With Conan Vol.1: The Frost Giant’s Daughter and Other Stories, Dark Horse embarked on a bold strategy where the classic Conan stories were shaped anew, with writer Kurt Busiek putting together a continuous narrative that charted the rise of Conan from a simple Cimmerian warrior to the King of Aquilonia. With the addition of fantastic artists like Cary Nord and Dave Stewart, the series began well with the first volume, establishing a clear frame of reference for the characters and his adventures in a way that would always leave you wanting more.
In Conan Vol.2: The God In The Bowl and Other Stories we see more of the same as Conan now sets out for the Nemedian city-state to learn more of the world, to hone his skills as a thief and see more of what the world at large could offer someone like him. Kurt’s writing is very much on point in this volume, as it was in the previous one, and now that the Cimmerian is in more familiar circumstances, the story becomes all the more enjoyable. And along the way, artists Tom Mandrake, Cary Nord, Thomas Yeates and Dave Stewart add a particular vividness to the visual aspect, enhancing the story in every way possible.
This time the story begins in Nemedia where Conan has now lived for several days and has already established himself as an able thief, though he is not quite infamous as yet and is still very much a novice. After all, there is much more to thieving than the simple act itself. There is much more going on and I have to say that unlike the previous volume, in The God In The Bowl and Other Stories we see some real growth in Conan as a character, which was rather pleasing. We already know that he is not just a simple northern barbarian and this collection proves that.
The first half of the story deals with the metaphysical dangers of the lands of Hyborea, where old magic and old gods still hold sway. It is a straightforward enough tale, involving daring thefts, city watch, magistrates, murder investigations and more. Irresistible stuff, truly. Conan as not just an accomplished swordsman and brawler, but also a cunning warrior and thief, which is always a dangerous combination in the best of times. And that’s the true attraction of a character like Conan because he is all of this and though he can be incredibly arrogant at times, it all just fits him whereas with anyone else you’d be crying foul.
The murder investigation aspect, which rather slows down the action considerably, is perhaps the best sequence in the first half. It felt at times that Conan was being written as being too stubborn, but thankfully Kurt avoids any pitfalls and keeps the story going. And by the end, you really feel the dread and tension that the writer is going for. So much happens, and yet not a whole lot because it is all a stepping stone for Conan on the next part of his journey.
Throughout all of this, we also get to meet a couple new characters who might prove to be significant down the road, Janissa the Widowmaker and the witch known as the Bone Woman. Working together, these two are set to create some big challenges for Conan and the story of how it all unfolds is rather interesting. Perhaps it adds too much to an already packed story, but I was definitely riveted because in Janissa the writer provides a good foil for Conan himself, in all respects, and that sort of a style is something I definitely like. If characters aren’t challenged, they’re not growing.
The second half of the collection was the best, by far, if for no other reason that it finally debuted the dreaded Thoth-Amon, one of Conan’s greatest and perpetual enemies. He’s always been a fascinating villain, and Kurt doesn’t waste any time where he’s concerned. We get the full force of his personality, his machinations and his intellect in this part of The God In The Bowl. There are few other villains in Conan’s adventures who can compare and Thoth-Amon is certainly at the top of the pecking order.
The interplay between good vs evil, magic vs nature, religion vs practicality is also in full force in these stories. Kurt shows off Conan at his best, a lone man struggling against a great potential destiny, which is where Janissa and the Bone Woman come in, but undoubtedly the focus is always on how Conan’s first encounter with Thoth-Amon shapes him as a character, and the friends and enemies he makes along the way, for such will have a lasting impression on him, especially as we move to the sequel collections.
Needless to say, I enjoyed how Thoth-Amon was written, as well as the priest Kalanthes of Ibis who acts as Conan’s guide throughout the story. These two show off the best and worst that Conan can be, as well as in how he interacts with Janissa, who is yet another reflection of him as a character.
Where the art is concerned, I certainly have no complaints at all. Plenty of moody scenes, busy scenes, and some great ones where Conan fights against mighty serpents or engages in deadly swordplay. Plenty of variety all over, start to finish, with the entire team deserving every bit of praise for how the final product turns out. And the important thing is that the effect is more pronounced when the stories are read back to back rather than as single issues. As with the story continuity, so it is with the visual continuity, which is very important. The line artists do a good job of laying out the scenes while Dave fills in with his fantastic color palettes. And yeah, sometimes the scene descriptions can be a little tough to read, but that is a rather minor thing.
A good story, especially a collection like this, is always driven by the writer, but the artists also are a rather integral part of the process and the final product. They shape how the words are brought to life, and they both add and define your imagination, creating a sort of creative chain in that respect. The lush artwork herein is a great example of this. And based on the artwork alone I’d recommend this book.
So all in all, a better accounting of Conan’s continued adventures as he travels from one end of Hyborea to another, from one city-state to another, with different companions. Great job by everyone involved.