Plenty has been written about the lives of kings. No doubt, plenty more will be written as time continues its inexorably march onward, and there are lessons still to be learned in exploring the moments that separate the wheat from the chaff. As any king can tell you, there’s something to be said about growing old and looking back on the recklessness of a youth spent learning to rule, but, when you’re King Conan, there’s no doubt going to be many hopeful usurpers reaching for your crow. This story – one of the very first ones written by Howard – deserves to be told, and Dark Horse has delivered an impressive adaptation, indeed.
(NOTE: The following review may contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Yes, Conan’s become king, seizing the throne for his own rule, but, as he didn’t expect, he’s quickly grown weary of it. Leading is passé, he’s learned, and the real joy is serving under a kind who allows and endorses adventure. As he tells his men, he’d rather be riding alongside them into battle or, worse, possible death. It’s what he craves; it’s what sets him apart from other kings. While others go into the wild seeking adventure, our hero is left in the castle to lord over it all. However, little does King Conan know that conspirators have secretly flooded his castle, and they’ve set their eyes on the ultimate prize: to take back the throne and put an Aquilonian back in charge!
As KING CONAN: THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD opens, it becomes clear that the mighty Conan has learned one of the hardest lessons of true leadership: being king is a very different task than wanting to be king. He remembers how folks – peasants, mostly – threw gold at his feet when he served the castle; now that he’s running it, they’d just as soon fill his veins with poison.
This is a tale of reflection, told by an aging Conan to a young ‘reporter’ for the age, and the barbarian allows it to unfold selflessly. Having achieved a measure of wisdom, he’s no longer concerned with how he may look – he’s honest about his feelings of kingship and serving as the steward to an entire people – and, instead, he lays it bare for his audience – Primas the scribe (as well as the readers) – to hear. And what a great place from which to begin? Even at his advanced age, Conan still commands a sword and an axe first; no longer a young man, he’s still enamored with the ‘sporting side’ of life. No doubt, remembering this story is as fascinating for him as it is for those of us hearing and seeing it for the first time.
And – if we didn’t know it yet, then we definitely know it before this yarn is over – nothing stands between a wicked sorcerer and his evil, magic ring.
Timothy Truman has done a stellar job adapting this from Howard’s original story, and Tomas Giorello’s artwork – at times grim, at other times determined – is a perfect match for a world where no one truly knows what danger lurks around the next corner. Naturally, I could quip about a panel here or a splash there, but so much of PHOENIX is a marvel to behold I’ll not trouble you with a few lesser groans. It’s lofty when it needs to be, and it’s bloody when it must be. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s a brilliant afterword provided by Mark Finn. What’s so exceptional about it is that Finn provides the proper historical context for the retelling of this particular Conan story – where it fits in with other Conan works; what distinguishes it from others; what are the highs and lows of the various contributors; and (most impressive) even a brief philosophical discussion of how the best Conan stories are adapted procedurally. There are additional sketches and unused artwork aplenty, all of it as remarkable as the story just told. It’s an impressive and reverential collection that deserves to be on the bookshelf of any Conan aficionado.
KING CONAN: THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD is published by Dark Horse Comics. The story is written by Timothy Truman (though, to be exact, this is an adaptation of a tale originally written by Robert E. Howard, himself); the artwork is by Tomas Giorello; the coloring is by Jose Villarrubia; the lettering is by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt; and the chapter-break and cover artist was Andrew Robinson. This volume bears a cover price of $14.99 (a bargain, by Crom, if ever there were).
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. It’s kingly. It’s regal. It’s a sight to behold from cover to cover. I’ve made it no secret in penning my reviews that I’m a fan of most things Conan (some stories and artwork just don’t tickle my fancy, but many – even the less memorable ones – are still better than most swords and sorcery tales done today). I personally think KING CONAN: THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD has something for everyone … even folks who are not a fan of the barbarian. The tale is richly told – albeit, yes, with some deservedly bloody renderings – with a decidedly Shakespearean flavor. The life of kings can be a treacherous business, and there was none who embraced treachery as openly as King Conan. Rejoice, all ye peasants, for your king has arrived.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with an advance digital copy of KING CONAN: THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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