Warning: SPOILERS for Conan the Barbarian #4
The latest issue of Conan the Barbarian has seen Marvel Comics turn Robert E. Howard's classic character into a Batman-style vigilante. While Conan doesn't go so far as to don a cape and cowl, he does still wear a mask and sneak out in secret under the cover of night from his palace in Aquilonia. He also does not recruit a boy wonder, but is joined by a companion - his savage pet lion - to form one dynamic duo!
When Marvel Comics recently reacquired the license to Conan the Barbarian, many fans of the classic fantasy hero feared that his stories would be sanitized by the Disney-owned publisher or that Conan would be written more as a superhero than the savage and frequently amoral character from the original pulps. While Conan is a heroic figure with a strong code of honor, his brutal manner is far closer in spirit to the harsh justice preferred by Wolverine and The Punisher than most of Marvel Comics' more idealistic characters.
Set in the early days of Conan's reign as King of Aquilonia, Conan The Barbarian #4 sees Conan beset by a sickness of the spirit. Since vanquishing the tyrant Namedides, Conan's days are now filled with the drudgery of statecraft rather than the high adventure that fueled his wild soul. This leaves the barbarian sick abed, weak in body and soul. His one comfort in this time of illness is his pet lion - a gift from another king, whom Conan had intended to fight but spared when the animal refused to attack him. Conan realized the lion saw him as a kindred spirit - one more beast caged by civilization.
Conan is finally inspired to action by a report from one of his councilors of a raid against a gang of Argossean kidnappers. Instructing his lion to guard the door against intrusion while he sleeps as usual, Conan straps on his old armor and weapons and sneaks out of the palace, intending to deal with the kidnappers personally before his elite soldiers in the Black Dragons get there. Realizing the need for discretion, for age has taught the barbarian some sense of subtlety, he also dons a hangman's hood with a skeletal motif as a bandanna to hide his lower face.
The nights that follow are filled with strange reports of a skull-faced giant laying waste to the secret evils of Aquilonia, who somehow vanishes before the city watch or palace guard can catch him. In time, this giant is joined by some beast from the abyss, who joins its master in striking down cultists and others of the lowest character. At the same time, the king's strange sickness seems to change, manifesting now as physical wounds and lethargy as if he had not slept at all the night before.
While some fans of Conan the Barbarian may grouse at Conan playing hero in the same manner as Batman, this is all oddly in keeping to the spirit of Howard's original stories. The first line of dialogue Conan speaks in his first appearance in The Phoenix on the Sword involves his complaining to his chief general of his feeling drained and sickened by the toils of kingship - "Prospero, these matters of statecraft weary me as all the fighting I have done never did." Nor is the idea of Conan befriending a lion so ludicrous, as Howard frequently drew upon classic myths and legends, such as the tales of Androcles and the Lion, in crafting his own stories.
In this respect Marvel Comics is continuing the finest traditions of Howard's writing, though it does beggar belief that no one makes a connection between an avenging skull-faced warrior and a demonic beast and the Cimmerian giant that rules Aquilonia and his pet lion.
Conan The Barbarian #4 is now available from Marvel Comics.