Story and art by: Esad Ribic
Letters by: VC’s Travis Lanham
It is tempting to read Conan: Exodus #1 quickly. There is very little dialogue and what there is is rendered as Nordic runes, incomprehensible to the young Conan leaving his inhospitable homeland and to the reader following his adventures. I would recommend taking your time with this issue, though. Writer and artist Esad Ribic’s decision to rely solely on image and layout to tell most of his story forces the reader to dwell longer on the visuals of the story and he is a good enough storyteller to make it worth your while to do so. Allow me to explain…
The opening page is a good example of Ribic’s skill as a storyteller. Opening with a majestic image of the young Conan crossing a mountainous snowscape, it proceeds to show him finding shelter for the night and waking up in the bright sunlight of morning after forcing his way out of the snowdrift that has piled up over the entrance to his makeshift shelter overnight. The focus is on Conan’s ingenuity and determination to survive in the face of an indifferent but bleakly beautiful natural world.
Subsequent pages demonstrate that nature presents a range of different dangers. As Conan comes down from the mountain, he confronts and kills a wolf, but is forced to abandon the resources provided by its corpse when its fellow pack members show up. There then follows a desperate chase through the snow-covered landscape and it’s here that the lack of dialogue, along with the careful placement of small close-up panels, creates an oddly intense, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere. There is a moment of small, but hard-won triumph, when Conan gains the relative safety of an outcropping of rock and kicks out at the wolf pursuing him, pushing him away. Ribic lingers on Conan standing on the rock looking down at the wolf. The image is from the wolf’s perspective and the focus on the wolf’s subsequent reaction establishes a connection between it and the barbarian that, because there is no language to define it, is nebulous and almost spiritual in quality. It is not the only time Ribic does this. His use of animal encounters throughout the first half of the book adds not only a sense of drama and tension to the story but also provide moments in which the reader can see the character of Conan being formed before his eyes: his tenacity, his savagery, his courage.
Conan’s killing of the bear, his taking of its teeth as a familiar trophy to wear around his neck, is arguably the moment when the Conan the reader knows emerges fully from the harsh womb of his journey. Ribic’s artwork is astonishing here. He presents Conan from the back, his dominance, and strength clear in the set of his shoulders and the musculature of his arms. In front of him are a body of water and the silhouettes of low hills dark against the russet of the sky. It is a bold, moody, breathtaking image, and it punctuates his journey, marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another.
Conan is, of course, heading for civilized lands. He comes across the site of a battle and, as he has done with the corpses of the animals he has slain along his path, he loots the bodies for what he can use – in this case, a helmet, a sword, some fetching pieces of armor and a healthy-looking horse. What he does next is, in its own way, as reckless and brave as taking on the bear – he heads to a village in the middle of being raided by heavily-armed men and sneaks in to milk a goat. Needless to say, he’s spotted and comes off worse in the resulting altercation, wounded by an arrow as he flees to his horse. The horse, perhaps acting on its own instincts, leads him to the castle that is the home of the chief raider and what follows is, well, typical Conan.
This last section is a little uneven. The introduction of other human characters dilutes the focus on Conan a little and the use of language, albeit one that neither Conan nor the reader can understand, jars somewhat. That said, it’s still a powerful piece of storytelling. That second to last page, although not unexpected, still manages to be shocking; the final one is as perceptive a study of the character as you’re likely to see in comic form.
In Conan: Exodus, Ribic has given us not only a compelling story of Conan’s journey from his homeland to ‘civilization’, but also a masterclass in how comic book storytelling is a visual art. The sense of Conan’s character being shaped and honed by his experiences in these pages is palpable; Ribic’s painted art is variously dynamic, atmospheric, brooding and thoughtful. His depiction of the landscape as almost a separate character or entity in the first half of the story is extremely impressive, and he conveys Conan’s determination, strength and relentless self-sufficiency with similarly impressive skill throughout. Put bluntly, this is an extraordinary comic book and well worth your time.