ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #13 will go on sale Wednesday, February 20, 2013.
Conan the Barbarian is a lesson on the waltz between artist and writer in American comics, and how important it is. This is issue #13 — the first issue in the countdown of Brian Wood's final year on the title. In 13 issues the series has had five artists; Becky Cloonan, James Harren, Vasilis Lolos, Declan Shalvey and Mirko Colak. That's roughly an artist per three issues.
I've been pretty vocal about my dislike of the rotating cast of artists. To me, it is the biggest failing of the series. I know it was a business decision made early on, but I think it was a bad decision. And I think this issue proves it.
That's no slam on (most of) the individual artists. Except Lolos, all of the artists have done good work, sometimes exceptional. Cloonan was the best, with her unique, ethereal vision. She drew Belit like a goddess, and created a moody, mist-covered atmosphere with her blend of expressionism/realism. Both Harren and Shalvey put in solid art. I had some complaints with both of them, but lots of praise too. But now Mirko Colak steps up, and puts them all to shame.
Mirko Colak's art is astonishing. He comes from a background of European comics, that emphasis detailed backgrounds and humanistic characters to a much greater extent than American comic art. Some of the issues I had with both Harren and Lolos' work was that they drew epic, beautiful backgrounds but with cartoonish, exaggerated characters. By contrast, Colak draws everything well. You can sense how much care and thought was put into each and every line. Whether it is a castle sitting miles away on a distant horizon, of the strands of Conan's hair in the foreground, his work is balanced and considered.
And more importantly, it enhances Wood's writing. Wood has always approached Conan with an introspective approach, favoring internal conflict over battle. Sure, he throws some action scenes in, but these are almost an afterthought to the true story. The story of the heart.
Colak is the first artist on this series to truly bring Wood's vision to life. Because Colak is able to summon powerful, and yet subtle, emotions in his characters. His humanistic take, his nuanced facial expressions, lend an undeniable strength to the little grey boxes of text that Wood uses to push his story forward. He takes Wood's script and pours depth and emotion into it. For the first time, I feel real pity for Conan. I feel the pain of his heartbreak. I feel the strength of his love.
All of the previous artists, with their stylized, exaggerated facial features, weren't really able to do justice to Wood's intentions. Cloonan came the closest. But it wasn't until I saw Colak's work that I realized this is exactly what the series needed — a humanistic take on art to match Wood's humanistic script. Cloonan drew Belit like a goddess, but Colak draws her like a person — like the type of person you could fall in love with. His take on Conan and Belit is completely different than the artists that came before him, and perfect.
And Dave Stewart — wow, you can tell when that guy is in love with the art he is coloring. The King of Colors matches Colak's humanistic art, applying a sfumato technique with the backgrounds to give a feeling vastness to each page. His desert skies look like desert skies, just as much as his ocean skies look like ocean skies. All praise Dave Stewart. Give the man an award. Hell, give him two.
Oh yeah, there is a story here too — but you don't really care about a recap. Because that isn't what's important about this issue. (Although the story is wonderful. The part where Conan hunts the deer is incredibly touching.) What's important is reading it, enjoying it, looking at that art, and sighing a melancholy sigh … because you realize what an amazing, ground-breaking, mind-blowing series this could have been if Colak had been drawing since issue #1.
Sadly, Colak is only drawing two issues of Conan the Barbarian. And I don't think I am going to be able to look at it the same again. Every issue is going to be tinged with "What might have been … "
If Dark Horse is smart, they will already have Mirko Colak signed up for something else. I hope it is more Conan. Because talent like this deserves more than just two issues. And readers like us deserve this level of talent.
For more about the new artist of Conan the Barbarian, check out Zack's interview with Mirko Colak.
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.