This week I, in league with the brash spirit of adventure, extend an invitation. Conan: The Cimmerian #6 is coming out from Dark Horse, the very stewards of Hyperborea. Loosen your tie and give the book a flip. Be still your quaking knees, your fluttering heart. It is time to return home. To the grey hills of Cimmeria. To ages forgot. To youthful abandon, bouncing atop sofa cushions with a blade hewn of cardboard and imagination.
Pull it. Buy it. Read it in your Windstar before you even touch key to ignition. Or join me on my roof, naked and encircled by candles, drinking from a Norwegian Cruise Line goblet. We shall eat exotic bacons and talk of gleaming cities undreamed of, and thrill to the exploits of the black-haired, sullen-eyed thief, reaver, and slayer. Conan: The Cimmerian.
Bring cookies and a beach towel.
Most weeks I am a meek and mild gentleman/scholar, but on the occasion of a new Conan book, I become something else entirely. I chew a little bit harder. I’m far less forgiving of furniture I trip over. I share more knowing glances with coyotes and mountain lions. I find myself inexplicably aroused by rotisseries and old women in fur coats on their way to church. Despite being relatively up-to-date blips on the evolutionary charts, I think we’re all prone to primal urges and base desires, and we each have our triggers. For some, it’s swords and sorcery. For others it’s the lingerie section of the JC Penny catalog, that extra swig of Jack Daniel’s, or a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos which has, perhaps inevitably, gone a bit too far.
I think my own interest in Conan and those like him starts with Michael Chabon’s recent novel Gentlemen of the Road. Chabon, a massive, massive nerd in his own right, continually celebrates genre fiction–in this case, purple prose and pulp bravado–as relevant charms in this gaudy bracelet we call Western Lit. I read through Gentleman of the Road in two tempestuous visits to the University of Pennsylvania bookstore the week it came out. And it kindled or maybe rekindled some long-buried enthusiasm for garishly written stories about people who hit other people in the general vicinity of sand or snow. Throw in my love for just about everything branded Dark Horse and all the research into the occult I’ve been doing as a writer on Dave’s podcast drama Wormwood, and you have yourself the unabashed devotee of pulp barbarism you’re reading today.
There’s mounds of retro and modern Conan comics out there, both in newsprint phone-books and glossy trades, and much of it is on my Christmas list. But today we’re focused on the current series Conan: the Cimmerian with scripts from Tim Truman, interior pencils by Tomas Giorello and Richard Corben, and colored by Jose Villarrubia; lettering by Richard Starkings. Covers come courtesy of Frank Cho, as colored by Dave Stewart. I don’t usually go so deep into the credits when I review the comics, but this is a really beautiful book and that is true in every level of production.
I want to stress that, while I’ve been going on about how fun Conan can be, how indulgent it is on a primal level, this is also a really smart book. For cripe’s sakes, the president-elect buys it!
There is, of course, a major element of hack and slash, but there’s more to the genre and this series than epic, sternum-crushing violence. Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard was a raving lunatic, to be sure, but he was also a poet. Just as sensitive to nature and the struggles of the heart as he was ferocious. If your immediate mental picture of poetry is of pale and delicate flowers on a hill just south of tedium, consider poetry’s other forces. The monsoons and glacial rifts. The sidewinders. Howard was an ornery dude, and if words were his weapons, his stories were savage campaigns into wretched and wondrous places. The guy was verbose, a veritable Liberace word warrior, bedazzled in royal purple expression. Today, we talk about the value of writing economically, praising minimalism and a zen-like clarity. And perhaps rightfully so. But I hope that there is always a place for absolute flamboyance in prose. Like Stephen Tyler taking his mic stand to the wall between Aerosmith and Run DMC, Howard blended big-time poetry into his fiction, and the result was the brand of visceral and visual storytelling that a character like Conan demanded. Tim Truman is a worthy successor to Howard’s legacy, and a true raconteur in his own right. He possesses the rhythm of a great storyteller and the narrative language feels authentic to that arcane world forgotten by history. The books are also structured, rather ingeniously, as an ongoing parallel narrative. Giorello illustrates the main story of Conan’s return to his homeland of Cimmeria after his many exploits in the previous series Conan: The Barbarian. Throughout his snowy journey, we are also privy to anecdotes from the life of his grandfather Connacht, as drawn by Richard Corben (who recently penciled the terrific Hellboy: The Crooked Man). It’s a great way to incorporate two artists into an issue. The combination of narratives and art styles also makes for a really full experience. Pretty satisfying at $2.99.
If you have any sense that you might enjoy this book, if you’re as bored with events as you ought to be, knee-deep in the usual flavors, try some Conan. If you enjoy things like Hellboy or B.P.R.D., which actually share a mythology with Conan, this might be a sure bet. If you love anti-heroes like Jonah Hex or the pulp action of Fear Agent, trust me and check this out. Perhaps this is a book that will only ever entertain a small section of our community, but I lament at never seeing it in our top ten or twenty books-pulled list. Subjectivity comes in to play, and I can’t argue with personal preference, but I promise you that this is easily among the top ten objectively well-executed books on the market today.
I just thought you should know about it.
Paul Montgomery is a man of gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find him on Twitter.