ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #3 will go on sale Wednesday, April 11, 2012.
Oh Brian Wood, you tricky devil. You have done exactly what I didn't want you to do. You have abandoned Robert E. Howard and any pretense at adaptation, and sailed Conan and Belit into waters entirely of your own making. You have taken some of my favorite characters and turned them into something unrecognizable.
And by doing so, you have made me fall completely in love with the story you are telling.
I realize that with the previous two issues of Queen of the Black Coast I was caught up in a sort of Uncanny Valley. Wood's version of the story was almost-but-not-quite-like the original Howard tale, and that made the difference stick out like rocks in a river. Everything was smooth sailing but occasionally I would hit those rocks and they would jar me out of the story. But this… this is entirely new. This Belit bears no resemblance to the fierce warrior-Goddess of Robert E. Howard. This Conan is no one I have ever read before. And yet I find that I don't care. Because whoever these characters are, their story is compelling.
Issue 2 was the all-battle issue, all sword-swings, spilled blood, and shattered bones. This issue is quiet. This issue is two tentative lovers drawn together by desire and destiny, yet not yet sure of each other, not yet welded into a solid pair. Both are simultaneously human and myth, exotic and fascinating. Conan comes from the near-mythical land of Cimmeria, a cold and hard place that breeds strong men who never wander far from their home. To Belit, Conan is like a warrior stepped down from Valhalla. Belit is the Queen of the Black Coast, a self-made legend who has carved her own throne of blood from the decks of her Tigress. To Conan, she is… well, he isn't quite sure yet. But she is something he wants.
Strange to say, but this issue of Queen of the Black Coast reminds me of the old issues of the Chris Claremont/Paul Smith Uncanny X-Men that I love so much — the issues where no battles were fought, no convenient super-villains popped up; instead the stories focused on Kitty Pryde and Colossus' shy relationship, or a broken-hearted Wolverine returning to Japan to speak to his bride Mariko. The soul-bearing and relationship-building brought me into the characters and story so much more than quips and bright-colored battles.
And so I was drawn into the love story of Conan and Belit. The soft love story. And not just their story. The quiet vignettes between Conan and the friendship he strikes up with the withered shaman who sees his future, or the mighty warrior N'Gora, who tells Conan about what Belit gave him and his crew; freedom, revenge, liberation from shackles.
This is Becky Cloonan's last issue of Queen of the Black Coast for a while. Switching artists like that is always hard on a series, especially one with as distinct a style as Cloonan. Her art here matches Wood's powerful writing stride-for-stride. As I had hoped, the nightmarish figures of Belit's black raiders from issue 2 have humanized. N'Gora and the Shaman are fully human character. The moodiness of her art, her ships on water, are unparalleled. I have seen the posted black-and-white work of her successor and it looks fantastic, but Cloonan will definitely be missed.
Whoever the artist is, I want more. More of this story. More of the story Brian Wood is telling. This is no longer Robert E. Howard's Conan, this is Brian Wood's Conan. And it is good.
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.