Marvel Comics are going through rather a strong period in terms of the social media buzz surrounding their output in recent months. While the same old naysayers are still foretelling the collapse of the comic industry as a whole, we’ve rarely seen such excitement in the online comic buying community in recent years than the fan reaction to the likes of Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men relaunch or Donny Cates’ work on Venom and Carnage.
Understandably, Marvel are pumping a ton of promotional time and effort into these (admittedly rather impressive) events and storylines, but lost in the shuffle is a book that I personal consider to be one of the best that Marvel has put out in a long, long time. Namely Jason Aaron’s Conan the Barbarian.
Now I say Jason Aaron’s Conan, but this is undoubtedly a book where the artwork carries just as much weight as the story, with Mahmud Asrar, Gerardo Zaffino and Matthew Wilson playing every bit as vital a role in bringing this striking and dynamic rendition of the iconic Barbarian to the page every month. Every story beat is delivered with visceral flair, and grit and grime of the Hyborian landscape is brought to life page after page by this impressive artistic collective.
To me, Conan feels a lot like the classic comics I used to read as a youngster, with each episode telling its own story, free from being bogged down and suffocated by pointless tie-ins or the dreaded ‘continuity’. This is Aaron letting his obvious passion and affection for the character pour out onto the page every month, letting his imagination run wild with brilliant one-and-done tales of heroism, magic, violence and honour. He also pays homage to a lot of classic Robert E. Howard tales along the way, intertwining the established mythology with his own fresh take on the character.
The series also utilises an incredibly reader friendly approach, featuring a succession of stand-alone stories covering different periods of Conan’s life, from wide-eyed youngster to grizzled and battle-scarred King. All these disparate events are tied together by a common thread; Conan’s impending death at the hands of The Crimson Witch and the servants of the Blood God Razazel, who have been watching over him for decades, allowing the ‘value’ of his soul to increase with each near-death experience he survives.
So what gives, then? Why are people not getting as hyped about this incredibly strong and incredibly accessible series? Could it be the fact that the traditional Marvel comic buying community are struggling to get on board with a classic fantasy archetype as opposed to their standard superhero fare? Because whatever way you slice it, Conan is certainly not a superhero. He’s a man constantly reacting, learning through the violence of the world around him, fuelled variously by honour, vengeance and pig-headed stubbornness.
Or perhaps they simply don’t know about it? As I mentioned, aside from the initial “Conan is coming to Marvel” promotional push, the book seems to have been forced to thrive on a loyal fanbase and some strong word of mouth. But these kind of things only go so far, and while the book is certainly holding its own commercially, it never seems to be brought in the conversations about Marvel’s recent ‘resurgence.’
Maybe it all seems a bit dated? After all, while Aaron, Asrar, Zaffino and Wilson are certainly telling some fresh, exciting stories, Robert E. Howard’s iconic character was created almost ninety years ago, and most casual readers won’t know much about Conan beyond the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Thankfully the sales figures are still fairly strong eight issues in, and while it’s unlikely to replicate its storming six-figure first issue, Conan the Barbarian is still shifting units in the mid-to-high thirty thousands every month, a fact which bodes fairly well for its longevity. It’s also being rather well received, boasting an 8.4 average critic and 8.3 average user rating on aggregate site ComicBookRoundup.com (for those interested in such things), so there’s certainly a lot of positivity surrounding the book.
Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the day, the glamour superhero books are always going to command the lion’s share of the attention, and perhaps rightfully so. These books are the bread-and-butter that have helped build Marvel Comics to this point, and for the most part, the creators involved are bringing fresh, exciting and unpredictable ideas to these iconic characters.
However, for Marvel readers looking for something a little different, or a well-deserved break from all the capes-and-cowls, there’s no longer a requirement for them to head off to other publishers like Image or Dark Horse for their ‘fix’. And while it may not command much in the way of online hype, I’m confident in stating that Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian is one of the absolute best books being released by any publisher today, and firmly deserves your attention if it isn’t already on your radar.
Conan The Barbarian Vol 1 – “The Life and Death of Conan” TP is available in comic shops and on ComiXology right now. Issue #8 went on sale last week, and issue #9 hits stores on the 9th of September 2019.