Conan makes his return to Marvel Comics in Conan the Barbarian #1 from writer Jason Aaron, artist Mahmud Asrar, and colorist Matthew Wilson. The issue takes a reverent tone in dealing with Robert E. Howard's sword-and-sorcery icon, offering a strong introduction to Conan and the world of Hyperborea with an ending that teases even grander things to come.
Like past Conan comic adaptations, “The Life and Death of Conan” treats Conan’s life like a forgotten legend. It begins with an homage to the past era of Marvel Conan comics and then goes into three powerful splash pages from Asrar and Wilson. The first two show the bookends of Conan’s life, his birth on a battlefield in Cimmeria and his rise to power as the king of Aquilonia. The third brings us to Conan on the cusp of his prime, where this particular story begins.
But this story is not contained to any one era of Conan’s adventuring career. Instead, the villain -- a witch and acolyte of a buried elder god -- acts like the specter of death haunting Conan throughout his life. The witch prophesizes Conan’s demise only to fade into the background of Conan’s memory. But like death itself, the witch's prophecy returns to the forefront of Conan’s mind at the most unexpected moment.
This storytelling structure is reminiscent of Aaron’s run on Thor: God of Thunder, where he told a story split between three eras of Thor’s life. It has a similar effect with Conan, emphasizing that the protagonists are larger-than-life heroes of legend.
Asrar’s artwork reinforces this sense of myth and legend. During his recent run on X-Men Red, there was a looseness and fluidity to Asrar's linework. Conan the Barbarian #1 is a strong departure. Asrar's linework is much firmer, his figures more statuesque, and his composition focused on creating iconic moments.
Wilson reinforces these attempts with his colors, which lean into browns and greys to recreate the world of stone and sand Conan inhabits. In turn, the bright, crimson red of bloodshed contrasts and pops against the muted environment, as does the softer red used to emphasize panels of violence.
The artwork brings Conan's world of sand and sorcery to life, and Aaron knows how to handle an epic hero. The issue's nagging flaw is that so much of its story feels safe. The opening pages set a great tone, but after that, it’s a pretty standard Conan tale. He fights in a den of thieves while a sultry woman looks on from the crowd, and he's ultimately led into a confrontation with an arcane threat. It is executed to perfection, but it is also exactly what you expect from a Conan comic book almost to a fault. Longtime Conan fans will take it for the delicious comfort food that it is, but it does little to differentiate itself from Conan comics of the past.
The ending elevates the tale, hinting at bigger things to come. The sudden shift from young Conan to King Conan and the surprising way that the arcane threat reemerges suggests there's a compelling tale here that's only just beginning, and that Aaron and Asrar are only just getting started.
Marvel Comics has assembled the perfect creative team for a new era of Conan. This issue shows they know the tone and style that Conan fans have come to expect and that they can execute a tried and true Conan story flawlessly while also suggesting that there may be bolder tales to come.
If you’re craving quality fantasy comics, don't miss Conan the Barbarian.
Published by Marvel Comics
On January 2, 2019
Written by Jason Aaron2comments
Art by Mahmud Asrar
Colors by Matthew Wilson