The exception to that rule was the Annual title, since the very nature of an annual is to be a longer, single-issue story. The tale in Conan the Barbarian Annual #11, titled Bride of the Oculist, uses Conan mostly as an observer manipulated by the machinations of a nefarious Oculist, or eye doctor/scientist, though whichever title you choose, be sure to put mad in front of it, because this particular Oculist is just that. Conan, and his wanton desire for gold, finds himself caught up in a search to locate the Oculist’s unfaithful wife in exchange for a share of said gold, and the results are intriguing, to say the least. This tale was reminiscent of the kind you would find in the E.C. horror comics of old, and it was just as entertaining, with a moralistic lesson, or maybe consequence is a better word, as you would find in those comics.
All of the issues in this collection were written by James Owsley, with art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan (though Chan did the art solo on the Annual). Owsley’s storytelling has a strong literary narration that runs throughout, as would be found in many comics of the 1980s. (The issues in this collection are all from 1986.) Sometimes, the narration does more telling than showing, but at other times it provides the story and characters with a solid tone that adds to the experience, and it is always used to amplify the stakes. The narration oozes atmosphere and helps build and set a scene, often in more words than we need. It makes one wonder if back when these comics were first published, were readers less creative, or did writers just have free reign to build worlds through eloquent words alongside great, detailed art? No matter the answer, these stories act as a time capsule of comics of another era, and are entertaining in the ways they differ from today’s comics, and also enjoyable because they still tell strong, captivating stories.
On the standalone Issue #186, the creative team of writer Don Kraar and artists Mike Docherty and Dave Simons strike a strong contrast compared to the other issues. For one, this is a sea tale, so there is a plethora of open water and sky, as opposed to castle chambers and imposing shadows, and the dialogue has a more streamlined feel to it – it reads more like the comics we are currently used to reading, opting to largely leave out the verbose narration found in Owsley’s stories, and so the story moves at a quicker pace, but also seems a bit leaner. Most interesting, is that even though this is a non-linear issue stuck in the middle of an ongoing tale (and it was originally published in that order, too), it still feels like this story is part of a larger story, and it quite possibly is. Perhaps Kraar and his team had their own ongoing Conan adventures that at times were peppered throughout these other stories, and maybe at other times were collected together. Either way, it just goes to show that any tale of Conan is going to be larger than life, and have more action, adventure, and fearlessness than can be easily contained in a single issue.
Now to whet your appetite for the main story arc, containing the titular issue, Blood Dawn. Conan is in a hostile land, warlord to a foreign king, a king it turns out who is not too fond of Conan, and who later will go mad with grief and anger. Over the course of this volume, Conan faces an army of savages with a small band of pseudo-soldiers, only to face an even larger threat in the return of Imhotep the Ravager, a dark force that Conan has battled before. But, that is not the greatest threat that comes against Conan and his allies, as Conan travels through the time stream of eternity with an ancient evil in the form of a past companion, fights to protect a child-king from a murderous sect of master assassins, and goes on a mad hunt for a mysterious network of traitors who answer to a higher, powerful evil known as the Council of the Seven. By the end of this volume, some mysteries have been solved, some continue, and some are just getting started, and it makes you want to jump right into the next volume, which is always a wonderful feeling. It also must be mentioned that while Conan’s main emotions are anger, annoyance, and pure rage, through the storytelling and art, Owsley, Buscema, and Chan are able to elicit so much more from him, including love and caring. At times we can practically feel Conan’s pain and sorrow at the injustice around him, and his helplessness, even with all his strength and sheer will, to make it right in a way that truly matters. This volume gets heavy, and at times Conan has nothing but pure vengeance to fall back on, in hopes that pummeling his enemies to death may bring some semblance of peace to his mind and justice to those who have endangered his companions and committed grave atrocities.
But, we know the truth, that trouble and sorrow will always find Conan, because just as his fury destroys those who come against him, it also riles the forces of evil to continually challenge him, on into eternity. Conan the Barbarian lives and kills by his own brutal sense of honor, and as blood begets blood and violence begets violence, Conan’s adventures will never truly come to an end, for these are the ways in which he will always mete out justice.