ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #8 will go on sale Wednesday, September 12, 2012.
I have been critical but overall supportive of Brian Wood's Conan the Barbarian. It isn't the Howard-faithful adaptation that I would have preferred, but I have been enjoying the series, reading it for what it is instead of what it is not. I think Wood and company have put out a decent story, with some nice twists. Several amazing issues and brilliant scenes have been scattered among less successful work. Nowhere near the best of comic book Conan, but far, far from the worst.
Until now. This issue is an absolute train wreck.
I'm not even sure where to start. The cover? Massimo Carnevale has proved himself to be a talented, magnificent painter, but one who seems to be making covers for an entirely different series. The art? That is the easy target, and I will get to it. So let's start with the writing.
I enjoyed the first part of this "Belit in Cimmeria" storyline. It is in direct opposition to Howard's Queen of the Black Coast, were Belit sits on the deck of her ship asking Conan to tell her about Cimmeria. But I could overlook that. I liked the mixed-marriage element, and thought Wood handled that perfectly. My main problem was that I thought it came too early in the storyline. I wanted to see a few more story arcs of Belit being the Queen of the Black Coast. That would have created a greater juxtaposition, greater tension, between the lordly, feared pirate queen and the fish-out-of-water girl that Conan takes her home to meet his mother. As it is, we barely get to know Belit as a pirate before we suddenly see her as not-a-pirate.
And here we are in Part 2. Conan and Belit are moving over the Cimmerian territory, hunting out the false Conan who is ravaging the farms. Conan and Belit move and talk. Move and talk. Belit holds Conan back, and she knows it. That supreme confidence, that blazing fire that makes her Belit, starts to flicker and dim. On top of that, she is confronted with the aftermath of the false Conan's ravaging, and starts to understand the consequences of her own slash-and-take lifestyle. She is gaining empathy. She is learning remorse.
None of this is necessarily bad — it makes for good storytelling. But again, it is too soon. This storyline would have been well-placed at the end of Wood's run. I could see how this crisis of confidence could segue into the inevitable end of Queen of the Black Coast; Belit, full of regret, becomes careless and makes suicidal mistakes. Haunted by the ghosts of those she killed, she seeks her own end. But this is issue #8, and there are miles to go before Belit sleeps.
It almost seems like Wood has written himself into a corner. After Belit's realization of the consequences of her actions, how is she supposed to go back to her pirate ship and continue to pillage? How are we, as readers, supposed to enjoy her brutality when it is backed by such sadness? It will be interesting to see how Wood overcomes this. I am not looking forward to issue #9 so much as I am #10 and #11, to see how this newly awakened Belit will play out once she gets back on board her ship. It will be disappointing if her newfound conscious is swept away by the sea and she goes back easily into her old self.
And the art. I have never heard of Vasilis Lolos, but I looked up some of his other art and it is pretty cool. Lolos is a stylistic, edgy artist who I would probably really dig on a different comic. But his work here on Conan is a total mismatch. I honestly don't know how anyone could have thought this was a good idea. Lolos' art is odd and misshapen. Both Belit and Conan have that "Innsmouth Look" with big, bulging eyes and protruding fish lips. Conan's head changes shape with every panel, sometimes looking like it was squished through a toilet paper tube, and sometimes looking like an odd Frankenstein's monster parody. I could go on, but I there isn't much reason. I think this art is terrible.
On the plus side, the Color King Dave Stewart really pulls out the stops this issue. It is almost like he realized how bad the art was, and used every technique at his brilliant disposal to put life and drama into Lolos' lines and dots. There is some groundbreaking work going on in the color here, especially the panel that Stewart leaves almost black and white, adding an intense drama not there in the original pencils.
I am deadly curious to see what others have to say about this issue. I know that my peeves are not everyone's peeves, and I can respect that. Everyone has their own opinion, their own appreciations. But this issue … I think even the most stalwart and loyal fan would find hard to praise.
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.