Ask Chris #201: Conan Comic Books That Are Best In Life
Q: Chris, what Conan comic is best in life? — @chudleycannons
A: Folks, I am going to be 100% real with you for a second here: I love Conan the Barbarian. It’s in my blood — long before I was born, Conan was my parents’ favorite comic, and while I wouldn’t really call my mom and dad “geeks” in the traditional sense, they were definitely people who were really stoked about buying Marvel Magazines with Frank Frazetta art on the cover so they could read about dudes in loincloths chopping each other up with broadswords. These were, I remind you, the people who raised me, which probably explains a lot.
But while I might’ve been hardwired into loving the character, I didn’t really get into reading it myself until I was an adult, and I can tell you that as far as I’m concerned, there is a clear, no-contest winner as far as the best Conan story. It’s not even close. It’s the one where Conan gets into a fistfight with a gorilla that thinks it’s a wizard.
I don’t really get the chance to talk about it too much here at ComicsAlliance since my focus tends to be on superheroes, but I have a real soft spot for the Sword and Sorcery genre, if only because stories involving power-mad gorillas are really only slightly less common than they are in superhero comics. I love that stuff, whether it’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser — in which the first thing the heroes do is literally steal an entire house — or even straight up licensed fantasy novels. I’m not even going to pretend that I haven’t spent a lot of time learning a lot of things about Drizzt Do’Urden, the noblest of all dark elves, and his purple eyes and his magical ghost panther.
I’ll even admit that I have a love for The Eye Of Argon, a Conan knockoff by a 16 year-old that was published in a fanzine and was so legendarily bad that people would hold competitions at conventions to see who could read it aloud the longest without bursting into laughter, that’s only slightly ironic. There’s just something about mighty thews and flashing steel that just appeals to me on a visceral level, and since people are always running up against mysterious elephant gods and deathtrapped tombs and gorilla wizards (gorizards) in those things, they tend to dovetail with my other interests pretty nicely.
In the end, though, I always come back to Conan, probably because he’s had such a prominent presence in comics. And that makes sense, since it’s the version where he works best.
That might be a controversial opinion among purists, but don’t get me wrong. I like Howard’s stories a lot, and he had an amazing talent for evocative language that really makes those stories work beautifully — especially when you consider that the dude never got out of about thirty square miles of Texas — but there’s something about the way Conan works that just lends itself to illustrations. I’ve read through most of Howard’s stories, but the images that I remember from them are… well, they’re images. They’re the covers to the paperbacks and the Savage Sword magazines, or, more often than not, they’re the comics.
Obviously, there’s a big part of that that comes from comics being my preferred medium, and just as much of it comes from creators like Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith being pretty excellent at their jobs. But at the same time, I can’t shake the idea that there’s something inherent to Conan that makes him work really well in comics. After all, I don’t have the connection that I do with Conan to other fantasy heroes that have crossed over from prose to four colors, even other Robert E. Howard creations.
As a result, I’ve read through multiple versions of different Conan stories by different teams in different media, and like I said, it’s not even close. If you wanted to read one single story to find out everything that was great about Conan — everything that was great about the entire genre — you’ve got to pick up Rogues In The House.
It’s been adapted a few times, notably by Thomas and Windsor-Smith in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #11, but my favorite version by far, even edging out Howard’s fantastic original story, comes from Tim Truman and Cary Nord in Dark Horse’s Conan #44.
To be honest, I love pretty much everything about the Dark Horse Conan — it’s my favorite version of most of the stories that it adapts, and while it was running, it was easily one of the best-produced comics on the stands. Just the way the lettering was done to acknowledge Howard narrating the stories from his clacking typewriter and the addition of Jim and Ruth Keegan’s Two Gun Bob strips at the end gave so much character to what they were doing that went beyond just a strict adaptation of what was on the page in the originals. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that Cary Nord, artist one of one of the most underrated superhero comics of all time with his run on Daredevil alongside Karl Kesel, was doing some career-best work on the book.
I mean, he and Kurt Busiek launched this thing by having the very first thing you see being Conan just straight cutting a rapist in half with a sword.
A few pages later, he chops three dudes in half at once. It’s pretty great. By the time the series gets around to “Rogues in the House,” it’s already had some fantastic stuff — and a few problematic stories that set off a debate in the letter column that quite literally lasted for years — but Truman and Nord (and Howard, of course) somehow manage to top them all, setting a high water mark for the entire franchise.
It’s a classic setup: As you may have heard, Conan has been many things in his considerably long career of barbarism — y’know, thief, reaver, that sort of thing — and on this particular occasion, he’s taken a job as an assassin and set out to kill Nabonidus the Red Priest. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with this sort of thing, starting with deathtraps in the sewers…
…and ending with the realization that Nabonidus has a pet gorilla named Thak whose intelligence has led him to attempt to kill Nabonidus himself so that he can take over as the master of the house, meaning that he is A GORILLA IN A CAPE THAT CAN ONLY BE STOPPED WITH THE AID OF A HOUSE FULL OF DEATHTRAPS.
That is literally everything I want in a story. Like, for real, if it wasn’t for Batman, I’d be pretty comfortable in saying that we could’ve just gone ahead and shut down the entire concept of fiction in 1934. Sometimes I like to imagine a world where we did just that, and then spent the next 80 years making movies that were just adaptations of this story with varying degrees of faithfulness. Seriously, try it out next time you go to the movies and see how well your favorite films rate as stories about gorilla capes and deathtraps.
Spoiler warning: very few of them will do well on that scale.
The great thing about Conan as a character is that, even when faced with a situation like this, his default method of dealing with every problem he encounters is to punch, stab, or f**k it, and since the latter doesn’t really seem to be an option in this case, he’s left with just walking right up to a gorilla that thinks it’s a person and trying to beat it to death with his bare hands. And he does.
Nord’s version of this fight scene is unbelievably good, full of kinetic, weighty action and this brutal, beautifully staged grappling where every piece of the fight scene leads to the next, and it’s just a joy to get through for how well it’s all set up and executed. But, believe it or not, the simple act of Conan fighting a gorilla (in a cape) isn’t what makes this story so good.
The best part here, the thing that exists across all the adaptations because it’s at the heart of the original story, is that Conan’s battle against Thak is a battle against two beings that are on equal terms. Conan says at the end of the fight that “I’ve slain a man tonight, not a beast,” and that’s something that really resonates in that moment. So many of these stories are about how much Conan despises the soft city people and how, for all his barbaric tendencies, he has the freedom that they lack to be what he truly is because he’s not shackled by the constraints and rules of society. He’s pure id in a loincloth, but, because he dreams larger than the other hillmen of Cimmeria, because he ventures out into the world to see what there is beyond those dim and unforgiving hills, because he’s endlessly encountering things like frost giants and elephant gods that force him to widen his perception of what the world actually is, that freedom is slowly and steadily chipped away. Conan’s story is, at its heart, a tragedy — this pure embodiment of freedom that ventures into this strange land called civilization, and ends up being confined by it as much as anything. Conan becoming the King of Aquilonia as an adult isn’t a happy ending, it’s the Cimmerian equivalent of selling your guitar and getting a real job. The height of his life is the time spent as the thief and the assassin, the adventurer and the pirate, but the end of it is that he’s forced to conform, ending his days ruling over a country and drinking way too much, not just because he’s seen so much serious stuff and done so many horrible things, but because his dreams came true and, in a lot of ways, that was the worst thing that could’ve happened to him.
In order for Conan to succeed in the society that he lives in, he can’t be a Barbarian or a Destroyer or an Avenger. He has to become a King. He has to become part of that world and exist inside it rather than as an outsider. But at his heart, he’s always going to be that Barbarian that would punch a monster in the face or stab a priest for a handful of gold. That’s always going to be at his core, even if he has to cage it up.
In other words, Conan is himself essentially a gorilla who puts on a fancy cape and tries to be a man.
Even in his younger days, Conan recognizes that when he stabs Thak, and Truman and Nord do an incredible job of illustrating the understanding that passes between them. It’s what makes this story great, what pushes it past something that was already a fun, action-packed idea, cutting to the core of Howard’s philosophy that underscored Conan’s restlessness and desire for adventure. It’s why this is the best Conan story, and the best version of the best Conan story, and why it’s not even a close competition for which one’s #1.
Second place, of course, goes to that one issue of What If where Conan gets stranded in the ’80s and starts dressing like Tony Montana and walking around with a pet jaguar.