Newly employed as Captain of the Royal Guard for the King of Shumballa, Conan finds himself in a state of ease. His only real duties are satisfying the lusts of the Princess Tanada and supressing the rebellion of the Gallah underclass, who think a witch hides among the Chaga nobility. Surprisingly, they are correct. For the sorcerer is in the employ of the treacherous lord Thuthmes, who desires the throne of Shumballa for himself! And as Thuthmes places a slave-girl named Diana as a spy within the King’s harem, Conan’s former employer – the witch-hunter Agara – searches the city for the dark sorcerer responsible for cursing his people.
Shadows Over Kush continues to underwhelm, as Eduardo Francisco takes over the art duties with this issue. Francisco is a definite improvement upon Brian Ching, having a good grasp of basic anatomy and a conception of how much detail is too much. Unfortunately, the limited palette utilized by colorist Michael Atiyeh muddies the action considerably and it is hard to differentiate the individual figures during the battle scenes. Thankfully, the book’s non-action scenes are unaffected and appear quite striking in comparison.
Conan the Avenger continues to suffer from a distinctive lack of focus on our titular hero. Fred Van Lente weaves an intricate tale but very little of it pertains to Conan himself. This is not to say that this book is short on story. There are a number of subplots, but not a one of them concerns Conan either directly or indirectly. In terms of influence on the plot, Conan has as much importance as The Herald in King Lear. He is completely uninvolved in the conflicts of his own book!
This might be tolerable under different circumstances. Many classic Robert E. Howard stories featured Conan as a bit player with little direct role to play in the story at hand. The God in the Bowl, for instance, was a locked-room murder mystery that just happened to be set in the world of Hyboria and Conan’s role was limited to that of a suspect, as another character played Sherlock Holmes.
The larger problem is that Van Lente’s take on Conan doesn’t sound like Conan. He tries to inspire his men by assuring them that “Crom smiles on bastards!” – a statement that flies in the face of everything Robert E. Howard ever wrote about the grim god of the Cimmerians, who was defined by his apathy. This Conan also speaks on honor as being “a lie civilized men use to trick themselves into thinking they are better than beasts.”
The only sign of the barbaric mercenary with the heart of a true king comes when Conan objects to framing an innocent woman for the crime of witchcraft. Even then, his objections are purely because the action would be ineffective against rebellion in the long-term – not because of any objection to seeing an innocent woman die unjustly to make life more convenient for Shumballa’s idle nobility!
In the end, Conan the Avenger is counterfeit Conan, unworthy of the legacy of sword-and-sorcery’s greatest hero. The artwork is greatly improved from when this series started, but the story – while involving – has turned Conan into a passive figure. And that is the last thing Conan should ever be!