Conan the Barbarian may have shown up in pulps only a decade before Wonder Woman first bounded across the pages of All Star Comics #8, but the two characters feel separated by more than the nine years between their debuts. Crafted by a young Texan named Robert E. Howard and first featured in the pages of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror in 1932, the smart but savage Conan personified an old-world mentality, quick to draw his broadsword, unbothered by wanton bloodshed.
But Wonder Woman was a thoroughly modern conception. She was created by artist Harry G. Peter and writer William Moulton Marston, a psychologist best known for helping popularize the polygraph (lie detector) test. His character, which arrived in 1941 armed with her Lasso of Truth and bullet-deflecting bracelets, was inspired by the feminist ideals of Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and partner Olive Byrne. She was a timely hero, emblematic of women’s liberation movement, and far removed from the often-helpless damsels of Conan’s age.
So it’s understandable to find the idea of uniting the characters in DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics' new six-issue mini-series, Wonder Woman/Conan, more than a little strange. But the two characters are less dissimilar than it may appear. There’s a shared design aesthetic, both sport long black hair and blue eyes, and both are firmly rooted in myth. Wonder Woman’s Themyscira drew inspiration from the ancient Greeks, as did the fictive Hyborian Age of Howard’s Conan stories. Both share a propensity for “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth,” to cop one of Howard’s greatest lines, and bringing them together gives writer Gail Simone and artist Aaron Lopresti a chance focus in on their individual motivations in an intriguing manner.
Simone is equally suited to explore the Hyborian Age and the adventures of Diana Prince, having penned Red Sonja for Dynamite Comics and a celebrated run on Wonder Woman. In the first issue of the limited series, her love for these characters and source material shines. Refreshingly, Simone eschews complicated multiverse mechanics, simply diving in, beginning the story in classic sword and sorcery fashion. If “…you’re a fan of fantasy or sword and sorcery of any kind or just a really great action story -- there’s something in there for you and you don’t need to know big, long 75-year histories of these characters to enjoy the story,” she told CBR, and while that holds true, she’s clearly familiar with classicism and the literary heritage of both characters. Her take on Wonder Woman is bold and mythic, and anyone concerned that the storyline will feature a muted Conan should have fears allayed by a decapitation in the early pages, rendered in terrific detail by Lopresti, whose clean, exuberant style brings modernity to the anachronistic setting.
The plot moves things into place quickly, with little fuss. Conan stumbles across some Aesir warriors about to take revenge on a whimpering Aquilonian gambler. He convinces Conan to help him, promising to pay him handsomely with the winnings of a wager he’s made on arena fights in the bejeweled city of Shamar, where the slaver Dellos stages fights between his captives. The two set off, trailed by two shape-shifting witches, the Corvidae, who’re amused (and seemingly in on some cosmic secret) as Conan and his dimwitted companion show up to witness a mud-caked Wonder Woman battle for sport. Referred to as “The Warrior Witch” in the arena, she handily dispatches a couple brutes to the delight of the crowd. Conan seems to recognize her, believing her to be a girl he knew as a child, and attempts to free her from her chains after the fight. But as the saying goes, “Man makes plans, Crom laughs,” and the issue ends with the villainous slaveholder arranging a death match fight between the two heroes.
Simone has a perfect handle on both characters. Her Conan is grumpy and brooding. She writes Wonder Woman with a regal air (even as she struggles with some apparent memory loss) but also a violent intensity. In a flashback to her days on Paradise Island, we get to see her wrangle a giant shark, and that panel alone is worth the price of admission. Simone’s drawn to the inherent physicality of both characters. Their “magnificent physiques” are compared by Conan’s traveling companion, but for all the cheeky fun, Simone is interested in how the brutality of this ancient age affects its women. The bet, after all, was that Wonder Woman would lose the fight, because the idea of a woman defeating a man in battle seemed so ludicrous.
Simone carefully weaves true horror into the narrative. There’s a line about Diana being offered “less violent forms of servitude” by her captors, “violent” bolded in the text to indicate that some violations are worse than being made to fight for the amusement of crowds. No one’s looking to position Conan as a noble here -- he’s driven by gold, primarily, or more accurately, the idea of what that gold could afford him -- but Simone hones in on the complicated moral center of the Cimmerian, the tug between a kind of true decency and overall nihilism that makes the character such a resonant vehicle for the exploration of outsized masculinity.
The miniseries marks the first time Conan, a long-time comic character with legendary runs at Marvel (where Roy Thomas helped cement his character as much as any other single writer) and Dark Horse (seek out Kurt Busiek’s transcendent run) has encountered a DC hero. Rather than going out of the way to justify the crossover, Simone and Lopresti seem most interested in telling a rollicking, but subtly complex sword and sorcery yarn. “So it was that the two fiercest warriors from the furthest reaches of geography and chronology faced each other,” in a world that’s dirty, vicious, and merciless, but nonetheless, coursing with particular magic.