Pullbox Reviews Conan the Barbarian #22- Heads up, Sons of Aryas! Those sandals were made for treading…

Lace up your sandals and take up your sword as the legendary Conan once again stalks the mists of legend. No! Not the goofy redhead of late-night television. The Barbarian, strong of arm, steely of gaze, and all about the treading of jeweled thrones beneath sandaled feet.

In this issue Conan enters the mysterious city of Paikang, seldom visited by outsiders. Being a stranger to the ways of Khitai, yet surprisingly able to speak the language fluently, Conan once again finds himself the penultimate outsider. Knowing nothing of what’s to come, can he navigate the strange customs of this ancient land, mastering the skills needed to survive in the court of the mighty Emperor? Will he use the right fork when eating his entrée?

In all of his incarnations, Conan’s deadliest enemy has been the desire to make him woke. It’s understandable. The creation of Robert E. Howard was born in a time undreamed of… or more succinctly in the pages of Weird Tales way back in December of 1932. From those humble pulp story beginnings, Conan’s adventures have been helmed by many creative hands, some to better effect than others (let’s not go into the TV show of the late 90’s… it was just bad). No matter how brutal his defeat, Conan has been ever ready to leap back into the fight, to crush his enemies and see them…

Hey, if you’re a fan, you know the line.

What I’m getting at is that Conan isn’t the easiest character in the world to write, or at least to write well. Attempts at updating his attitudes for the Age of Wokery are doomed because a kinder, gentler Conan isn’t going to be recognizable in the least. Likewise, turning him into a total savage, unthinking and uncaring, is short sighted at best and a total disservice to Robert E. Howard’s opus. What it takes to successfully write Conan is an understanding that barbaric doesn’t have to equal savage. In his own way Conan is as fiercely moral as Captain America, it’s just that his compass isn’t quite so neatly labeled as “north & south, right& wrong”. To Conan, the ability to fend for oneself in the face of adversity is the highest moral obligation one can strive for. Jim Zub gets it, proving that Conan’s popularity isn’t limited in tone to shock value, that at his core he’s as woke as anyone being as equal an opportunist as anyone will ever find.

In this issue of his spot on run with the mighty one, Zub gives both Conan and the reader a chance to take a breath. Fresh out of the deadly Crucible, only just recovered from the nightmare of the Tooth of the Nightstar, very recently freed from captivity at the hands of soldiers of Khitai, Conan is finally able to fulfill the obligation he took on behalf of the fallen warrior Naru-Li. Along the way, Zub takes a dip into the Cimmerian’s motivations. Given credit for the defeat of the Heng the Insurgent, he’s quick to point out that his victory was made possible by the skills of Meiwei. When faced with an elderly sword master, we see that while appearing brash & unyielding, Conan is willing to adapt once he finds merit in the man’s lessons. Gender doesn’t matter to Conan. Age doesn’t matter to Conan. All that matters is the ability to overcome obstacles and the heart to stand up when the rest of the world is telling you to sit down.

See? Eat your heart out, Captain America.

Now in true Marvel fashion, it takes a village to produce a comic and bringing this particular one to life is the artistic team of Cory Smith, Roberto Poggi, Oren Junior, & Israel Silva. Poggi and Junior put vivid inks to Smith’s dynamic pencil illustrations, and I’d be really interested to see what this book might have looked like in stark black & white. Call me simple, but I think that some of the best work in Howard’s Hyborean Age was done in the old Savage Sword of Conan magazine, and the work laid out by Smith, Poggie, & Junior looks like it would rival any standard set in that publication. But with the depth and detail added by Silva’s colors the point is kinda moot as all three aspects- pencils, inks, & colors- add up to bring out the visual appeal in this book. I can’t think of a change I’d like to see made, nothing that would present the world of Conan any better.

Except maybe for some lettering, something to actually tell the story being laid out here. As luck would have it, the folks behind this fine book have thought of everything! Travis Lanham was lucky enough to pull duty on one of the most dialogue-heavy issues of Conan you’re liable to find. I kid you not, there are pages in this issue that are packed with exposition, none of which is really just babble, all of it essential. Faced with the challenge of presenting text that’s setting up the inevitable eruption of chaos that comes in any good Conan story, Lanham keeps everything organized and moving right along. The artwork is never pushed aside in favor of Zub’s fancy word-talking, a feat in lettering that should qualify as a mark of sainthood.

We at thePullbox are very much aware of what it may look like, covering a comic for the titan that is Marvel when our focus has generally been on indie press. We continue to believe that those smaller publishers are putting out some of the most creative & gutsy comics on the market and deserve all of the attention we can bring with our tens of readers. With that comes the understanding that the most talented people working in independent comics today are going to be superstars tomorrow. It’d be pretty cheap if we gushed about a certain writer or artist on one book, only to ignore them once they broke out into the mainstream.

With that in mind, and because I need to keep on seeing great Conan stories from now until the End of Days, we can’t let anything slip through the cracks. Fans of epic fantasy action, readers who like their heroes stoic & terse, anyone interested in seeing where the “swords & sandals” sub-genre came from, get thee to the nearest comic book shop and pick this one up. If you’re new to the series, just grab ‘em all and you can thank me later.

Final Score: 12/13

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