I wanted to celebrate the release of the new Conan the Barbarian film on August 19 by reviewing some of the Conan related material I have. I started by reviewing the first and second issue of his female counterpart; Red Sonja. Now I finally get to our favorite Cimmerian, as adapted in CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol. 1 by Marvel Comics.

Spoilers ahead.

The cover to my copy of CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol. 1 by Marvel Comics

Back in 1978 Marvel had the idea to chop up the layouts of their full-sized comics and rearrange the panels so they could be reprinted in small paper-back form. While it is a little disconcerting at first, and writer/editor Roy Thomas bemoans the loss of the panels’ original layout in the new format, the change actually becomes unnoticeable after a few pages. While I’ll always prefer the size and feel of a trade paperback when it comes to collected comics, this little experiment didn’t really disrupt my reading that much.

As advertised on the cover there is a preface by Stan Lee and an introduction by Mr. Thomas. Mr. Lee’s preface is full of energy (and if you’ve ever heard him speak you will immediately hear his voice in your head when reading his prose) but the preface doesn’t really offer much to readers. Mr. Thomas’ introduction, however, is chock full of Conan tidbits and history, both in regards to publishing and the internal world that our barbarian inhabits, and I highly recommend anyone read it before plowing ahead into the book’s illustrated portions.

Volume 1 contains three individual comic books. Each one is a standalone story linked to the one preceding it in only the most tangential way, so there’s no epic sweeping story to be found in this collection. Unlike the first two issues of Red Sonja I reviewed earlier, Conan’s stories are far more straightforward and less intensely packed with side stories and incidental events. That’s not to say they’re any worse a read than Red Sonja; but it does mean they’re a different kind of read – specifically, faster.

The first tale, appropriately titled The Coming of Conan, fills us in a little on what makes Conan tick. An Aesir tribe his hired the Cimmerian to assist them, and during a battle with a tribe of Vanir Conan kills his allotted count of men and considers sitting out the rest of the battle.

Before he can do so, however, he spots an Aesir being attacked by three men, and Conan decides to help after answering his own rhetorical question, “Why should one lion die…and three jackals live?” The barbarian intervenes and saves the life of Olav, the tribe leader. The Aesir commander is impressed by Conan’s actions, and even more so by his straightforward honesty – their first conversation roughly pans out as;

“Why did you come to fight for us?”

“Aesir pay better.”

The Vanir have fled, and Olav and Conan decide to let them go. It may be ancient times, but none of these men are stupid. They know their fleeing enemy will have to make camp and tend to their wounded at the first – and not best – opportunity, allowing for the chance that more men will flee before the Aesir arrive to finish the rest. The two men plan their attack.

At the Vanir camp their leader, Volff, is well aware of their tactical disadvantage. He watched Conan slay their strongest champion and doesn’t have much hope that another battle – with less men on his side – will go any better. Volff and his right-hand man Hothar decide to slip away, leaving their men as a buffer between them and Conan.

While attempting to find a away out of the passage they’ve taken refuge in the traitorous Vanir discover a cave. Within rests an old man, a beautiful woman, and a giant gem referred to as the Star-Stone. The old man calls himself simply The Shaman, and explains to the scared men that he was once one of their tribe and seeks to assist them. He desires a strong body for reasons he does not elaborate on, and Volff is only too happy to offer up Conan.

Meanwhile, Olav and the barbarian have arrived at the passage and attack the abandoned Vanir. Mid-battle three red-skinned winged demon-men arrive and pretty much slaughter everyone – including Olav. Conan fights as viciously as he can, but is knocked out and captured.

Waking up the Cimmerian finds himself in a make-shift cell, with The Shaman’s handmaiden Tara by his side. She was curious about Conan, and explains that the demons were called forth from the hellish universe connected to this world via the Star-Stone. When Conan asks if he is to be a sorcerer’s sacrifice Tara says he is to be traded, but will not elaborate as The Shaman begins his ceremony not far outside the bars of the cage.

Volff, Hothar, Conan, and Tara watch as The Shaman attempts to call forth images of the past. Instead, he gets the Star-Stone stuck on fast forward and begins to see the future; starting with Conan’s eventual kingship and going as far as space travel and astronauts. This pretty much drives all the baddies crazy, and in the confusion Conan busts out and destroys the Star-Stone. With the passageway shut the demon-men are sent back to their own universe, and the resulting backlash in energy collapses the cave. The Shaman, Volff, and Hothar are crushed while Conan carries Tara to safety.

Outside the barbarian finds the red-haired maiden far from appreciative of his actions. The glamor spells The Shaman cast upon her start to unravel, and she transforms to her true shape – a red-skinned winged demon-woman. The Shaman had been lonely during his long years guarding the Star-Stone and saved her from the hell dimension, turning her into a lovely woman to “look upon” in order to ease the monotony of his long mission (there are few times I will be thankful for the Comics Code…this is one of them).

Conan was to be traded for her permanent residence in our world, but with the Star-Stone destroyed she fades away, returning to her hellish home. Conan reflect for a moment, then wanders off.

The next story, Lair of the Beast-Men!, is even more straightforward when it comes to them vs. us. Conan is still wandering around the kingdom of Aesgaard and we see him crouched over the body of a giant furred man, who apparently ambushed Conan. The Cimmerian comments that the creature underestimated the speed and agility that Conan’s smaller stature granted him in the woods, and then he moves on.

Soon the barbarian catches site of a lovely woman, barely dressed in the freezing snow, who flees. Chasing her in hopes of finding a nearby camp Conan is caught by surprise in a trap arranged by two more of the beast-men and is captured as a slave.

Thrown into the “manling” pens Conan meets Kiord, leader of the slaves. He explains that the beast-men have been capturing and breeding humans for generations as forced labor. Kiord and many of the slaves were born in the beast-men’s subterranean city and have known no other life. Conan, of course, immediately tries to revolt but the manling leader gently puts down his attempts; he’d rather his people be enslaved and alive then unruly and dead. The Cimmerian says that such an attitude makes the beast-men more human than they are, but he attempts to go along with their wishes.

Of course, Conan’s passiveness is lost pretty much immediately and the beast-men decide to let him die in a set of vicious gladiatorial games. When Kiord sees Conan’s defiant stance against his enslavement the manling leader is inspired, and the humans rise up in revolt. Using their own weapons against them Conan and Kiord manage to kill the beast-men’s leader – as well as most of their population.

Kiord declares victory, and is pretty much immediately killed by a surviving guard.

After the last of the remaining beast-men are killed Conan places the helmet of the dead king on Kiord’s head, declaring that from here-forward it shall be remembered that a king lead the slaves to their freedom.

The final story is called The Twilight of the Grim Grey God.

And I’d be a fool to try and summarize it. While Conan’s part of the story is pretty straightforward revenge, the rest of the tale explores humanity’s best and worse aspects, and the power of mythology and the gods. I think it’s best I recommend a good thorough reading of it and leave things at that.

THE FINAL VERDICT: Reccomended

For the most part Conan’s stories are not overly complex. That’s not to say they’re bad or not worth reading – on the contrary, while the situations are usually pretty clear-cut its the characters and their actions that make things interesting. It may not have been an age of technological accomplishment, but that does not mean the characters are stupid or simple. Conan may have some very single-minded goals at times, but it is his interaction with those he encounters and/or disrupts that keep the reader fascinated. And although it may take a few pages to adjust to the layout of the little book, it becomes a natural reading format quite quickly.

Oh, and something I learned; if you see Conan, run the hell away. If he doesn’t kill you someone will show up who will. Just steer clear.