It was a different time—both the Hyborian Age and the Marvel offices of 1973.
Writer Roy Thomas initially approached his ongoing Conan the Barbarian series from what seems like a completely financially motivated frame of mind. He recounts as much in a series of columns from Mavelmania entitled “Roy’s Rostrum”, reprinted in the first volume of Conan: The Original Marvel Years Epic Collection. He could have just as easily written any fantasy series he was scouting to license — Thongor the Barbarian may very well have become the book reviewed here today.
The issues reprinted in that first volume very much show Thomas’ lack of interest in the series. Artist Barry Windsor-Smith, new to the industry at the time and mired in the Kirby-influenced Marvel style, is not yet producing the dynamic and striking work for which he will become known. Aside from a handful of issues loosely adapted from the original Robert E. Howard stories — most notably The Twilight of the Grim Grey God and The Tower of the Elephant—the stories in that volume follow a standard outline: Conan rolls into a new region, meets a guy who comes to a bloody end and who Conan then eulogizes, and then rides off into the sunset. That Conan is often inadvertently the cause of that man’s death is neither here nor there; he’s our Shane, our Man With No. . . Shirt.
The issues are interchangeable, none of them connected to any other, so that they can be read in any order—both a tactic to engage new readers without bogging them down with too much continuity and a major obstacle for character growth. The world is, despite a provided map, ill-defined, each place Conan visits interchangeable with any other; a lot of vast, snowy planes and detail-void cities.
Hawks From the Sea, the second Epic Collection of the series, changes everything. Not only does Thomas begin taking an interest in the ongoing story, but the first glimmer of Windsor-Smith’s style also begins to express itself. Stories begin to influence one another, and relationships and motivations become impactful.
Our first two issues in the book, while featuring a rather forgettable cameo from Michael Moorcock’s Elric, throw us into that newfound developing continuity. Two returning characters — an evil wizard and his daughter — supply Conan with a quest, the stakes of which are cosmically high, supernaturally formidable. There is a proper sense of danger, not only for Conan and Elric but, we assume, the very world. Conan expresses for the first time an honest sense of regret over losses suffered. He is becoming a real, live boy.
Perhaps most importantly, this volume reprints the debut of Red Sonja, a character one can feel interests our creative team much more than the book’s hero; she is presented, in her two-issue tenure, as a character with her own life happening rather than someone caught up in Conan’s nonsense. Make no mistake, she is most assuredly still the obvious sex-object one would expect from the era (though she is about 30% more clothed than typically depicted), but she is also someone with her own self-attainable goals — even if Conan fights a giant golden snake for her. Which is an every-other-Tuesday sort of thing for him.
In contrast of Conan’s ‘fight-first, die slowly later’ cast of warriors, her conniving intellect is a relief, and one can’t help but cheer as she rides off into her own adventures, leaving a sore and bitter Conan behind.
Where Conan spent the first book dealing with very Bronze Age of Comics sorts of monsters — subterranean ape-men, anyone? — this volume sees him return to his Weird Horror roots. Cosmic monsters exist in his universe, spectral suits of armor and giant, flesh-hungry rats, and we come to respect Conan for being able to stand up to these things, even if he only does so by way of his incredibly limited intellect.
The volume climaxes in full-out, multi-issue war; the collapse of a city-state, the fate of which has been inexpertly and unthinkingly directed by Conan’s full-tilt, bull meets China-shop life choices, which brings the sum total of nations that have died by his actions–in this volume alone–up to two, which is two too many.
For all its foibles and mishandling of modern concerns, the work collected here is peak bronze-age adventure: overwrought, bombastic, and allowing itself to stretch for stranger heights. If you’re looking to jump into classic Conan, this volume is the perfect place to start.
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