ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #3 will go on sale Wednesday, May 16, 2012.
After a stunning issue #3, Conan the Barbarian hits some rough transitional waters in issue #4. The Tigress has (almost) officially left the waters of Robert E. Howard's story and moved (almost) fully under Brian Wood's control. A new artist comes also aboard as James Harren (temporarily?) replaces Becky Cloonan.
The first thing I noticed about Issue #4 was a change in tone, The story has lost that dreamlike quality that marked the first three issues. The first story arc had the feeling of the Japanese film Ugetsu, of sailing into a dense fog, moving over waters that distort the barrier between reality and the land of legends. Wood and Cloonan played well with the mythology of Bêlit. Her impossible white skin juxtaposed against the inhumanness of her black warriors gave that sense of the dangerous, eternal feminine perfected in R.H. Haggard's She and studied by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. Bêlit wore her legend like a mantle.
But now in issue #4 Bêlit and her crew on the Tigress are just raiders, just pirates. Successful raiders, to be sure, but they have lost their mythology. The curtain is drawn back and the Wizard is exposed.
I think this is part of Brian Wood's plan, to humanize and add some depth and layers to Robert E. Howard's somewhat monolithic characters. Bêlit under Howard was a creature of passion, of impulse, of instinct. We only knew she was a successful raider because Howard told us so. We never actually saw her in action.
But this Bêlit is crafty. She plans. She connives. She has patience and forethought. In this issue for example; N'Gora and the crew sail into Argos plain as can be, claiming to have killed Bêlit. Conan is delivered up in chains as a decoy, distracting the city guard while the raiders sneak in and pick the city clean. The plan is then to rescue Conan, and sail off with holds full of booty. It is a clever plan, one that requires daring and skill. And one that requires great trust on the part of Conan.
Much of issue #4 takes place inside Conan's head, as he slips into despair thinking that his new lover has only used him and offered him up as a sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered. Wood is showing us a side of Conan rarely seen in comics. "Gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth" is the quote, and here we are seeing some of that melancholy. It was hard to grasp at first, because I am unused to this side of Conan. Most writers would give Conan a paragraph or two at best of brooding, and then have him shake such doubts from his head, realizing they won't help the situation.
All of this internal doubt could come off as self-indulgent, but fortunately Wood writes dialogue boxes like a fiend. I love reading Wood's dialogue, and I loved the subtle ways he incorporated Howard's prose into this issue in a way that made sense. If I have to be stuck inside Conan's head for five pages, I am glad it is Wood writing the dialogue.
And James Harren's art. I honestly think that the change in tone is more due to the artist than the writer. Cloonan drew Conan with a sort of wide-eyed expression of wonder that added to the legendary sense of being unsure of what was going on around him. Cloonan's Bêlit was ethereal, like a goddess. She was like lightning, beautiful and bright but deadly. Harren's Bêlit, on the other hand, is much more grounded. His Bêlit is fleshy and human; no longer supernatural. This is a Bêlit who you could picture hanging her butt over the side of the boat to take a pee. She is a person.
I like James Harren's art. He draws exquisite monsters over in B.P.R.D., and his scenery here is breathtaking. I don't know what he used for a reference, but the scenes of the Tigress sailing into port are beyond stunning. His figures are tougher for me. I think that has something to do with changing artist — as a reader I desire a certain continuity of appearance and style. With a new artist I have to re-learn what Conan, Bêlit, and N'Gora look like.
(And as an aside — I don't know why, but both Cloonan and Harren have a problem with faces. Cloonan's Bêlit was perfect, but her Conan had a jutting under-bite that bugged me. Now Harren has drawn Conan with a mouth that stretches inhumanly wide, from eyeball to eyeball. And Bêlit… her eyes are huge and unnaturally spaced, and her lips are pursed in that duck-mouth pose that some girls affect in their Facebook pics because they think it makes them look cute. It doesn't.)
But I am sure Harren will grow into the characters. And if Wood is smart, he will give Harren some monsters for Conan to fight. The guy can draw an imposing monster, and Conan was known to battle monsters in his time. I like Wood's humanistic take, but I wouldn't mind a little fantasy as well.
I'm not sure how many issues that Harren will be on Queen of the Black Coast. I know Cloonan will be returning for issue #7 at least. That worries me. A comic is a collaboration between the artist and writer, and the best comics — especially those with a finite run and story like Queen of the Black Coast — will have a single writer/artist team overseeing the book from start to finish. Imagine if Preacher or Y:The Last Man had swapped artists periodically.
This is especially true when series are collected into trade editions. Conan has been hurt before by rotating artists, such as the Conan: The Free Companions trade. Conan fans have enjoyed the luxury of a single writer/artist/colorist team in the form of Tim Truman, Tomas Giorello, and Jose Villarrubia for awhile now, and it has been amazing to see how they have grown and matured with the character.
Now that we are four issues in, I hope that James Harren stays with the series for the remainder, perhaps with Cloonan filing in from time-to-time. I worry that a cavalcade of artists will parade through, each with a different take. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many artists spoil the comic. Even if they are all good artists.
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 countri
es, 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.