ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #5 will go on sale Wednesday, June 13, 2012.
Let's get this out of the way: Another entry for one of the worst Conan covers I have seen. Dark Horse seems to have this problem in their Conan line that — even as the interior gets better and better — the covers get worse and worse. It isn't that the actual painting itself is bad. But when you have a cover for a Conan the Barbarian comic you expect to have Conan appear somewhere. Or at least someone related to the story. I am not sure who that white-skinned, teenage boy is leaping up with dagger drawn, (Prince of Persia, perhaps?) but it most definitely isn't Conan. And I am happy to report that the boy appears nowhere in the comic.
And now onto issue #5.
It's hard to review this issue without giving too much away, because all of the best parts are total spoilers. Brian Wood gives us a few "Fuck yeah!" moments. Belit is particularly awesome. Cunning. Daring. Dangerous. Her gambit in this issue was fascinating for its ruthlessness, and I admit Wood had me fooled for a few panels — Did she have a back-up plan in case it didn't work? She gambled everything on a psychology play and on Conan's strength. What if she was wrong? Something tells me she had a plan in reserve.
Oh, and my favorite "Fuck yeah!" panel is also a Belit moment, and ends with the words "…Messantia is now mine." You'll know what I mean.
Wood does an interesting thing with this issue; he tells an action story almost completely in captions. Even during the big battle scene, which would normally be filled with THOCKs and WHAMs and "By the Gods! I'll get you Cimmarian!" the scenes are silent except for these introspective grey boxes that take us into Conan's head. It's a technique that works very well, juxtaposing wild action with silence. I have seen the technique used to great effect in Asian cinema, but it was interesting to see it at play here. Because, you know, comics are silent by their own nature except in your head. Yet Wood achieves the same impact with his little grey boxes.
After two issues, James Harren is turning out not to be a good fit for Conan. I have loved Harren's art over in B.P.R.D., and the guy draws great monsters and horror, but Wood's human and humanist-centered vision of Conan just isn't complimented by Harren's style. It isn't all bad. There is some great art in the beginning, and a beautiful panel of Conan sitting in jail. But once the main battle starts, Harren just goes all over town with the speed lines to the point where it distracts from the story. Conan isn't The Flash. He isn't super-powered. He shouldn't be zipping around the panels like that trailing a blur of speed lines.
I also think Wood's writing style, being so character focused, needs someone who can do facial expressions better. We need to believe in the humanness of the characters. Harren favors an exaggerated style, with massive muppet mouths and odd features that work great in the B.P.R.D., but don't do as much justice to Wood's more centered world.
If Harren was the regular artist on the series I would be more patient and give him time to grow into the style of the character's and to build a nice rhythm with Wood. But now that I know that Conan will have a cavalcade of artists marching through, I find myself wanting the roulette wheel to spin and the next artist to come on board. I don't know what the plan or schedule is for artists, but if each artist only gets a few issues then they have to hit the ground running, and in my opinion Harren didn't. I think he has potential to become a good Conan artist, but he doesn't have time.
Harren is on-board for one issue, then we see the return of Becky Cloonan in issue #7 (Yay!). And after that? We fans will just have to wait and see how the roulette win spins.
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.