Conan of Cimmeria has found himself in the mysterious southern land of Kush after the loss of his beloved pirate queen, Belit. His career as a corsair likely finished, Conan turns to strong drink (as he usually does) to drown his misery. Meanwhile, in a nearby village, a guard captain’s wife lies dead after giving birth to a monstrous demon. Clearly the effect of a vile curse, the despondent guard captain enlists the assistance of the village witch hunter, Agara, to seek out the one responsible for this foul and murderous offense. Agara makes use of his own sorcerous skills to begin tracking his quarry, and as luck would have it, his divinations lead him to a nearby slavers camp and a fuming northern barbarian, clad only in underclothes, his body covered with strange markings. Conan, easily mugged in his drunken state and left for dead, angrily confronts Agara’s indictment. Just as the two begin to fight, they are beset by a pack of zombies and must quickly join forces or be overwhelmed by the undead creatures.
So begins Conan: Shadows Over Kush, a rollicking tale of adventure, betrayal, and corruption in the world of Conan the Barbarian. For those unfamiliar with the grim Cimmerian and the tales of his adventures, this book is the latest in an epic line of sword and sorcery spanning over eight decades of novelizations, short stories, comics, and film adaptations. Originally conceived by author Robert E. Howard in 1932, Conan of Cimmeria is a consummate and savage warrior. He is sullen, raven-haired, panther-like, and possesses fantastic strength and a propensity for felling his enemies like wheat before the scythe. His foes range from power-mad wizards and crooked bureaucrats to rival warriors and mercenaries hell-bent on his destruction. Conan is often portrayed as the pragmatic solution to the wickedness inherent in civilization and the men who would impose their wills on the natural order; the overarching plot of Shadows Over Kush is no exception to this common theme. Despite the pulpiness and often boilerplate subjects of Conan stories, these themes have become archetypal to the character over the years, in much the same way as, for example, Superman’s outsider status on Earth or Batman’s childhood trauma have been retread time and again.
Shadows Over Kush admirably retains what makes a Conan yarn great: Conan is set up, completely underestimated, and eventually secures his bloody vengeance, often in grand spectacle. Written by Fred Van Lente (Archer & Armstrong, Cowboys & Aliens), this book is extremely well-paced; the plot ebbing and flowing to a crimson climax in the last chapter. The art has been split between halves of the book, with Brian Ching (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) responsible for the first half and Eduardo Francisco (Adventures of Superman) responsible for the second. Both artists share a thin-lined aesthetic appropriate to the grit of the subject matter; however, Ching seems better suited to capture the square-jawed Conan. Where the art really shines is in the gorgeous colors, courtesy of Michael Atiyeh. Atiyeh has an eye for the subject; washes and pastels evoke a sense of nostalgia…faded, yet still retaining urgency, as if the reader is viewing the action through the lens of ages lost to the march of time.
Conan: Shadows Over Kush is a satisfying addition to the canon of the legendary barbarian. One of the great assets of the Conan oeuvre is that readers can jump in to the stories anywhere; while serialized, Conan’s adventures rarely follow any specific chain of events. Adult readers looking for classic sword and sorcery should look no further.
Conan Vol 17: Shadows Over Kush
by Fred Van Lente
Art by Brian Ching, Eduardo Francisco
Dark Horse, 2015