ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan Vol. 11: Road of Kings will go on sale Wednesday, February 1, 2012.
The 11th volume in the Dark Horse Conan series, Conan: Road of Kings, should have been something really amazing. The series heralded the return of writer Roy Thomas, who more than anyone else was responsible for bringing Conan to comic books and popularizing both the character and author Robert E. Howard to a wider audience. The idea of a year's worth of Roy Thomas Conan was a treat.
With Road of Kings Roy Thomas had a simple assignment; to get Conan from Point A to Point B. Conan had finished Iron Shadows in the Moon as a pirate on the Vilayet Sea sailing with the buxom Olivia, and he needed to be in the Port of Argos, free and unattached, for the start of the next adventure Queen of the Black Coast. Thomas decided to send Conan down the Road of Kings, the highway that connected the major kingdoms of the Hyborian Age.
This first road trip — collecting Road of Kings #1-6 — has Conan returning his current lover Olivia, a kidnapped princess of Ophir, to her father the King. This was a fun story. Howard often ended his stories with Conan getting the girl — who was then never heard from again. Howard was not big on story continuity. So here, Thomas explored that in-between space and allowed closure to Olivia's story. Along the road to returning Olivia, Conan picked up some new enemies, met some old friends, and won and lost a fortune or two.
The portrayal of Conan is a shift from previous Dark Horse series, Roy Thomas writes Conan much more as a lusty rogue rather than a grim slayer. Only a few issues in, and Thomas has Conan breaking into fat merchants households to steal the ruby eye from a guardian statue, accompanied by an appropriately large horror shambling after him. As Thomas admits, Road of Kings is a bit episodic, with each adventure taking Conan a bit further down the road. Even with that limitation, the writing is great fun, and I loved reading this Conan again. Thomas is also a devoted Howard scholar who peppers his Conan with little winks and asides and references to Howard's original stories. I enjoyed the addition of Prince Murilo from Rogues in the House.
But it takes more than a writer to make a comic book. And while Roy Thomas is still very much at the top of his game — and writes a Conan like no other — artist Mike Hawthorne and colorist Dan Jackson just weren't a good fit, and the series suffered for it.
This is especially true after the standards that Dark Horse set with artists like Gary Nord and Tomas Giorello, and colorists like Dave Stewart and Jose Villarrubia. After that level of detailed, atmospheric artwork and painterly, controlled color schemes, it was jarring to be confronted with a Conan drawn with clean simple lines and flat colors that resembled animation cells. The change in colorist is particularly jarring. Dave Stewart colors issues 1-3, and then there is a sudden shift to Dan Jackson in issues 4-6 who favors a garish color scheme.
I don't know if Dark Horse thought this style would be better suited to Thomas' writing style, but they were wrong. Roy Thomas wrote for detailed artists like Barry Windsor Smith. His writing shines when he has artists who really bring it to life. Hawthorne was just not that guy.
It is sad to think of how cool and how much fun this comic could have been had Dark Horse selected a better-suited art team to go along with Roy Thomas' writing. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.