The first story arc collected in Into the Crucible casts Conan into a horrifying labyrinth that will test every last one of his survival skills. After a battle in the center of town, the Barbarian is chosen to take part in a sacrificial battle to appease a bloodthirsty god he doesn’t even believe in.
The opening fight scene and the series of unfortunate events that lead to Conan’s imprisonment are darkly humorous, and it’s fun seeing Conan quickly getting his bearings and trying to figure out where to direct his rage. Very early on, Conan figures out that he can’t just punch his way out of this situation, and he’ll actually have to work with some of his fellow prisoners to survive. So many Conan stories position him as more of a blunt instrument of destruction, so it may be exciting for fans to see Conan trying to leverage everyone’s individual skills in a fight against a common enemy.
But this story arc isn’t all action and antics. Into the Crucible has some interesting things to say about the nature of faith, and the things that can be done in its name — both for good and evil. Each of the characters in this story come from different backgrounds, and they bicker and tease one another for their beliefs, not really understanding until it’s too late that division was the last thing they needed. With these elements, writer Jim Zub adds some extra layers to the story, fleshing out some of the supporting characters who could have otherwise just been cannon fodder within the narrative. The balance between Conan’s headstrong will to fight and his more contemplative side is fascinating, and it was great to see Zub delve into this aspect of the character.
There are a few odd beats here and there. While the book does a great job of getting to what makes Conan tick, particularly at this early stage of his life, many of the other characters fall by the wayside. There are a few contestants in the Crucible who are clearly only there to be killed by traps, which is fine — it helps to establish the stakes and it plays into the pulpy roots of the Cimmerian tales. However, there are a few characters who are introduced when the games begin, only for them to vanish until way later in the story. It’s assumed that they somehow struck out ahead of Conan, but it’s actually kind of jarring when they reappear in the later half of the story.
At the end of the day, however, this is Conan’s story, and it’s a blast seeing him outmuscle and outthink the traps in the Crucible. The action sequences are brilliantly staged, with each bone-crushing punch looking like it has weight behind it. As written by Zub and drawn by Rogê Antônio, Conan has a habit of using his opponent’s weight or momentum against them, and there’s a kinetic and fluid energy to these fights. Antônio also draws some impressive crowd sequences. The moment when Conan is just captured and the chaos surrounding his escape from the Crucible are both impressively easy to follow, yet excitingly tumultuous.
The resolution to the story, in classic Conan fashion, isn’t quite as simple as being the toughest guy in the room. There’s real psychic damage done to the character here, even if he’ll never quite admit it to himself. In this volume, the creative team hones in on what Conan such a compelling character, despite his stony exterior. He really is the sum of his experiences, and is capable of compassion beyond what he outwardly portrays. However, he can also be an utter savage when the time calls for it. This duality is played to great effect in this story arc, which embraces the character’s apparent contradictions and makes Into the Crucible an excellent introduction to Conan the Barbarian.
The second arc in this collection concerns Conan’s efforts to tame the powerful Tooth of the Nightstar, a weapon that is far deadlier than meets the eye. This arc has some incredible time-bending sequences in which Conan loses himself in the thrall of the mystical blade. Zub’s narration here is splendidly off-putting, making the reader question how much control Conan really has from moment to moment. Narration also dominates a significant portion of these issues, calling to mind some of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan tales. With the title character being unable to trust himself, readers are left in suspense until the final pages.
In this second arc, the stars of the show are Robert Gill and Luca Pizzari’s illustrations, which are brought to horrifically vivid life by Israel Silva’s colors. The dream/seduction sequences are a sight to behold, with Conan’s inner fury being unleashed like never before. These sequences are some of the bloodiest and most intense in Marvel’s history with the character, and fans won’t want to miss seeing the Cimmerian coming unhinged in such a way. There are also some interesting choices here and there that illustrate how cursed this blade really is, including a memorable panel when Conan notices the faces of dozens of tortured souls on the sword’s surface.
The resolution of this story arc feels a bit sudden, which is the only real drawback to a strong showcase of Conan’s honor battling against his (literal) inner demons. It’s still a worthy addition to the character’s lore, and the final page sets up the series’ next arc in an unexpected way.
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