Issue 5 of Titan Comics’ Conan the Barbarian begins several months after the conclusion of the “Bound in Black Stone” story arc. Since putting his homeland of Cimmeria behind him, Conan has journeyed across much of the continent and even put to sea as a member of a pirate crew. After loving and losing freebooter queen Bêlit, however, Conan is a drunken shell of a man. He passes his days in disreputable taverns in the even more notorious city of Shadizar, earning his drinking coin acting as a hired thug for an ambitious band of thieves calling themselves the Gloryhounds. Constantly pushing their luck, the aptly named Gloryhounds drag a reluctant Conan into their most audacious heist yet: an attempt to filch Tarim’s Touch—a religious relic carved from dark stone—from the very heart of the Temple of Bel, patron god of thieves.
Thus begins the “Thrice Marked for Death” storyline. While Jim Zub continues to handle the writing duties (and is expected to do so for at least the first two years), the change in artwork is instantly noticeable. Scheduled to return with Conan the Barbarian issue 9, Roberto De La Torre is taking a well-deserved break and letting UK artist Doug Braithwaite deliver the artwork for this second arc. Unlike De La Torre’s classic John Buscema-inspired lines, Braithwaite has a thoroughly modern style comparable to the newer Dark Horse and Marvel depictions. Facially, his Conan looks a bit craggier than I would expect for this point in the barbarian’s career (ostensibly still his mid-twenties), but it’s not a bad likeness. The color artist is now Diego Rodriguez, who has given the artwork a sepia cast that suits the torch-lit environs in this issue. While I thoroughly enjoyed De La Torre’s artwork in the previous issues, Braithwaite’s artwork is also appealing and feels appropriate. If this first issue is any indication, it appears that we can expect his combat scenes to be slightly bloodier and more explicit than De La Torre’s. Decapitations may have been ubiquitous in De La Torre’s Conan the Barbarian run, but Braithwaite seems to give Rodriguez many opportunities to reach for the red paint.
Conan the Barbarian #5 is set after the events of Robert E. Howard’s 1934 Weird Tales story “Queen of the Black Coast.” It’s briefly touched upon in flashback panels, but readers curious about Conan’s career as a pirate and his tragic, whirlwind romance with Bêlit are encouraged to look there, or perhaps even the 1970s Marvel Comics or 2012 Dark Horse adaptations of the story. For those who are unfamiliar with “Queen of the Black Coast,” Howard scholar Jeffrey Shanks provides some additional background, including spotlighting how it provides rare insight into Conan’s personal philosophy. For my part, I approve of Zub’s choice to deliver new adventures occurring between the original short stories, rather than add to the already tall pile of adaptations. While Conan becomes entangled with a wide variety of women during his later career, I’ve always had the sense that Bêlit was as close as the barbarian ever got to a soulmate, and I’m interested to see if Zub continues to explore Conan’s grief and the aftermath of her death in future issues.
While I was left a little deflated by the finale of the previous plotline, Conan the Barbarian #5 marks a promising start for the second story arc. Braithwaite has a very different visual style than his predecessor, but his gory theatrics a good fit for the series.