I had my hopes raised high with The Death (#10-12) and The Woman on the Wall (#13-15) story arcs. Conan readers got six consecutive issues of some damn fine comics, and it looked like Brian Wood had finally hit his stride and connected with the characters he was hired to write.
But issue #16 — the first in the new story arc "The Nightmare of the Shallows" — shows that my high hopes were premature. Wood's run on Conan the Barbarian has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, and if issue #16 is any indication we are in for a steep drop over the next three issues. The art is bad. The story is ridiculous. And it is difficult to find anything resembling Belit and Conan in the two main characters of this comic.
And that cover … really. The best I can come up with is WTF?
One of my biggest complaints about Wood's Conan run is the basic story architecture he uses — the three-issue "series of mini-series" format he is experimenting with, each with a rotating artist. It's repetitive and disengaging. There are little to no consequences for the characters, and little tension for the reader, because we know in advance that we are getting a textbook three-act story arc with the slate wiped clean for the next adventure.
Wood's much ballyhooed "emotional depth" he brings to the characters is almost entirely in the realm of "tell me" instead of "show me." We know Belit and Conan have this magnificent love because the little grey boxes tell us so, and because Wood occasionally writes them fucking. We know Belit is a great pirate queen because Wood tells us so — in a year and a half and 16 issues there has never been an actual pirate story. No sea battles. No raiding. With all this time spent on land I am afraid poor Belit and Conan will get seasick the next time they step on the decks of the Tigress.
So here we have The Nightmare of the Shallows, and true to form the events of The Death and The Woman on the Wall have been wiped clean. And true to form, Wood shows us Belit and Conan in love the only way he knows how — by having them fuck while the little grey boxes deliver the exposition text. Only this time, for extra naughtiness they are having implied threesomes with tavern maids and fucking in some kind of orgy-o-drome where strangers casually come up and chat with you mid-fuck. Because Ooo-la-la.
And then they take some drugs. Because why not? Robert E. Howard's Conan was openly antagonistic against lotus users and considered them weak-willed fools, but Wood's Conan has no problem lying naked and vulnerable in a public place in a self-induced drug coma. And he does it on a whim just because some random guy walked up to him mid-fuck and said "Hey babies! You want to have some real fun?" like a cheesy 1970s drug dealer.
To his credit, Wood tries to bring up some of the past story arcs, tries to make Conan confront some of the mistake of his past. But it is all so trite and shallow. In his drug coma/vision quest, Tito the captain of the Argo — the ship that Conan betrayed in the first story arc — pops up to tell Conan, "Dude, don't worry about it!" A giant bear god from a Mike Mignola comic appears to tell Conan to stop whinging about his dead fetus. And… that's about it. I was disappointed both of these resolutions, as it was a chance for some real depth of character exploration — I feel Conan was let off too easy and it was just a way to tie up some strings. Oh, and Belit and Conan finally get back on a ship, but it is only a magical drug-induced dream ship, so there is that.
And the art — credit where credit is due, Davide Gianfelice draws Belit really well. She is odd — slightly elfin with pointed ears and everything — but she looks sexy and good. (As an aside, I've noticed this throughout the artists Wood has worked with for his run. With one or two exceptions, they all draw backgrounds and Belit really well, but everything else not so much.) But Gianfelice's Conan is one of the worst of the series. It seriously reminds me of Mike Hawthorne's Conan on the Conan: Road of Kings series, all straight lines and flat animation style.
I don't know if I am being too harsh on Davide Gianfelice, but that is also one of the risks of the rotating artist style. I LOVED Mirko Colak's art. It was subtle and nuanced and perfect. Then next up is this flat, exaggerated style, and it just looks sloppy and unfinished. Maybe if I had time to get used to Gianfelice's style, I would appreciate it more. I can only imagine the transition will be even more jarring when the collected edition is released. And that Mike Mignola bear plopped down in the middle is really odd and out of place.
As it is, not even the King of Colors Dave Stewart can rescue this. Stewart made some odd choices here as well — he kept his coloring flat and chunky with little shading or painterly style, and that only emphasizes Gianfelice's lack of detail. (I wonder what Dave Stewart thought when he saw the Mignola bear? Knowing Stewart, he is far too much of a gentleman to tell.)
The Nightmare in the Shallows will last three issues, which puts us at issue #19 when it is over. That leaves five more issues for Brian Wood's run on Queen of the Black Coast. I don't expect much for the remainder of this story arc, but I hope he brings in someone good for the big finish.
Conan the Barbarian #16 will go on sale Wednesday, May 15, 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.