Conan the Barbarian #1 is everything you might expect from Marvel’s return to the character, and executed to near-perfection by a talented creative team.
This review of Conan the Barbarian #1 contains minor plot spoilers.
Whatever Conan keeps in his tasteful loincloth, it isn’t surprises. Marvel’s return to Robert E. Howard’s titan of fantasy is pretty much exactly what you’d expect – and that’s not a criticism. Conan the Barbarian #1 might hit all the expected swords-and-sorcery beats, but it does so with a lot of head-lopping enthusiasm. And why would you want anything else from a Conan story?
If this is your first, then the new creative team has you more or less covered. A few handsome splash pages courtesy of artist Mahmud Asrar and colorist Matthew Wilson fill in the blanks: Here’s Conan, from battlefield babe to bearded king, and back again to the fighting pits where he’s a heavy-drinking womanizing champion in the prime of his life. It’s a truncated history (although it politely pays homage to past eras of Marvel Conan comics), but that’s fine. This new time-hopping story, written by Jason Aaron and kicking off an arc titled “The Life and Death of Conan”, dips in and out of the titular barbarian’s storied adventuring career.
It might begin with a fresh-faced Conan, then, but it doesn’t linger with him. Before long time has been fast-forwarded, and he’s a weary king surveying a conquered battlefield. But in both instances the threat is the same, only changed like he has. What was before a saucy temptress who revealed herself as a witch is, later, a weathered hag stuck higgledy-piggledy together. Both versions of the crone serve a buried elder god whose resurrection requires Conan’s barbarian blood, and by issue’s end it might have it.
Like a lot of Conan stories tend to, Conan the Barbarian #1 feels like a tale of legend; the kind of thing passed down from generation to generation, picking up new details and embellishments with each telling. Every creative aspect, from the structure to the strong artwork, seem designed to exacerbate this effect of a recollection in which only the statuesque heroes and the monstrous villains stand out amid bloody battlefields of sand and stone.
It’s a fine, if familiar thing, and Conan the Barbarian #1 ends with the tantalizing promise of a more daring direction for the story to take. Whether or not that promise is kept seems somewhat beside the point. This is tried-and-true fantasy storytelling (somewhat reminiscent of Clankillers, for a recent example) that stays faithful to the style and tone of an established genre icon. A bolder approach would be nice, but when the quality is already this high, familiarity can be a comforting thing.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.