Readers, take note: you gotta love your barbarians. These days, they’re certainly in short supply. Though fantasy has made and continues to make a grand resurgence, what with THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT theatrical adaptations along with HBO’s mostly stellar GAME OF THRONES gaining steam on the boob tube. Still, there aren’t too many characters who resemble the singular Cimmerian. He’s quick with a quip and even quicker with his sword, and he’s always willing to rush headfirst into battle, perhaps doing like Indiana Jones did by ‘making it up as he goes.’ To my delight, Dark Horse is adapting one more tale inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard, and this one goes under the name THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE.
Let’s dissect, shall we?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the book’s editorial page: “With the black peak on Yimsha in sight, Conan and Devi Yasmina are ambushed by the Black Seer Khemsa and his lover Gitara in hopes to ransom the devi for themselves. But Khemsa’s betrayals have not gone unnoticed by his master and the Black Circle descends upon the group! Ignoring Conan, the Black Circle swiftly dispatches their misguided brother and his lover, and steal Yasmina away, leaving Conan to plot his next action …”
One of the significant disadvantages to having read so many Conan tales and then being tasked with reviewing one like THE BLACK CIRCLE is that, invariably, there are mental comparisons to other better and lesser works. Since they’re all about Conan and his various adventures, it gets hard to separate one from the other – you want to know that they’re all adding up to some grand legacy. Still, a wise man once told me that life is only time spent between one’s more emotional high points – meaning that you’ll spend far more time just ‘being’ than ever feeling ‘exalted’ in any measure.
That being said, the best I can sum up this tale is that (A) it’ll never register as one of my favorites and (B) it’ll likely turn me off from ever seeking out the actual source material (the written word of Robert E. Howard). For THE BLACK CIRCLE feels like a ‘black mark’ on Dark Horse’s otherwise pretty respectable record with the seminal Cimmerian – it dishes little action, it rarely makes narrative sense (at least, to me it didn’t), and it makes the barbarian look as though he’s lived a life of luck than boundless excitement.
See, I don’t want to see Conan second guessing what to do next. I don’t either want him seeking out adventure solely for adventure’s sake because I’ve always pictured him as the ultimate “smart” barbarian – sure, he’ll gladly cross blades with any man should the opportunity arise, but he’ll have some cause behind it before he wastes burning calories without reason. In these final pages recounting his exchange with THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (and, for the record, they’re not so much people as they are lizard-men), I see Conan going to rescue a kidnapped princess who the last I checked was his sworn enemy. Didn’t he, after all, kidnap her solely with the intent of recovering seven of his captured comrades? (Yes, I know that they were killed under other circumstances, but at what point did these two ever become allies of a type that he would risk his life for her?)
Now, I suppose one could reasonably stress that Yasmina was being held by forces of darkness so it would stand to reason that Conan would go after her merely just for spite. Right? Isn’t that possible? Meh. Like I said, I suppose that could be the case, and I suppose that’s what I’ll have to settle on as this one ends pretty definitively. (Let’s just say that I, for one, hope there’s no sequel.) That might be the case because even Yasmina gloriously announces “I knew you’d come for me!” in the big finish (which finally does serve up the requisite amount of bloody action), defying all sense of logic.
Still, there’s a brief coda that kinda/sorta returns them to their adversarial positions, none too quickly if you ask me.
CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE (#04 of 04) is published by Dark Horse Comics. The script is adapted by Fred Van Lente; the artwork is done by Ariel Olivetti; with the letters provided by Richard Starkings & Comicraft. For those of you who grew up on an island, this tale and Conan’s creation rests entirely on the shoulders of Robert E. Howard. This issue bears the cover price of $3.50, and – as much as that matters – it’s a bargain available only to those who have it to spend: Dark Horse’s reputation for quality is second-to-none so far as this reader is concerned.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. I wanted to like this one, but CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE just felt too lukewarm too much of the time. Light on action and even lighter on reason, this tale probably wouldn’t bring too many new readers to the fold; and it’ll probably leave some (like me) scratching their heads in mild disgust. The best reason to hang through four issues? Olivetti’s artwork is pretty killer right up until the last panel.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with a digital reading copy of CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #04 of 04 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form contributed to my evaluation of it.
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