It comes as a shock to me how much Marvel Comics has so clearly succeeded at bringing Conan back to the House of Ideas. Some may argue intertwining the character with Punisher and Moon Knight is a bit much–especially so soon–but the main series by Jason Aaron and spin-off series like Savage Sword of Conan has been excellent. The latest trade paperback of Savage Sword of Conan is now in comic shops and features three distinct and complete stories.
This collection starts with a great one-shot by Merideth Finch and Luke Ross. Everything about this issue screams classic Conan storytelling, from the opening scene in a dark bar to the gladiator games to a scantily clad woman who pines for Conan. The violence is high octane and even the damn cover exudes strange adventure! Speaking of, David Finch and Frank D’Armata join forces on the cover, featuring an awesome action moment cast in shadows with a foe up against Conan that looks just inhuman enough to hint at the fantasy of this series.
Finch plays the book out beautifully, instilling a bit of magic via a potion, giving Conan a very good reason to fight for his life, and even perfectly playing up the fact that Conan needed a bit of luck to make it out of this one. Conan is basically drugged, which puts him in a very dangerous fight to the death. Add to this how Conan is still groggy from the poison and the fight sequence is even more dangerous than most. This is a fight Conan could lose, which is something we don’t see often.
Luke Ross puts in a stellar performance here, hitting all the right marks. The poison (colored perfectly by Nolan Woodard) being administered conveys a sense of doom for Conan and there’s very good pacing. A character watches Conan lay poisoned, explaining what it is they’re doing there and he looks sullen and lost. The man knows he’s going to die. Later, when blood starts to spill Conan is ruthless and vicious, never holding back. Ross cranes the angle of each panel so you’re right there with Conan and feeling every blow.
Following this is a three-part story by Jim Zub and Patch Zircher, the titular “Conan the Gambler”. You know how James Bond must navigate the incredibly dangerous realm of poker or other casino games in the movies? Now imagine Conan the Barbarian doing the same with a game that is clever and all about backstabbing. Zub does a great job establishing the rules of this game, giving Conan new dangers to avoid in each issue, and ends it all on an interesting note you won’t see coming. This is a very good story and one that proves you could easily have a Conan the Barbarian TV show given the right writers. In fact, Marvel, if you’re listening, give Zub the first shot at writing that TV show! Zircher is exceptional as well, capturing the intensity of the moment and making a card game feel like a battle with a fifty-foot serpent. That’s not easy to do.
Finally, this book ends with a two-parter by comic book legends Roy Thomas and Alan Davis. This story has Conan on the road protecting a mysterious woman. He’s soon parlaying with an army of barbaric types, fighting off monsters, and avoiding a knife in the back from saboteurs. Davis is his usual exceptional self with his clean and detailed art style. He also draws a great Conan that is reminiscent of the earlier Conan comics. Thomas clearly has a great handle on the character–just read my review of the very first Marvel Comics Conan story by Thomas to see–with fun character wrinkles organically thrown in throughout the story.
This trade paperback captures everything good about Conan the Barbarian and does so across three complete stories. The character is incredibly versatile and you can see it on every page of this book.