Writer: Timothy Truman
Artists: Tomás Giorello and José Villarrubia
Dark Horse Comics, collected November 2018
TAKE HEED WHERE YOU GO and what you do, for those past parts become your story forever. The stories survive. On your throne, like King Conan near the end, good friends gone and loves lost and remembered, who but the last are the finest?
My favorite Conan stories by Dark Horse during its fifteen-year run publishing Robert E. Howard titles, until 2019, were by the same team: writer Timothy Truman, artist Tomás Giorello, and inker José Villarrubia. They mastered the real Conan as I saw him, beginning with the last issues of Conan the Cimmerian, in 2009. Directly from there, the team turned out six-issue sets of other original Robert E. Howard stories, featuring King Conan narrating his past adventures in The Scarlet Citadel, Phoenix on the Sword, Hour of the Dragon in two parts, and finally, Wolves on the Border, fleshing out REH fragments. These feel like documentary episodes. We are there in the action, pieced together from memories as by Ptolemy at the hand of Alexander. The text is authoritative. The art moving.
The first Conan story by Robert E. Howard, “Phoenix on the Sword,” published in Weird Tales in 1932, featured Conan in his latter days as king. Pocket paperback books that brought Conan back to life in the 1960s, proliferated into imitations by other authors, so it was soon hard to sift out authentic REH stories in the melee. Now we have a Del Rey series of collected REH stories and drafts, published in the early 2000s in a handsome set, with three volumes devoted to Conan, making it easy to find “Phoenix on the Sword” in the original, including the legendary excerpt from the Nemedian Chronicles that heralds the slayer Conan, come to “tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
Phoenix on the Sword in REH’s hand, opens: “Over shadowy spires and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and silence that runs before dawn.” Abruptly we slip down an alleyway, through a corridor, and into a cloistered room where a mysterious conversation takes place with a grand plot at the center. Yet wait, off to the side coming into focus, the servant, a tall bony Stygian, and a name, Thoth-Amon.
There I had to lift myself away. Every time I meet that guy I barely come out alive.
A flyleaf quotation by Poul Anderson in the Del Rey collection, The Coming of Conan The Cimmerian, where the story appears, uses all the words I want to describe REH’s writing, its vigor, speed, vividness: “And always there is that furious, galloping narrative pace.” Let us salute the best of memories, and the best of times, and the best of you and I.