The great heyday of the Roy Thomas/John Buscema era of Conan comics dwindled, no matter how fervently fans like myself wished that weren't the case. Buscema's pencils eventually degenerated to sleepwalking outlines, and other artists - even the legendary Gil Kane - could step in and shake things up for a bit, but the fire was gone (curiously, Thomas and Buscema's last truly fantastic Conan story wasn't even set in the Hyborian Age - it was an issue of Marvel's alternate-reality "What If?" series in which Conan finds himself transported to present-day Manhattan; he overturns a Volkswagon, thwarts a robbery at the Guggenheim, and beds a comely cab driver before he goes home - in other words, a fairly standard German tourist in the Big Apple). The series - in one form or another - limped on for years and spawned spin-offs ("Kull the Conqueror," "Red Sonja," "King Conan"), and Conan was still a viable property in book-form, as we'll see, but the marriage of the character and the comics medium seemed to have gone stale permanently.
Part of the problem was success. More than one pop culture commentator has mentioned that we shouldn't underestimate the medium-wide effect Thomas' dissemination of Conan had on young creators. Here was a character who possessed only his own raw animal vitality to make his way in the world - no pristine super-powers, no invulnerability or heat vision (or web-spinning and wall-crawling). And making his way in the world was pretty much all he wanted to do: he looked on selfless heroics with a sneer. Thomas (and Buscema's pencils) captured this nature perfectly and then expanded on it, to the point where, as noted, it struck some of us fans that any other comic book adaptation of the character would be akin to blasphemy.
One of the later generation of comics creators who caught the Thomas-Buscema bug was current fan favorite writer Kurt Busiek, and in 2004 he teamed up with artist Cary Nord and delivered the impossible: a comic book re-invention of Conan that both respected the character (and its comics tradition) and revelled in a completely different interpretation.
Busiek's Conan, it should be admitted right away, is by far the truest interpretation of the character that's ever been done outside of Howard. Roy Thomas was a meticulous and adoring Howard fan - but he was first and foremost a superhero writer, and he could never fully shed those habits when he turned to the Hyborian side of his writing duties. Buscema too, for all his frequent grousing about spurning the superhero genre, most often couldn't help himself in his physical design of the character: his Conan, no matter how rough-hewn, wouldn't have looked out of place in spandex.
Cary Nord tore all that down and re-worked it from the basics. In the first few issues of Busiek's re-launch of the character for Dark Horse Comics, Nord's Conan is virtually an anti-superhero. He's a much younger Conan than any we've seen (even Smith's big-haired boy spent half his panel-time looking like Ted Nugent), and he's decidedly non-iconic: a slope-browed, jut-jawed troglodyte. Nord (at Busiek's urging, I'd guess) is utterly unafraid to make his Conan look by turns homicidal and oafish, and that's exactly how Busiek writes him. This is a Conan who gets just as drunk as Buscema's - but looks ridiculous when he does it, not noble. This is a Conan who punches bartenders, women, and children just as readily as Buscema's (or more so) - but in this case they're innocent, and he's just being, well, barbaric. Readers of these fantastic issues teeter between thrilling to the young Cimmerian's exploits and deploring his small-town boorish ways. It's great, great stuff - and great fun.
Busiek is clearly having a ball in these issues. His pace is more leisurely than Thomas could ever get away with, of course - Thomas didn't write in the Age of the Inevitable Trade Paperback, but that age has now engulfed the comics market; creators tailor virtually everything they do with an eye toward the trade paperback collection that will spring up a day or two after their latest story-arc is finished. I doubt I'll ever be a complete fan of this tailoring - I've found it often erodes a writer's willingness (or ability) to engage in long-term storytelling or continuity, tends to lock them into fairly purblind six-issue cycles. But even I have to admit it's served to increase the issue-by-issue quality across the entire superhero comics spectrum; writers who are now thinking about the books their issues will soon comprise tend, I think, to do sharper and bigger work than writers who are just plugging away issue by issue, with no square-bound immortality in sight. There are exceptions of course, and Busiek has written a couple of them - but it hardly matters in this case anyway, since his heart is so clearly in the project on an issue-by-issue basis.
He tackles some of the same epic stories Thomas famously did - "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is here, as is "The Tower of the Elephant" - but in completely different ways. This Conan's smile is quicker, his temper is shorter, and, thanks to the rather bloodthirsty house standards over at Dark Horse, his sword-work is far more gruesome (Nord excels himself at decapitations). There are still beautiful women, evil sorcerers, and disgusting nightmare-creatures, and the work that's gone into differentiating them from the sprawling comics tradition that came before them is evident on every page. This is a Conan for the 21st century - post-heroic, intensely human but still fundamentally noble.
The Busiek-Nord Dark Horse Conan trade paperbacks are must-haves for any Conan fan, and their run brings us to the end of our look at Conan in the funny books - although surely not the end of the subject! Conan will certainly continue to be interpreted and re-interpreted as long as comics survive in some form or other. But it's nice to close out the subject on such a high note.
Up next: the glut of non-canonical Conan novels as our Cimmerian Stravaganza continues to count down to the new movie!