Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #1 isn't exactly a comeback moment for the pulp hero, because the truth is that he's never really gone away. Author Robert E. Howard's iconic creation rises to prominence from time to time, most recently in a poorly received 2011 film and a fascinating survival game. But even during a downtime, Conan stories continue to run in the background of popular culture, like a program the task manager can't seem to access. Conan is built for that sort of existence. Writer Jason Aaron and artist Mahmud Asrar seem to understand that, and lean into what makes the character endlessly compelling from a perspective of escapism.
While Conan isn't exactly a taciturn character (he bellows some of the most hilariously badass battle proclamations ever committed to print), he is very much an avatar for his audience. More precisely, he's the ultra-masculine embodiment of the sword-and-sorcery fantasies of 13-year-old boys. That's intended neither as a ringing endorsement nor a condemnation; it's simple fact. Whether Howard intended for Conan to become the face of juvenile power fantasies is not for us to say, but the character's trajectory is what it is, for better or ill (to say Howard's original Conan stories weren't exactly "woke" is a colossal understatement).
So who is Conan the Barbarian? Imagine a 1978 Dodge B200 panel van doing doughnuts in a cul-de-sac one summer afternoon. The windows are cracked, releasing a mixture of smoke and Iron Maiden riffs. The long-haired
boys within wear sleeveless black T-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands their parents despise. The vehicle itself is adorned with an airbrushed mural, a crude approximation of a Frank Frazetta painting, depicting Conan the Barbarian atop a mountain, a demon's severed head clutched in one bloody fist, and a crimson blade in another; scantily clad women claw at his feet. Now imagine the contents of that mural are taken seriously. Place that character into a rich world filled with wonder, and suddenly there's something admirable about the ostentatious aesthetics of Conan.
The self-aggrandizing and super-serious nature of the character can be a thing of beauty in the right hands, and thankfully, Conan the Barbarian #1 truly is. Aaron's narration is a fantastic, with each caption as dire as the last. One in particular makes mention of this being the story of the death of Conan, which is ominous, ridiculous, and will certainly lead to a series of events that will overplay its hand. And that's what's great about this issue. Aaron constructs beautiful dialogue and stern, biblical narration, but at its heart, this is a story about a man who solves problems by hitting things with a sword, and if that doesn't work at first, he'll hit it harder. The dichotomy of Conan existing in a world with rich mythology, complex cultures, mysterious magic and political intrigue, but more often than not being boiled down to a over-powering brute is as fascinating as it is entertaining.
Aaron has been writing sweeping fantasy stories for several years now in the pages of various Thor comics, and he brings those chops to Conan with confidence and swagger. While the poetry his Thor titles have are somewhat absent in Conan (at least in this first issue), the sense of fun is left intact. The pacing is solid and his dialogue is great; Aaron has an ear of colloquialisms, even in a fantasy world, which means every character is written tightly and with a level of authenticity.
Asrar's art brings all the blood and dark magic to life brilliantly. The action is telegraphed clearly, and every monster design and battle sequence is sharp and exciting. Reveal panels and splash pages are treated with the same level of detail and craftsmanship that we expect from Asrar, who is has been delivering some of the most consistently great work for Marvel Comics for the past or so. Matthew Wilson's colors match the tone of the book, with a palette built for heightened realism. And don't get us started on that gorgeous Esad Ribic cover.
Conan the Barbarian #1 is big, bold and bloody, just as Crom intended. However, there is also a level of intelligence on display that raise this title above some of the character's superficial trappings. This comic could have skated by on charm alone, but instead, it delivers a great new chapter for Conan.