It’s a good thing that issue #5 is the penultimate issue of the first mini-series of King Conan: Hour of the Dragon—I am swiftly running out of adjectives to describe out completely phenomenal this series is; of how every page Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia touch sets new standards for comic book art, and how they have created possibly the best Conan adaptation ever made. I know many will say that Roy Thomas’ and Barry Windsor-Smith’s Red Nails holds that title—and that is an incredible comic deserving of the highest praise—but Hour of the Dragon is a serious contender for that title. After all, we still have seven issues to go in the current mini.
Issue #5 contains what I have always thought of as the odd duck of this story: Conan’s rescue of the Countess Albiona from the Iron Tower. Robert E. Howard was an incredible short story writer, but he struggled to write grand plots large enough to sustain an entire novel. Albiona’s rescue has always felt somewhat wedged into the story to me, like Howard’s attempt to pad the page count by slipping a short story into the middle of his longer adventure. To be sure, Albiona is an important stepping stone; her rescue hooks up Conan with the Priests of Asura, who play a vital role in the story. But she has little life herself outside of her plot hook.
Truman actually dove into Howard’s story and found some strength for Albiona and reason for her story, which impressed me. He showed Albiona—and this is in large part also praise for Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia whose art completes the portrait—as completely vulnerable, yet still resistant. Her faith and loyalty to Conan is all the more powerful because she is so helpless, as well as her faith and loyalty to herself. Like Zenobia, she refuses to allow herself to become a pretty toy for men in power. She chooses the path of death and pain instead of luxury and pleasure bought at too high a price.
I love that about Hour of the Dragon. Even though I have read the book numerous times, Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia are showing me new parts to the novel, new nuances and interpretations. They are doing exactly what adaptors should do—maintaining that vital core while not being afraid to add in new scenes or alterations to suit the media, and turning something familiar into something fresh and vital.
And man, the art in this book—I really don’t understand why every reviewer isn’t running around banging the drum about Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia. There work here together is every bit as impressive and innovative as JH Williams III and Dave “King of Colors” Stewart’s work on Batwoman or Tony Harris’ work on Chin Music. This is comics for the post-digital age, finding a reason to still buy paper copies instead of digital. Giorello and Villarrubia’s art demands to be seen at full size, and in full color. Reading this on a small iPad screen just won’t give you the full experience. The panels and flow are too well constructed, too composed, for those kinds of short cuts.
Giorrello clearly had some fun with issue #5, by the way. Conan unleashed and raining his vengeance on Albiona’s torturers is a hell of a scene. You gotta love an artist who designs a special sideways keyhole panel just to show a beheading.
One of the best things about King Conan: Hour of the Dragon is that it is defying the odds. Most comics have their best sales with issue #1, followed by a slow decline. Sales are actually increasing with Hour of the Dragon as word of mouth gets out about what an amazing series this is. I hope that upward trend continues and Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia are rewarded with more Conan work in the future.