This book is like lightning from a clear sky… here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”
-C.S. Lewis’ anonymous 1954 review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring
Such were the words which echoed through my mind upon finishing the first issue of Timothy Truman and Tomás Giorello’s King Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border #1, an adaptation and expansion of the eponymous unfinished tale by Robert E. Howard. To be clear, I do not heap quite so upraised praise upon Wolves Beyond the Border as does Lewis upon Lord of the Rings; while the former represents one of the best comics published in the last week, the later represent one of the most pivotal works in the English language, reinventing and reinvigorating the fantasy genre into the popular culture powerhouse that it is today.
I did, however, express my adulation for Truman and Giorello’s King Conan more concretely, after finishing the issue and realizing the number one on the cover belied past continuity, immediately purchasing the first arc in their run, The Scarlet Citadel, and eagerly anticipate reading the rest of the series to date prior to the second issue’s arrival. My coin might not carry the hyperbole of comparing Howard to Tolkien, but I presume it to be the more powerful endorsement nonetheless.
I must give respect to Dark Horse for their innovative numbering system, with each arc being a separate series by its subtitle denoted, a far more elegant solution than the Big Two’s frequent renumbering, relaunches, multiple volumes, and point one issues. I had stopped reading Dark Horse since switching solely to digital comics some years back, as they were not until recently partnered with ComiXology and had a poorly programmed iPad application of their own implementation. But when Wolves Beyond the Border was promoted as part of a holiday sale, I purchased the beautifully covered comic on a whim, expecting a number one issue to be new reader friendly. I was in no way disappointed, but rather by the bottom of the prologue page enraptured, seized by Howard’s prose:
Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed… Hither came Conan the Cimmerian; black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer; with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of earth under his sandaled feet.”
Such evidently preambles every issue, a fact I learned having been so eager to tackle The Scarlet Citadel that I took a recess from writing this review in order to read such in it’s entirety. And authoring the next few paragraphs and this article’s publication may yet be postponed by my impending purchase of the next volume, The Phoenix on the Sword. That I’ve gone so long in life without prior exposure beyond cultural osmosis to so compelling a character has since putting this issue down become a source of shame.
By Crom! what a drink of cold mountain water to quench the thirsty soul. I had not even realized how parched I was for such antiquity in my fantasy. My pilgrimages to the Perilous Realm of late have been to regions such as Westros and Thedas; favorites, to be sure, but essentially modernity beneath a medieval guise. But here is masculinity, unbridled and unapologetic, a relic unregarded or unremembered in our age of the world. But the barbarous berserker breaks us from the chains of coddling, crippling civility.
Such was the skill with which Truman’s script adapted Howard’s story. But the real sorcery is in Giorello’s art. It stirs up the same savage sehnsucht as Vallejo and Wagner. Here is a perfect halfway between Hal Foster of Prince Valiant fame and the illustrious Frank Frazetta himself.
Were I but a bard in Aquilonia, that I could rhapsody day and night on the glories of King Conan! But alas, I’ve from that true home far wandered, washed up on strange shores, remote and removed and called the Current Era, beset on all sides by softness and safe-spaces and society. Never was the Cimmerian himself captive in so perfidious a prison! But Howard and Truman and Giorello, through such escapist fantasy, hold here the keys to escape. King Conan is no mere fantasy; it’s very real liberation.