We get a whole 3 pages of piracy in issue #19 of Brian Wood’s Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast. That’s pretty good actually, when compared to the rest of the series. And ironic, for what was supposed to be a pirate adventure from issue #1. Wood is the master of Tell-don’t-Show storytelling—on the first page, he states that “For Conan and Belit, home was aboard the Tigress, raiding up and down the western coasts.” You wouldn’t know it from this series though, because Conan and Belit spend far more time on dry land than they ever do pirating.
But we have those three pages. So, yeah.
The usual grumbling aside, I surprisingly liked #19, the start of a new 3-issue story arc Black Stones. With its series of 3-issue mini-series, Queen of the Black Coast has become as predictable as Seattle weather (Rain again?) but with every new beginning there is the hope that the new artist will produce something on the level of The Death or Woman on the Wall. We don’t get something quite that good here, but we do get something rare—what seems to be an honest-to-goodness Conan adventure.
It’s almost a classic Conan adventure. Conan and Belit attack a boat, and make off with a scroll that is said to be immensely valuable, but also cursed. In their attempts to fence the item, they run into the religious cult called the Black Stones, who are out to get their property back. There is some good action, and even a nice reminder that Brian Wood once wrote kick-ass comics like Northlanders—we finally see a little of that spirit and fire here.
The art repelled me at first, but then grew on me. Paul Azaceta has a unique, quasi-realistic style that was off-putting at first glance—and just a little bizarre. Like when did Belit get facial tattoos?—but after I got into the issue and accepted his Belit and Conan I started to appreciate his abilities. There’s nothing really outstanding in his panel work or compositions, but the dense lines and realistic proportions and facial expressions won me over. Strangely, it was my usual hero the King of Colors Dave Stewart who let me down this issue. He colored the whole world brown and dark, when the world could have used a bit of vibrant color.
As is often the case, the letter’s column was every bit as good as the actual issue. This month we got treated to a rant by musician/comic writer Mark Reznicek who put it succinctly “It’s a form of false advertising to stick a Conan logo on the book, because the character portrayed inside isn’t Conan.”
And that’s all I have to say about that. If you excuse me, I have the vastly superior King Conan: Hour of the Dragon to read.
After "Nightmare of the Shallows", in which a troubled Belit and Conan reached a loving ease with one another through shared use of hallucinogens, "Black Stones Pt.1" casts them into a new peril. Though curses, omens, and various manner of bewitching are vital motifs of Conan lore, this is the most overtly Mulder'n Scully plot Wood's concocted (a particularly compelling element of Wood's Conan is the question of whether Conan and Belit draw strength from a kind of selective skepticism, or simply a brawny egoistic disdain for any mysticism other than their own). So we encounter our barbarous lovers riding through the Forest of Ghouls in the Rabinian mountains, seeking bounty for an artefact of great worth and dread portent amidst painted priests and spear-mounted corpses, all dismissed with arrogant rationality.
Part of the fun of reading Wood's Conan is seeing the balance he and his artist collaborators strike between expected genre trappings and more contemporary comics storytelling. Azaceta, whose line and layouts have an undeniably modern feel, delivers fresh perspective, sometimes despite the familiarity of the story's tropes. For instance, he finds a subtle comedy in the pair's appearance when contrasted with the huddled, doomy denizens of a deserted village's small inn. They are absurdly exotic, all conspicuously bared flesh and savage ornamentation, but this momentary deflation heightens the ensuing action, building a graphic shorthand for the depths of the Black Stones' mystery, and Conan/Belit's shallow comprehension of it. Similarly, one climactic page features Belit and Conan standing in the aisle of a church amongst their slain, creating a striking thematic tableau.
This book may still be worth taking on an arc by arc basis, but coming off the brilliant Nightmare of the Shallows, the omens point to this team making Conan a rich, timeless, and refreshingly art-led read.