ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #2 will go on sale Wednesday, March 14, 2012.
The shit hits the fan in the second issue of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Tigris hits the Argus, which amounts to pretty much the same thing.
Issue #1 had some introduction to the characters, and some general world-building for non-Conan readers, but this issue is all battle. From the first page, Belit strides a blood-soaked deck and throws out the challenge to Conan the even though he has given his best, he is going to have to do better.
I loved this issue. I loved it for everything it was, and for everything it wasn't. It wasn't a typical Conan portrayal, where Conan is an over-muscled jock whose main asset is his strength. It wasn't a slaughter-filled brainless gore fest. Brian Wood managed to give us blood-pumping, fist-clenching fighting, while still delivering a quiet, intense scene that establishes Conan's skill and intelligence. And whereas Issue #1 was all Belit, the haunting, inhuman goddess of dreams and nightmares, this issue is all Conan. And more importantly, this is the Conan that I love.
Brian Wood did something fantastic here. In my favorite scene Conan picks up a bow — an unmanly weapon — and stands to defend the merchant-ship Argus against the attacking pirate-ship Tigris. But disregard for the weapon does not mean unfamiliarity, and Conan — with Wood artfully mixing Robert E. Howard's original dialogue with his own — takes us through Conan's Hyrkanian training on the three principles of archery. I loved how this scene established Conan as more than a brainless beefcake who just manages to swing his sword harder and faster than anyone else. He makes sure the readers know that Conan is a trained and intelligent fighter, a man of skills and ability. Well done, Mr. Wood.
And the art. Seeing this issue made me so happy that Becky Cloonan is drawing this Conan story. I don't think she would have been as good a fit for a land-bound Conan, but she is perfect for Conan the pirate and his sea queen Belit. She draws water and ship battles better than anyone I have ever seen. Seriously, it is stunning. Her artwork and Dave Stewart's moody colors is a phenomenal combination. There are some subtle shifts from her previous issue. Her Conan is a bit bigger, a bit less "pretty." This Conan is intense, and not smiling at all as blood and death fall down around him. He's cool.
And the black Kushite crew of Belit's Tigris. Wow. Those are not men. Those are demons from a nightmare, with colorless eyes and inhuman features. I don't think everyone is going to like this portrayal, but I really dug it. These guys were scary. I am hoping that they will become a little more humanized as the story goes on, but for the first attack they worked perfectly.
So I loved Cloonan's art, but I do have one complaint. For some reason Conan's teeth show in almost every scene. The man's jaw must be seriously deformed to jut out enough so that his bottom teeth are constantly showing. Not only are they omnipresent, they are perfectly symmetrical, perfectly balanced, and perfectly white. Once I saw those teeth, I just couldn't stop seeing them in every scene.
So some high praise and some small criticism. But now I am going to put on my big-sized Robert E. Howard fan hat and mention my one huge problem with this issue. The last panel.
Anyone not interested in hearing gripes about how the comic isn't like the book can just skip this part. You have been warned.
Cue Big-Time Spoilers and Robert E. Howard Ranting
In the last panel, Belit comes up to Conan, paws his chest a little, asks him about his homeland, then puts her cheek on his and whispers, "Make me your Queen."
At face value, this is how the story plays out in Robert E. Howard's original. Sure, Howard's scene is a lot less subtle. Belit is much more verbose, carrying on for a couple of paragraphs. But the result is the same. At the end of the battle of the Tigris and the Argus, Conan joins Belit's crew as both her lover and second-in-command.
But compare this line to Howard's. Belit tells Conan "I am a queen by fire and steel and slaughter–be thou my king!" She is in charge. She is powerful. She needs no man to make her a queen. She has taken that title by her own strength. She CLAIMS Conan. She takes Conan like spoils of war, essentially telling him "Be my mate or die right here!" And during their travels together, Conan is her subordinate.
Some could argue that this is more nitpicking over dialogue, but I disagree. This is different. With this one sentence, Belit changed fundamentally, from active to passive. She has been de-powered. She is pleading. She is soft. She is weak. And that is something the Pirate Queen of the Black Coast should never be. Belit needs no one to "make" her anything.
Belit is one of the strongest female characters Robert E. Howard ever wrote. And up until this point, Wood and Cloonan have done a fantastic job with her. She has been perfect; a powerful, fearsome creature, beautiful and deadly. But this …
I loved this comics all the way up to that last panel. Maybe it is just a delay. A beat. Maybe next issue the Belit will be in all her glory, and Conan will face the full power of her passion. Maybe. I am hoping. But as awesome as this issue was, that last panel hit me like a smack in the face.
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.