A very welcome oversized hardback collection of writer Jason Aaron’s twelve-issue run of Conan the Barbarian. The arc is titled ‘The Life and Death of Conan’ and is a pretty interesting take on the character for his return to Marvel: I suspect it was a deliberately introductory arc intended for new readers unfamiliar with the character, as it sweeps forwards and backwards in time referencing various parts of Conan’s life and adventures. It may also be a case of Aaron referencing REH’s habit of non-chronological stories, Howard depicting Conan as a King and then in his next story depicting Conan as a young thief, or later in his life as a pirate, writing stories at various stages of Conan’s life as if on a whim. It would be left for two fans to later write a probable chronological outline of Conan’s life piecing the REH stories into some kind of order (“A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” by P Miller and J D Clark first published in a fanzine in 1938).
One of the ways to judge how good a new Conan story is, is perhaps inevitably to compare it to the mood and spirit of REH’s original tales. This is something of a double-edged sword because there is no way for any writer to really create something that rings wholly true of Howard. Conan’s creator may have been a pulp writer quickly turning out the stories to pay the bills (and at the time of the Conan shorts were written this would include paying for, or contributing to, his mother’s medical expenses as her health failed) but their quality has ensured his work has been in print for close on a century now. Indeed, it can be argued that Howard’s best stories are those not involving Conan at all, but it can’t be denied that the best of the Conan yarns are really something special.
So how does Aaron fair with such an unfair comparison? Pretty well I think. I’m not really convinced that he manages to capture Conan’s character; there is something a little too civilized regards Aaron’s Conan for all his narrative commentary otherwise, lacking some of the dark barbarian of Howard. There’s a literal fixation on Conan’s wanderlust, Conan’s drive to see over the next hill, an ambition to experience all the Hyborian Age’s wonders that I don’t think was such a character trait in the Cimmerian at all. It feels a little too on the nose, too modern a point of view. I rather thought Howard’s Conan lived more aimlessly, subject to his own physical whim and excess, whether it be wine, women or loot. Aaron further features a rather unwelcome explanation for Conan’s success, attributing it to a witches curse and the protection from a Dark God that needed the Cimmerians blood at the end of a long life in order for that Dark God to return. Hey, I’d prefer to attribute Conan’s length of survival to his own efforts.
The art and colours (chiefly by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson respectively) are beautiful; modern comic art is on this evidence rather more sophisticated than much of the 1970s art that featured in Marvel’s original Conan books, although I still think John Buscema’s Conan is the definitive one. This edition certainly benefits from the larger size- I initially bought this run in two softcover collections but really struggled with the small print, my eyes not what they were: no such problems here. Aaron left the title after issue twelve but I definitely hope that the successive issues with a new creative team can also be reprinted in OHC format eventually. While I am really enjoying Marvel’s omnibus reprints of both the colour and black & white Conan titles from the 1970s – 1980s, I would be fascinated to see where Marvel goes with this new generation of Conan titles.