CROM! I’m back again with a piece celebrating the return of Conan to Marvel Comics in January. Look back at Conan’s Dark Horse years now that we’re less than a month away from his big return.
As far back as 2002, Dark Horse began publishing Conan comics. At least for the last 16 years, Dark Horse has been the torchbearer of the brand name. Conan has been brought back to his Robert E. Howard roots in a spectacular way, with a great deal of care to keep the original spirit of Conan alive. All of their books show how much they care about hiring people who love and respect the original Howard works.
Though it’s both sad and happy to see Conan leave Dark Horse, the stories they’ve written during their time there have been top-notch. The Dark Horse years were the best time for Conan stories. I can’t remember a story I didn’t like from that time. They were very good at looking after Conan. Dark Horse should be praised for their dedication to good storytelling. I know this Conan fan loved it!
In that spirit, here are seven Conan stories from Dark Horse that I think are worth reading before or even after he comes back to Marvel. They can be bought in trade format, or they can be found with a little old-fashioned back issue sleuth work.
1. The Frost Giant’s Daughter (Conan #2)
All Conan creators should be judged on how well they can adapt one of Robert E. Howard’s best Conan stories, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” Young Conan is the only survivor of an attack on the frozen plains of Nordhiem. He sees a beautiful woman who calls herself Atali in his dreams, and he wants to meet her in real life. Shortly after Conan starts following the wispy woman, he loses track of her and doesn’t know where she is for a few pages at first. Conan thinks it was all a dream, but when he wakes up and has her veil, he is shocked.
If you look at the comic book versions, Dark Horse’s from their first Conan series stands out the most because it was done the best. This is how Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord make the story come to life. They make it dreamy and ethereal. It is the best single issue of Conan that I’ve ever read, and I love it.
2. Born on the Battlefield (Conan #s 0, 8, 15, 23, 32, 45, & 46)
For Dark Horse, Kurt Busiek wrote the first Conan comic, which was called “Conan.” When Conan was young, Busiek and artist Greg Ruth would write stories called “Born on the Battlefield.” These stories would sometimes go back to Conan’s childhood. In comic book terms, these little side stories are called “Year Zero/One” or “Origin Story” for Conan. People can learn more about Conan’s life in “Born on the Battlefield.” This book should be on the same level as books like Batman Year One, Weapon X, or Ultimate Spider-Man. Busiek and Ruth write a great story in the first Conan series.
This was more than just a way to fill in the blacks in Robert E. Howard’s story about Conan. It’s the best account yet of Conan’s early life. People who want to read the book don’t have to look for the individual issues. These stories were put together in a book called “Volume 0” in 2008.
3. Groo vs. Conan
When you read Conan stories, you don’t have to be as angry as Conan to enjoy them. It helps, but that doesn’t mean the Cimmerian can’t be played off for laughs at other times. In the end, Groo vs. Conan brings Sergio Aragones’ Groo and Conan face-to-face. Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, along with art by Aragones and coloring by Tom Luth, make up the all-star creative team for this miniseries. Conan is shown in a more lighthearted light than most readers are used to seeing.
Though this is more of a Groo story than a Conan one, Conan is the perfect straight man to Groo’s constant pranks and stupidity. Afterwards, Aragones has a hallucination that makes the story even more weird. In this book, things start to get weird very quickly. That’s what makes it so much fun to read!
4. The Song of Belit (Conan the Barbarian #s 19-25)
When Brian Wood tried to write about Conan in 2012, he made a show called Conan the Barbarian. I could recommend his whole run, but his last arc, “The Song of Belit,” stood out to me. Belit was famously killed off in issue #100 of the original Conan series. I like Wood’s take on the tragic end of Conan and Belit’s love story during his run on Conan better than the original series.
There is a dreamy, poetic send-off in a lot of these issues. Queen of the Black Coast Wood was able to make a story that Conan fans have probably read many times into a fantastic and poetic ending to his run.
5. The Black Colossus (Conan the Cimmerian 8-13)
Even if you haven’t read any of Brian Wood’s Conan stories, I think you should check them out. I think they’re just as good as Brian Wood’s run on the show. You can’t say that about Roy and BWS, but the Truman and Giorello team is my favorite Conan creative team ever. After hearing Truman talk about his love for Conan a lot, it’s clear that he is a true Howard fan and a well-educated Conan fan. Truman’s Conan stories are a treasure trove for any fan.
If I had to pick one story from their long run with Conan the Cimmerian, I’d pick their version of “The Black Colossus,” which is one of Robert E. Howard’s most well-known stories. Conan fans will love this story because it has everything they could ever want in one. Large groups of people fight, and Conan is always the bad guy he was meant to be. Truman and Giorello do a great job adapting a great story. There is nothing else you could want.
6. Conan: The Tower Of the Elephant & Other Stories
This third volume from Kurt Busiek & Cary Nord’s storied run several years back shows them at the height of their tenure, and taking that to the Howard original “The Tower of the Elephant”. By the end of the story, an alien has become a friend to an even more evil outside force. This story shows young Conan fighting against the alien.
7. The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives Volume 2
Even though you might think the first book in a series is where the meat is, in this case you’d be wrong. This second volume of Conan stories is based on a story by Howard called “Red Nails,” which is one of the best stories the author ever wrote. They took the story down a dark, brooding path that would have made Howard very happy. This book is more than just one story. Any Conan story written by Windsor-Smith is worth having.