As the current holder of the comics license for most Conan properties, Dark Horse Comics has done much to delve into this rich world of swords and sorcery where the heroic Conan fights against threats both magical and mundane, and sometimes both. Where tales of his heroism and his barbarity and his savagery and his vengeance are told far and wide. In addition to the various ongoings and mini-series that have been put out by DHC, their Dark Horse Books imprint has also published a fair few graphic novels and adaptations, a few of which I’ve read and been more and more interested in the source material with each.
When I read Brian Wood’s Conan the Barbarian #1-6 last year, I was really struck with the passion of the romance between Conan and his lover Bêlit. And it appears that their romance is one of the cornerstones of Conan’s legends and mythology, developed over the years first by Robert E. Howard and then by many of the writers who have followed him, be it in the novel medium or in comics. In The Phantoms of The Black Coast, Conan is haunted by her restless spirit, unable to pass blissfully into the afterlife and so Conan the King goes on an epic journey to the depths of the world itself to free her, for his love for her is undying and a strength and motivation for him as well.
Dark Horse’s most recent Conan comic, Conan the Avenger, delves into the days after Bêlit is dead and Conan is sort of a wreck of a man, but one determined to do her memory justice, to live his life the way she would have wanted him to, and perhaps even exact a measure of vengeance in her name, against any and all who have wronged her in life. It is one of my favourite new comics of 2014 so far and Fred Van Lente and Brian Ching have definitely been doing a great job on it so far. So, having read that, and Brian Wood’s first two arcs on Conan the Barbarian, going into The Phantoms of The Black Coast proved to be a bit of an eye-opener and also a tale that really increases the values of these other stories.
In The Phantoms of The Black Coast we see a King Conan who is a king and warrior without peer, able to bend and break entire armies against the strength of his will. But there is more to him than just that, for he is increasingly plagued by dreams and nightmares of Bêlit’s soul unable to move on, to find peace in death. And then appears a witch of supposedly great arts who claims to be able to help him, and so King Conan sets out on a journey of intense action and multifarious adventures to make sure that Bêlit’s passing is peaceful and without obstruction. Little does he know that there are great dangers awaiting him on this road.
Victor Gischler has recently become one of my favourite comics writers thanks to his work on Angel & Faith Season 10, another Dark Horse title. I’ve read some of his X-Men run from a few years ago and while the first arc was fairly good, the second wasn’t and I kind of lost interest. So when I saw that he had written a Conan adaptation as well (I believe this is an adaptation?), I was really intrigued to see how he’d be able to switch genres and characters like this and whether it would be good or not. Against all my expectations, The Phantoms of The Black Coast proved to be a fairly quick and easy read, and also one that is very enjoyable as far as the writing is concerned (more on the artwork later).
Victor Gischler’s characterisation of Conan always felt spot-on to me, whether we talk about Conan as a warrior or a leader or a manipulator even. Being a licensed comic as it is, that is most important of course and he certainly delivers on the promise. His Conan is a fierce warrior, a determined lover, a fearless leader. He is just as he has been portrayed in all the different myriad comics works I’ve read in the last couple years, and pretty much all of it from Dark Horse. Sure, each writer leaves his or her own mark, and Victor is no different in that regard, but I certainly loved his take on Conan.
There are lots of supporting characters in this story, and while none of them are explored in much depth, we do get to see some nice scenes with each of them that play to their strengths and weaknesses alike. The most underused were the two witch-sisters, who didn’t do all that much and were largely in the background, but they did have their place in the grand scheme of things, and with the way that their brief arc ties into that of the villain of the story, the reading proves to be fairly rewarding in the end.
Complimenting all of it is Victor’s pacing of the story. He breaks up the story in good-sized chunks and each chunk deals with a slightly different situation that forces Conan and the others to adapt to the changing circumstances. They are tested at each and every turn and I loved that facet of the story here. There is a lot going on here, honestly, and Victor keeps it all together right until the end. The story moves a bit too fast in the end, but the conclusion is still pretty damn good, and its nice to some of the more horror aspects of the story dealt with, finally.
The art in this graphic novel is by Attila Futaki, with colours by Jok Coglitore and J. Blanco, with the letters provided by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt. The art in this graphic novel is among the best I’ve seen of any Conan story to date. There’s a soft edginess to Attila’s pencils with a little bit of stylishness thrown in for good measure. For the kind of story that The Phantoms of The Black Coast is, Attila’s art works really well and the overall tone and mood is enhanced by the great, shaded colour-work from Jok and J. Blanco, who really make a lot of the details pop out and complete the effect. This is a “heavy” story, and the artwork certainly reflects that at every turn.
For my money’s worth, The Phantoms of The Black Coast is among the best Conan stories I’ve read and it even encourages me to go out and read more, so that’s a huge plus right there as well.