Written by: Jim Zub
Art by: Patch Zircher and Java Tartaglia
Letters by: VC’s Travis Lanham
Conan’s done what Conan often does – got himself into a mess. Having signed on as a bodyguard for an overweight and heavily indebted merchant in the city of Shadizar, he now finds himself having to take his erstwhile employer’s place in a high-stakes card game after the merchant drops dead, apparently poisoned. Does he even know how to play? You know, there’s only one way to find out…
The issue opens with a recap that, given it echoes exactly what’s written on the special page Marvel usually puts in their books to perform precisely that function, seems a little redundant. It does, however, give us an insight into the monumental scale of the task facing Conan. He finds himself suddenly thrust into a card game called Serpent’s Bluff, whose rules seem unnecessarily labyrinthine – a version of blackjack with all sorts of additional ‘special’ cards which affect the scoring in odd and decisive ways. Conan’s doom looks certain until the intervention of an attractive priestess who urges the young barbarian to pray to the Godsend – a giant mystical green jewel that holds a place of prominence in the gambling den – for a favor. Conan’s not into asking gods for help, although he does give the gem a long, lingering look. Is that enough to help him out?
It seems so because his luck suddenly changes and his opponent – a goatee-sporting chap with a nice line in trash talk – starts to get worried. In fairly typical style for this kind of pulp adventure, everything is wagered on a final highest of high stakes round and whatever force had been animating Conan’s playing for the last few rounds deserts him. There then follows one of the more glorious action sequences I’ve seen in a long while (thank you, Mr. Zircher) and the issue ends on a suitably perilous and disturbing cliffhanger.
And that’s it. There’s no sub-plot to bother with, nothing to distract us from our focus on Conan and what happens to him. And I rather like that. Arguably, the card game is overlong, but I would suggest that Zub and Zircher both use it to build up a decent amount of tension and when the inevitable violence explodes it’s almost a relief. Zub’s writing is generally very good. I’m so used to writers eschewing third-person narration, that, despite long having lamented its decline, I actually initially found it a bit jarring here, but Zub hits his stride with his description of the Godsend – “The jagged, flashing edges seem to breathe and dance with a life of their own.” – and his pacing of the fight scene is excellent.
Patrick Zircher’s art contributes to this considerably, of course. Zircher’s a bit heavy on the shading at times, but his Conan is ruggedly handsome and fearsomely muscular while his opponent, Kero, is all sly arrogance and superiority. The action scene that comprises most of the second half of the book is gloriously ferocious and there is more than an echo of Barry Windsor-Smith’s young Conan in the way he’s posed and framed in these pages. (Certainly, the runestone necklace worn by Conan seems a conscious call back to the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith era of Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian book.)
As the middle section of a three-part arc, this does its job very well. There are still important questions to be answered (Who killed Maraudus? What is the Godsend? What role does the priestess play in all of this?) and a present threat to be dealt with, but the issue is full of incident, drama, and suspense, and this reviewer at least found it a very enjoyable read.
A well-crafted middle issue that provides the right amounts of intrigue, drama, suspense, and action, this is an enjoyable Conan book. Zub’s narration is good and his plotting excellent; Zircher’s art is always clear and conveys suspense and violence with equal confidence and no little skill. All in all, a very good read.