With the monumental announcement that Marvel had reacquired Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” license from Dark Horse after 15 years in 2018 came a slew of subsequent news: Jason Aaron and Mahmud would be launching the (very good) Conan The Barbarian, Gerry Duggan and Ron Garney would tackle Savage Sword of Conan, and Marvel would collect and re-print a large chunk of the best of stories published under Dark Horse’s stewardship.
The first of those collections, appropriately titled Conan Chronicles Epic Collection: Out of the Darksome Hills, collecting issues #0-19 of Conan written by Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, and illustrated primarily by Carey Nord (with assistance by a bevy of other artists) is here. It is as a staggering sight to behold, coming in at almost 500 pages, as it is to read. But is it good?
Yes. With the very important caveat that you know what you’re getting into. That this is a Conan story, for Conan fans and by Conan fans.
This isn’t to say Busiek’s narrative — starting with a fun “Conan as a legend of man” issue zero and blossoming into a more expansive tapestry of journeys to Hyperborea, and battles with snake gods is impractically dense or labyrinthine. No, in fact it is as spartan, barbaric, and practical as any Conan story before or after — all for the better, too. But it is solely focused on the eponymous barbarian. Sure, Aesir, Vanir, Conan’s most accomplished and terrifying arch-villain Thoth-Amon, and one of his closest and most deadly friends, Janissa the Widowmaker, all feature — as does the lofty lore of the world at large such as the entire idea of Hyperborea, Stygian blood magic, and more but they pale in comparison to the Cimmerian. Once you’ve bought into this conceit, which does take a little time especially with the underwriting of nigh any female character save Janissa, you’ll find a character worth loving — and worth what I imagine was 15 years of pining from Marvel.
Busiek writes Conan brash and barbaric as he ought to be — but also shrewd, friendly, and self-assured. He’s a man of short temper and quick sword draws, but also of lofty goals and an eye for the larger world. Busiek gets that. From an introductory flirtation with an ongoing war between the Aesir and Vanir, to a run-in with Ice Giants and the daughter of gods, and eventually coming up against the greatest of his foes, Conan is consistent. Rarely does he allow the world to change him; often he makes it change around him. There are few characters this realized across all of media, as far as I’m concerned, and I think it’s a core piece of the unyielding legacy of the property. This narrative, disparate in tone and arcs, and lacking in character development elsewhere, still gets that ever so right.
Similarly, Nord’s art is often laser-focused on Conan, but it makes room for detail that the narrative does not. Obviously inspired by fantasy great Frank Frazetta, (as is current cover artist, Esad Ribic) Nord’s illustrations — accompanied most often by Dave Stewart’s colors — are expansive, heavy, and richly detailed. Swings of the sword feel weighty, and you can see their arc from hilt to beheading. Tackles and grapples feel realistic and life threatening. Giants and snakes, beasts from across all realms, feel inhuman and horrible — threats to Conan’s very life in comparison to his appropriately human frame. It’s all very realistic and respectable, even if sometimes inconsistent as characters’ faces scrunch in combat compared to more elongated takes in dialogue, and it makes everything feel all the realer and more immediate — as if this were all a glimpse into an age lost from our own world rather than something entirely alien. An important touch for Conan in particular, with its penchant for reduced magic and monsters in storytelling, and a great emphasis on bog-standard humanity that Nord leans into well.
That is to say, except for the women. Cloaked in chainmail bikinis, see-through robes, or nothing at all, representations here have not aged well, and honestly were not appropriate at the time of publishing in 2004, either. This is born out of the narrative, where women are treated poorly by men across the board – which Conan to a degree detests – but it is in no way elevated by the artistic standard for them (even Janissa) and it is detracting, even with the caveat that Nord does this more artistically and playfully than some of the variant covers included in this collection. It’s not enough to take away from the weight of the stories, or the richness of the world, but just like knowing you’re going into this reading a Conan character piece, you should very well know this is part of it as well.
All in all, then, this is a fantastic, expansive collection. But it is not without fault. Most of those faults are brought on by the aging of the story and what was appropriate in the medium at the time, and your mileage will vary based upon your tolerance for the things included within, but they are there. If you can look past them, and really immerse yourself in this world, as both the narrative and art so clearly want you to do through fantastic acuity and detail, then there is much to be gained. The choice is yours. I enjoyed my time in The Hyborian Age all the same.
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