The current Conan the Barbarian comic series, put out by Dark Horse, is truly excellent. Bryan Wood, who was known to me previously for his thoroughly researched Northlanders series about Vikings, is the writer. For art, Dark Horse has put together a rotation of top-flight artists, most notably Becky Cloonan.
The series follows Conan early in his life, perhaps at twenty or so, during his time on board the ship of Belit, the pirate queen. Although they meet as enemies, Conan so impresses her with his battle prowess that she invites him to join her crew. He accepts and is soon sharing her bed as well. Conan is presented here as already battle-hardened, but otherwise still somewhat naive in the ways of the world. A scene in one issue shows him desparing in prison, believing himself betrayed by Belit after a raid gone awry, howling and near-suicidial over his broken heart. Certainly an older Conan would not let himself be so affected by a love affair!
The depictions of the sea and the medieval coastal towns and cities are rendered as impressively as anything I’ve ever seen in comics. The choice to show Conan as youthfully lean feels bold for a character typically presented as heavily-muscled. And Belit, with her pale skin (often spattered in crimson blood) and lithe body, is up there with Vampirella and Catwoman as top sexy comic bad girls.
Actually, the series has so enthused me for Conan I’ve gone back and gotten out my old paperbacks reprinting the original Robert E. Howard stories. I read Tower of the Elephant just for fun, and found it as entertaining as I did as a teen-ager. Yes, the prose is purple, and you don’t read these for their nuanced characters. But they certainly keep the pages turning. I had forgotten the ending of TotE, and found it more Lovecraftian than is usual for Conan. The Elephant was not a foe he could simply dispatch with his sword!
But as fun as the original stories are, I believe the current series actually surpasses them. Bryan Wood’s is the first Conan I’ve ever encountered that rises above his pulp origins and becomes a truly sympathetic character.