There aren’t a lot of fantasy comics out there, and the ones we get in the US are generally licensed from another property, whether Games like D&D or Pathfinder, or literary works like Game of Thrones, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Conan the Barbarian. So, when Marvel got the license to Conan comics again, I was interested, and when they re-launched their classic Conan titles – Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan, I added those books to my pull list.
Plot and Characters
While Conan the Barbarian has had a series of short stories each leading up to Conan’s ultimate death as an old man, Savage Sword of Conan is one longer story, effectively a graphic novella. The story follows Conan as he enters the territory of the sorcerer-king Koga Thun after being shipwrecked. Almost immediately after being shipwrecked, a magical map to a treasure becomes implanted into Conan’s mind, and together with one of the survivors of the wreck, the thief Suty, and local swordswoman Menes, as they seek the treasure and try to keep it out of Koga Thun’s hands.
Koga Thun, as far as sorcerers go, is a one trick pony, but that one trick is a hell of a trick, and certainly isn’t a unitasker. Thun is able to use magical venom, both through the blood of his controlled servants, as well as through ensorcelled serpents, to take control of people against their will. This starts with being able to see through their eyes, and eventually moves on to being able to make them follow orders that would otherwise be against their best interest.
While I’ve read less Conan stories than I’d like, it makes him a dangerous adversary in absentia – which also makes it rather frustrating when he just shows up in the last chapter so he can be close enough for Conan to lop his head off. I understand why – the treasure is something he’d like to try to claim personally, but it’s still kind of dumb.
The Problem with being Ur
As far as the rest of Conan’s band goes, they’re decent enough characters and work well as foils for Conan. They’re able to stand alongside him in a fight, and each one brings an additional skill to the table. It’s just that these characters, like many other Conan companions, basically exist to help overcome various encounters, and then die.
To an extent, this really highlights some of the reasons why I kind of dig Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser a little more than Conan (though I do like both). Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser have recurring characters, especially their patrons Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. Further, by tying the stories, to a certain degree, to Lankhmar, there’s a sense of continuity of setting there.
By comparison, Conan stories, due to Conan being the ur-Swords & Sorcery protagonist, and due to him being a loner and wanderer, also by unintentional extension, are all somewhat generic. What distinguishes a Conan story from any other generic Swords & Sorcery pastiche (that isn’t outright intended to be a parody), is how Conan reacts to the events in the story.
Sticking the landing
It’s not exactly a strike against the story – Conan is a protagonist who can very much carry a story on his mighty thews. However, this also means that the writers have to be really good at writing Conan. Fortunately, Gerry Duggan is able to pull that off.
There’s a scene early in the story, where Conan has just recently washed ashore and he’s confronted by Koga Thun’s men, who are burning the bodies of the people they’ve massacred. In response to this image, Conan swears to Crom, and Thun’s men taunt him, saying that they killed that god earlier and he cried for mercy. In response to this, without looking, Conan grabs a burning brand out of the fire and kills the crap out of those guards with it.
It’s not done in a way that implies that Conan is vulnerable about his faith in his God. Instead, as Conan is a character known for going into calculating violent rages against his enemies, it fits well with his character. It feels like Conan is going “I was already in a bad mood, but now you blasphemed against Crom, so I’m gonna wreck you.”
The art for the book fits this tremendously, and it’s also helped by the covers for the series by Alex Ross, who fits as a worthy successor to P. Craig Russell and Roy Thomas, and his style fits a good balance between the styles of Thomas and Frazetta.
In all, this first arc of Savage Sword of Conan does a really good job of using Conan to turn what could have been a stock Sword & Sorcery story into a Conan story, and I definitely recommend you check it out.