When I first got into fantasy literature as a teen, my mother financed a shopping spree at the local bookstore as a reward for my good grades. I remember the day quite well, yet I can only remember one of the books I got that day. I suspect this is because it was the one book my mother raised an eyebrow at and I had to do some fast-talking to convince her that the book with the half-naked barbarian and equally nude amazon next to him were as harmless as the He-Man toys I had so recently sold at a garage sale.
This was my first exposure to Conan the Barbarian – not through the legendary comics by John Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith, nor the Schwarzenegger film, but through the pastiche novels of Steve Perry and John Maddox Roberts. It would be several years before I’d become a regular comics reader and learn of the full rich history of Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. It would also, coincidentally, be at my first comic book convention that I would be lucky enough to meet Kurt Busiek, shortly after the announcement that he would be bringing Cimmeria’s favorite son back to comics.
Busiek’s series would prove to be a perfect marriage of Howard’s dark vision and the high-action illustrated fiction penned by Roy Thomas. This is not to say the comics by Roy Thomas were light and cheerful affairs, but even in the days of the revised Comics Code Authority, there was only so much one could get away with. Busiek’s Conan was a graphic novel for adults – one which presented an unflinching view of Howard’s Hyboria in all its visceral glory.
This first volume, Born On The Battlefield, details Conan of Cimmeria’s formative years. We lay witness to the titular birth, seeing something of the inner strength the Cimmerian people are famed for, as Conan’s mother moves to protect her husband in the middle of a warzone while coping with labor pains. Conan’s birth is held as a prodigious omen by the rest of their tribe – a fact that sets Conan apart from the other children, for good and for ill, as he grows to become a respected hunter at a young age, as well as a target of the village tanner’s bullying son. We see Conan grow to manhood, fighting in his first war and – inspired by his grandfather’s stories of adventure – taking his first steps into the wide world.
Greg Ruth illustrates the tales with all the grit and flash worthy of the legacy of Conan artists who came before him. Detail-oriented without feeling dirty, I was certain Ruth’s work was the result of some intricate painting. No, it is ink on paper, colored over with a palette that is heavy with greys and browns. This leaves the art with a subtle melancholy aura – fitting considering how Robert E. Howard described the land of Cimmeria as a land of darkness and deep night.
Dark Horse has rated this volume 16+. I think that’s a fair rating given the content. There is a copious amount of violence and bloodshed, as you would expect with any Conan story worthy of the name. There’s also a fair bit of partial nudity (bared buttocks) and sexual situations as we see a young Conan learning his first lessons in young love, but nothing pornographic or explicit.