Written by Jim Zub. Art by Roberto De La Torre. Coloured by Jose Villarrubia. Lettered by Richard Starkings. Published by Titan Comics.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan has had a long association with comics. There have been two stints at Marvel Comics – with the first defining the character for the medium – and a lengthy run at Dark Horse Comics. However, the classic sword and sorcery series is starting a new era at Titan Comics. And with it comes a fresh comic book series in Conan The Barbarian #1.
A new era of a long-running franchise always gets a lot of attention. It has to cater to existing fandom who love Conan while also being accessible to newcomers curious to see what all the fuss is about. Luckily, Titan Comics has threaded that needle, thanks to experienced Conan scribe Jim Zub and artist Roberto De La Torre.
Conan the Barbarian #1 does a lot of heavy lifting. To begin with, it has to establish the setting. For existing Conan fans, this means giving them a frame of reference, either geographically or a rough placement in the Conan chronologically. It’s about giving new readers a taste of the world. Zub namedrops locations and events, alluding to the franchise’s history, but doesn’t rely on readers knowing what they mean. The exception is the Battle of Venarium, a pivotal moment for Conan, to which the creative team dedicates a spread to give the broad strokes of events. However, this isn’t used to be an origin dump. Zub uses it for character moments, referring back to it as it helps define Conan’s decisions and feelings throughout the issue.
The Conan franchise is known for setting stories at different points in the character’s life. In this particular tale, readers are (re)introduced to a young Conan. Approximately in his mid-20s, this interpretation of Conan is experienced in battle but has the arrogance of youth. He’s in the middle of a tavern fight when we first see him, willing to defend the honour of fallen comrades. However, he’s not a leader, shirking an offer to lead a band of mercenaries and saying, “I’m done following orders and have even less desire to give them.” That being said, when this story arc’s threat arrives, he jumps into action and tries to take control of the situation. While he might not want to lead, it’s a natural talent.
Conan The Barbarian #1 is the opening chapter in a story called “Bound in Black Stone”. What that’s about is unclear, but this issue introduces a threat of unknown origins. A horde of cursed soldiers is sweeping the land and threatening to ravage everything in its path. It’s only thanks to Brissa, a Pict sentry and new character, that Conan has any warning of the impending threat.
Roberto De La Torres draws Conan in a fashion familiar to most, a bulky muscular frame with tree trunk arms and powerful legs. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of the lean Barry Windsor Smith rendition. While some fans may have a personal preference for the latter, the depiction of Conan in this comic works as it aligns with the best-known interpretation of the character.
De La Torres opts for a loose, flowing linework/inking with a brush-like quality. These strokes don’t fit a strict uniformity, with different thicknesses used. These can be used in isolation to create form but are often contoured or hatched to add detail and depth to characters and settings. Darker-lit scenes are full of spot blacks but have a textured approach, with rougher edges or subtle highlights. It makes for an attractive comic that’s more European in influence (Roberto De La Torres is a Spanish artist, so it makes sense) but still very much fits into the fantasy approach of the franchise.
There’s also considered composition throughout. This is most notable in the battle scenes, which can be packed with figures on the page. These are often busy but not overwhelming to the reader due considered usage of detail. You can clearly make out of the action, with more isolated strokes allowing for more empty space that uses shape to distinguish what’s going on. It makes it easy to follow Conan from panel to panel – with De La Torres using different angles for each blow to make the battle more exciting.
Colourist Jose Villarrubia uses a flat colour method for Conan the Barbarian, highlighting the comic’s harsh world. Using these blocked-out colours, opting for earthy tones or deep reds for the more bloody parts, hardens everything. As a result, the highlights are more subtle and any gradients, which would soften the colours, are used at a minimum. Instead, they’re used to add depth to the backgrounds.
Readers will find plenty to like with Conan the Barbarian #1. Through its accessible scripting, it introduces readers to the pulp icon in a way that doesn’t bog them down in the minutia but gives longtime fans a sense of history. It’s also a visually impressive comic that looks great and has strong storytelling. Overall, Titan’s new era for Conan is off to an excellent start.