Conan: The Hour of the Dragon

Though he had a varied career as a writer of short fiction, Texan author Robert E. Howard only wrote a single novel. Unsurprisingly, it centered upon his most popular character, Conan of Cimmeria. The finished novel, which Howard titled The Hour of the Dragon, was commissioned at the request of a British publisher, who subsequently rejected it. Howard then sent it on to his editor at Weird Tales magazine, who published it in a serialized format. It would later be reprinted as a novel throughout the 1950s and 1960s as Conan The Conqueror.

The story of how The Hour of the Dragon was adapted into a comic book is nearly as wild and varied. Writer and editor Roy Thomas, who had introduced Conan into the world of comics, had a bold plan to adapt Howard’s novel as a means of kicking-off a new quarterly Giant-Size Conan series, with the legendary Gil Kane illustrating the story. While Conan the Barbarian was popular, the Giant-Size line as a whole sold poorly, and Giant-Size Conan was canceled after only four issues of original material could be published. Thomas eventually saw the rest of the The Hour of the Dragon published, with illustrations by the equally legendary John Buscema, in two separate issues of the black-and-white magazine Savage Sword of Conan.

Conan: The Hour of the Dragon collects the whole of Thomas, Kane and Buscema’s adaptation of Howard’s magnum opus for the first time in a single volume, with all-color artwork, commentary by Thomas, script pages for Giant Size Conan #3 and a history of the fictional Acheron empire (which lies at the center of the story) by Robert L. Yaple. This volume also collects two original comics by Thomas and Buscema (published as Conan the Barbarian Annual #4 & #5, respectively) which detail the aftermath of The Hour of the Dragon.

The story itself is pure pulp magic. Conan, now a king by his own hand, is stricken by a sorcerous malady as he rides out to meet the armies that threaten to invade Aquilonia. Captured and condemned to a die in a dungeon while his people think him dead, Conan is rescued by Zenobia, a slavegirl who fell for him years earlier when he was a simple mercenary captain. Armed with a knife provided by Zenobia, Conan begins a quest to slay the sorcerers and usurping nobles responsible for his fall; one that will take him to the monster-haunted tombs of Stygia and see him once more sail with the Black Corsairs as Amra the Lion.

Conan: The Hour of the Dragon is an epic display of four masters at work. Howard’s prose is largely untouched by Thomas, who made only a few minor changes (noted in his introduction to this volume) to make the story more visually interesting. While Kane is better known for his superhero work, he proves no mean illustrator of sword-and-sorcery and Buscema is widely regarded as the finest artist to ever tackle Conan for Marvel Comics. This volume would make a fine addition to any library for that reason alone, if The Hour of the Dragon weren’t such a ripping yarn on its own terms.

Conan: The Hour of the Dragon is rated for audiences 17 and up, though I’m not certain why. There’s nothing objectionable to teen audiences beyond some blood-spattering violence, spooky stuff involving reanimated corpses and some scanty costuming but no outright nudity. A larger concern may be that the story is a product of its time and there’s some uncomfortable racial overtones with Conan being referred to as a white dog by his black jailers and Conan leading a slave revolt on a galley manned by black rowers. While it is Conan’s reputation as a fearsome pirate captain and being recognized by some of the rowers (who used to be part of his crew) that leads to the revolt, it still reeks somewhat of a white savior complex.

Conan: The Hour of the Dragon
By Roy Thomas
Art by Gil Kane and John Buscema
ISBN: 9781302923297
Marvel Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Parental Advisory (17+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

Conan: The Jewels of Gwahlur and Other Stories

Conan: The Jewels Of Gwahlur And Other Stories collects a number of graphic novels and one-shot comics originally published by Dark Horse Comics, now reprinted by Marvel Comics. One of these stories, the title tale, is based on a short story by Conan the Barbarian’s creator, Robert E. Howard. The rest are all original tales of high adventure, born of the same heroic spirit.

“The Jewels of Gwahlur” finds Conan in the jungles of Keshan, seeking an abandoned temple and the oracle goddess that is said to wait within. Conan came to Keshan seeking honest employment as a general while searching for the legendary Jewels of Gwahlur, only to find an old enemy manipulating the king and seeking to start a war while securing the sacred treasure for himself. Deciding the only way to thwart his foe and save his skin was to steal the jewels first, Conan seeks out the temple before the king’s spiritual advisor can consult the oracle, only to discover another plot involving an enslaved actress posing as the oracle and the bestial servants of Bit-Yakin, the priest who once tended the temple.

Craig Russell stays close to Howard’s original text for “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” (his original title for what became known as “The Jewels Of Gwahlur”) and utilizes much of the dialogue from the original story. This seems to be a wise choice as Howard, formulaic as he may have been at times, had a good ear for language and made everything his characters said sound interesting. The artwork is where this adaptation truly flourishes, however, with Russell’s aesthetic proving a good match for Howard’s prose. While Russell’s artwork is stylized to the point of cartoonish-ness, it still possesses a certain sense of darkness that suits the story well.

“The Daughters of Midora” sees Conan recruited by the titular king to rescue his beloved daughter Hannah from the young wizard he passed over for promotion to his chief advisor. Conan is accompanied in this quest by Valensa; King Midora’s other daughter, who favors the sword to statecraft and was largely ignored by her father, who doted on Hannah as he planned for her to inherit his throne.

Jimmy Palmiotti spins a rousing tale with several twists and turns. Unfortunately, the artwork by Mark Texeira is sloppy by comparison and more concerned with fan service than action. This isn’t helped by Texeira’s decision to dress Valensa in a skimpy belly-baring halter and skirt combo that are as brief as the garments worn by the dancing girls Conan ogles in the opening scene, despite being a princess of the realm and a warrior!

The final story, “The Weight of the Crown,” finds Conan as a soldier of fortune serving under the so-called Mad King of Gaul. When the king dies and his subjects are wowed by Conan’s skill of arms in defending the kingdom, they decide to offer him the crown instead of the rightful heir. Conan gladly accepts the title and the riches and power that come with it, but soon discovers that being a great warrior does not give one the skills needed to be a great king. Darick Robertson (best known for his work as the artist on Transmetropolitan and The Boys) has a fantastic turn here as writer and artist. While the story is simple, it is exciting, and Robertson portrays it with all the grisly detail one would expect from his work elsewhere.

Conan: The Jewels Of Gwahlur And Other Stories carries a well-deserved Parental Advisory rating from Marvel Comics, rating it for Adult Audiences. These stories are full of bloody violence, rampant sexuality and ample nudity. Doubtlessly this will please fans of the sword and sorcery genre but it must be said this book is not safe for children or sensitive souls.

Conan: The Jewels of Gwahlur and Other Stories
By Jimmy Palmiotti, Darick Robertson and Craig Russell,
Art by Darick Robertson, Craig Russell and Mark Texeira
ISBN: 9781302918125
Marvel Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Parental Advisory (17+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)