The Barachan Islands are a haven for scoundrels and outlaws. Few respectable merchants go there and those that do are usually robbed by the pirate brotherhoods. It is a harsh land, even by the rough standards of the Age of Hyboria, and it attracts the hard-living people of many lands. Even the women who ply the oldest profession here have more combat experience than the soldiers of the civilized realms.
It was for this reason that a mysterious man of grim demeanor came to a brothel in Tortage and paid the exorbitant price one madam demanded to take her whole stable. The women went without complain with the dark-haired giant, though they did wonder as to his purpose. He did not try to touch them nor allowed them to warm his tent at night, yet he did not have the look of a priest or cultist who needed women to offer to his dark gods. (And those gods tended to demand virgins in any case.)
What is Conan’s purpose in purchasing such attractive company? What gigantic melancholy urges him forward, seemingly caring naught for riches or the pleasures of the flesh? The answers lie in this tale, which is known as Barbarian Love.
When it was first announced that Marvel Comics had regained the license to Robert E. Howard’s Conan, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among fans of the sword-and-sorcery genre. There were fears that we would be given a politically correct Conan The Barbarian. Presumably one whom kept his ebony mane tied-back in a man-bun, for whom the best in life involved avocado toast, locally-owned microbrews and a long-term, committed relationship based upon mutual respect.
This kvetching ignores that Howard was a remarkably feminist writer for his time. While his stories were packed full of what we would now call fan-service, Howard’s personal letters show that he was less than pleased with working gratuitous sex into his stories and did so primarily to earn the cover-story (and more money), as Weird Tales‘ artist Margaret Hedda Johnson was fond of drawing scantily clad women in bondage. Howard was far happier writing strong heroines like Belit and Valeria than the endless horde of interchangeable damsels-in-distress that filled most of his Conan stories and the comics that followed.
I mention this fact for the grand irony of Barbarian Love and how, on the surface, this story seems poised to offend everyone. The Comicsgate crowd will complain about how Conan is partnered with a quintet of racially diverse women, who ultimately prove as capable of kicking ass as he is. Feminists, conversely, will complain about the shallow and stereotypical characterization of the women, most of whom are never directly identified by name. It doesn’t help matters that the most well-developed of them is an Asian woman named Shishi and all we know of her is that she’s an assassin from the Hyborian equivalent of Japan, complete with a body-spanning dragon tattoo. And everyone will be offended by the scene where two of the women prove their worth by out-hunting Conan… just before the rest of them showcase their skills as cooks.
The irony is I think most fans of Robert E. Howard’s writing and the classic Marvel Conan comics will enjoy this story. While I wish that this had been a multi-part story or that we might see more of “Conan’s Angels” in the future, Jason Aaron’s story works for what it is – a spirited one-shot that is more focused on the mystery of why Conan needs these women and what lies behind the title of Barbarian Love than it is developing the characters. And I will not spoil the meaning of that title beyond saying that classic Conan fans will be quite pleased with this tale.
The artwork by Mahmud Asrar will likely be as polarizing as Aaron’s story. While Asrar does a fine job of designing the characters and making Conan’s companions look inviting, he is not a pin-up artist and there’s nothing gratuitous about the artwork, even once they’ve changed into their more scanty “work clothes.” While this will doubtlessly disappoint those hoping for an ass-shot or side-boob on every other page, Asrar’s still draws attractive women, savage warriors and characters who prove to be both.
Those who prefer their Conan comics to be full of blood and cheesecake had best move on. While Aaron’s development of the female characters could be better, this is a solid tale in the classical romantic vein of Robert E. Howard himself. This is Conan done right, by Crom!