The first story arc of Titan Comics‘ Conan the Barbarian title comes to a conclusion with ‘Found in Blackstone Part IV: Vengeance of the Lost’. With a dire cliff hanger and a truly powerful foe, how is our barbarian going to manage to see the start of the next one?
Throughout the run, writer Jim Zub has flirted with cliché and slightly worn metaphor. But in this issue there’s none of that. Zub shows real panache while delivering a story within the story. He has a flair for spoken language, helping pages of exposition pass by painlessly. Almost a third of this title amounts to ‘Story Time with uncle Brule’ but, thanks to Zub, it’s engaging and enjoyable. No mean feat.
Sadly, his skill with language can’t hide the fact that, after three and a half comics’ worth of adventuring, we’re given a plot dump to tell us what’s happened, rather than our hero discovering it. Even worse, the way to surmount the unsurmountable problem turns out to be the very definition of a deus ex machina. The issues with plotting and feeling of laziness don’t stop there, either. Hydal, last seen falling head first into the murky depth containing a horror ‘stronger than any mortal born can hope to resist’, turns out to be fine. No explanation; he just is.
Meanwhile we find out in the space of just one panel that Brissa, the stalwart and redoubtable companion of the series so far, has died as she wandered off to look for Conan. The fact that we never see it on the page points to the obvious possibility that she’s not really dead and will turn up in a future issue, but it’s deeply unsatisfying for a reader who has invested in the character. Even the inclusion of Brule – a name familiar to fans of older Conan titles – feels heavy handed. Towards the end of his appearance the vision name drops Krull, managing to turn the charming use of a known character into an obvious wink and nudge to the reader.
The art continues to impress. The savage energy Roberto De La Torre brings is exactly right, transporting us to this harsh land. The softening of lines as Conan sinks through the water and into a world of visions is a gorgeous touch, one complemented by Dean White’s shift in palette and style. There can only be so many times a reviewer says they enjoy an artist’s work, but Torre manages to enhance and even elevate every aspect of this release. There is a willingness to explore the subject of the story in different, enthralling ways with each page, each separate panel.
In the end, this comic does disappoint as a dénouement to what has, until now, been an exhilarating adventure. It’s possible that it’s even a victim of its own success; after issues two and three we’ve grown to expect more. But if a criticism is going to be given, the idea that this isn’t good compared to the others is about as good as criticisms get. Because, despite everything said and the issues raised, it still doesn’t slake the thirst for more.
With this first story, Zub, Torre, and all the other contributors have proven that a Conan title doesn’t just ‘work’, but can become a must-read title. Even the ever so slightly cheesy ‘FIN?’ in the end panel bringing a smile to the reader’s lips as we’re ready to join Conan on his next adventure. Hopefully, as this title charges forward with a Cimmerian battle cry bellowing forth, it’ll find the same kind of courage in the stories it’s ready to tell. Conan isn’t the only one who thrives when challenged; occasionally you can expect more from your readers, too.
Conan the Barbarian #4 is out on 25th October from Titan Comics.