Conan the Barbarian stories have a unique uphill battle in the world of comics—not only do they have to find ways to entice readers in an ever-evolving industry, but they need to cover narrative ground that hasn't already been trampled on in the nearly-100 years since his creation. That balance can often be a tricky one, which makes the launch of this week's King Conan limited series an intriguing new chapter in the character's story. With Jason Aaron, Mahmud Asrar, and Matt Wilson back at the helm, after they previously relaunching Marvel's take on the character in 2019, King Conan #1 takes a fascinating concept into a familiar—but still compelling—narrative territory.
The first in a six-issue miniseries, King Conan #1 follows the titular Cimmerian as he grows restless in his position of power, sending him on a tumultuous journey west. After crossing paths with a formidable and familiar foe, Conan begins to realize the full extent of his turmoil, and that the true threat might be much more dangerous than expected.
Several years have passed since the aforementioned trio relaunched Conan with "The Life and Death of Conan," it feels like a disservice to call King Conan a true sequel. While your mileage with some of King Conan #1's intricacies may increase if you've read that prior run, a variation of the same can be said if you've read any of Marvel's recent Conan comics, or any adaptation in the tapestry from the character's history. This issue balances just enough of the past and future without alienating newer readers, leaning into the nonlinear way that Conan's story has been told since its inception. As a letter at the tail end of the issue explains, King Conan draws inspiration from the stories that Robert E. Howard didn't get a chance to write, but alluded to in larger parts of canon. That alone makes King Conan a compelling concept, and adds another layer of significance to the issue's exploits.
When it comes to the events of King Conan, the plot feels both incredibly simple and complex, with that grandiosity coming through both Conan's various flashbacks and the increasingly-complicated circumstances of the island he's currently occupying. Jason Aaron's approach to the script is sufficiently flowery and outrageous in narration, which balances out some of the more catchphrase-y dialogue spoken by Conan and other characters. There's an easy parallel to be drawn between this series and some of Aaron and Wilson's work together on Thor, but there's an extra sense of world-weariness within the pages of King Conan that the God of Thunder only saw glimpses of. That said, even as Conan's battle for survival gets bloodier and more extravagant, there's an inherent hope lurking beneath the surface.
While the script for King Conan is already compelling, Asrar's visuals take things a step further, taking that sword-and-sworcery tone to a moody and earned tone. Some of the sequences within these pages are truly breathtaking, and I'm envious of anyone who gets to read its many printed double-page spreads. The character designs are complex while having a sense of simple kineticism, allowing action to flow in a way that hasn't been as satisfying as Conan's early days at Marvel. Wilson's color work (as well as Asrar's, in a few key pages) also helps enhance the audience's satisfaction, with the use of blues, teals, and greys that add a sense of tension in every panel, but never growing boring. When their work deploys warmer colors, whether it be a gash of blood, or the golden hues of a key flashback sequence, it feels even more earned. Travis Lanham's lettering expertly ties it all together, both in the narration accompanying Conan's adventures and in the spits of dialogue within the issue.
Is King Conan the most accessible book for new Conan readers? Not necessarily, but if you have even a passing familiarity with the Cimmerian, you'll probably find something to glean from the pages of this oversized debut issue. The premise is fascinating, the art is excellent, and there's an overall sense of purpose within the pages that Marvel's Conan work has been somewhat lacking. I truly have no idea what's in store for the subsequent pages of King Conan, but this issue proved just gripping enough to keep me interested.
Published by Marvel Comics
On December 22, 2021
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Mahmud Asrar
Colors by Matthew Wilson and Mahmud Asrar0comments
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Cover by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson