ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #9 will come out Wednesday, October 10, 2012.
Here's the short: Conan the Barbarian #9 is a big improvement over the previous issue. Conan #8 was the only one-star review I have given to the series — in both story and art, it was a disappointment. This latest issue is much improved art-wise, while the story remains mediocre. This is the last issue of the three-issue "Belit in Cimmeria" storyline, which was interesting in concept but not so much in execution.
I remember discussing the importance of eyes in my art history classes in college. Leonardo da Vinci (and I am paraphrasing here from memory) said that they human soul lived in the eyes, and that if you didn't get the eyes right then the rest of the painting didn't matter. I realized reading the latest issue of Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast that this is my problem with Vasilis Lolos' art.
He is, after all, a pretty rockin' artist. His panels are fluid and dynamic. His backgrounds have a sparse simplicity that work perfectly with his active foregrounds. He draws a pretty sweet pirate ship. And as long as the heads are off-panel, or he covers most of the face with hair or a hood or a helmet, I can enjoy his work immensely. But as soon as someone's lids open up, and those giant, uncanny valley-crossing, Bratz-doll envying, Innsmouth-look orbs swallow up an unnatural proportion of a characters face — then all is lost. They are creepy.
Lolos' art is MUCH improved over the previous issue. In fact, most of the complaints I had about his art from the last issue have vanished — except for those alien-sized eyeballs. Belit's punched-too-many-times-in-the-face puffy lips are gone, as is Conan's piranha mouth. The heads are in proportion and not so tube-like. In issue #9, we finally see some of that brilliant line work and dynamism that worked so well in Northlanders. I find I wouldn't actually mind a few more issues of Lolos doing Conan, so long as everyone wore sunglasses. But that is not to be, as this issue marks his departure. Ah well, time to spin the roulette wheel of artists again.
Now the story. The conclusion of the "fake Conan" story arc ends with somewhat of a whimper. And I'm not really sure why. Maybe it is because that was never really the point. "Fake Conan" was just a lure to get Belit to Cimmeria, and once she is there then the resolution of that plot line seems like tying up a loose end rather than telling a story. I can't get into too many details without big-time spoilers, but it is a story you have seen before, in myriad forms. A bit of a classic storyline, really. I will throw out the words "James Potter" and "Severus Snape" and you can make of that what you will.
I don't know if it was the familiar nature of the story, or if there just wasn't enough time for any emotional impact, but I didn't get much out of the finale. Things just resolved too quickly to care. Realistically, of this three-issue story arc only about 20 or so pages actually deal with "fake Conan."
I know that this is the pattern that Wood has established, telling the story of Conan and Belit is a series of three-issue story arcs, and it should be working better than it is. As it is, it feels like all appetizer and no dinner. As a reader, I never really get connected to any one individual story. I have read a few series like this before that I loved — Legends of the Dark Knight springs to mind — where the artist changed with the story arc and everything was told in small bites. But there was no forward continuity for that series, and each story arc was self-contained. Maybe that makes a difference.
I can't really put my finger on what it is other than with a new story arc and a new artist every couple of issues, I am growing less and less invested in the series. The promise of those early Wood/Cloonan issues (so good!!!) is fading. I'll keep reading. I know some amazing artists are lined up, but I think with the constant switcharoo this is never going to be a series that I really love.
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.