan is a character that lives in the moment.