This omnibus collects a series that claims to be a fresh retelling of classic Conan the Barbarian tales. A concept I was a little apprehensive about at first. I think my recollection of Conan was like anyone else’s: muscles, blood, swords, chainmail bikinis, evil sorcerers, more muscles, and maybe a bloody ax if it happens to be nearby.
Do we need more of this? I wondered as I lifted the cinderblock of a book. Are there no lawyers left in the world?
But on the other hand, if you cleaned up Conan, what would be left? What if gratuity is all that made it fun? The truth is, we’ll never know these answers, because “cleaning up” was not their approach here. And neither was making the thing I remembered.
Busiek’s Conan is Gloriously Bloody
Before anyone panics, some things are not changed. The series’ classic battle lust been maintained, and I would honestly say it’s deepened and improved. Remain calm. Before I get into claiming this book has finer points and then praising them, let me lay out what’s recognizable.
This book is filled with tension, battle, and revenge. And it’s deliciously good at them. It doesn’t remove one meaningful drop of blood. If it’s changed anything it’s that it’s made you feel each drop.
“I’m not going out of my way looking for devils; but I wouldn’t step out of my path to let one go by” | Conan’s (2004) Obvious First “Change”
This counting of sword blows is the most obvious show of Busiek’s influence. Busiek picks up the original Robert E. Howard stories, clarifies their plots, and makes them run efficiently. The effect is transformative: we get to see what else Howard wrote. Like many pulp writers, Howard’s asides are the most interesting parts of his stories. The way he throws in fragments to hint at a larger world, a wider motive, a bigger threat. More of the unknowable.
Reading this omnibus, one realizes that Howard was obsessed with plot and character actions. And the only thing that keeps those old stories from being one great, big, fights are those rest stops where Howard hammered in an unexpected bit of world-building or some rote titillation. All of which felt like the author was swiping from his other short stories again.
Busiek digs through all of this, highlights what’s important, and reassembles into a story with more impact… and sometimes, with newly discovered meaning.
The Legend | Volume 0, Issue 1
As so many post-Howard stories go, this one opens with three classic ingredients: a rich and curious prince, his wise but doubting Wazir, and an endless desert that surrounds them. We can tell by their elegant clothes that they are from the kingdom of Stygia, a blended analog of our own Islamic kingdoms. We know this, just as we know that somewhere, there is a tomb buried. The kind which all deserts must conceal.
This is where we first meet Conan. As a monument that feels ancient, even in this ageless place.
This is Busiek’s first story and it’s inspired by Howard’s The Nemedian Chronicles, his last story in the Hyborian chronology. But Chronicles is only a small portion of this tiny story, mostly providing an excuse for someone to tell someone else about Conan’s legend.
Busiek must have started at the opening of the story and moved back from there. “Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…” it says. So much like Shelly and Smith’s Ozymandias proclaiming “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The epic poem and its long dead, tyrannical king plays so much influence on Howard’s own long dead, tyrannical king in The Nemedian Chronicles. Busiek just adds the prince and Wazir setup that became popular after Howard’s era, and merges it all with a wink.
But it extends. The pulp and penny dreadful roots are exposed, and you just might be reminded of English explorers, Ancient Egyptian Mysticism, and other problematic staples of the genre. Look again.
This is Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen, only the story is inverted. Conan is not of the gods, but base, mortal, and blood-thirsty. The Celtic overtones Howard intentionally gave the barbarian ruler are buried with him, all but forgotten. This is not the Valley of the Kings, but the Valley of a Single King. And we stand in the desert he has made.
Why This Matters
I’m telling you all of this because I want you to understand what I mean when I say this is brilliant. Busiek makes some incredibly clever choices in this book about a big, dumb idiot with a sword. There is more here, so much more than I would have ever suspected from a barbarian.
And I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did. I looked at the title and thought Kurt Busiek, writer of Astro City, Marvels, and some of the best “comic book” comics out there, would collect an easy paycheck on this. Instead, this Conan is somehow everything you picture about the sword and sorcery genre, and like nothing you imagined. It is subtle and obvious, and just a little revolutionary.
Busiek & Nords Conan is a tea ceremony set to Celtic Frost. And it’s clear from the jump.
The plot of the story is fairly simple, particularly by the title’s usual standards. The story follows Conan from birth to his leaving Cimmeria, and fills in as a sort of “act one” we never got for the series.
The simple narrative is perfect, as it gives Busiek time to let each character reveal themselves. He finds these shockingly quiet moments in the story that show a Barbarian we’ve seldom seen before: one standing still, planning, weighing his options. Through this, Busiek makes Conan a deadlier and deeper character, capable of self-contemplation, without sacrificing his ferocity or single-mindedness.
This story has some gorgeous art by Greg Ruth, who’s got a painterly style that looks similar to gouache (think watercolor, but with much richer colors and better contrast.) His style is dramatic with sharp highlights and some mysterious darks, making it feel like equal parts classic and contemporary.
The Artistic Approach
This series was originally published by Dark Horse in the early 2000s, and some of that shows up in Cary Nord’s illustrations. Because it’s Dark Horse, it’s bold, normally violent, and the publisher clearly gives Nord room to indulge (a tradition going back to Aliens, Predator, Terminator, and Hard Boiled, to name only a few classics.)
Nord is consistently good at delivering the sword and sorcery elements. His characters can be expressive, the props and locations are interesting, his action scenes are clear. And his designs for non-human characters are top-notch fantasy (I swear, I can see a little of Brom’s influence in his Hyperboreans.) On the balance, his work is solid, sometimes even excellent.
But the work on this book is inconsistent. When Nord rushes, it’s obvious. I understand that deadlines are a thing, but if you’re going for a painterly style and a multi-character battle scene, it’ll be real obvious when you cut corners.
Art Pedantry: Mine and Nord’s
My real problem, though, is in this book’s use of early 2000s digital “inks.” The coloring goes for something more volumetric and painterly. But whoever is doing the “inks” are just using another soft-edged photoshop brush set to “dark grey” or worse. That inking approach drinks the old Brother’s Hildebrandt Kool-Aid about how artists should be “never painting with black.” That’s sound advice when painting, as bottle black will crush depth.
But it’s not nearly as good advice when illustrating. Illustration, it turns out, is not painting and in comics there is a very long, extremely obvious precedent for using India ink or other blacks. Any and all arguments to the contrary should be directed to Neal Adams.
Nord’s mixing of digital painting and illustration can, only at times, make the worst of all worlds. His “blacks” both distractingly pale and like a two-dimensional scar on a three-dimensional painted shape. His inks can also hover there, incongruously, feeling exposed as a Photoshop layer and embarrassed about it. This is a shame, as Conan has been painted by some of the greats.
Out of the Darksome Hills | Conan #1-7
This story opens with Conan on his way to Hyperborea, a mythical paradise from his grandfather’s stories, through the mountainous north. As the warrior travels, he comes across a helpless Aesir village under attack. When Conan enters the fray, there’s a real sense he might have been more interested in a fight than in being a hero or earning coin.
Some of Nord’s depictions of those fights are spectacular. His character designs, particularly the non-human kind, are bold and can add so much to the richness of Conan’s world. The eye for action and richness along with Busiek’s clarity and characterization means the two can deliver some gruesomely satisfying results in this book.
After the invasion and mini-resolution, there’s a funeral pyre big enough to send off an entire population. The beautifully saturated flames twist into the sky like a gnarled claw, the illustration bold enough to remind us that the Aesir send their spirits into the sky. A fact we’ll want to remember later when we see another people fall from heaven to earth.
Busiek keeps fires burning as Conan retells his grandfather’s story and his quest for paradise. The seriousness of death is juxtaposed against Conan’s earnest fascination with Hyperborea to make the warrior appear like the immature lad he is. And the Aesir, who owe this man a great debt, are so desperate for their revenge that they see this child-like moment in Conan as weakness. And they exploit it.
Highlights From This Story
This is a great example of Busiek and Nord working together. Busiek undersells the Aesir deception through their dialog, merely suggesting something is withheld, though we don’t know what or how important. Nord matches his depiction with guarded or humoring faces. Somehow, the two creators depict the Aesir chieftain as both having genuine gratitude towards the young Conan and perhaps even caring… while at the same time, we suspect he’s either lying about Hyperborea or else he’s sure Conan will die quite soon (either in the attack party against the Vanir or, possibly, in that promised utopia.)
This refrain repeats over and over through the story. What do you keep from people? How do you promise help in order to selfishly hurt? What right do you have to sacrifice? And are life and death different at all in this age?
I can’t tell you much beyond that except to say that both Busiek and Nord do a bang-up job of making Hyperborea effortlessly into the canon. Everything about it feels fully realized, and the narrative blows it delivers land hard.
The Tower of the Elephant | Conan #19-22
Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger, I feel that plenty of people are at least passingly familiar with Conan the Barbarian. But also thanks to Arnold, I think most people think of it only as a traditional low fantasy story. But nearly from the start, the series has contained more horror than fantasy, and nearly an equal amount of sci-fi. Such was Howard’s versatility.
The Tower of the Elephant is just such a sci-fi/horror tale. It’s a pulpy tale and starts with stories of the evil sorcerer Yara, and a great treasure he keeps locked in a tower. It stays on-brand as Conan fights giant spiders, evades traps, and finds the spoils promised. But it turns when we discover the otherworldly Yag-kosha, a nearly immortal alien held by Yara for centuries and the secret source of the sorcerer’s power.
The “elephant” of the story is most often depicted as the aged, frail, and discolored body of a human-ish man, only with the enormous head of an elephant. Frequently, it’s green (to show its an alien) and winged (to show how it traveled to this planet.) The result is a timeless alien God, pitiable in its mortality and captivity, but still filled with unknown dangers. In other words, it’s incredibly Lovecraftian (and it’s no wonder. Howard and Lovecraft were friends and held a correspondence for years.) It has cruel, magical rulers and all of the other hallmarks of a Conan tale, but offers a glimpse into a world more dazzling that we thought possible, making it a fantastic inclusion here.
As far as I know, in every iteration of The Tower, there is always a prisoner, he’s always part pachyderm, and he always comes from the planet Yog. But classically, the enslaved Yag-kosha feels more monster than immortal alien victim. And I think that this difference in this version comes entirely from Cary Nord and colorist Dave Stewart.
Together they finally capture a crucial, repeating element of the story: this story is told beyond human scale. The yawn of centuries, the endless expanse of space, the enormity of injustice. Yag-kosha could have been just one more canonical magic-based god, right up there with Crom or Ibis. But his scale is galactic and epochal, which means he has no human reference.
Nord conveys this in spades with wide shots depicting the dream-like dimensions of the creature. And when we know how big the alien prisoner is, Nord uses texture, body language, and camera work to terrify us with how big Yag-kosha should be.
Stewart does a lot to help with that, obscuring areas of the alien with shadow so our imaginations fill in. The stories colors are properly otherworldly, mixing torch fire with hints of starlight. There’s that fantastic, classic, dungeon lighting that every fantasy tale needs.
As for Busiek, this story has a lot for canon but not much in plot. His job is just to cut out the fat, make sure his artists have every opportunity to shine, then find a few neglected moments in the tale to make into opportunities for Nord and Stewart. Which he does with aplomb.
Final Thoughts | Can Bad Authors Eventually Lead to Good Books?
Conan the Barbarian is and has always been a dark fantasy of power. The petty yet philosophical fear that there are only three things in life: ourselves, the unknown, and the unknowable. And either you fight or you disappear into one of the others.
The irony is that even in the Hyborean age, there is a vast world out there. One with magic, super-science, ancient politics, and sex, all beautiful in their unknowable and even terrifying nature. The tragedy is that classically, Conan only ever sees them as erasure. This is because his creator, Robert E. Howard, saw the solitary and selfish barbarian as mankind’s natural state, and attempts at transcendence as a cheat and a lie.
“My characters are more like men than these real men are, see. They’re rough and rude, they got hands and they got bellies. They hate and they lust; break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.”
— Robert E. Howard
Howard was born a sickly kid in turn-of-the-century Texas with his mother. It took decades for her to die of consumption, so naturally, the boy worshiped her. Between that, his poor health, and his love of books, he was tormented by his neighbors. And as is too often the case, Howard grew up without enough guidance, leading him to idolize the next source of power: his abusers. Howard is described in biographies as a pathological liar with a frightening obsession with masculinity and individuality, who had a sick habit of waxing poetically about “real men” as sick caricatures of the Texas roughnecks that terrorized him.
So it’s sadly not shocking that Robert E. Howard was a racist. Hell, his correspondences with H.P. Lovecraft (himself a world-class bigot) mark that loud and clear. It’s also extremely clear in stories like Black Canaan, Pigeons from Hell, The Horror from the Mound, and Marchers of Valhalla.
But there are two things that I do find staggering:
- Howard was born at a place and a time where Jim Crow didn’t merely exist but was enshrined in written law. Yet a contemporary account describes Howard as such a colossal asshole that he was a social pariah even under those conditions.
- And yet none of that shows up overtly in any Conan stories. There’s inference and subtext, but absolutely nothing close to his Black Canaan, et all. And even though Lovecraft was essentially mentoring Howard at the time, and even though the two discussed fascism and bigotry openly, it’s not plainly evident in the pages of Conan.
Yes, Howard explicitly wrote Conan based on his toxic ideas about the individual, society, and the nature of power. Along with a whole host of other bad ideas that may be there in a less overt fashion. This means I can’t ever recommend Howard or even these, the very least of his offenses.
But I think we’re left with a question asked by this book: If the bones of Conan the Barbarian are unsullied, can and should they be saved?
Here and for now only here, I say ‘yes.’
Fantasy, as a genre, has long had a problem with sexual violence. If that wasn’t made inevitable by our earliest mythologies, then it was made unavoidable by Game of Thrones (we can argue the monomyth or what one can reasonably expect from a genre that publishes on the sides of fans. But there’s no arguing with Nielsen ratings.)
Alongside Howard’s racism, this was my other big concern. Growing up with a mother slowly dying of TB was traumatic on Howard and, by all accounts, colored his opinion on women (at times he was voraciously arguing for gender equality. But on the other hand, he wrote a lot of stories with gorgeous, villainous women who used sex against poor, enormous Conan.)
To be honest, my real problem was I could define all of the ways I expected the book royally screw up representing gender and sex. But I had no idea what I thought a Conan story, even a modern one, could realistically do right. Not even removing the problem, as that’s just obviously avoiding it.
I was thinking too big. Busiek and Nord’s choice with this story is, for me, the reason you should consider the omnibus.
The Story Itself
The daughter is an alabaster-skinned pinup of a woman, wearing sex and death and very little else. She is the natural contrasting compliment to Conan, our titular character, all dark skin, hard angles and menace, there is a chase because there must be a chase. She gives him reason because Howard thought that the natural order. It all looks to hopelessly expected.
But there’s a change. And It’s small but so crucial.
In the story, Conan is chasing the Frost Giant’s Daughter. Her self-assured amusement collapses into panic and suddenly there it is. The threat becomes real.
It’s as simple as that. Busiek’s clarity and Nords expression prove why those two people needed to make this one story: they’re so good, the only thing in those panels is exactly what’s happening. It’s not preachy, it doesn’t beat you over the head, those things would get in the way. It is only what’s happening.
This is a fantasy book about a famous barbarian anti-hero, Howard’s own paragon of masculine whatever hell-bent on not being told what to do. And he is going after an unambiguous villain, a cruel and heartless butcher. But the change happens, and that doesn’t matter, because a man is chasing a woman and we can see in her eyes she fears what we should fear, and she’s right in a way that reveals exactly how wrong we were to be blasé.
Let me be blunt. In this version of Conan, assault is real. I’m not going to applaud it for that. What deserves that instead of the way the story works and how it resolves. How it takes Howard’s titillation, and… I mean this in the best of ways… takes all the “fun” out of it.
In Conan, sexual violence is undeniable… but it’s not a plot point. It’s not a punishment or ennoblement. Sexual violence isn’t a backstory, it doesn’t make Busiek’s characters powerful or unclean. And from what I’ve read, it’s never leveled like a doomsday weapon in some “save her chastity before it’s too late” scenario.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter brings it up because it’s easier to believe in barbarians and frost giants than it is to think a neanderthal chasing a victoria’s secret model could look like anything else. So it’s there, not overly slanted, the books not making apologies for any actions or implications. Busiek and Nord don’t avoid the subject, but they also aren’t performative about it. I know. I know how small this is and how incredibly little it impacts the world. But Conan brings up the threat of rape in a way I think is appropriately frightening without exploiting its characters. And that feels enormous.
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
— Robert E. Howard
This year has been impossibly hard. It has asked too much of all of us, and from some of us, it has simply taken. This series was written more than 15 years ago, but the present echoes, and the fantasy of a broken and desperate world can feel more like our reality. Seeing the last Cimmerian, the Elephant God, the Frost Giant’s Daughter, it’s hard not to feel ones’ own isolation, smallness against the world, and a fear of any power. Break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.
Here, then, is the miracle. This moment in time feels like the Hyborean age. Just as when Howard wrote it during the Great Depression. And we could set our expectations low, read a pulpy, sword and sorcery story, and simply sigh when the bullying, bigotry, or general toxicity shows up. No one would have been shocked to find Conan lived in a world whos moral fabric was stitched from its iconic loincloths.
But we live in a world where Conan the Barbarian can highlight something as sensitive as sexual violence. It’s not perfect, and it’s not enough, but it exists when it has every reason not to exist. And against all odds, it’s good. In the end, Conan is left with only the evidence of his actions that he holds to a crowd. The final moment is uncomfortable, he’s not forgiven or excused. But he seems changed. In that moment, Conan the character and the book stops being purely a power fantasy and asks the question: “can I be saved?”
Asking that is a hint to an answer. Howard’s three things in life—ourselves, the unknown, and the unknowable—grows by one. Conan and his audience are confronted with something they know but try to believe they don’t. The lie between what is unknown and what is unacknowledged.
Conan is filled with small but clear and impactful details. It works confidently to take the Conan you know, and change him so deftly, that you accept the meaning before you notice the difference.
In the text, Busiek uses canon quite flatly to suggest that Cimmerians are not considered white. Depending on how you read it, this clan-obsessed world might actually see Conan as bi-racial. And the way Nord draws him, that suggestion is unshakable. Also unshakable is that Conan, who fled Cimmeria when he was young, might be tragically ignorant to this (or at least its fullest implications.)
The book topples Howard’s world view, then it goes for his throat. Conan experiences loss, but he never gets to own it. He’s denied the role of martyr. And revenge, oh how Busiek both revels in and repudiates revenge. (And I must admit, having this new perspective on a man on this walking killer of royalty and tyrants? In this year of all years? I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t deeply gratifying.)
There’s a part early on in which Conan is betrayed. This betrayal contributes to his eventual loss to a powerful enemy. And he’s not allowed to die in battle with his comrades. He’s forced to run and survive, he the man that never loses. And now, in his mourning and his injury, he cannot even attempt his retribution, So he hunts down the one who betrayed him and he kills him dirty. It is beyond satisfying in that moment. But an instant later, it’s ash on his tongue. As he slumps away, still mourning, still injured, there is the sense that while the traitor deserves his gruesome, humiliating death… that Conan, killer of all kings, delivered it shows it the revenge for what it is. A petty act by a man who killed the man he could to make him feel like less of a coward for not killing the man he can’t.
Yes, the world needs more of this.