ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #1 will go on sale Wednesday, February 1, 2012.
This was a tough comic for me to review. My initial reaction was to rail against it, cutting it to pieces and cataloging all the ways that it doesn't work as a Conan adaptation. But nobody likes that crusty old guy in the internet corner creating point-by-point deviancy charts and grumbling "Kids today don't know who Conan is!" I don't like that guy. So I gave it a day, calmed down, and read it again.
Is Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's "Queen of the Black Coast" a faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard's 1935 original story? No. Does the story at least keep the spirit of Robert E. Howard, preserving the core of the character and world he inhabit? Based on this first issue, I would have to say, not really.
But is it a good comic? That is the real question to be answered.
"Queen of the Black Coast" is hard to adapt. Howard's original story lasts all of 27 pages and yet covers — what one assumes to be, at least — a few years of Conan's life. Roy Thomas adapted "Queen of the Black Coast" for Marvel Comics into 43 issues, covering roughly three and a half years. Wood and Cloonan aren't going quite that long, and will develop the story over two years, lasting 24 issues.
"Queen of the Black Coast" is often said to be the most epic in scope of Howard's Conan short stories, and has been described by pulp scholar Everett F. Bleiler as "probably the best of the Conan stories, perhaps because it is the only one based on another emotion than lust, greed, or hatred." If not lust, greed, or hatred, what is the driving emotion?
It can be said to be a love story. But this is Conan love. Conan and Bêlit are primal figures, and their romance has all the subtlety and nuance of a great wave smashing against a mighty cliff — or in terms Howard would have preferred, of the mating of two powerful beasts of prey like a great lion mounting an unyielding tigress. Conan and Bêlit love, but their love is fierce.
In his version of ""Queen of the Black Coast"," Brian Wood seems to be writing subtext to Howard's prose, adding layers of story and characterization not there in the original. Wood's Conan is a more human character. He is more human, probably, than Howard would have approved of. And I am okay with that. I have often said that while I love the Conan stories, I would never want to meet Conan in real life. It is nice to be Conan in Conan's world, but if you are the guy standing next to him… your life expectancy is short. Wood's Conan is different. He is a guy I wouldn't mind knocking back a few beers with. He is less of a primal force and more of a person.
And I like the tension being built between Conan and Bêlit, the slow waltz bringing them together. I loved the scene of Conan and Tito, master of the sailing ship Argus, sitting on the deck drinking late at night while Tito weaves a seaman's tale of Bêlit as some boogeyman for merchant vessels. She is more than just a pirate queen. And instead of being frightened, Conan is entranced by the idea of this dangerous, blood-dealing beauty. I liked all of the touches here. I thought the dream sequence was fantastic, sensual and alluring.
Becky Cloonan's art is beautiful. It is a drastic shift from the ponderous weight of Tomas Giorello, but not an unwelcome one. Like Wood's writing, Cloonan's Conan is more approachable and friendlier. But that doesn't make him weak. Her work isn't necessarily detailed, but is nuanced. She adds fine touches, like Conan and Tito sweating walking through a town in Kush. I have been to Egypt. I know what that stifling desert heat is like. I loved that scene and the casualness of their gestures.
Her art balances between cartoony and painterly, which is a rare combination. She doesn't seem to worry about packing in too many detail lines, yet some of her scenes are powerfully atmospheric — like a panel with Conan on the bow of the Argus watching the Tigress pass by in the fog. And then when we get a glimpse of Bêlit on the decks of her ship… great scene. Of course, her artwork is enhanced by the King of Colors Dave Stewart laying down the hues. He takes Howard's work literally, with Bêlit's milk-white skin and black hair.
Cloonan's Bêlit is phenomenal. I have never seen her drawn better. She is a creature. Dangerous and enticing. As much as Wood and Cloonan have humanized Conan, in this first issue they dehumanize Bêlit, making her into a legend. I can believe that this Bêlit is the unquestioned "Queen of the Black Coast", leading a band of dangerous raiders as more than their leader. As their goddess.
Getting Bêlit right really sold me on this series, maybe even more than getting Conan right. Even though she appears in only this single story, Bêlit is unique amongst the women in Howard's Conan stories. It is not just that she is Conan's equal — Conan has accompanied several warrior women such as Valeria from Red Nails. It is that she is Conan's superior. There is no questions as to who is in command of their relationship. As Howard wrote, "Her's was the mind that directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas."
I still had issues with some aspects of Wood and Cloonan's ""Queen of the Black Coast"." There were times that the dialogue was stilted, and sometimes almost to the point of being comedic. There is a scene where Conan says "I admit, I am a man of humble upbringing, and maybe I am prone to misunderstand the ways of city dwellers …" I don't know if this was intended or not, but I couldn't help but think about Phil Hartman's Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'm just a caveman. Your world frightens and confuses me!"
And as much as I like Wood's Conan, he seems a bit too naïve, too fresh, too young. At this stage in his life, Conan has lived in the palace as the consort of a queen and lead a country's armies as their general ("Black Colossus") as well as been a captain of a pirate ship of the Red Brotherhood ("Shadows in the Moonlight"). He is far from a hick fresh down from the mountains. He is an established leader of men. Even though this is a new #1 for Conan, it is supposed to be part of the ongoing series. (If you look in the fine print, this issue is actually listed as #88 of Dark Horse's Conan). There is a disconnect to regular readers.
My only problem I had with the art, by the way, was Conan's teeth. Cloonan seems to always draw him with his bottom teeth showing. I a
ctually tried to figure out what face I could make to constantly have my bottom teeth showing, and I couldn't do it. It just looks odd. But that is it. those are my only nits to pick.
To answer my original question: Is this a good comic? It is. It really is.
I know some of my fellow Howard fans are going to have a hard time with it. Like I did at first. But relax, give it a day, and then give it a try again. Don't think of this as an adaptation. Don't hunt and peck for all the ways it is different. Give it a chance. Because there is some magic going on here. And Wood and Cloonan have two years to grow with the character, to unfold the story.
I am looking forward to those two years. Anytime I want to read some pure, 100% Howard, the original is always there. But one of the cool things about Wood and Cloonan's adaptation is that — I realized that even though I am on a ship I know well, it is sailing in unfamiliar waters.
I have read the original "Queen of the Black Coast" dozens of times. I just read it again last night before writing this review. But Wood and Cloonan have made me wonder "what comes next?" in a story I know backwards and forwards. That is a cool feeling.
Want to see what someone unfamiliar with Conan thought of Conan the Barbarian #1? Check out Danny Djeljosevic's review!
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.