Damn, but this was a tough issue to swallow. On the one hand, Wood, Colak and Stewart deliver a powerhouse — this is an almost-perfect issue. But on the other hand — after what Bêlit did here, how could their relationship ever possibly recover? Ouch.
To me, this story arc has finally delivered on the promise of Conan the Barbarian as initially announced. Halfway through now, Wood has hit his stride with the story. We are still trapped in the three-issue story arc format that stifles the series, but it finally feels like a larger story is emerging. Those initial story arcs were choppy and clumsy like a deer trying to get its footing (Conan battles his evil twin? Really?), but with the previous story arc The Death and this arc The Woman on the Wall we are seeing some of that much-touted emotional depth and character building. And with Mirko Colak, he has an artist who can bring out that emotion, who is a master of facial expressions necessary to subtle writing like this.
With this issue, I am again blown away by Mirko Colak. He has an incredible sense of composition. In the opening scenes, the crew of the Tigress struggles against a storm and Colak draws them leaning left, then right, then left again giving the sense of a tossing boat at sea. It's an old trick — they famously used the same idea on Star Trek — but I don't know that I ever seen it carried out so well in a comic book. There is a rhythm and energy to his art that draws me in and keeps me glued to the page.
And his figures — this guy was just born to draw Conan. He grounds Howard's fantasy world in a detailed, humanistic style that makes me fully believe in the world. His Conan is young, lean and muscular in a way that makes total sense. He crouches like a tiger, and lashes out like a hurricane. His Bêlit is equally impressive, beautiful like a goddess, strong-willed and in total command — she is no man's fantasy figure. His detail is phenomenal. I don't know if all of those touches are Colak's or Wood's ideas, but the scene of the night raid, with the warriors wrapping their weapons up to prevent being spotted in the glare — I don't think I have ever seen that level of detail and realism brought to a Conan comic.
I'm telling you — even if you have never read an issue of Conan, you should at least pick this issue up and flip through it to enjoy the incredible art. This is Colak's last issue for Conan the Barbarian, but I hope he gets some more work soon. Colak is one of those artists I would follow from series to series, just to see his wonderful drawings. But I would be even happier if it was Colak drawing Robert E. Howard.
Storywise, this is where things get tough. Wood has been building up the tension between Conan and Bêlit ever since The Death. The loss of a child is devastating, something that can tear even normal couples apart. I liked how the story has gone so far, with Bêlit retreating to Shem in that most human desire of wanting to be alone. Conan, being the a dumb guy we all can be, refuses to give her the space she needs and leads an army to re-take her.
This reminds me of a super-magnified fight that most couples would instantly recognize. Only, instead of your girlfriend locking herself in the bathroom while you pound on the door shouting "Honey please! Can't we just talk!" it's Conan pounding on a castle wall using an army. Same thing, different scale.
But then Bêlit does something — and I can't say what without spoilers — that goes too far. As my favorite sex advice columnist Dan Savage would say, "there are some pooches that can't be unscrewed." Meaning there are some things done for revenge or in the heat of the moment that can never be taken back. I don't honestly see how Bêlit and Conan could recover from something like what happens here, unless it is some deus ex machina (Bêlit's evil twin?) or just ignoring it and moving on to the next story arc, pretending this never happened.
It will be interesting to see how Wood is going to make this work; maybe he isn't planning to. There are only 11 issues left in the series, making for two more of these three-issue story arcs. Maybe his plan is to tear them apart, put them back together, then tear them apart again for the big finale. Whatever it is, I don't feel like Conan or Bêlit's relationship — or they as characters — have grown over the past 14 issues. It's been more like yo-yo play (up, down, up, down, repeat)
Much has been said of Wood giving Conan and Bêlit an emotional core to counterpoint Howard's blood-and-thunder, and I see some of that here. But I honestly feel like it's too shallow of an emotional core. I've seen a lot of great comic book romances, but this isn't one of them. We know Conan and Bêlit are in love because we are told they are in love. But actions speak louder than words; and in this issue at any rate, Bêlit makes Hank Pym look like an ideal partner.
Conan the Barbarian #14 will be out in stores Wednesday, March 20, 2013.
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.