Hmp. Perhaps I am a brainless barbarian, but I cannot imagine ever growing so tired of life that I would willing cast it away. There is always more to do. annot imagine ever growing so tired of life that I would willing cast it away. There is always more to do.
—Conan, The Gates of Paradise
I never really got Conan. It always seemed to me that he was a rather generic fantasy hero, albeit one grimmer than most. But I love Kurt Busiek, so when I heard he would be writing a monthly Conan comic, I was curious. Kurt is easily one of the best super-hero writers of all time and his best stories are usually the thoughtful emotional ones found in books like Marvels and Astro City. Conan stories are known (by me anyway) for there dark violent adventures full of blood and death. But then I read the 25-cent preview book and I felt ashamed for not understanding what a truly great character Conan was. He’s not just a murderer with a sword: he’s a renaissance man, a dreamer, a scoundrel, a hero, a gentleman, a savage and a character who is complex yet refreshingly simple.
Robert E. Howard, the pulp novelist who created Conan, died too soon at the age of thirty. While he was able to create many great Conan stories in the short period of a little over 10 years, it seemed that there were still lots of Conan stories just waiting to be told that Howard would never finish. But the mythology created by Howard presents a world that is full of the kind of mystery and exotic wonder that comes with discovering new and alien cultures. Conan himself is a charismatic yet sincere man who wishes only to explore the world and find new pleasures, experiences and challenges. And Kurt Busiek gets that.
In this first trade paperback, we see Conan near the beginning of his journey across the globe in his late teens. After helping a Norse village of Asgardians under siege, Conan is accepted as a true warrior and ends up adventuring with his new friends to help slay their foes. But when he tells the clan’s leader of his plans to see Hyperborea, the legendary paradise of marvels, the townspeople become concerned. Conan discovers why when he finally reaches Hyperborea. It’s a beautiful paradise all right but one fueled by atrocities such as slavery and using human souls as fuel for their magic.
Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord retell the classic Conan stories (as well as telling a few new stories) in a fashion both fresh and traditional. In the Hyperborea story arc, Busiek shows that he really understands what separates Conan from other men: the fact that he is never content with just being alive and safe.
In one chapter, the Hyperborean named Aishti reveals that kingdom of Hyperborea started out as a small clan of barbarians trying to survive but eventually stole weapons and learned the magics of their enemies and built their kingdom with passion and enthusiasm. But eventually their kingdom grew so strong they were no longer opposed and they made their own personal heaven where they were in want of nothing. But we then see that the fact that they are content with their kingdom and their wonders has allowed their society to stagnate. It is true that they live in a beautiful kingdom where both their needs and wants are all met, but they have ceased to accomplish anything beyond that. Aishti laments that he doesn’t know why he and his people feel unfulfilled despite accomplishing everything he feels a society would hope to accomplish. He wants to know what happened to their people’s passion. Then we cut to Conan, fighting for his freedom with a terrifying grin on his face as he hacks into his captors. He is the character who will always remain passionate and he will never be satisfied with simply accomplishing a goal or finding happiness because he’s an adventurer. Conan is never content enough to stagnate and is constantly looking for more joys, adventures and experiences. For him, it’s not about reaching a single, final goal but about discovering what lies over the next horizon trying to sate his insatiable wanderlust.
Busiek also (with some fantastic art from Cary Nord) shows that he is a person who is legendary, but not godly. As a young prince who finds a statue of the main character mentions, Conan doesn’t look like a “prettified god king” but rather he looks “rough, dangerous real.” He is a human who has a strong, fiery spirit and a determination that makes it seem as though no matter how great the challenge or how outclassed or outnumbered he is, he can overcome it through sheer force of will. He is also a renaissance man, learning different trades, skills, and philosophies from different peoples and cultures. He has no status quo and is constantly changing and growing as a person, learning from both his victories and his defeats.
Busiek and Nord’s retelling of Conan’s greatest adventures really captures the epic feel that most fantasy books try, but often fail, to get right. It isn’t just about having the obligatory huge battle scene with panoramic camera shots and armies of thousands battling each other, but it is about having a story where every moment matters and forms a part of the tapestry a little more. In this volume we see some of Conan’s “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” when we see the happiness of fighting alongside new friends and then losing them to a traitor. We see huge battles and Conan growing as a person from his experiences. Busiek really gives the character and the stories life and delivers the emotional impact this epic needs to feel as huge as it is meant to be.
The art by Cary Nord is also phenomenal and includes what very well may be the best work of his career. With the help of some amazing colours by Dave Stewart (who gives the book what looks to be vibrant watercolours), Nord is able to provide both the rough intensity and the beauty necessary to tell the tale of Conan. From lush landscapes to wintry wastelands to exotic cities to dark dungeons, Nord is able to give the perfect feel to all of the wonderfully rendered locales that the stories take place in. He also makes all of his characters look interesting and unique (not easy with two clans of bearded Vikings) and draws what may be the best Conan since the definitive artwork of Frank Frazetta. And while Nord certainly seems to use Frazetta’s art as an influence, the former has a style all his own perfectly suited to this series.
Conan continues to be the best fantasy book in publication today, but these first stories really cement Conan as a great complex yet simple character for those discovering him for the first time, while managing retain all the classic elements that made him popular with his fans. Kurt Busiek recently announced that he will leave the book with issue 29, and while his replacement, Timothy Truman, is the perfect choice (as evidenced by his other pulp inspired work and ambiguous but sympathetic characters), Kurt Busiek really made Conan come alive again rather than giving a soulless retelling of classic tales.
So now, finally, I get Conan. And so do a new generation of readers.