In 2019 Marvel regained the rights to publish comics based on Robert E. Howard’s iconic swords and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian. The publisher has gone hard with Conan over the past year, publishing up to three standalone Conan series at the same time. All the while they have integrated the Cimmerian into the Marvel Universe proper in titles like Savage Avengers. Conan’s first year back at Marvel climaxes with the most appropriate milestone: a crossover event featuring their prodigal son. Conan: Serpent War, from Jim Zub, Scot Eaton, Scott Hanna, Frank D’Armata, Vanesa R. Del Rey, and Jean François Beaulieu, sees Conan teaming up with a handful of Howard’s other pulp heroes plus Moon Knight to face a divine threat. The first issue is almost all introductions, but it establishes an engrossing tone along the way.
The setup is reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s Elric novel The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. In that novel, extradimensional powers summon Elric along with some of Moorcock’s other fantasy heroes for a quest through universes. Here it’s a similar affair with an unseen being summoning Conan, Solomon Kane, Dark Agnes, Niord, and Moon Knight to stop the advances of the snake god Set. The character James Allison serves as an intermediary between this greater being and the heroes. Like Howard, Allison is a writer in Cross Plains, Texas. Allison channels his memories of past lives in heroic ages into his stories. Implementing him in this way is an inspired nod to Howard’s imagination being the cornerstone of Serpent War’s tale.
As a writer, Zub has done a lot of work on fantasy titles, including those based on tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. That background informs his approach to introducing these heroes, summing each up as a familiar archetype. Conan is the ever-restless adventurer. Dark Agnes is a fighter, while the Puritan hero Solomon Kane is a paladin. Moon Knight is a knight, while Niord is a hunter. It’s a simple enough way to communicate the basics about who these characters are.
But it’s not enough. Having to introduce this many characters means there’s not space in the issue to accomplish much else. Even in the introductions we’re told who these characters are more than we're shown it. Eaton enhances the experience with clean and attractive visual intros, but a two-page spread goes only so far.
Throughout the issue Eaton keeps things simple and clean. His style leans towards realism, which is appropriate for these low-magic fantasy heroes. D’armata’s muted and earthy colors are also fitting. By contrast, Del Rey illustrates the James Allison framing sequence. She brings a more ethereal style to his fever dreams, accented by Beaulieu’s spectral colors.
This is a comic about worlds colliding and Travis Lanham's diverse lettering choices enforce that theme. He makes certain that each of these worlds has a different visual voice. Allison’s narration appears as a fine type. Khonshu’s words appear in white on black, with rune-like lettering speaking to his ancient nature. Whatever voice compels Allison appears scrawled and shapeless, suggesting something of another dimension.
Conan: Serpent War #1 is well-crafted but overstuffed as it struggles to get introductions out of the way so that it can move towards the conflict. Despite this shortcoming, the issue does establish an exciting tone; anyone who enjoys a good pulp fantasy tale will appreciate it. When the issue ends with first meetings, readers will be eager to see what comes next. And now that the "gathering the party" portion is out of the way, fans can look forward to what looks to be a thrilling adventure.
Published by Marvel Comics
On December 4, 2019
Art by Scot Eaton and Vanessa Del Rey
Inks by Scott Hanna
Colors by Frank D'Armata and Jean François Beaulieu0comments
Letters by Travis Lanham
Cover by Carlos Pacheco, Aneke and Frank D'Armata