While most famous for creating Conan of Cimmeria, Robert E. Howard wrote a wide variety of fiction over his brief but memorable career. While his contributions to the sword and sorcery genre are the most frequently celebrated, Howard was no mean writer when it came to historical fiction, though he was not afraid to defy accuracy when it came to writing the strong, willful women he favored as protagonists.
Strangely enough, the most famous of these was Agnes de Chastillon (aka Dark Agnes) – a 16th century French woman forced into an arranged marriage by her father, which she escaped by murdering the groom and fleeing. She fell in with a mercenary who trained her in the art of swordplay and upon his death Agnes took up his sword as her own and sought a life of adventure alongside Etienne Villiers – a sell-sword who was every bit the scoundrel Flynn Rider wished he was.
Howard only wrote two complete stories featuring Dark Agnes, both published posthumously. Yet those two stories captured readers’ imaginations and inspired many to think about how Dark Agnes might been as popular as Conan had Howard had more time to work with her.
Dark Agnes #1 offers a glimpse at the sort of adventure we might have seen in another time and place. The script by Becky Cloonan perfectly captures the aesthetic and flavor of Howard’s original stories, but still offers a welcome entry point for those comic readers who have no idea who the character of Dark Agnes is and may only have just been introduced to her through the recent Conan: Serpent War mini-series. The story smoothly tells us all we need to know about Agnes and Etienne, in terms of both their backstories and their personalities, while hinting at complexities far deeper than “lovable rogue” and “hot-tempered spitfire.”
Sadly, the art by Luca Pizzari is not quite as finely honed. Pizarri handles the action sequences well enough and has a fine eye for detail. There are some panels where you can see the dents and knicks in a blade and Pizzari’s use of shadow in the inking is quite wonderful. I also enjoyed the nightmare sequence, in which Agnes remembers her wedding day, but with all of the other guests replaced by animals in human clothing. Yet there are a number of panels where the generally realistic art style suddenly changes and looks odd, particularly one panel in the penultimate page where Agnes looks more like The Joker with her wicked smile than the fine-featured lady we’d seen throughout the earlier pages. Despite this, the artwork is generally good, and the color palette selection and variation by Jay David Ramos is superb.
I don’t suspect this series will trigger a sudden demand for more Dark Agnes stories. More is the pity, for what we see here should encourage more stories like this and (dare I hope) an eventual crossover with Red Sonya or Red Sonja? Perhaps the world is not ready for such a story, even if I am. Regardless, fans of Robert E. Howard’s work and swashbuckling action in general would do well to give Dark Agnes #1 a try.