Books: Conan – Cimmeria

In Brief:  Conan – Cimmeria is the 7th compilation of Dark Horse’s excellent Conan series, which brings the barbarian back to the land of his origin after years abroad adventuring, plundering, and reaving.  Written by Timothy Truman, art by Tomas Giorello and Richard Corben, colors by Joes Villarrubia.

Pros:  This is the real Conan – Robert E. Howard’s Conan.  Expertly characterized by Truman, with beautiful, savage artwork.  The story has a mythic yet grounded quality.

Cons:  The cartoonish artwork of Conan’s grandfather’s interwoven story could have been better.  Reading this just makes you wonder why Hollywood didn’t contact Truman and series originator Kurt Busiek to write the recent movie.

Full Review:  The prologue begins with a view of an old typewriter, Weird Tales magazines on the desk and boxing gloves hanging from the wall.  It’s Howard’s room, of course.  Flowing into his haunting poem, Cimmeria, which he penned in the Texas hill country back in 1932 when the idea of Conan was being conceived, we see the view of those hills and a transition to Conan returning to his bleak homeland.  A bloody encounter with a band of Vanir raiders; we know we’re in good hands with this book.

Dark Horse has received many accolades for their series of Conan comics, which began back in 2004 and has continued intermittently since.  This offering by Truman and company is up to that standard.  The story begins with Conan crossing back into his northern homeland of Cimmeria in mid-winter, several years after leaving to adventure in the more civilized lands to the south and east.  He’s not sure why his feet have pointed him north, other than a certain wistfulness and yearning to be away from the treachery and double-dealings of the southrons.  It echoes that time in all our lives when we’ve gone away from home and out into the world for awhile, and now we return.  A few changes, but much has stayed the same.  So it is with Conan – only with much more grim-eyed slaying.

His encounter with the Vanir leaves him wounded and weak, but a mysterious old stranger intercedes to keep the winter winds at bay.  While Conan recovers his strength the stranger regales him with the tale of another Cimmerian who felt the urge to wander – Conan’s grandfather, Connacht.  So begins the parallel tale of Connacht, some of which appears in each chapter.  It’s a clever narrative ploy, mirroring the Conan’s own observations and recollections with those of his grandfather’s – unfortunately the artwork is not as effective.  It’s a little too cartoonish and contrasts a little too greatly with the pencil-and-paint style of the principle story.  I can understand why Dark Horse might have done it this way:  it can’t be easy to keep to the deadlines with the level of detail demanded by this series.

Soon after recovering Conan encounters an old flame, Caollan, fleeing from an Aesir war party.  He responds true to form, beating back the Aesir to come to her aid, and they find themselves on the run.  But circumstances are far from simple – Caollan had been betrothed to Breccan of the Southern Cimmerian tribes, who had in turn bartered her to an Aesir lord as part of a peace treaty.  When Caollan discovered she was pregnant by Breccan, she knew the Aesir would slay her and the child, and so she fled.  Conan considers these complications, even as the tale of Connacht continues to unfold, and remembers his grandfather’s advice about simple solutions.

Here is perhaps the central strength of these Dark Horse stories:  they are not simple revenge fantasy (like the movies), and Conan is no simple-minded swordsman (like the Arnold portrayal).  Rather he is a cunning and passionate warrior, who almost seems to curse himself for his intellect and ability to recognize the duplicitous and complex nature of humanity.  Conan would always rather implement the direct solution with his blade, yet he understands he cannot always do so, even if Crom would prefer it that way.  This theme runs through Connacht’s story as well as Conan’s.  How does Conan reconcile the feelings he still has for Caollan, when honor demands a different path?  What does he see when he returns to the village of his birth – now a hero and legend to so many?

The artists render these conflicts, external and internal, with utmost precision.  These guys are at the top of their game – and it’s a real pleasure to read.  Whether it’s a sidelong glance from Conan’s mother, or a bloody battle sequence, the style and execution are just fantastic.  And this being a Conan story, we all realize that resolution will eventually come down to swords and axes – but that doesn’t mean it’s simple or any less profound.

Bottom Line:  For the sword and sorcery crowd, it gets no better than this.  I’ve read about half of Dark Horse’s Conan books, and Conan – Cimmeria motivates me to seek out the rest.

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