The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 67 | “Conan Vol. 11: Road of Kings” hardcover reviewed

Leaving Proof 67 | “Conan Vol. 11: Road of Kings” hardcover reviewed
Published on Monday, January 30, 2012 by
Conan Vol. 11: Road of Kings (Hardcover Edition)
  • (Dark Horse Books, 2012; 152 pages, collects Conan: Road of Kings #1–6 originally published in single magazine form)
  • Written by: Roy Thomas
  • Penciled by: Mike Hawthorne
  • Inked by: John Lucas with Jason Gorder
  • Coloured by: Dave Stewart and Dan Jackson
  • Lettered by: Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
  • Cover and Break-up Artist: Doug Wheatley
  • List Price: $24.99 (US)/$27.50 (CDN)

From the Back Cover: It’s a pirate’s life for Conan, commanding a ship of mongrel sailors and pillaging across the Vilayet Sea. But his swashbuckling days are cut short when his companion Olivia receives a vision of her royal father, who sold her into slavery, wishing for her return. Conan and Olivia set out on the fabled Road of Kings, but the journey is a treacherous one, filled with monsters, angry victims of Conan’s light fingers, and other thieving highwaymen. While Conan becomes caught up in palace intrigue along the way, a slaver kidnaps Olivia, determined to collect a ransom from her father!

Read This Before Proceeding Further: I’ve written an overview of Dark Horse’s current Conan series, and if you’re unfamiliar with what the company is doing with Robert E. Howard’s signature character and his stories now, I suggest giving that brief piece a quick once-over, as it will help put into context my opinions about the most recent collected edition.

All done? Good.

Road of Kings represents the current Dark Horse series’ first major deviation from the Dale Rippke chronology of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories and story fragments (although they’d already deviated from Rippke’s chronology by flipping the order of “Black Colossus” and “Iron Shadows in the Moon“). There has always been a significant gap in chronology between the original Howard stories “Iron Shadows in the Moon” (a.k.a. “Shadows in the Moonlight”) and “Queen of the Black Coast.” The former tale (published April 1934) ends with Conan absconding from Turan (what would be modern-day Turkmenistan and northern Iran) with a princess-sold-into-slavery named Olivia while the latter story (published May 1934) finds the now-lone Cimmerian beginning a career as a pirate in Argos (the Hyborian Age analogue for the Mediterranean coast along what is now Greece and Southern Italy), obviously many months—perhaps even years—removed from the events of “Iron Shadows in the Moon.”

As I’d mentioned in my series overview, Howard frequently wrote his Conan stories in non-sequential order, skipping months and years back and forth through time to present major events in the barbarian’s life, leaving some sizable gaps in the continuity of the character’s overarching biographical narrative that he meant to fill in later. Howard’s death by suicide in 1936 obviously precluded that from happening, and there have been many attempts over the years by other writers to “fill in the gaps” between Howard’s original stories.

An original novel by Karl Edward Wagner published by Bantam Books in 1979, entitled The Road of Kings, was one such attempt to account for the events between the barbarian’s activities as a mercenary army commander in Turan and his later adventures buccaneering off the Kush and Argos coasts. The title of Wagner’s novel and the Dark Horse comics were drawn from the name of the trade route that, according to Howard’s map of the Hyborian Age world, Conan must have taken to get from Turan to Argos (while I haven’t read Wagner’s book, it seems clear from the credits that the Dark Horse comics have no authorial relationship to the 1979 novel and the similarity in their titles is due to their respective authors’ attempts to reference Hyborian Age geography).

What Worked: Road of Kings marks Roy Thomas’ return to the character he is probably most associated with and his work here is reminiscent of the better stories from his run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comics throughout the 1970s and the 1990s. Thomas has practically perfected the hybridization of snappy comic book patter and Howard’s style of purple prose over four decades of writing Conan and Conan-related comics and comic strips.

I’m a bit of a Mike Hawthorne fan, but I will freely concede that his particular art style might not be to the liking of readers conditioned to the more Buscema-like stylings of previous Dark Horse Conan artist Tomás Giorello or the more painterly approach of Giorello’s predecessor Cary Nord. Regardless of where you stand on his figure rendering though, the craft behind Hawthorne’s storytelling is unimpeachable.

What Didn’t: For a collected edition hardcover in the series that will cost over $30 (CDN) when you figure in the tax, Road of Kings feels somewhat overpriced. Previous collected editions in Dark Horse’s Conan line featured extensive concept art galleries, essays from Conan experts and Robert E. Howard scholars, and in-depth “behind-the-scenes” looks at the craft of writing the series. For “bonus content,” this volume includes an afterword from Roy Thomas that sheds light on just how Marvel was able to acquire the comics license for Conan back in 1970, and as entertaining and informative as that is, it feels a little spare considering what we’ve gotten before for the price of entry.

The Verdict: Howard purists might balk at reading a “non-canon” Conan tale but all other sword-and-sorcery comics fans (and especially fans of the old Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics penned by Roy Thomas) will likely find Road of Kings fairly entertaining reading, especially with Mike Hawthorne’s solid storytelling chops rounding out the package. I was able to get the book from my local comics shop (The Comics Scene, with locations in North Vancouver and Surrey) at 10% off the US cover price but savvy shoppers who don’t have discounted purchase options readily available might want to spring for the significantly cheaper softcover trade paperback (listed at $19.99 US on Dark Horse’s site), given the collection’s lack of bonus features.

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