Although uppity academics jeer at them and perhaps their prose style hasn’t aged the best, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and other pulp stories forms a huge backbone of the fantasy genre, especially sword and sorcery. Howard’s Conan stories also inspired two of the greatest comic book artists of all time, Frank Frazetta, who worked at EC and National (later DC) Comics before producing seminal painted fantasy art, and Barry Windsor-Smith, whose rough hewn lines graced the Conan the Barbarian and Uncanny X-Men comics for Marvel in the 1970s and 1980s. In King Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border #2, writer Timothy Truman, artist Tomas Giorello, and colorist Jose Villarubia have remained faithful to the vision of these masters of the sword and sorcery genre while adding some modern techniques, like snappy, yet still non-anachronistic dialogue to go with the Howard-like purple prose. Like the aging King Conan himself, who is still sharp with one-liner and filled with wisdom and whoop ass, they have revived this genre.
King Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border #2 is based on one of Robert E. Howard’s final and unfinished Conan stories “Wolves Beyond the Border” about a battle between one of Conan’s rangers, and the Picts, a group of people who live on the borders of Aquilonia. Truman and Giorello have expanded upon this story in King Conan #2 and turned it into a version of “Robin Hood’s Death”, Telegony (Odysseus’ last voyage), or even The Dark Knight Returns for Conan as he goes on one final quest to break the curse of an iron crown of Thule that his soldier Gault took from the Picts and dates back to Atlantis and Howard’s other sword and sorcery hero, Kull.
Much of the setup happened in the previous issue, and King Conan #2 is filled with action, salty one-liners, and powerful art with a dash of political intrigue and mystery. In the opening pages, Truman and Giorello introduce Kwarada, a Pict shaman, who desperately desires the crown of Thule. Like most Conan foes, she has a thirst for power and uses all kinds of dark magic to get it. But she is just one of many clans of the Picts, who are more of a confederacy than country, like Aquilonia was before Conan united them. Conan sees these similarities and must use his wits and diplomatic skills as well as his sword and still ample muscles to avoid being defeated by the Picts.
Giorello makes Conan still a physically imposing presence, and Truman gives him the best lines, but they also make him vulnerable with extreme close-ups of his face as one of his soldiers curses Conan while he is burned alive by Kwarada. The old king may be out of his depth on this new adventure in the periphery of his kingdom that he isn’t super familiar with.King Conan #2 ends with a nice twist, and Truman puts Conan himself in an unwinnable situation surrounded by multiple Pict clans all gunning (or spearing) for him. There’s kind of a melancholic feel to the whole comic with lots of remarks being made about Conan’s legendary past as his current allies fall around him. There are two more issues so we know that he makes it out alive, but the manner he does it is remarkably un-Conan-like.
But the real treat in King Conan #2 is the artwork of Tomas Giorello, who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Conan artists along with Frazetta, Windsor-Smith, and John Buscema. He combines a semi-painted style with realistic anatomy, immersive backgrounds, and plenty of gut punching action. Giorello catches your attention with a panel of a character’s eyes or mouth in close-up to hint at menace to come like he does with Kwaranta. He uses crosshatching, big poses, and speed lines to give the sword fighting the right level of grandeur before cutting away to reaction shots of Conan as he takes a beating and watches his men dissolve in flames. And each storytelling beat is clearly delineated with some near-cinematic transitions like Kwaranta’s raven changing into black undergrowth. Colorist Jose Villarubia makes each page look like an old illustrated pulp novel with aged, yet bold colors, like greens for the forest around the Pict camp and of course, blood for the many violent fight scenes.
King Conan: The Wolves Beyond the Border #2 is a resurrection of the rule bending (What realism?), genre crafting Robert E. Howard pulps, but with a modern sense of humor and quicker pacing. Who needs paragraphs of description about a creepy shaman and her crow, or a smelly swamp when you’ve got a well-placed “Mitra’s balls” joke from writer Timothy Truman or a background of mists and weeping willows from artist Tomas Giorello with a verdant palette from Jose Villarrubia? King Conan #2 is yet another argument for why fantasy stories might be told best in a visual medium like comics, film, or video games than novels or short stories and shows Conan at a breaking point on what could be his final adventure.