April 15, 2012

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Conan the Barbarian Issues 1 to 3

Written by Brian Wood
Illustrated by Becky Cloonan
Dark Horse

When fleeing from trouble, Conan ends up on a ship, earning his keep as a swordsman.  But when his captain comes up against the deadly alabaster Belit, Queen of a pirate band that terrorizes the seas, he's in for a very different kind of fight--one for his heart.  

A new era for Conan begins in these opening issues of the latest Dark Horse comics adaptation of Robert E. Howard's classic character.  This time, it's one of the most famous Conan stories of all, "Queen of the Black Coast."  Taking over the reigns of the character are Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, two highly respected creators of their own works tasked with bringing this important part of the barbarian's history to life.

Unfortunately, however, I am disappointed with the results so far.  While Wood is a very good writer and the dialog sections of the story are as strong as ever, the narrative box pieces feel intrusive, as though Wood isn't quite sure how to integrate them into his story.  They weave in and out with an imperial voice that just feels off, as they try to place a shadow over the young warrior's actions and imply future problems.  Using an omnipotent voice to create a sense of danger in a comic is a tricky proposition, and works best when there's a character who is explaining what has happened.  Freed from this tie, I felt jarred out of the story every time Wood/Howard enter the story in the opaque boxes.

Things go better when Wood allows Conan to just interact with his world, as his description of the events on  Argos are filled with a great layer of sarcasm, mock humility, and bragging that fits Conan perfectly.  Tito shines in a supporting role, taking everything that happens in stride and knowing that the day he allowed the barbarian on his ship was an ill omen indeed.  The idea of Conan as an alien force, which can be both terrorizing and exotic also comes off well.  Conan should be the center of attention anytime he enters the room (or, in this case, the comic page), and Wood has the rest of the cast playing off his strangeness extremely well.

The big problem, however, is that while the actors on the page are treating Conan as if he is larger than life, artist Becky Cloonan has made the rather odd choice of drawing Howard's character as anything but.  He has the same look and body shape of his companions on the Argos, which is puzzling because we are supposed to believe that people know *on sight* that Conan is different.  Maybe I'm spoiled by the excellent Roy Thomas-John Buscema years, but I want Conan to bristle off the page, ready to fight anyone and everyone--maybe even the reader themselves!  Cloonan's Conan is smaller, slicker, and doesn't have the body language or appearance of a man who fights first and asks questions later.  He's the type of Conan who looks like a movie star heartthrob instead of a rugged fighter.  This is not the best analogy, but I want Conan to be more the Han Solo type and instead, in this version of the comic, he looks more like Luke Skywalker.

As a result, when Conan fights and kills every taker, I have a hard time believing it.  He's not bigger, stronger, or badder than the rest of Tito's crew, or even Tito himself.  How does he manage to survive?  It's a major problem in this adaptation for me, and not one I'm easily able to shake.

This is not the Conan that I imagine, nor do I think it's true to the character.  That being said, Cloonan draws  her version very, very well.  I have no complaints with the quality of the art, only the choices made by the artist in terms of character design.  The facial expressions are a great strength, especially on Belit when we meet her in Tito's imaginative description.  The sex scene between Conan and Belit is drawn tactfully while never lessening the tension as we see Conan conquered by forces as old as time.  Despite my incredulity of Conan's battle prowess, I had no problem following the action scenes, and Dave Stewart really nails the coloring of this section, though I wonder if modern readers understand why Belit's crew are so heavily shaded.  (I also noticed that by issue three they're given a different tone by Stewart.)  Overall, things work best, however, when Conan is speaking rather than acting, and I feel like that's going to be a deal-breaker for me over time.

It's early yet for the Wood and Cloonan team, and as issues go on, I might grow to like their take on Conan.  However, despite the preservation of Conan's ferocity and violence in terms of his action, the decision to soften his visual appearance and play up the character moments makes this less interesting for me than prior adaptations I've read and misses the essential points of Howard's character.  Conan must always be alone in a crowd, and here he's too close to those around him.  It's going to dull the impact of the climax of this story, whenever this comic reaches the endpoint and in the long run, I don't think a smoother Conan is one for me, even though I realize I'm in the minority on this one.  I like Cloonan and Wood elsewhere, but not here.  For right now, this is a story that I don't think is worth picking up issue by issue and would recommend waiting to see if it improves when the story is completed and collected as a trade.