There’s a whole lot of comics out there. Unfortunately, with hundreds of releases every week, some hidden gems are bound to get swept under the rug. We’re here to bring you what we consider to be some of the best underrated comic runs.
Note: This is limited to material I own/have read, so if you feel like I’ve missed out on better stories, don’t get too hurt. Or better yet, tell me in the comments, and let me know about it!
Well, it’s been some time since the last instalment, but fear not, faithful readers (yes, the two of you), we’re still working! Last time, we looked at the parody type series, The Boys, where this time, we’re venturing into an age of high fantasy! We’ll be looking at one of my personal favourites of writer Kurt Busiek’s work, his run on Conan for Dark Horse.
The character himself, is something of a niche interest these days, but back in the ‘70s, the Cimmerian was a huge seller for companies like Marvel. Considering the interest in swords-and-sorcery at the time, issues were being pumped out at a very consistent rate. Unfortunately, by the time Busiek got hold of the character, interest was waning. Dark Horse had recently obtained the rights to the franchise, and wanted to deliver a fresh start for the barbarian. He’d been butchered by ‘90s Marvel, appearing a great hulking mass of muscle and no subtlety, and was in dire need of redemption.
There’s actually a fairly interesting story behind the production of Busiek’s series – specifically regarding regular artist Cary Nord. Busiek wanted to emulate the fresh, painted look of the Frank Frazetta Conan covers of the late ‘60s, so during Nord’s art process, Busiek asked to skip the usual inking process of the industry, and colour the art straight over the pencils. The result was breathtaking, classically styled art that evoked the spirit of Conan to a T. Nord’s work felt like a direct depiction of the era, while still remaining fast paced and frantic, as is deserved of a Conan comic.
Busiek wove in classical Conan elements into his story – occasionally weaving adaptations of the Robert E. Howard stories into his 50 issue epic, whilst expanding on the source material seamlessly. He retained the adventurous elements that made the original Marvel run so much fun, and added a modern sensibility about it – keeping the story fresh without being bogged down by over-exposition, and inserting humour tactfully and only to enhance the story.
Yet Busiek’s Conan still felt true to the character – a character who is pretty tough to write, as he’s not a clean cut hero. His Conan still had the ferocity, and keen barbarian senses that the ‘90s overdid, yet was decidedly cunning, and fought with a keen wit. Sure, he still charged into battles screaming and full of vigour, but when it comes down to it, Conan does a steady amount of thievery too. His Conan could contrast the stereotype, becoming lithe and stealthy to steal a hefty treasure.
While Busiek spent a lot of time developing his Conan over the course of the run, he also poured some serious work into the supporting cast, too. One of my personal favourites is Janissa the Widowmaker, a great example of females done right in comics. Janissa was born to a wealthy family, but rebelled, instead seeking power enough to match and top those of the greatest male warriors. She is deceptive, and only truly loyal to her mentor, the Bone Woman, but comes to help and trust Conan over his adventures.
Busiek is masterful when it comes to long form storytelling, and there’s no greater example of this than his work on the character, Nestor the Gunderman. Initially a foe to Conan, he develops a close friendship with the Cimmerian over the course of the series. However, he is unaware of a curse placed on him that requires him to pursue Conan to his death, or forfeit his own life. Nestor is actually introduced in a brief run in the middle of the series by Hellboy scribe Mike Mignola, but his relationship with Conan is greatly explored and expanded throughout the rest of the run. Nestor and Conan engage in great amounts of thievery, giving Busiek the opportunity to explore the idea of camaraderie between the two.
Of course, no fictional pillar like Conan would fit into comics without a polar opposite, and Busiek makes sure to develop a villain worthy of such a character. The villain in case, Thoth-Amon, was surprisingly a very small part of Howard’s original texts, only appearing in the first story, The Phoenix On The Sword. However, Busiek pens the character with such intensity that he feels like a long forsworn adversary. When Conan and his merry gang encounter the sorcerer as a gigantic swarm, it feels grand and hard-hitting. The scripting is tight, giving plenty of opportunities to showcase Nord’s artwork, as Amon forms his swarm into a titan-like figure, moving to control the armies of nearby city Hanumar. He feels like a modern, even supervillain-influenced take on a fantasy villain, which really breathes some modern air into the story.
As I previously stated with Janissa, this run has some really solid takes on female characters. I mean, given that the source material was written in the 1920s, there’s going to be some particularly chauvinistic ideas throughout the story, but Busiek actually works pretty well in adapting them for a modern audience. Sure, Conan has his ‘whores’ and sexual escapades after adventuring, but in recurring interests like the character Jiara, he gives them an almost femme fatale like nature. In Jiara’s case, she had an ulterior motive of gold, and for the most part, successfully manipulates Conan into finding gold. She’s also pretty capable at getting herself out of damsel-in-distress roles, avoiding the era’s stereotypes.
I’ve already talked about Cary Nord’s art on the series, but there’s a whole bunch more artists who’s contributions have benefitted the series. One of my favourite artists, Tony Harris (Starman, Ex Machina), worked on most of the covers for the series. His vibrant, almost stained-glass like style is a refreshing contrast to the interior work, giving us hyper detailed depictions of movie-like stills. Another artists, Timothy Truman, who also writes some of the later issues of the run, draws some of the middle issues. He has a style reminiscent of the classic Marvel stories, only enhanced even greater with the painted aesthetic of this series. His art is frantic yet feels titanic and epic, feeling perfectly placed in the Conan universe.
Conan stands up there with Batman and James Bond as one of fiction’s most enduring characters, yet is decidedly more overlooked because of his status as a fantasy based character. However, Kurt Busiek’s run on the character is so refreshingly relevant, and deserving of a wide audience. It’s tonally similar to popular modern series like Game of Thrones, yet a lot more fun, and adventurous. Armed with a serious cast of talent like Cary Nord, Mike Mignola, Timothy Truman and a whole bunch more, and you have one of the best long form fantasy comics in some time. Even if you’re not too familiar with the source material, Conan by Kurt Busiek is a must read for fantasy fans.