Conan the Barbarian #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Robert E. Howard’s gray-eyed Cimmerian returns to the pages of Marvel Comics with Conan the Barbarian #1.
Filled with all sorts of purple prose from Jason Aaron and gorgeous, violently rendered by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson, this first salvo from the company’s newly-reacquired license, standing in the shadows of a seminal 275-issue run spanning multiple titles as well, is a gleefully pulpy and expansive first issue. One that makes wonderful use of Conan’s elasticity as a character, invoking the scale and scope of Aaron’s first year of Thor: God of Thunder.
Though some might find the comparisons to the latter a bit too on the nose, Conan the Barbarian #1 is still a tremendous re-debut for pulp fiction’s greatest reaver to the pages of Marvel Comics.
Right from the opening page, this first issue (by 276th by the legacy numbered scale) goes out of it’s way to establish it’s respect for the groundbreaking works that spawned this new original story. Opening with one of the most famous stanzas from Robert E. Howard’s The Nemedian Chronicles (the “Hither Came Conan, the Cimmerian...” one that you know even if aren’t aware you know), backed by a eye-grabbing collage of the previous Marvel Conan canon from all manner of legendary artists, this first issue presents its fan credentials early and to great effect.
And even better, this first issue is chock full of on-brand pulpiness and high fantasy hijinks. Scaffolded by Jason Aaron’s engaging narration, the script presents a story of both a young, brash Conan and a world-weary King Conan after his adventuring days are done. The approach isn’t anything new, both to the work of Aaron or to the recent Conan output, but Aaron’s commitment to the over-the-top attitude that the property can have really makes this thing shine, especially in the early pages.
Aaron opens with his antihero fighting it out in the fighting pits of a far-off kingdom, paid only in wine, coins and women. After a particularly bloody battle, he is approached and seduced by a nomad woman, who reveals herself to be a witch who wants to use Conan’s “powerful blood” to awaken some nameless horror to doom the world. As far as plots go, that one is 100% Conan, and Aaron really makes a meal out of it. He succumbs a bit to wordiness as he has to dump a lot of information on the reader in the latter half of the issue, and that takes the form of large, unwieldy word balloons, but the punchiness of his narration and his terse writing style of Conan keep it from getting too terribly dragged down.
Artists Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson also add a heap of dust, blood, and dynamism into the proceedings. Asrar, who captures Conan’s wild-eyed fury and cat-like movements perfectly throughout, also leans into the pulpy conventions of the property, opening with fresco-like snapshots of Conan’s past, future, and present, sumptuously colored by Matthew Wilson. But from the anthology like opening, the pair settle to a sun-bleached, sandy setting, populated by diverse extras decked out in intricate high fantasy costumes. There have been a metric ton of artists who have handled Conan since they gave up the license, and I was a touch worried that Asrar and Wilson’s artwork would look a bit too similar to certain adaptations we have seen from the Dark Horse era. But thankfully, Asrar’s lithe, heavily detailed pencils and Wilson’s glossy colors give this new Conan the Barbarian a look and tone all its own, while still holding true to the visual landmarks of the seminal property.
Marvel’s new Conan the Barbarian is the best of both worlds. Not only is it a solidly entertaining introduction of the Cimmerian to a whole new audience of readers, but a reverent adaptation that acknowledges the wealth of material that came before it. Jason Aaron, Mahmud Asrar, and Matthew Wilson keep their eye on the past, but their swords pointed forward in this bloody fun debut issue.