ADVANCE REVIEW! Conan the Barbarian #7 will go on sale Wednesday, August 8, 2012.
Hit-and-miss pretty much defines Conan the Barbarian for me. Every issue has moments that are right on target — pure Conan joy — followed by bits that are completely off the mark. It's like there are all these little puzzle pieces that almost fit together, but they are off just enough that that beautiful big picture never emerges.
Part of this is the rotating cast of artists. I've said it before and I'll say it again — a series with multiple artists can be a good comic, but never a great one. It's like watching a movie where the actors keep changing every few frames; no matter how good the individual actors/artists are, it makes for a dissonant experience.
The good news for issue #7 is that Becky Cloonan is back. Cloonan started Queen of the Black Coast, and to my mind she is the only one that can make it look right. Her art has this perfect edge of cartoonish-fantasy — reminiscent of Jeff Smith's Bone — that just works for the series. Every panel is ripe with a moody atmosphere and cinematic composition. From costume design to facial expressions to the notched and used appearance of Conan's sword, I fully believe in the world she creates.
Most importantly, she has matured with the characters. In issue #7, her Conan has filled out. He looks bigger, more rugged, more confident, like she is getting a better sense for the character. And her Belit… her Belit is nothing short of perfect. Say what you will about any other artist's interpretation of Conan, but Becky Cloonan owns Belit. She has made the Belit that all others will be compared to, and not favorably. I believe the word is "definitive."
(Oh, and speaking of art, Massimo Carnevale delivers the best cover to date for this series. Really nice, and it actually shows Conan and Belit for once.)
Story-wise, Brian Wood continues to confound me. There are some small scenes, some bits here and there, that are so well-crafted and executed that I just fall in love with them. But then the next page will knock that feeling away. He seems to be fantastic at the small, intimate moments, the personal relationships, but less able — at least as far as Conan goes — with building the overall plot and story structure.
Like issue #7: Conan and Belit in Cimmeria. They are just there. No explanation, no McGuffin., no reason why they left the crew behind on the shore. I actually stopped reading and went back to issue #6 worrying I had accidently missed an issue. Later, there is just some odd reference to someone imitating Conan, but the story really reads like Conan is bringing Belit home to meet his mom.
Again, the little personal pieces work great. Wood has built Belit and Conan's relationship as a mixed-marriage, and I thought he pulled this off perfectly. The dynamic between Belit and Conan was something I have seen many times first-hand. Living in Japan, I saw many relationships based on exoticism. The Japanese girl loved her strange, daring foreign husband. But, as soon as the two went back to his home country, the husband wasn't exotic anymore. The mystic vanished, and the relationship failed.
And Belit's feeling of helplessness — I have also seen the same thing happen with my own wife. She was always the leader in Japan, the confident one, fluent in her home country and language. When she got to the US, she was a fish-out-of-water, frustrated at the sudden balance-shift of having to rely on me for day-to-day tasks instead of the other way around. Wood managed to capture that frustration, that demotion, in a way that was true to life.
I find myself craving more than a disconnected series of three-issue adventures. I want more epic and less episodic; something that builds issue to issue. I loved the relationships of Conan and Belit in Cimmeria, but it happened too soon and for too little reason. This should have been issue twelve or thirteen. This should have been the middle-chapter in some multiple-issue story arc, with something that drove them to Cimmeria. They should have been sailing the seas after some treasure, or in pursuit of someone who wronged them a few issues earlier.
I want my McGuffin. I want more story to frame all of those little intimate moments that Wood does so well. I want an antagonist for my protagonist. We'll see how this new bizzaro Conan measures up as an antagonist next issue, I suppose. Something tells me is going to strut the stage for his three issues, then step off making way for the next story arc and artist. I have never been a fan of monster-of-the-week style storytelling, and personally, I want a little more than that (a lot more?) than a series of three-issue story arcs.
Fingers crossed and keep hoping. And more Becky Cloonan, please.
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.