The 11th volume in Dark Horse’s Conan series finds Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation commanding a crew of sailors as he pillages the Vilayet Sea. But when the pirate’s life proves unmanageable, Conan and his travelling companion Olivia set out on the fabled Road of Kings. Spurred onward by nocturnal visions of her father, Olivia wishes to return home. The journey is marked by treachery, thieves, monsters, slavery, and even a bit of royal intrigue. Pretty much your standard Conan story, right?
Conan: Road of Kings collects the first six issues of Dark Horse’s series of the same name. The intent of the series is to bridge the gap between the Howard-penned short stories “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Queen of the Black Coast”. Appropriately enough, the task was given to longtime Conan scribe Roy Thomas. Fans will remember that it was Thomas who brought Conan to Marvel Comics over 40 years ago and wrote the bulk of the series, as well as contributing to the black-and-white Savage Sword of Conan magazine, several Robert E. Howard-based stories for Dark Horse in the ‘90s, and serving as consultant on the John Milius/Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian film. He also penned the majority of the Conan the Barbarian newspaper strip during its two-year run and co-wrote the first five drafts of Conan the Destroyer. So maybe Roy Thomas knows a little something about the curmudgeonly Cimmerian? As such, he brings a scholarly mind to the story and litters it with references to Howard’s original stories.
Fans of Thomas’ previous work on Conan will no doubt enjoy the purple prose which highlights this tale. While some readers find captions to be dated and clunky, I absolutely disagree. It’s true that the extensive and unnecessary use of captions can detract from a story, but when handled well (and Thomas does handle them well), they can be used to enhance the overall mood and act as world-building devices. Sure, a picture of a cyclopean creature with a gaping, blood-soaked maw rising from the depths of an ancient underground lake is pretty sweet on its own, but when accompanied by text which reads “… rising from the blackness, like a thing born of night and all the horrors it ever hides…”, it becomes so much more. I’m pretty sure I actually heard Dio playing faintly in the background when I read it and the warm embrace of a leathery batwing when I wrote it just now. So if you’re not into awesome stuff like that, I guess you probably won’t enjoy it all that much.
Unfortunately, the artistic side of Road of Kings didn’t wow me quite as much. While Mike Hawthorne’s storytelling technique is rock solid, I can’t say that I loved the art overall. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a judgment against the man’s skill; simply an admission that his style doesn’t completely suit me as much as it might suit you. This may also be due to the fact that there are two different inkers as well as two colorists working on the book, giving something of an uneven quality. Much more to my liking were the covers and chapter breaks by Doug Wheatley. Perfectly capturing the roguish spirit of Conan, these paintings evoked memories of perusing the tattered covers of paperback novels in the fantasy section of the local library.
Road of Kings is definitely a more lighthearted tale than fans of Dark Horse’s Conan offerings may be used to though. The story falls more on the swashbuckling and adventuring side of things than on the harsh realities that might befall the grim and arduous life of a barbarian thief trying to survive in a realm filled with monsters and magic - which doesn’t mean that the story skimps on the blood and gore; just that it seems to do it with a bit more of a wry grin than a scowl or grimace. In this respect, perhaps Hawthorne’s art is a good fit but again, it might be good but that doesn’t mean it’s completely to my liking. Whether it is by design or not, one gets the feeling that this story exists to simply move the character from Point A to Point B, and as a result, the circumstances never feel terribly dire or dangerous. It hits all the right notes of a classic Conan story though: thieved jewels, hideous monstrosities lurking in the dark, brutal swordplay, and scantily clad women with heaving breasts. So I honestly can’t complain too much.
All-in-all, Road of Kings is a solid and accessible Conan story that should serve well as an introduction to those unfamiliar with the character as well as providing entertainment for those of us who are better acquainted with him. And with 2012 being the 80th anniversary of Conan, it seems all too fitting to introduce a prospective fan to the character through the work of one of the most prolific chroniclers of his adventures beyond the realms of prose.