Thanks to Penguin Random House I was able to read Conan Volume 20: A Witch Shall Be Born, a collection of Conan the Avenger issues #20-25. Here’s a review of my introduction to the world of King Conan, the Cimmerian barbarian who originally appeared in stories by Robert E. Howard in 1932.
I was motivated to read this because I’d recently kickstarted a board game based on the same character (in part because of how cool the miniatures looked), and although I was vaguely familiar with him thanks to an old comic of my father’s (not to mention the obvious/obligatory Conan the Barbarian starring Arnie and James Earl Jones), I was curious to dig deeper into the mythos to give the game scenarios more meaning.
I could not have picked a better entry point. This trade concludes writer Fred Van Lente’s amazing run on Conan the Avenger. He has cleverly intertwined brief passages straight from Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “A Witch Shall Be Born” from 1934, making this adaptation very true to the original novella. I know this because it was so good I went back and started reading the original.
In case you missed it, the blurb of the trade reads: “Taramis, the beloved queen of Khauran, was born with a twin sister, Salome, but by an ancient doom placed on their bloodline Salome’s chest bore a scarlet half-moon birthmark: the mark of the witch! Left to die in the desert, Salome survived instead, and grew up to embrace her malevolent destiny…and now she’s back, to take vengeance on all of Khauran!”
I found this pretty interesting because Salome (pronounced Salomé as far as I know), daughter of Herod and Herodias, is biblically infamous for asking for the head of John the Baptist – and getting it. Sure enough, it is strongly implied that the witch in this story is an (earlier?) incarnation of the same evil. The “ancient doom” is like a blessing/curse ensuring a baby marked as the witch will be born each century.
Conan’s crucifixion, a fairly famous event in the Conan mythology and only a spoiler if you’ve somehow missed the cover, was therefore an interesting touch. Lente captured all of the required elements of the original story, most importantly the pace. Speaking of which, part of what makes this such a great read is how fast the action feels and how quickly story elements move along; though, you do also feel the brevity of his suffering.
The artwork by Jose Luis, Brian Ching, et al is captivating. The foremost aspect that struck me was the colour palette used in any given scene / series of frames. The setting at any given time is clear and omnipresent, as you’d expect for a desert landscape in the distant past. The dreariness is perfectly counter-balanced by the urgency and speed of the action depicted therein. The artists did an amazing job of capturing the pace set forth by both Howard and Lente, at times making it hard to not turn the page before you’re done reading.
I can easily summarize my reading experience as spellbound, fitting for a story that literally defines the “sword and sorcery” genre. I didn’t expect such a page-turner considering I’d overlooked the character so long – too long. It’s safe to say I’ll be reading and reviewing a couple more Conan stories in the near future! Check this book out; you will not be disappointed.