CROM! I have returned once again with an article celebrating the return of Conan to Marvel Comics this upcoming January. We’re less than a month away from the big return, so now seems like the perfect time to look back at Conan’s Dark Horse years.
Dark Horse began publishing Conan comics back in 2002. For the last sixteen years, Dark Horse has been the torchbearer for the property. And they have done a spectacular job at bringing Conan back to his Robert E. Howard roots, with an admirable devotion to keeping the original spirit of Conan alive. Their commitment to bringing in creators who respected and revered the original Howard works shines throughout all of their published books.
Though it’s both a sad and happy occasion to see Conan move on from Dark Horse, the stories produced during their time with the license have been categorically good. I can’t remember a Conan story that I didn’t like from the Dark Horse years. They were an excellent steward of Conan. Dark Horse should be commended for their commitment to excellent storytelling. I know this Conan fan appreciated it!
In that spirit, here are seven Conan stories from Dark Horse that I feel are well worth checking out before (or even after) his return to Marvel. All of these issues are available in trade format or they can easily be found with some good old fashioned back issue bin diving.
The Frost Giant’s Daughter (Conan #2)
The litmus test for all Conan creators should be how well they can adapt one of Robert E. Howard’s most celebrated Conan stories, ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” It’s a simple, short story of a young Conan, the sole survivor of a bloody battle on the frozen plains of Nordhiem, and his visions of a beautiful woman calling herself Atali. In just a few short pages, Conan follows the wisp-like woman, eventually losing her in a flash. Conan believes it was all a dream, but is perplexed when he awakens to have her veil.
While the story has been adapted four times in comic book form, Dark Horse’s adaptation from the second issue of their first Conan series stands as the best. Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord bring to life the dreamy, ethereal nature of the story. It stands as my favorite single issue of Conan ever.
Born on the Battlefield (Conan #s 0, 8, 15, 23, 32, 45, & 46)
Kurt Busiek wrote the first Conan comic for Dark Horse, simply titled Conan. Throughout his run, Busiek and artist Greg Ruth would occasionally return to Conan’s youth in a series of stories called “Born on the Battlefield.” These occasional diversions amount to, in comic book parlance, a Year Zero/One or origin story for Conan. “Born on the Battlefield” gives insight into the experiences that shaped Conan into the warrior he would become. This book should be right up their with definitive origin stories like Batman Year One, Weapon X, or Ultimate Spider-Man. Busiek and Ruth craft an amazing story throughout the original Conan series.
This was more than an exercise in filling in the blacks of Robert E. Howard’s origins of Conan. It’s a definitive take on the early life of Conan. Potential readers don’t have to seek out the individual issues. A hardcover collection of these stories was released as “Volume 0” in 2008.
Groo vs. Conan
You don’t have to be as sullen as Conan when reading Conan stories. It helps, but that’s not to say the Cimmerian can’t be played off for laughs. Groo vs. Conan finally pits Sergio Aragones’s legendary buffon Groo against the mighty barbarian Conan. Featuring the all star creative team of writers Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, with art from Aragones and coloring from Tom Luth, the miniseries offers a lighter look at Conan than most readers are accustomed to reading.
Though it is more of a Groo story than a Conan one, the Cimmerian plays the perfect straight man foil to Groo’s constant shenanigans and idiocy. The story gets even wonkier because it’s all a hallucination in Aragones’s head after being beaten up. It gets weird fast, but that’s what makes it such a fun read!
The Song of Belit (Conan the Barbarian #s 19-25)
In 2012, Brian Wood tried his hand at writing Conan with his series Conan the Barbarian. I could recommend his entire run, but specifically his final arc “The Song of Belit” stood out for me. Belit was famously killed off in issue #100 of the original Conan series, but I actually love Wood’s take on the tragic end of Conan and Belit’s love affair during his run on Conan.
Several of the issues take on a dreamy, poetic send off to the Queen of the Black Coast. Wood was able to turn a story any Conan fan has probably read multiple times in differing adaptations into a fantastic and poetic coda to his run.
The Black Colossus (Conan the Cimmerian 8-13)
Much like Brian Woods run on Conan, I highly recommend anyone who missed out on any of Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello’s Conan the Cimmerian and various miniseries to check them out. The Truman/Giorello team are my favorite Conan creative team of all time (Sorry, Roy and BWS!). Having heard Truman speak in person several times about his love of Conan, it’s obvious that he is a Howard purist and knowledgeable scholar of the character. Truman’s Conan stories represent an embarrassment of riches for any fan.
If I had to go with one story from their major run with the character in Conan the Cimmerian, it would be their adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s famous story “The Black Colossus.” It’s got everything anyone would ever want from a Conan story. There’s a huge battle, wizards, damsels in distress, and of course Conan being the bad ass he was meant to be. Truman and Giorello provide a great adaptation for a fantastic story. What else could you want?
Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border
Well, you could want more from my favorite Conan creative team! Truman and Giorella produced five King Conan miniseries, culminating in the epic Wolves Beyond the Border. Again, anyone even remotely interested in stellar fantasy comics should check out all five of their minis, but Wolves at the Border is my favorite Conan story arc of all time.
Truman takes a Robert E. Howard King Conan fragment that finds our favorite barbarian bored with being a King. Along with a few friends, Conan embarks on what might be his final quest to vanquish Pict invaders, wrestle with an ancient relic, and of course ward off evil sorcery. Conan is given the “Old Man Logan” treatment, which fits the weary king quite well.
If it turns out to be Truman’s last word on the character, he goes out with a bang. I hope Marvel doesn’t forget about creators like Truman because they bring so much rich history with them to the character.
As mentioned in my previous article on Damsels Not in Distress, the oddest, yet gleefully fun series from Dark Horse was their crossover miniseries Wonder Woman/Conan by Gail Simone and Aaron Lopretsi. This miniseries sadly represents the last publication of all new Conan material from Dark Horse. Originally published from September 2017 to February 2018, the six issue miniseries brought the two unlikely heroes together for the first (and maybe last) time.
It was an odd pairing considering Wonder Woman’s status as a modern feminist icon and Conan’s reputation for being represented through story and art as being outright sexist at times. But the miniseries works! The story finds Conan and an amnesic Wonder Woman fighting against gladiators, pirates, wizards, and each of their past lives! Putting these two together is sheer comic book reading joy. There’s at least a handful of scenes in each issue that make the price of admission embarrassingly easy.