Conan continues to return, whether as a barbarian, an avenger or a destroyer to the pages and screens of the modern world. He’s been a thief, a king and a mercenary, a loner searching the world for the secret of steel and cold hard revenge and a bland sword-swinger with smouldering eyes. Plenty of modern interpretations seem to stop at the sword and the loin cloth and call it a Conan story.
So, what kind of Conan is Shadows Over Kush?
Hearteningly, Shadows Over Kush introduces Conan drowning his sorrows over a fierce lost love. He gets aggressive with a child pickpocket and belligerent with a wandering magician before passing the fuck out. He therefore misses the central plot point of a sorcerer plaguing the populace and the racial tension between the peasants and the rulers. This leads to some misunderstandings that will draw Conan into the machinations of the sorcerer and introduces the ghost of his lost love.
Conan, as originally conceived, was never really happy and something of a mercenary. His prestige and power did slowly grow over the course of the stories, but he spent plenty of time bouncing between various violent, sometimes tragic episodes. Even as a crowned king he’s described as unsettled, even if he is a perfectly capable ruler, and that shows through here. He’s mostly out for himself, occasionally to the detriment of others, and he’s slow to accept the loyalty of others. Conan is capable and intelligent, but still uncivilized. He’s fierce, but essentially melancholy. Fred Van Lente does a mostly good job of casting Conan as an accidental hero with little past and a strange future.
Conan’s god, Crom, is also rendered with the proper amount of disregard for humanity and its prayers and concerns. Crom gave you everything you need to take what you want from life and he is not interested in your crying about how hard things are. The influence of an uncaring god who expects you to make what you can of life with a sword in your fist is an integral part of Conan’s worldview, and he’s deployed very smartly here.
So, uh… what about the pig monster?
There is a pig monster, and it is utterly horrific in its birth and existence. As big, bad physical challenges go it’s a damn good fit for Conan and rendered with a beautiful imprecision by Brian Ching. It’s shifting shapes and dimensions convey the horror of an utterly unnatural abomination.
So the art is pretty good?
You might recognize the art style of Brian Ching from the Star Wars comics. He combines sketchy line work with a selective eye for detail that really works for me when dealing with mythical material. He reflects the imperfections of myths and histories in his artwork and makes it feel like you’re being told a tale by a wizened historian around a fire. You might half-disbelieve the tale, but you half-wish it were true. It worked for me in Knights of the Old Republic an it works for me in Conan.
If I have any complaints it’s that he has a bizarre, perhaps censorship motivated, aversion to drawing nipples. And there’s plenty of bare breasts being thrown around to make the omission obvious and not a trick of perspective. Most likely it won’t bother the average reader, but it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’m viewing a censored film reel or a world of Barbie dolls on occasion. I take the same view of nudity as I do cursing. Either do it or don’t do it. Don’t try to soften it. I find it distracting, but I acknowledge that many people won’t feel the same.
Sounds great! Any downsides?
The universe around Conan rests so firmly on established tropes that it’s difficult to care about. The palace intrigue is banal and sketched out. The racial divide is completely without nuance. Most scenes that don’t directly involve Conan are boring and you won’t feel like you missed much if you skip over them entirely. There’s an entire city of tombs or something that gets used as a throwaway set piece despite there being a character present who could give it a serious back story.
As much as I mostly like the Conan characterization, it feels like he’s moving through a world of cardboard. That’s not to say that the feeling isn’t true to his pulp origins, but it also doesn’t turn that particular weakness of the pulps into a strength. The glimpses of his previous life as a pirate seem much more enticing than anything that happens in this story, and that’s a bit of a bummer.
So, would you recommend it?
Yup, I absolutely would. It’s an above average entry in the massive Conan mythology, and the art is a perfect match for the tone of the story, minus the nipple thing. The world around Conan isn’t rendered with as much detail as I’d ideally prefer, but it’s far from a deal breaker. If you need some surly barbarian in your comics library this one is worth picking up.