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Chronicles of King Conan Volume 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories Paperback – September 7, 2010
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For me, "King Conan" is a mixed bag. On the positive side, John Buscema's pencils were always a favorite, and they come through here in crisp detail, especially in the first two issues when he is ably assisted by inker Ernie Chan. More problematic, but decently handled by writer Roy Thomas, is the challenge of presenting our lone-wolf outlaw protagonist as an older family man with a sense of civic duty. The outright problem here are the stories; a series of variations on the theme of Conan rescuing a family member from a wizard's machinations. It's fun for a while but gets a bit tired.
The main event in Volume 1 are the first four issues, pitting Conan against the powerful and fiendish Thoth Amon. First encountered in the Howard story "The Phoenix On The Sword," Thoth Amon was never used by Howard as a direct antagonist of Conan's, but became one after L. Sprague de Camp took over writing Conan stories. Thomas carried this into the comics. Here, in an adaptation of a story de Camp wrote with Lin Carter, Thoth Amon nurses a grudge against Conan for shattering his plot to rule the world, and so unites with a number of other evil magic-users, including a Hyperborian witch who kidnaps Conan's beloved son, Conn.
Those sounds you may be hearing are the howls of Howard purists offended by the morphing of Classic Conan into Prince Valiant in a wife-beater. Yet there was always the threat of Conan's being domesticated; Howard wrote him first as a middle-aged king who ruled with fairness and restraint, and then backtracked to describe him in other stories as a younger adventurer of a less noble mind. King Conan may be mellower, but as Thomas reminds us, he is still endowed "with sinews that, if they are not quite as powerful as once they were, are still the equal of any two men he is ever like to meet." Conn, who figures heavily in the first four-issue arc, has his father's zest for adventure if not his hard nature; he smiles a lot and is prone to hugging his father in moments of fear. It's unusual territory for Conan, but not outrageously so.
The good thing about the first four stories is they form a natural four-parter, with mini-endings where Conan meets up with one or more of Thoth Amon's allies en route to his big showdown with the horned one. These confrontations are too easily resolved, especially the last, but work pretty well in tandem to give the narrative forward thrust. The inking on the last two by Danny Bulanadi lacks Chan's sense of detail, but there are some nice perspectives and clever use of splash pages to keep up the illustrated end of things well enough. And the dialogue is solid, with Conan's statecraft and good-humored dealings with subordinates getting much attention.
The last of the five issues is not a self-contained story but the opener for another run of linked stories, this based on the novel "Conan The Avenger" by Bjorn Nyberg and de Camp. Unlike the first four issues, you don't get a contained story but just Conan starting off on another rescue, this time of his queen Zenobia. I can't really say much about it except it doesn't really belong in this book; obviously it only works here as a publisher's enticement to buy Vol. 2.
It's not the best set of Conan stories, even in comics form; Thomas and Buscema were capable of much better work. One wishes they did more with Conan than follow de Camp's underinspired lead, yet the stories do work in their undemanding way and there are some worthwhile verbal and visual moments to savor.