My knowledge of and exposure to Conan has been pretty limited; I think that I saw one of the Conan movies once — the one with James Earl Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger — when I was a kid. Beyond scattered memories, though, about all I knew about Conan was that he was a guy who ran around, didn’t speak much, and killed anyone that stood in his way. I think there was some vague sense of honor about the character, but I couldn’t be certain.
I’d also read Prophet, which was frequently described as “Conan in space,” so I guess I had some idea of what to expect for the tone, but nothing really could’ve prepared me for Conan the Barbarian. It is, without a doubt, one of the most epic comics I have ever experienced.
I know that “epic” is a word people toss around now in exchange for awesome, radical, tubular and whatever other slang that used to be thrown around by the Ninja Turtles, but Conan the Barbarian drips with the stuff of legend, making for a spectacularly tense, emotional read.
While I expected Conan to be more guttural, less civilized, as one would expect with someone titled “the barbarian,” he borders on eloquent at times, easily the intellectual equal of other characters. And when we see him in combat, Conan maneuvers even the grisliest fight with grace, a feat accomplished by the immensely talented Cloonan and Harren, the former bringing a bit more grace and the latter turning the violence up a notch.
Wood’s Conan is written as the epitome of masculinity for the time period. He is more than simply a fighter; he is quite possibly the best fighter, showing his prowess both unarmed and with a bow in addition to his trademark sword. While he may not be educated in the traditional sense, he is very obviously intelligent enough to plan and carry out multiple attacks and raids. Conan has the brains and the brawn, and Cloonan and Harren both draw him as beautiful, bordering on sexy at times. While he’s clearly well-built, both artists’ takes on him are more lithe than the bulky bodybuilder look popularized by a certain actor. It doesn’t hurt that he seems to repel all manner of shirts like water off of a duck.
But that’s not all; the introduction of Belit uncovers Conan’s passion and displays the depths of his love. Their romance, like everything else in this story, is the definition of epic. She amplifies pretty much everything that defines Conan and he seems to be the only man that she has deemed worthy of her presence, with the implication that his temperance may one day ease her bloodlust.
What makes it work, though, is that Belit seems just as important of a character as Conan. It’s his book, but she is not just supporting cast. Wood establishes her as cunning and deserving of the mystique that follows her across the seas, and while she’s not as combat-savvy as our lead, she makes up for it in sheer brutality.
I don’t want to downplay Wood’s writing; his dialogue is strong, the plots are solid, yet predictable in just the right parts and the mounds of narration serve to reinforce the feeling of legend. But I’m going to keep coming back to the artists, because the strength of Conan the Barbarian rests on their shoulders.
Cloonan’s Belit is sexy in much the same way that her Conan is: she is attractive and pretty realistically proportioned, which really shouldn’t be something I have to praise about a comic book (and yet, here we are).
You just can’t blame Conan for falling for her. While Harren hardens up most of the cast a bit from the smoother depictions Cloonan delivers, they’re still realistic, and while I think the sex-appeal decreases just a bit, at least part of that probably comes from seeing our heroes cleave men in two.
When I went back to read over these issues again, I paid a closer attention to the shift in artists between issues 3 and 4. The first time through, I thought that the styles were similar enough to only have passing differences, but this was a sleight of hand conducted by Dave Stewart. His colors serve to unify the two halves, making the transition almost seamless, one that seems to match the change in tone of the story.
I don’t know that I could’ve asked for a better introduction to the Conan mythos, though I worry I’ve been spoiled and that wherever I go next won’t hold up to Dark Horse’s latest installment. Worst case scenario, I suppose I’ll just have to wait for issue #7, as it is sure to be epic.
David Fairbanks doesn’t get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.