Conan the Barbarian: The Life and Death of Conan Book One – Jason Aaron, Mahmud Asrar, Gerardo Zaffino & Matthew Wilson (Marvel)

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Unlike most of my contemporaries, I didn’t discover Robert E. Howard’s famous freebooter and adventurer via the cinematic epic that introduced most of the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nor did I initially cross paths with the Cimmerian barbarian through the timeless tales of his creator, Two Gun Bob.  My continuing obsession with Conan began in a dusty, second hand bookshop near the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool as the nineteen eighties began to dawn.

Drawn to the book by its lurid, Boris Vallejo cover art, I soon found myself lost in a world and the deeds of a hero that, at the time, I thought had been created by L. Sprague de Camp. While it took another two years for me to unravel Conan’s true origins and find out who Robert E. Howard was and another three to witness Arnie breathe life into the mercenary who went on to rule an Empire, it was thanks to L. Sprague de Camp that I began my foray into the realms of Sword and Sorcery and met the black haired, sullen eyed slayer, Conan of Cimmeria.

And now Conan has returned to Marvel, and under the watchful gaze and guiding hand of Jason Aaron, his saga and the story of his conquests, battles, loves and losses, failures and successes can be told once more, and the latest scribe to chart his tale begins his most worthy task with The Life and Death of Conan. A fable of witches, elder gods and being stalked by prophecy, The Life and Death… focuses on the interludes and times when Conan, during his long and illustrious life, came closest to meeting his end, only for fate to intervene and ensure that he remained in the land of the living. From close encounters with Lovecraftian horrors on the high seas, to escaping a sacrificial blade and finding a way to alleviate the weight of a crown and the responsibility that it brings, each of Conan’s brushes with death, brings him closer to the fate that he can , seemingly, never escape.

Ending on the sort of cliff-hanger that the newsstand pulp magazines that brought Conan into the world would have sold a million copies off of the back of, The Life and Death of Conan continues where de Camp and Howard left off, and expands on the four colour legacy forged by Roy Thomas, Kurt Busiek and Timothy Truman. Aaron has already found his hero’s voice, and his narrative reads like a glorious fusion of the writers who came before him coupled with his own furiously imaginative creativity, which allows Conan to stride forth into hitherto unknown legends and mythology and with the astonishingly detailed, sumptuous art of Mahmud Asrar and Gerardo Zaffino giving life to Aaron’s words, Conan’s return to the House of Ideas is a staggering triumph. This is everything Conan should be – melancholic and brutal, filled with an aching loneliness and an unstoppable lust for life, all of which presents itself in nigh on impossible and incredible feats of bravado, courage and high adventure. Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis…  Tim Cundle

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