Marvel’s recent re-acquisition of the Conan licence may not have had quite the same fanfare as the company’s similar re-acquisition of Star Wars a few years ago (to be fair, Star Wars had been transferred to the ownership of Marvel’s parent company Disney and that meant films as well as comics), but it’s no less significant to this comics fan. In the 80s, I read Marvel’s colour Conan The Barbarian comic assiduously and went through a short-lived but nevertheless intense phase of reading the Sphere paperbacks that collected the original Robert E Howard stories as well as those by other writers like Lin Carter, L Sprague De Camp and a pre-Wheel of Time Robert Jordan. When Marvel announced that the company would be publishing a new series of Conan The Barbarian, I was cautiously intrigued. When they announced that the series would be written by Jason Aaron, that intrigue became genuine excitement.
Not coincidentally, Aaron was the writer chosen to launch the new Star Wars series back in 2013 and is currently in the process of wrapping up an extraordinary run on Thor as well as making the Avengers interesting again. His work on Conan The Barbarian has thus far shunned the spectacular (like, for example, the rain of dead Celestials in the Avengers) in favour of a more episodic and exploratory narrative and, overall, that’s an approach I think works well for a character like Conan.
That’s not to say that the individual issues aren’t linked. The first issue introduces the Crimson Witch who, in a scene that echoes a similar encounter between Conan and a witch-woman in the Conan The Barbarian film, seduces Conan so she can offer his unusually strong blood to her master, Razazel, a powerful demon who seeks a way back into the mortal realm. Needless to say, Conan escapes only to be captured again at the end of the issue much later on in his personal timeline. (The Crimson Witch, it would seem, is a very patient adversary.) It would be reasonable, then, to expect issue 2 to carry on where the first issue left off, but that isn’t what we get at all.
Instead, we get an issue that suggests that Aaron can not only do creditable homage to the character but that he can also bring to light already-established aspects of the character in new and thought-provoking ways. Linked to the main narrative only by the briefest of references on the final page, the story deals with a young Conan’s unlikely alliance with a tribe of Picts on the Aquilonian border.
The issue opens with a typically bloody encounter between Conan and a Pict hunting party. The narration tells us that Conan is scouring the forest, intent on avenging the deaths of his Aquilonian comrades who had perished at the fall of Fort Tuscelan. This self-imposed mission is one which he has been pursuing for some time, long enough for him to have gained a fearsome reputation among the Picts he’s hunting. Mahmud Asrar’s artwork is as brutally effective as Conan’s axe in these scenes; the dynamic of the action changes, however, when Conan, about to kill the final Pictish warrior, is beaten to his prey by a giant ‘ghost snake’. While Conan is able to dispatch the giant snake reasonably easily, the appearance of the snake’s fellow pack members puts our favourite barbarian in no little danger. With typical grim fortitude, Conan takes them on fully expecting to die. Although, this being only the second issue of a series that bears his name, the reader is not especially surprised to see him survive the encounter, Conan is – particularly when he realises that he has been nursed back to health by a Pictish shaman who, against the general opinion of his tribe, sees in Conan a gift from the gods, one that will help the Picts deal with their ghost snake problem.
What follows is not only an exciting and skilfully told story in its own right, but also a study in identity that verges on the profound. Through his initial conversation with the shaman, Aaron highlights Conan’s uniquely isolated status as a barbarian among civilized men. (Indeed, Conan objects rather strongly when the shaman uses the ‘c’ word to refer to him.) He seeks revenge on the Picts because they slew his comrades in arms but the fact that his mission is a solo one rather revealingly suggests that it his barbarian instincts and sense of morality (if that’s the right word) that have set him on a path that no Aquilonian would consider following. Aaron, in fact, does a very good job of showing Conan fitting in to Pictish life very quickly. The Picts go from hatred to begrudging tolerance to more whole-hearted acceptance as Conan leads them into battle against pack after pack of murderous giant snakes. By the time he leads the Picts against the ghost snake ‘king’, the bond between him and his erstwhile foes is palpable.
It is unsurprising, then, that the shaman makes an attempt to keep Conan on the Pictish side of the river and his argument is not short of persuasive power: “You don’t belong among civilized men, Conan… You are useful to them, for now, but there will come a time when the Hyborians will no longer tolerate your untamed nature. And if they cannot tame you, they will punish you for it. And find a cage to hold you. Perhaps even a jewelled one. I would not see the panther torn from the jungle to sit behind bars in Aquilonia. You belong among your own kind, Conan. Among the savages.” This is skilful writing, not least because it foreshadows issue 4’s story of an older Conan trapped and made ill by the tediousness of his kingly office taking to the night-bound streets of Tarantia and dispensing vigilante justice with a lion by his side. But it also gets to the heart of the character’s appeal. Conan is an outsider, son of a tribe of which he can no longer be a part and alienated by the civilization whose appeal he recognises but whose customs and world view he cannot endorse. This issue lays bare that alienation in a beautifully bitter-sweet coda which sees Conan return to the ‘civilized’ side of the river to taste wine mysteriously gone sour and hear so-called ‘civilized’ men toast the deaths of the Pictish warriors with whom Conan has just spent the last month fighting. It is a powerful piece of writing.
Along with Asrar’s at times moody and at others extremely visceral work, Aaron’s writing here has convinced me that the character of Conan is in very good hands indeed. While the story is straightforward enough, the way Aaron uses it as a vehicle for exploring the character and the assumptions about tribalism, civilization and identity that underpin his world – and ours, for that matter – introduces a layer of sophistication and intelligence that is very much welcome. Consequently, I cannot recommend this issue – and the series as a whole – highly enough.