The second issue of King Conan: Hour of the Dragon confirms what I already suspected — that we have a masterpiece on our hands. I don't know what Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia have been up to in their long break since King Conan: Phoenix on the Sword, but it was obviously time well spent.
Tim Truman is finding all the right beats in Howard's story. He plays the rhythm of the story — alternating between slow, quiet passages punctuated by sharp, explosive action. The slow pieces are the most emotionally packed; the aged, nostalgic King Conan with his dense beard appears only for a single page and the odd panel or two scattered about, but Truman uses these interstitials to seed all that follows with a note of melancholy.
No matter what happens in the story, we know that Conan eventually regains his throne, that he marries Zenobia, that she becomes his queen — but also that the story does not have a classic happy ending. An old man getting drunk in the crypt of his dead wife is not anyone's idea of a happy ending. But it is fitting.
(I loved Truman's nod to Phoenix on the Sword in this first page also; Conan's life as King is ever beset by a group of upstart noblemen, "always with some foul magic user to hold their hands." Classic.)
I know the story of Hour of the Dragon backwards and forwards pretty much, so my anticipation in reading these issues isn't so much "where is the story going?" but "how we they handle some of the classic scenes?" There are two such scenes in issue #2 I was looking forward to — the scene with the jailor under Tarascus's palace in Belverus and the arrival of Zenobia. Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia nailed them both.
The jailor scene is a little bit easier to pull off — it's just Conan being Conan, but in a way that defines the character. Even trapped, chained, and completely defeated, he fights back. This Conan (Robert E. Howard's Conan) never sits placidly in a jail cell contemplating "Woe is me" or doubting the road that lead him there. He is a caged tiger, as dangerous in defeat as he is in the winning — even more so, perhaps, because his motivation is stronger. Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia play that scene up perfectly, with a foolhardy jailor thinking he can add insult to injury by spitting in Conan's face …
And then an eyeball goes flying across the room.
The arrival of Zenobia is the more important scene, because even though her role in the story is short, here role in the Conan mythos is huge. The only woman Conan ever married. His Queen. She has to be a combination of beauty and strength. She isn't a warrior woman like Valeria or Belit, but she is also not (as she says in her own words) a "painted plaything." She is no man's toy. And without her assistance Conan could never have escaped the trap.
The praise for pulling off both these scenes has to go to Giorello and Villarrubia more than Truman, I think. Truman is adapting Howard's text, but it is Giorello and Villarrubia who really make them come to life. I don't know if Giorello is using models for his facial expressions or not, but they are wonderful and full of life and emotion. I've always thought faces were kind of Giorello's weakness — he tends to hide facial expressions in shadows and works better with large composed scenes. But he got Zenobia just right — a Pre-Raphaelite beauty with classic features. Some of his work here actually reminds he of the other great Conan artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, who was also influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Villarrubia is pulling off some remarkable colors as well. When they first started on Conan, Villarrubia was the weakest link in the team, overusing purple and with somewhat mushy colors. Not anymore. He favors strong, single colors and juxtapositions of vivid and grey for maximum impact that is unlike anyone else's coloring I have seen. And he gets some remarkable effects between the panels on the same page, like how the light shines on Old Conan's face in a very different way than the younger version beneath him.
I know what's going to happen next issue, and I still can't wait to get my hands on it. This is one of the best comics on the stands right now, and the wait between issues is painful. But in a good way.
King Conan: Hour of the Dragon #2 drops June 26, 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.