REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian #8 by Jim Zub (W) and Doug Braithwaite (A)

At the conclusion of Conan the Barbarian issue #7, our hero finds himself alone. Not only was Conan forced to kill comrade Chaundra the Chat by his own hand, the other thieves of the Gloryhounds are also dead, supernaturally compelled to murder each other by the three specters inadvertently freed from the stolen Black Stone. With all other involved parties eliminated, the specters force themselves into Conan, psychically battering him into submission. The undead trio agree that Conan will make an ideal tool for their dormant master Thulsa Doom, but to fulfill their dark goals they require blood sacrifices made using the ancient Pictish blade Conan acquired during his adventures with Brissa (during the “Bound in Black Stone” story arc, Conan the Barbarian issues 1-4). Unfortunately for Conan’s ghostly tormentors, distraught after the death of his pirate queen Bêlit, the barbarian pawned the weapon for drinking money immediately after his arrival in Shadizar ten months ago. With Conan as their unwilling puppet, the specters use him to carve a bloody swath through the city in search of the Pictish sword.

Conan the Barbarian #8This issue marks the end of the Conan the BarbarianThrice Marked for Death!” storyline. While it was exciting to see the usually indomitable Conan’s metamorphosis into a Terminator-like possessed killing machine, this story arc’s conclusion felt unfulfilling. The last two issues kept raising the stakes, making me wonder how everything would be resolved, but—unsatisfyingly—the answer is that readers aren’t given much of a resolution. Conan’s plight is significantly worse than his situation at the beginning of the story, and apart from combat victories he doesn’t emerge particularly triumphant.

After four issues of flashbacks, the Bêlit plot thread does receive some payoff as a vision of his departed soulmate provides some spiritual assistance at a critical moment. However, the inclusion of two other familiar faces from past issues muddies the moment, making Bêlit’s aid seem less crucial and special than it would have had she alone appeared in Conan’s time of need.

As always, the Jeffrey Shanks essay includes with issue #8 provides some welcome added context to the events of the Conan the Barbarian comics. The mysterious Black Stone has occupied a place of central importance in both Titan Comics’ story arcs to date, and Shanks points out that corrupting ebon stone is a recurring motif in Robert E. Howard’s (non-Conan) stories. Shanks also traces the influence back to earlier writer Arthur Machen and his 1885 work The Novel of the Black Seal, which Howard is known to have read and enjoyed.

Cliffhanger endings intended to spur readers to buy the next issue are ubiquitous in both comics and the serialized pulp magazines before them. However, whereas the “Bound in Black Stone” story had a distinct beginning, middle, and end, “Thrice Marked for Death” is much less self-contained, to the story’s detriment. While I’m excited to find out what happens next, I suspect the incompleteness of this story will be frustrating to those who read Conan the Barbarian in graphic novel format rather than the monthly issues.

There’s much to be commended about Jim Zub’s handling of the Conan the Barbarian series, but simultaneously it feels like he’s already struggling with the four-issue story arc format. Issue 9 brings with it a new story arc and the return of “Bound in Black Stone” artist Roberto De la Torre, but perhaps it would have been better to give “Thrice Marked for Death” some additional issues and tell a more complete story rather than adhere to the (self-imposed?) four-issue arc structure. “Thrice Marked for Death” is an exciting ride that ends with a bang. But while the impulse to leave readers wanting more is understandable, some more resolution would have been appreciated in the story arc’s concluding issue.

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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