ADVANCE REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian #1: A Newbie's Perspective

A comic review article by: Danny Djeljosevic

ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #1 will go on sale Wednesday, February 8, 2012.


Full discosure: I know very little about Conan the Barbarian. I read/edit Zack Davisson's reviews of the various Dark Horse releases on this very website and I've seen the (pretty dope) John Milius/Oliver Stone adaptation starring Ah-Nuld (I keep forgetting there's a sequel). Otherwise, the depth of my knowledge goes about as far as knowing that he's a naked guy with a cape and a sword who kills a lot of bros and Frank Frazetta draws him really fucking well.

Conan the Barbarian #1 promises an accessible jumping-on point for curious readers who only know What is best in life. Our guides for this excursion are Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, both of whom surely have better things to do than work on licensed characters, but the fact that they are working with licensed characters is what makes it all the more intriguing. As someone who follows creators more than characters, I'm totally willing to follow Wood and Cloonan down this unfamiliar road.

This opening issue, adapting the Robert E. Howard story "Queen of the Black Coast" follows Conan as he hitches a ride on an unwilling (at first) merchant ship, learns of a witchy pirate queen known as Bêlit terrorizing the seas and promptly decides that he needs to fuck/murder said pirate queen. Brian Wood's script plays it straight and irony free while feeling comfortably modern, a treatment that a hardcore fan would pseudo-haughtily refer to as "respectful." You still kind of have to be willing to play along with the fantasy tropes -- this is still a world where men offer their swords and their lives to people they've just befriended -- but nothing about the story as Wood's played it feels distant or obscured to a newbie like me. By contrast, I also read through the first issue of The Phoenix on the Sword and, while a perfectly enjoyable read, it was clear Tim Truman was writing a thing he'd been writing for years for people who have been playing along at home.

The general perception of barbarian fantasy characters is that of the violent dimwit (chalk it up to pop cultural runoff), but Wood and Cloonan immediately cast Conan as a character a reader would want to follow. As our hero delivers -- seemingly to the reader -- a wry grin as he escapes the authorities, we immediately know he's charismatic enough to threaten the single-handed slaughter of an entire ship's crew only to win them over later with drunken stories. Which he totally does. A huge part of that appeal comes from Cloonan, who renders the Cimmerian as a realistically muscled human being with an identifiable range of expressions rather than a blood-flecked mesomorph with a permanent scowl. Which isn't to say that Conan necessarily needs to be drawn in earthly terms; more that Cloonan's typical renditions of the human body put Conan in terms I can appreciate.

Becky Cloonan is one of my favorite artists -- not only is her art amazingly consistent and expressive and energetic and irresistible to look at, but it exudes a passion for the medium that rivals any high-profile "superstar" working today. In Conan #1, there's an overwhelming sense that she's putting her all into her renditions, not just drawing awesome shit but interesting looking awesome shit that doesn't skimp out on subtle but vital details. When Conan threatens the ship captain with a sword, it's not just a sword -- it's a dented, banged up thing, indicating a blade that's been a long-term partner. It's possible Robert E. Howard included that detail in his original story and Brian Wood wrote that into the script, but it's Becky Cloonan who's tasked with making it work on the page -- a sword to match its well-traveled, stubbly companion. 

Cloonan's greatest achievement in this issue is with the aforementioned pirate queen, Bêlit, illustrated as alluringly exotic and obligatorily scantily clad, of course, but the creepiness is what makes her so exciting to watch. Typically you see a beautiful, nearly naked woman in a comic and know that whatever bro drew her wanted to make something he could fap to, but with Bêlit you can see intent in the confluence of lines that created her. By which I mean that Cloonan isn't drawing to titillate, but for affect. She's supposed to be attractive, yes, but once you get to close you realize that she's fucking frightening, and Cloonan nails the creepy, otherworldly mood of that pages as a contrast to the sun-kissed warmth of the other scenes. That mood, of course, is bolstered by Dave Stewart on colors, knocking the book out of the park with work that can only be described as Dave Stewart-levels of great.

Granted, I was pretty inclined to enjoy Conan the Barbarian from the get-go based on talent alone. I thought it was cool the first time around, but repeat readings have made me incredibly excited -- not just to see what happens next in this fun, charming, thrilling adventure, but also to venture outside the comfort zone created by Wood and Cloonan. Even though I know it won't be quite the same.


Want to see what a hardcore Conan fan thought of Conan the Barbarian #1? Check out Zack Davisson's review!



Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.

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