CONAN AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE #1/ Written by FRED VAN LENTE/ Art by ARIEL OLIVETTI/ Published by DARK HORSE COMICS
Bunda Chand, King of all Vendhya, lies dead. His life was taken by his sister, the Devi Yasmina by his own request – the only thing that saved his soul from being stolen away by the sinister Black Seers of Yimsha! For the Black Seers have plans for Vendhya and work with agents of the King of Turan to their mutual benefit and Vendhya’s downfall.
In order to fight the dreaded sorcerers that make up The Black Circle and save her homeland, Yasmina must find one who is fearless in the face of sorcery and is as cunning as he is strong. Alas, the only suitable candidate is an outlander and an enemy! A vicious warrior who leads the Afghuli bandits that harass her nation’s borders. A barbarian named Conan.
The People of the Black Circle is an a bold choice for Dark Horse Comics to retell in comic book form. Most comic readers are used to seeing Cimmeria’s favorite son portrayed in a semi-heroic light, despite Conan being an anti-hero in most of his adventures. It may be jarring for those readers more used to the opportunistic but essentially honorable young man seen in the works of Brian Wood to pick this book up and see an older, more cynical Conan.
As this story opens Conan is firmly on the side of the devils. He is employed as a bandit chieftain and plotting to ransom the lives of men we are informed “make a profession of murder and rapine”. This is a far cry from the crude chivalry we’ve seen from Conan in other stories, even those written by Robert E. Howard himself!
Speaking of Robert E. Howard and his original works, it might be fairer for Fred Van Lente to be credited as The Adaptor of this book rather than The Writer. The original dialogue by Robert E. Howard is largely intact. Only a few portions of the text have been changed, with previously silent thoughts being changed to spoken dialogue.
This decision to leave the original dialogue intact is a mixed blessing. Howard did write some truly eloquent prose but also tended toward verbosity when he was being paid by the word. This leads to many moments of clunky exposition, where characters repeat information the other person already knows (“As your majesty knows, the Turanians have established themselves in Secunderam and other northern cities…”) or introduce themselves to people they already know (“I, whom the Kshatriyas know as Kerim Shah, a prince from Iranistan…”)
That being said, things do pick up a bit once the setting is established and our players are made clear. The original story was also slow in starting but maintained a fast pace for the rest of its chapters. The highlight of the action is a daring chase as Conan flees a remote outpost with a hostage.
This moment – and the rest of the book is wonderfully depicted by artist Ariel Olivetti. Every single panel of this book was painted and the final effect is striking. The only real flaw to the artwork is some issues with proportions and the visuals not quite jibing with the text. For instance, the dagger Yasmina uses to kill her brother looks more like a short sword. Even allowing for her own petiteness, the dagger still requires both hands for her to wield.
Still, fans of sword-and-sorcery in general and Conan The Barbarian in specific will find much to admire in this first chapter of Conan And The People of the Black Circle. The story is good though the dialogue may be a bit melodramatic. The artwork is well-painted and the action of the story is boldly depicted.