Saturday, May 25, 2024

Conan - Conan Volume 1: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories (Dark Horse)

In 2003, Dark Horse Comics launched their first Conan title after acquiring the rights to the character. Prior to the Dark Horse debut, Conan was featured prominently in Conan the Barbarian, Savage Sword of Conan, Conan the King, and Conan the Adventurer published by Marvel and Curtis. Dark Horse would later lose the character's licensing in 2018, returning the Cimmerian hero back to Marvel. As of this writing, Titan now owns the rights.

Like Marvel, Dark Horse launched several Conan titles and gained the rights to reprint the prior Marvel issues as omnibus editions. Under the Dark Horse brand, the titles Conan (2003-2008), Conan the Cimmerian (2008-2010), Conan: Road of Kings (2010-2012), Conan the Barbarian (2012-2014), Conan the Avenger (2014-2016), and Conan the Slayer (2016-2017) were created as brand-new comics created by a variety of writers and artists. Additionally, several mini-series titles were released over the course of the 14-year Dark Horse run.

I read several of these Dark Horse books when they first appeared, but eventually switched my reading to the stuff that normally appears here at Paperback Warrior – crime-fiction, action-adventure, and westerns. 2024 marks 20 years since Dark Horse published Conan #1, so I thought I would rewind, reread, and review these titles in order, beginning with the first series, Conan. Dark Horse has conveniently placed most of their Conan issues into trade paperback and hardcover editions. My first review is Conan Volume 1: The FrostGiant’s Daughter. This book includes Conan #0 through #7 (one-half of issue #7) and it was published in 2005. You can get the book for about $25 retail.

The issues collected in the book were drawn by Canadian artist Cary Nord, who stuck around to sketch most of the title’s first 44 issues. In an interview with the book’s writer, Kurt Busiek, Nord explained that he got into Conan through the Savage Sword of Conan magazine. In describing the Hyborian Age, Nord stated, “The world of Conan is visually stunning. Conan journeys through every environment you can imagine, encounters dozens of new cultures and races of men, sexy women, fantastic villains, apes, dragons, monsters, and he kicks ass through it all!”. His artistic style draws influences from Barry Smith and Frank Frazetta, two iconic artists associated with the Conan franchise.

Boston native Kurt Busiek wrote nearly all the title’s 51 issues, drawing from his 20 years of comic experience at the time. Busiek broke into comics in 1983 by writing a back-up story in Green Lantern. If you can name the title or character, there is a good chance Busiek contributed. He has worked for Dark Horse, DC, Wildstorm, Image, Marvel, Topps, Dynamite, and Eclipse. Prior to Conan, his most praised work was the team-up with Alex Ross to pen the Marvels limited series in 1993.

Another major addition to the book is the inking by Dave Stewart. One can easily see his careful treatment of Nord’s sketches. The inking, also done with computer, doesn’t cover up Nord’s lines and allows some interesting contrasts between the gray and darker tones. Often, Stewart will leave some aspects of Nord’s art faintly inked to suggest different scenes or story tones.

Surprisingly, the book kicks off after Conan’s death. In the first issue, which was #0 "The Legend", a Prince and his servant Wazir find an underground chamber that housed King Conan’s riches, complete with a large statue of the character seated on a throne. Later, Wazir recounts to the Prince that the Nemedians kept meticulous records and displays a scroll. On it is the familiar slogan, “Know, O’Prince, that between the years with the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…”. The scroll serves the reader by outlining the various lands and their historic tribes and people including Aquilonia and the coming of Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand. This page is a partial splash page with astounding art and inks. This issue ends with Wazir continuing to tell the Conan history to the Prince, which on the last panel begins with Conan at 16 years of age and venturing into the lands of the Aesir.”

The next portion begins with Conan #01 "Out of the Darksome Hills" and sets up how Conan became aligned with the Aesirs at the beginning of Robert E. Howard’s 1934 story, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”. Busiek is careful to gently explore the periods of time in between Howard’s stories. The writer makes it very clear in the letters section of these early issues that his focus is on the Howard stories with a complete disregard of Lin Carter and L. Spraguede Camp’s contributions (or anyone else for that matter). In “Out of the Darksome Hills”, the title page is a glorious splash of Conan decapitating a Vanirmen as he attempts to rape a young woman.

The story features the Vanirmen raiding an Aesir village, nearly burning it to the ground and slaying the women and children. The Aesir warriors are gone, so Conan, who just happens to be in the area, comes to the village’s aid in fighting off the Vanirmen. Later, Niord, the tribal leader arrives, and after Conan battles an Aesir, he invites Conan to spend the night in storytelling with booze. When Niord’s daughter Henga goes to Conan at night, Henga’s admirer Sjarl becomes secretly angry and begins to plot with another warrior on a way to betray Conan and either kill him or trade him as a slave. The following morning, a fully armored Conan joins the Aesir as they journey northward to attack the Vanirmen. Conan’s appearance here decked out in armor resembles the Barry Smith and Alfredo Alcala drawing on page 18 of Savage Sword of Conan #2. 

The book’s next section is issue #02 “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. I won’t go into too much detail of the story, as you can read my review of Howard’s 1934 story HERE. But this comic adaptation stays very true to the original Howard story with beautiful artwork by Nord. He captures the ivory-skinned woman perfectly, with an emphasis on her eyes and the glowing sheen that captivates the weary hero. There is a gigantic splash page that introduces the two frost giants and rivals even the version from Savage Sword of Conan. I prefer the original treatment, but this is really something special between Nord and Busiek.

The events of issue two spill over into the opening pages of #03 “At the Back of the North Wind”. Like the early issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, the young Conan is wearing a horned helmet in these early Dark Horse stories. The opening pages feature a conversation between Conan and Niord that addresses the helmet. After Conan’s protective gear is broken in battle, he borrows some of the Aesir’s tools to fix the helmet. Niord scoffs at the idea and suggests Conan should just get another. The Cimmerian responds that the helmet was created by his father, a blacksmith, and then explains that his father said a man who treated his tools well would get good service from them in return. It is a really touching aspect that proves Conan is somewhat sentimental, exposing his human condition versus savage destroyer.

The next morning, Conan helps the Aesir with tracking a band of Vanirmen who have escaped pursuit eastward. Behind the scenes, Sjarl plans to ambush Conan and sell him to a slaver. The Aesir eventually catch up to the Vanirmen and begin the slaughter. However, the Vanir leader Tir offers himself up as a surrender, volunteering to be executed so his men can be enslaved instead of killed. Once the execution is complete and the prisoners are chained, all Hell breaks loose as the group of tired warriors are attacked by armored warriors wielding giant hammers (they resemble the crazed post-apocalyptic warriors of Mad Max: Fury Road). They soon overpower the group, Conan is betrayed by Sjarl, and the issue ends with the unconscious hero being drug on a sledge through the wind and snow. It’s a powerful finale that resonates with so much turmoil and iron-fisted fortitude. Yet, Conan’s downfall ultimately was a woman.

The next section is issue #04 “Gates of Paradise”, featuring a drugged Conan imprisoned in a monolithic castle. The series thus far featured a through story of Conan aspiring to reach the land of Hyperborea, a place that the hero envisions as a utopian paradise where people can live eternally in a state of bliss and pleasure. However, Hyperborea’s creature comforts are only enjoyed by the sorcerers that rule the castle, a group of ancient beings that live eternally by capturing people, drugging them, and forcefully taking their souls. Due to the centuries of living this harmonious lifestyle, the sorcerers jump from the castle’s walls to their death in a ritual called the Day of Farewell.  

Conan is rescued from his drugged stupor by a Turanian woman named Iasmini. She provides a yellow lotus plant for the hero to grind up and drink. Soon, Conan schemes a way to free himself and the prisoners by giving the plant discreetly to the prisoners. This was such a colorful part of the storyline with the inking containing brilliant shades of green, yellow, and purple to match the tone. It is a graphic narrative that just transforms the pages into something truly special. While the storylines are different, the concept of Conan co-existing in a prison of slaves reminds me of  Roy Thomas’ “Lair of the Beast-Men”, a story featured in Conan the Barbarian #2. The Thomas story has more of an Edgar RiceBurroughs feel than Robert Howard, and oddly enough Nord harnesses that ERB vibe at the end of this issue and the beginning of the next.

In the title’s fifth issue, "Ashes and Dust”, Conan looks like Tarzan with his near-nakedness and muscular physique. The start of the story even features Conan fighting four hungry lions. When the hero makes his escape from that side of the castle, Busiak takes a moment to fill the reader in with the history of Hyperborea from the viewpoint of the supreme sorcerer. Other than the history of the land, there isn’t a lot that happens in this issue. The pages end with Conan and the prisoners rebelling and taking the attack to the sorcerers and their army.

The aptly titled “Day of Farewell” closes out this trade with the title’s sixth issue. The first page is an incredible splash of Conan’s face and right shoulder as he screams, “At them, men of Asgard! At them, free warriors!”. The eyes and blood-spattered hair convey so much brutality and savageness. This is Conan! The issue is action-packed as the Cimmerian fights the Hyperborean hordes to free himself and his fellow prisoners. There is a bit of sadness when Conan discovers that Iasmini sacrificed herself to free him. Page 13 is visually incredible as Conan’s back is against the edge of the castle’s walls, suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Page 19 is equally stunning with the hero surrounded by darkness and gloom while staring at the bones and corpses of the many who have jumped from the castle. Oh, and there are giant ants that Conan begins fighting. Page 22 emphasizes a part of the story where the Northmen believe that their burned bodies rise in the air on smoke, as if climbing a stairway to the realm of the gods. This is a splash page as Conan is burning the corpses and staring upwards out of the gruesome chasm. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (or cliffclimber?) as Conan begins scaling the walls to go and kill the sorcerers. This trade does go into the first 14 pages of issue #7, but I stopped here because I want to read issue 7 in its entirety. I'm OCD like that. 

Unlike Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, which I love, I felt that Busiak sticks more to the gritty Robert E. Howard storytelling. Conan isn’t cartoonish, nor is he the Hollywood “Ah-nold”. He is a grim-faced serious character that uses a combination of sharp cunning and backbreaking strength to overcome the most challenging obstacles. If I haven’t already overstated it, Nord’s artwork is marvelous and captures the Barry Smith look and feel of Conan – the Barry Smith that had reached his own identity after being heavily influenced by Jack Kirby in the early Conan the Barbarian issues. Both Smith and Frazetta had a unique wildness that Nord captures perfectly while also doing something wholly different when combining Dave Stewart’s phenomenal inks.

I forgot how good these issues were and I’m looking forward to reading more of them. Hopefully, you are on board for the journey through the Conan comics, including Marvel and Titan. 

Buy a copy of this volume HERE.

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