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Conan, Vols. 8-9
posted February 15, 2011

imageTitles: Conan Volume Eight: Black Colossus, Conan Volume Nine: Free Companions
Creators: Timothy Truman, Joe Kubert, Tomas Giorello, José Villarrubia
Publishing Information: Dark Horse, softcovers, 152 pages/184 pages, June/December 2010, $17.99 each
Ordering Numbers: 1595825339/9781595825339 (Vol. 8), 1594825924/9781595825926 (Vol. 9)

The surprising thing to me reading my first batch of new-era Conan comic books is how relatively boring I found the glowering Cimmerian at the story's center. That's not to say I had a bad time. These Dark Horse Conan comics, like those from Marvel in the 1970s into the 1980s with which I'm more familiar, are certainly in the issues presented here equivalent paragons of mainstream comics virtue. They're accessible, they're generally well crafted, they're a particularly good jumping-off point from superheroes because of the thematic simplicity of the leads, they play to comics' strengths in terms of letting talented artists depict the human figure and make the fantastic come to life and they do honor to a pulp accomplishment that originated outside of comics as much as they pay attention to the comics that came before it. In these two volumes, stories communicated through an adventure art style more functional Dan Barry than decorative Frank Frazetta, Conan eschews the thieving life for an extended spin as a mercenary. He bounces from battle to battle up the ranks and into a princess' bedchambers; he eventually follows his own hubris into a horrifying experience from which he must struggle back both physically and spiritually. In the eighth volume cloudy prophecy and belief provide Conan with benefits he eventually loses; in the ninth it's foretold that he suffer great loss but come out the stronger on the other side. Conan abides.

Doing these comics now allows for two major differences over doing them 40 years ago. The stories can be told with the gore and pay-TV nudity of the black and white efforts yet put on the page with the vibrancy and bounce of today's color comics. It also allows for -- perhaps demands -- a greater sophistication in terms of narrative structure, story length, and the number of ways we might access Conan as a character. I think it's the last of those things where the books get into a bit of trouble. I couldn't tell you if it's a fair reflection of any source material or not, but coming to it fresh Conan moves back and forth from mostly noble albeit differently wired hero to elemental force in what seems to me unconvincing fashion; the answers we get in terms of how he ticks by sharing his thoughts and reveries don't match the physical actions he undertakes, and the stabs at strategy he seeks to employ. The best story in both of these volumes, a one-shot set in a village where a monster revives itself to pursue Conan but instead runs afoul of those he left behind, is almost more effective in communicating his essential gravitas in absentia than in those comics where we see the future Aquilonian King up close and personal. One shame is that the modern comic book's obsession with stop-and-stare moments over satisfying resolutions might serve a character like this very well. As it is, I have only vague recollections of individual actions take by Conan, an unfortunate outcome for a paragon of decisiveness.

It may just be that less is more with a character like this. Conan's actions may not be as powerful when they are an outcome of deliberate character growth as they are when they seem to say, "because he's motherfucking Conan, that's why." They're certainly not as much fun. It may be that the character's well-known eventuality as a future ruler of some of the lands across which he stomps in stories like these puts too much of a damper on adventures that employ those elements as foreshadowing. I don't know. I do know that for maybe the first time in my life, I found myself wishing a larger-than-life character were made just a little bit bigger, and that the metaphorical man behind the curtain were hacked to death before I got the chance to look at the poor bastard. I don't think I'd feel that way were all of those threads of insight and nuances of behavior employed in a way that they gave me a greater sense of the character, something bigger than sum of its parts. This is a Conan for the age of mainstream comics that features page after page of superheroes standing around in rooms talking, that's for sure. I'd love to see a cleaner break, and perhaps in other volumes I will.