I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this latest issue of Brian Wood's Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast. Only 4 issues away from the Grand Finale, Wood's run on the series has been a wild roller coaster of magnificence and misery—depending on who his artist-collaborator of the moment was. This last 3-issue story arc pairs Wood with Paul Azaceta, an artist whose work took me a few beats to get used to and appreciate. But everything comes together in this storyarc, and it is shaping up to be one of the high points of the run.
Black Stones is probably the most "traditional" storyarc in Wood's Conan run. For once, all of his characters are in-character—Conan is acting like Conan. Belit is acting like Belit. The plot could have come out of a Howard story; A cursed treasure. A religious cult. Dark gods and magic with Conan and Belit caught in the middle, urged on by Belit's lust for gold and treasure. It's a tight, interesting story.
And yet, even with the traditional framework Wood's delivers some nice mellow, emotional moments in between the action. In probably my favorite Belit/Conan scene in the series, Belit and Conan sit around a campfire swapping children's stories they grew up on. Conan's Cimmerian tales are hard and cruel, while Belit's Shemish tales are full of heroes and brave deeds. It's a beautiful little scene, and one of the few times that Wood actually shows us Belit and Conan in love instead of wielding his omnipotent narration as a blunt instrument to tell us about the great love story that is Belit and Conan.
Artist Paul Azaceta's style works great with the mood and tone of the story. As I said, it took me awhile to get into his style, but now I can appreciate it. He has a nice sense of Place, of setting and composition. One of the odd things about his style is that he draws everything in realistic proportions, but with the lack of detail of an animated style. Maybe I am used to one or the other—the clean lines of Bruce Timm or the perfect detail of Alex Raymond—but I was thrown by this mix. The main flaw I can find in Azaceta is his lack of fine detail. He relies too much on the colorist to add depth and detail to his work.
But I suppose when you are teamed with the King of Colors himself Dave Stewart you can afford to get a little lazy. Stewart surprised me with this issue. I thought that he was doing this arc on the muddy side, but when I looked closer I saw the subtleties and shades of neutral color he was layering in. The campfire scene with all the crows is ridiculously pretty.
As always, the worst thing about the issue is it shows the missed potential of Wood's run on Queen of the Black Coast. Black Stones shows the series as it could have been, if Wood had stuck closer to the source material and kept the core of Howard's style and flavor, while layering in nuance and emotional depth. Wood could have expanded on Howard's tropes instead of trying to subvert them.
And maybe in the 24-issue run of Queen of the Black Coast we could have had an actual pirate adventure of the Pirate Queen and her barbarian consort. But Wood didn't go that way, and instead we have reminders like Black Stones of what could have been.