REVIEW: The Savage Sword of Conan #1 by John Arcudi (W), Jim Zub (W), and Max von Fafner (A)

Shortly after Titan Comics announced the return of the Conan the Barbarian, the next question on fans’ lips was if companion series The Savage Sword of Conan would see a similar revival. Originally launched in the mid-1970s, a few years after the Marvel Comics debut of Conan the Barbarian, The Savage Sword of Conan differentiated itself from its four-color predecessor by adopting a more adult approach. As a black-and-white magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan wasn’t subject to the regulations of the Comics Code Authority, and as a result it was able to portray levels of violence and sensuality that were off-limits in the mainstream Conan title. Many readers enjoyed the added grit and mature tone of the magazine during the classic Marvel Comics run, and after such a long absence curiosity abounded regarding what a modern-day Titan Comics incarnation would look like. (Before losing the Conan license for the second time, Marvel Comics briefly revived the title for 12 issues from 2019-2020, but in this reviewer’s opinion this short-lived version did not significantly differentiate itself in terms of format or content from their parent Conan the Barbarian title.) The first issue of the relaunched The Savage Sword of Conan arrived simultaneously with Conan the Barbarian issue #8, finally giving readers basis for comparison.

The Savage Sword of ConanFortunately, this first issue seems geared to put longtime fans of The Savage Sword of Conan at ease. The standard cover artwork features a bold painting by Marvel Comics-era veteran Joe Jusko, showing Conan standing victorious over a pile of slain warriors in Stygian (i.e., Egyptian-themed) garb, a beautiful bronze-skinned maiden at his side. Precisely the sort of cover readers would have been welcomed with during the original magazine’s heyday. The nostalgic artwork is immediately followed up by a foreword by Roy Thomas, the fan-favorite writer and editor responsible for introducing the character of Conan to the comic book medium. Thomas provides some insight into the launch of the original magazine in the mid-70s and concludes with some tantalizing hints that he may be returning to the Conan character in future issues of Titan Comics’ incarnation.

Written by John Arcudi with artwork by Max von Fafner, “Conan and the Dragon Horde” is this issue’s main feature. Self-contained and unconnected to the ongoing Conan the Barbarian storyline, this comic portrays Conan as the leader of a mercenary band in service to an exiled Hyrkanian prince. Prince Zaahid promises riches untold to any man who helps him retake the throne from his estranged brother, but it soon becomes clear that Zaahid is keeping deadly secrets from his underlings. Increasingly skeptical and restless, Conan finds himself at odds with his employer. Not only must he deal with the giant, scaled beast defending Zaahid’s desired throne, Conan must guard himself against the lions and twin brutes that guard the prince. “Conan and the Dragon Horde” packs a great deal of adventure, violence, and sensuality within its 48 pages. Some may find the art style somewhat unconventional, but the exaggerated, detailed musculature on display vaguely reminded me of the Baki the Grappler manga by Keisuke Itagaki.

Conan the Barbarian writer Jim Zub’s contribution is something a little different than what we’re used to seeing from him: a prose story, rather than a comic. “Sacrifice in the Sand” is a short story based on Jusko’s Egyptian-themed cover artwork. The tale involves a Stygian captain named Nkosi, escorting a beautiful captive across the desert to be sacrificed as a bride of the snake god Set. Conan is depicted similarly to a stalking beast, striking from ambush to thin the numbers of Nkosi’s warrior band before ultimately pitting his sword against the captain in single combat. It was interesting to see Zub try his hand at regular fiction. When compared to Conan creator Robert E. Howard, Zub’s prose writing feels a little on the verbose side; Howard could have doubtless covered more ground given the same word count. But Zub’s enthusiasm is palpable, and he delivers an exciting vignette.

The final comic of the issue is “Master of the Hunt, Part One,” both written and illustrated by Patrick “Patch” Zircher. Instead of Conan, this story focuses on another of Howard’s literary creations: the vengeful Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane. Set in Wales, “Master of the Hunt” is a moody, gothic affair. Wandering through the countryside, rootless adventurer Solomon Kane encounters a family whose sheep have been rent apart in the night by a mysterious, hairy beast. With the husband away tracking the monster, Kane pauses to lend a hand to the Maddocks household’s wife and young son. An eerie appearance by Lord Arawn of the mythical Fair Folk leads Kane to become further embroiled in the family’s plight, and he vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. Backup stories featuring Kane were an occasional part of the Marvel Comics series, and his return in the Titan Comics reboot is a welcome one. So far Zircher’s depiction of the character seems a faithful one and his artwork is exquisite.

Other materials included in this inaugural issue include pinup illustrations of Conan and other characters, a map of the Hyborian Age, and an essay by Howard scholar Jeffrey Shanks providing additional background and publication details for Solomon Kane.

The days of the Comics Code Authority have long since passed, and Titan Comic’s Conan the Barbarian hasn’t shown any reluctance to depict either violence or (non-explicit) nudity. Is there still a niche for The Savage Sword of Conan to fill? Even lacking an all-ages/mature division in content between the two titles, I would argue that this magazine is a welcome addition to Titan Comics’ stable. With the ongoing Black Stone plot, the main Conan the Barbarian title appears increasingly invested in long-form storytelling, making The Savage Sword of Conan an ideal venue for shorter, standalone pieces. The primary title has committed itself to four-issue story arcs—so far with one writer and one artist per arc—but there is no need for The Savage Sword of Conan to play it safe; I hope to see further experimentation in terms of artwork and creative teams in future issues of the magazine. And as demonstrated with Solomon Kane in this issue, The Savage Sword of Conan also serves as a natural platform for the reintroduction of other long-dormant Howard characters to today’s audience. If the level of quality and variety on display in issue #1 of The Savage Sword of Conan is maintained, the magazine has the potential to surpass even the flagship Conan the Barbarian comic.

Read The Savage Sword of Conan #1 by John Arcudi (W), Jim Zub (W), and Max von Fafner (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