Almost everything about Conan is physical. He is a mighty fighter. A daring thief. A natural commander and leader of men. So what does he do when he is pitted against something that he can't fight, something against which a strong sword arm is no defense? What does he do when the woman he loves is dying of a disease?
If this was Robert E. Howard's Conan, then we would find that the disease is actually some wizard's curse or some evil object, and Conan would rally all of his strength and lead a solitary attack against the wizard's keep, then find his woman returned to vim and vigor after slaying his enemy. But this is Brian Wood's Conan, so the disease is just… disease. Conan is helpless, in a strange, unwelcome city trying to find a healer and hope for his dying beloved and the crew of the Tigress.
I think I get what Wood is trying to do with this recent story arc — The Death. It's an interesting analysis of the character, putting him into combat against something that he can't hit. And that hopelessness is something everyone feels when fighting against disease. It just sits there, stealing life from a loved one, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You want the disease to be something physical, something you can tear at and hate. But it isn't. And you can't.
So I understand and respect what Wood is doing. It's an almost classical deconstruction of character, like throwing Aquaman into the desert. And, as a reader, it makes for a good story. I think Wood hit some great beats this issue; Belit's grand entrance is brilliant. She is every inch the Queen, holding regal command even while wasting away. Conan's visit to the mystic was a great scene as well: "…when one has a vision such as that, thank the gods the answer is so clear."
Artist Declan Shalvey does a great job handling the art for "The Death." He has an interesting style that works well with Conan's world, and I like his use of shadows and heavy lines to emphasize expression. It can be a little odd — in one scene Conan looks beautiful, like a Greek statue, and the next he is hunched over like a Neanderthal, face deep in shadows and with a heavy brow. The King of Colors Dave Stewart, of course, pretties up Shalvey's art and contributes to the depressing, overcast feel of this story arc. Speaking of which, just what the hell did Dave Stewart's coloring books look like growing up? Something tells me they didn't look like mine and yours.
So what keeps me from loving this issue as much as I loved last issue? I think it is that "Part Two" staring at me from the cover. For this series, Wood has been doing essentially a series of 3-issue mini-series, with a different artist every time. So there is no suspense as to how long any particular story arc will play out, and the characters don't seem to grow from one story to the next. "The Death" is interesting, but it is going to conclude next issue. Then we will be off again on a new story arc with a new artist. (Which is an artist I am really looking forward to. So there is that).
Everything ties up in a neat little package with three issues, allowing Dark Horse to proudly proclaim "Great jumping-on point for new readers!" I think that approach works well when you have an ensemble cast, like with B.P.R.D. It allows you to focus on a new team member each series. But I am finding the technique less successful here. It's getting redundant. I want a five-issue story arc, at least. I am longing for a continuing story.
And I really, really want Conan and Belit to head to sea and do some pirating. We got a glimpse of that in issue #10, and it was awesome. But here we are again, docked in port.
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.