After a long, long wait, The Hour of the Dragon has come. And it does not disappoint. Robert E. Howard's only Conan novel adapted by the team who have been making the finest Conan comics for their generation — King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon is a masterwork.
With their King Conan series (The Scarlet Citadel, The Phoenix on the Sword), Tim Truman, Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia make comics for Robert E. Howard connoisseurs. They are constructed with both craft and style, building on the solid foundation that Howard laid down, extrapolating and shaping Howard's tales without ever reworking them entirely. Truman, Giorello and Villarrubia capture the timelessness of Conan, the raw essence of the character that has kept him popular for close to a hundred years.
By contrast, Brian Wood's Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast is a pure zeitgeist comic — ephemera and fad that serves a valuable place in the comics market but probably won't go the distance. But as people discover Howard and Conan in generations to come (and they will), they are going to dive into these King Conan comics with the same zeal that I dove into Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's original series.
King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon starts off with Truman's now-familiar device of the aged King Conan telling tales to his scribe Pramis, essentially writing the Nemedian Chronicles. In this issue, Conan is wandering the royal crypts at night, paying his respects to his beloved queen Zenobia. Full of melancholy and remembering, Conan and Pramis sit at the grave of Zenobia and slowly drink wine while Conan tells the tale of the Woman who would be Queen.
I loved this scene. It shows the strengths of Truman's writing, and his connection with the characters and materials (the nod to Belit was beautifully handled). There is a subtle depth here, the fine art of the storyteller who shows instead of tells. Truman layers Conan with the weight of age and dignity — he has lived far longer than he should have — denied a warrior's death on the battlefield — and is forced to get old slowly while those around him die. All the while I read these opening pages, I heard Wagner's Gotterdammerung playing silently in my head. It's that kind of comic.
After the initial setup, we return to the past for a vibrant, powerful Conan. The Hour of the Dragon is a complex, multi-layered story and this first issue sets the stage for Act 1. The plot is not an unfamiliar one — as in The Phoenix on the Sword, we have a group of upstart noble men looking to un-crown the barbarian King of Aquilonia, and a shadow-haunted wizard to back them up. But things are different this time. The wizard Xaltotun is mightier than Thoth Amon, and wields the Heart of Ahriman to devastating effect. For those who think Conan does nothing more than ride in, beat everyone up, and win the girl — well, you are in for a surprise.
The art team of Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia continue to outdo themselves with every series, as Hour of the Dragon shows. The art is a work of chiseled beauty. They style is slightly different — Giorello isn't using the triptych panels he favored in The Phoenix on the Sword. His work is still highly composed and formal, but he brings more life to his facial expressions and gestures. Meanwhile Villarrubia's light wash colors add to the depth and emotion of Giorello's compositions, and contribute some very neat dynamic elements. The eyes of Xaltotun owe their life to Villarrubia's colors.
From what I gather, the full Hour of the Dragon is going to be split over two six-issue miniseries. That's twelve issues in total, and all I can say is it's going to be a glorious year for Robert. E. Howard and Conan fans.
King Conan: Hour of the Dragon will be in stores Wednesday, May 29, 2013.
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.