It’s been said that only the greatest warriors truly understand what it means to love as greatly as is humanly possible. Why, who other than a mighty man or woman could appreciate the gentler, softer moments of companionship? Who else but the strongest seeks to have his (or her) heart warmed to perfection? Indeed, if great men love greatly, then no man from myth or legend but Conan has had his cup runneth over, and that’s the narrative sentiments at work in this collection from Dark Horse Comics.
(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 …)
Finally, the Cimmerian has brought peace unto the lands of Aquilonia. As our story opens, the barbarian and his army have taken control of the kingdom, wrenching it through bloodshed from those who would oppress an entire people into hopeless servitude. Still, even as king Conan finds himself suffering a restless spirit, but it isn’t long before a sorceress comes a’calling. With her, she brings word that his former love who suffered a tragic end – Belit – has not fully passed into a peaceful afterlife. Of course, the mighty Nadina knows what must be done in order for this king’s queen to finally be at rest, and the man will stop at nothing to either see beloved into the beyond or expose the witch as the evil she may be.
So far as this volume – THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST – goes, it’s a tale told obligatorily. There’s really no grand pomp and circumstance to the entire affair; even the artwork feels a bit tired and grim. Given the fact that matches Conan’s mood throughout much of this adventure, perhaps that’s exactly what novelist Victor Gischler intended artist Attila Futaki’s work to express. Even if that is the case, would it be too much to ask for somebody to throw a light on these dark corners?
I’ve been trafficking in Conan’s graphic adventures off-and-on since the seventies, and, artistically, PHANTOMS certainly isn’t that far a cry from much of what’s been done before. At this point, one wonders how any creative team can bring something new, something special to heads being cleaved from their shoulders or intestines being hacked from their abdomens. It’s a bloody affair, indeed. I can’t help but wonder why Conan’s mood never really ticked up even on the good days brought to life in these pages; perhaps he’s grown a bit too melancholy for his own good?
Furthermore, adaptations can be a tricky thing. When one writer sticks too close to the material (as I can’t help but wonder if that’s what happened here), what ends up being accomplished serves the strengths and weaknesses of the original storyteller as opposed to highlighting something new being delivered unto a franchise. Also, if one strays too far away from the source, then the audience is left wondering what happened to the character they’ve grown to love and admire. I’d imagine a talent like Gischler would only be too happy to contribute to Conan’s expansive mythology, but an awful lot of this volume feels ‘phoned in.’ That isn’t intended as an insult – who wouldn’t want to have the ability to evoke classic Robert E. Howard tones? – rather it’s only a benign observation.
For all its narrative blemishes, quite a bit of PHANTOMS feels rushed. Days are condensed into phrases like “Conan did X for days” (obviously paraphrasing there, folks), and several different characters even remark similar storytelling sentiments. Who knows? Maybe editing this entire affair into five issues was bound to strip some of the magic from a grand adventure; still, the way this one went it felt like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were turning Conan into a Hyborean Age ‘Indiana Jones’ … and that would be a horrific development.
CONAN: THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST is published by Dark Horse Comics. The story is written by Victor Gischler (adapted from the work of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard); the art is provided by Attila Futaki; the colors are by Jok Coglitore and J. Blanco; and the lettering is by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt. This volume collects issues #1 through #5 previously published under the same name. It’s all available for the low, low price of $19.99 … maybe that’s a bit steep for newcomers, but you can always try to pick one up secondhand if that’s easier to fit in your budget.
RECOMMENDED. It may not be the greatest Conan tale Dark Horse has had the good graces to bring to life, but it’s still an admirable telling for anyone who follows the trials and tribulations of the world’s best known Cimmerian. In fact, there’s plenty of stuff in there that makes it uniquely Conan – damsels and ne’er-do-wells alike; all I wish is that it flowed together as seamlessly as some other graphic collections I’ve had the good fortune to read.
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: THE PHANTOMS OF THE BLACK COAST by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more