ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #12 will go on sale Wednesday, January 16, 2012.
Issue #12 marks one year of Brian Wood's run on Conan the Barbarian, and the mid-way point between his two-year run. With its pattern of rotating artists each doing a series of three-issue mini-series, his run has been marked by peaks and valleys, to say the least.
I think I get what Brian Wood has been trying to do with Conan; Wood puts vulnerability and psychology into a character that is the antithesis of vulnerability and psychology. In most stories, Conan is the straight man. He's the emotionless, cold-eyed killer James Bond surrounded by a menagerie of eccentric villains and beautiful dames. He's Batman. He's in control. But Wood flips the tables. Reshuffles the deck. Recasts the play.
That all sounds good in theory, but in practice Wood is like a hip, eclectic chef doing odd fusion cooking — mixing disparate ingredients to come up with Mexican Sushi. (By contrast, King Conan's Tim Truman, Tomas Giorello, and Jose Villarrubia are classically trained taisho doing pure Edo-mae sushi. No spicy tuna on their menu.) Like most experimental chefs, Wood puts out a menu that is fun to try, and sometimes yummy, but rarely rises to the level of excellence. The novelty is the main draw. Every now and then, though, everything comes together and he serves you an enchilada roll that is heaven on a plate.
The Death is one of those. I loved the opening of The Death (issue #10), was less thrilled by the middle (issue #11), but found myself blown away by the ending. Issue #12 is a fantastic combination of the classic and the new, of Conan refreshed and revitalized but still familiar.
There is so much that is great about issue #12. That Massimo Carnevale cover to start. That's a masterpiece. I love the stark graphic nature, the raw emotion (not to mention that for once Carnevale painted a Conan that looks like Conan). And Wood's writing and dialogue is pure diamonds. Look at some of these lines:
"Can I get you breakfast, stranger?"
"I'm drinking it."
"I always thought I would die in battle. Instead I shall die fetching tea."
"Do you see the life drain from this one? That is you, five seconds from now. So come on."
That's good stuff right there.
Declan Shalvey has been one of my favorite artists of Wood's run. He has this blocky, stark style that adds so much to the grimness of Conan's world. His art has a primitive vitality to it that works well in both the quite moments and the explosive fight scenes. If I had a complaint I would say that his faces can be a little weak, but that's just a quibble. And strangely enough Dave Stewart didn't really blow me away on this issue — the King of Colors usually adds dynamism and life to anything he touches, but he went with a drab, neutral palate that resonates with the storyline but isn't visually arresting. Still, great art.
My favorite part of The Death, however, is the ending, which I cannot reveal here. I knew what N'Yaga was referring to at the first hint, so it was no real surprise. But surprise or not, Wood did something The Death that he hasn't managed to do so far in his run — he created an ending that lingered. Most of his three-issue story arcs tie up in a little neat package (far too neatly for my tastes) so that with the next arc we are fresh and free and forgotten as if nothing ever happened. But The Death … even with the flipping of the final page the story is still with me. Well done, Mr. Wood.
A great ending to a great story arc. I wish every issue of Conan the Barbarian was of this caliber. But with the end of The Death it is time to spin the roulette wheel again and bring on a new artist. Fortunately, we know this time it Is coming up green double-zeros. Next issue is the incredible Mirko Colak. Let's hope Wood gives him a story arc worthy of his great abilities.
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.