Conan: The People of the Black Coast will be released on October 23, 2013.
This first issue of Conan: The People of the Black Coast is more than the first issue of a new Dark Horse Conan mini-series—it is the debut of new writer Fred Van Lente, who will be taking over the ongoing Conan the Barbarian series after Brian Wood makes his exit with issue #24. This series should give Robert E. Howard and Conan fans an idea of how Van Lente will approach the ongoing series, and what we can expect in the (hopefully) years ahead.
The People of the Black Circle is one of my favorite Howard yarns, though I admit that it can be a bit deus ex machina in its plot points. But the pitting of Conan’s sword against the dark, sinister magic of the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha is classic Howard. I like this Conan too; neither a wandering thief nor a crowned king, this Conan is Chief of the Afghulis, a leader of rough hill people who are nothing but rouges and raiders. He has sacrificed a life of freedom for the life of responsibility and obligation that comes with being a leader of men. Conan has a good match in The People of the Black Circle in the Devi Yasmina, a spirited woman who transforms over the story from a pampered princess into a sturdy hill girl, and back again.
Van Lente’s take on The People of the Black Circle is almost pure Howard—with a few welcome twists here and there. After Brian Wood—who essentially wrote Brian Wood’s Conan, not Robert E. Howard’s Conan—this is a welcome return to form. Van Lente isn’t subverting expectations or playing against types here; he’s sticking to the heart and core of the character and world. And he nails it. There is a fantastic scene where the giant, muscled warrior steps out of the shadows to announce “Aye. I am Conan.” Of course you are.
This welcome twists come in the form of humor. Van Lente seems to like to squirrel away odd details in some of his panels, in way that don’t affect the main story line but still keep things fresh. Case in point, the lovely Princess of Khosala, whose charms the dashing King of Vendhya inadvertently swapped his life for, is a rather … robust woman. And the scene where they talk about the King’s bodily waste products being carefully protected: Yeah, that was hilarious. Conan comics seldom make me laugh out loud, but Van Lente nails it here.
Artist Ariel Olivetti is only on for this mini-series (as far as we know) but does an equally outstanding job. The People of the Black Circle is fully painted, and looks beautiful. I was a bit worried when I first saw that cover image: Conan looks almost cartoonishly muscular, which is campy and never works. Conan is not The Hulk. Robert E. Howard and Conan work best when rooted in the real world, which is fortunately where Olivertti sets the story. Well, almost the real world. Olivertti’s Vendhya seems to have sprouted from a Maxfield Parrish painting, full of rose hues and deep blues. That works just fine for me, since I love Maxfield Parrish.
I also appreciated Olivetti’s page work and panel design. I love fully painted comics, but they can be stiff and formal compared to the looser pencil drawings. The process of refinement that a painting goes through can suck the life right out of it. Fortunately, Olivetti puts the focus on dynamic pages, and makes great use of oversized profiles and other composition elements. One page has just a bright red stripe going across it, which I thought was bold and interesting. That wasn’t something I expected from a painted comic.
Both Van Lente and Olivetti seem to be having fun with the setting as well. This was the time when Howard was setting his stories in his own fictionalized version of the real world. It doesn’t take much effort to see through Howard’s slightly altered versions of names (“Afghulis”) to see who he is really talking about. The costumes and settings keep this in the reader’s mind, going with a slightly altered version of real history.
My only disappointment with The People of the Black Circle is its length. This is one of Howard’s longer stories, and it’s a tight fit to cram this story into four issues. Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala adapted The People of the Black Circle in four issues of Savage Sword of Conan, but those were big fat 30-page issues. Based on this first issue, I’m sure Van Lente and Olivetti will do a great job. But I wish they had been given six or even twelve issues to dive into the story as deeply as it deserves.