Conan the Barbarian #1-3

Don't look now, but a couple of indie comics nerds are messing around with Conan the Barbarian — and it's the best thing to happen to Robert E. Howard's legendary galoot since Marvel Comics retrofitted him for the rogue male-centric mid-'70s. Writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan's Conan the Barbarian, based on Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" short story — in which a young Conan becomes romantically involved with Belit, an "ebony-haired," living breathing angel of death — features a fairly talkative warrior, built more like a long distance runner than a linebacker. This Conan is totally hot — in a youthful badass, Peter Pan kind of way.

Issue #3 begins with a flashback to the disconcertingly slender Conan hunting in his native Cimmeria. It's a context-free scene from Conan's past, there to parallel a sex scene later on — making explicit the creation/destruction themes that tug this tale along — and to illustrate Belit's idyllic vision of the Cimmerian. Also, it's the only moment of the story arc where we get to see Conan in his natural habitat, doing what he does best: masterfully murdering things. And that's important because "Queen of the Black Coast" is all about Conan screwing up. Issue #1 starts with Conan forcing himself onboard a ship called the Argus, assuring protection to the angry crew, then confidently and idiotically leading them into the seas patrolled by the vicious Belit and her ship, the Tigress. Everyone on the Argus, save for Conan, is killed by Belit's crew.

While downplaying the pulpmeister's worshipful Romanticism, Wood and Cloonan honor the strange contingencies of fate that are at the core of Howard's tough guy mystical storytelling. "Queen of the Black Coast" is a story about sex and violence, love and reptile-brain attraction, and the brutal fact that we cannot control our base impulses no matter how hard we try. Was it simple hubris, or more mysterious matters of the heart that sent Conan towards Belit's ship, in the first place? Later on, we learn that Conan would've been killed along with the Argus' crew, had Belit wished for it to happen.

Wood and Cloonan's approach to the Conan legacy is conservative (see issue #2's extended fight scene, a gleefully violent mix of cheap thrills and grace under pressure), perhaps even reverential (the narration appears in a typewriter font, reminding readers of the source material), but quietly subversive, as well. When Conan bounds onto the Argus uninvited in issue #1, he pretty much hustles the angry crew into accepting him, first with his sword, and then with some smooth-talking about his predicament: "And perhaps more than a few quarts of ale had passed my lips. You men must surely know the place, the bone in the throat, that inn down the old wharf road?" It's our hero as fast-talking twerp.

That bit of dialogue isn't in the original story and here, it's delivered by a less than cocksure warrior, so everything is slightly shifted and modernized with just enough respect to tradition and expectation. A touching, full page image in issue #3 shows Conan and Belit, post-coitus — their naked bodies comparable in size, subtly correcting to the usually out of control body images present in fantasy comics. With the doom that will inevitably befall their romance in upcoming issues temporarily at bay, the two share a genuinely tender moment. Belit rests on the bed, her foot is half-wrapped around Conan's leg. It's a type of intimacy that cuts straight through Howard's lofty vision of romance as two myths falling in love with one another's mythos.


23 Responses to Conan the Barbarian #1-3

  1. Graeme says:

    I have to say that I think that this is a horrible vision of Howard’s work. It takes everything “fantasy” and diminishes it. The whole point is that Conan is larger than life (in every respect) and that he has been the same (more or less) since he first held a sword. From the almost androgynous, anime look that Conan has to the smaller build they take the awe out of the character. The story line itself is not too bad, they have kept it pretty conservative as you have mentioned, but the truth of the matter is that there will never be anyone that can make Hyboria and Conan, as vivid and as true a character as REH.

  2. What about Conan is anime?

  3. Graeme says:

    This particular artwork I find…anime-esque. He is too soft, too pretty, and just not really Conan. He is maybe a comic Conan for the 2012 Conan movie generation.

  4. Graeme-
    I think you’re right to say that no one will ever make Conan as vivid as the guy who created him, but you know, we’re pushing close to a century since the character appeared and this is most certainly not the first time someone has strayed from the conventional characterization (if you even think Wood/Cloonan have, I really don’t). Also, though, the simpler answer to all the body image blah blah blah-ing in my review is that this is a younger Conan who just couldn’t be the massive buff dude he’d become later on his life. Like physically it just wouldn’t be possible. But I do think there’s a move in this comic to approach Conan from a different angle and I think doing that, when coupled with its pretty polite handling of Howard’s narrative, is certainly respectable and respectful (if the latter matters to you, it doesn’t to me).

    Pretty much every adaptation is a “horrible” version of its source, but that’s cool! And interesting! I really love Pat Aulisio and Josh Bayer’s ‘Conon’ for how much it internalized the character and joked around, and I’m one of the few idiots who liked the 2011 Conan movie because it just turned the whole Conan story into modern exploitation, Saturday afternoon trash. What Conan comics/media worked for you, Graeme? Genuinely curious.

    Also, though: yes, what Mr. Brothers said.

  5. Yeah, I personally like Becky Cloonan’s slimmer, lithe Conan. He’s supposed to be crazy agile, right? It makes sense. It’s just more… I dunno, Jay Chou or Jason Statham than Arnold Schwarzeneggar. She draws some ruggedly handsome and/or pretty dudes, and I think her Conan clearly falls into the former category.

    I liked your review, Brandon. I’ve read the first issue, and I was waiting for the complete story to check out the rest. Glad to hear they stuck the landing.

  6. David-
    Thanks! And yeah, “ruggedly handsome” is spot-on. I could be projecting this because Cloonan’s a female and I’m just a dumb white dude, but I got a sense that she created a Conan here that was closer to what she or in a more general sense, what women would find attractive: someone physically fit and agile, and not a powerhouse oaf-ish linebacker. Probably projecting there, but I hope what I’m saying makes sense.

    And yeah, I think they nail this first story arc or like half-an-arc or whatever. Wood is a smart comics writer who isn’t too smart for like, resolution or narrative symmetry and all that stuff that a lot of other smart writers always wanna avoid, and it keeps this Conan story–which is odd for a number of reasons–under control.

  7. James says:

    This stuff looks a hell of a lot better to me and is much better drawn than the way-overworked paintings that DH was doing previously (with the exception of the story about Conan’s pops by Corben/Villarrubia). Then, I so totally preferred Barry Smith’s version to the ugly, brutish Buscema version.

  8. R. Fiore says:

    Barry Windso-Smith’s Conan was a bit willowy too, wasn’t he?

  9. Wait till you see Jim Harren’s work from issue 4 onwards, man what weird but wonderful at times. His Conan is like a wet lettuce, stringy and hanging all over the place with a big gob, but his double spreads with Dave Stewarts colours are excellent.

  10. Derik Badman says:

    Just saw that issues 1+2 will be on sale for $.99 this weekend on Dark Horse Digital store, for those who might be interested.

  11. R. Maheras says:

    I was a bit disappointed by Smith’s version of Conan when it was first published — probably because, based on the Lancer editions of Howard’s books, I thought Frazetta’s Conan vision was the definitive one. But Smith’s version soon grew on me, and by the third or fourth issue, I was hooked.

    In the late 1970s, I sent a Conan spot illo I had drawn to a well-known and widely-published fanzine for possible publication. It was rejected, and the rationale of the editor was that Conan supposedly looked “too squat.” But that was my take on the character — muscular and compact.

  12. Mike Hunter says:

    …”A big gob”?

  13. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    maybe its just the selected page, but it kind of gives an idea of what a color version of East Coast Rising would feel like. i’ll have to check this out eventually.

  14. JohnK (UK) says:

    “A big gob” is slangy English for “A big mouth”. Well, it usually is anyway.

  15. AndyD says:

    I bought a lot of Conan books from Dark Horse, but became very dissatisfied with them and stopped ordering them. Conan is a case where the art has become more important than the writing for me; I know the original tales, I know most of the adaptions, so the next version of, say, “Red Nails” really has to be good to keep my interest. And in that regard the Howard material at Dark Horse sadly has become very generic or just badly done. Thought I gave this new relaunch a chance. But I´ll pass. The art is too cartoony for my taste, a style I don´t find well suited for the material.

  16. Probably talking to a wall here guys, but come on, too cartoony? I don’t know, like, isn’t it *interesting* to see someone approach it different than how you expect? Also, I mean, I’ve read all the REH stories too and part of the fun here is seeing how people interpret them, it’s like a kind of lit. crit. only more awesome because it’s not boring like lit. crit! You feel me?

  17. Mike Hunter says:

    Whew, that’s a relief…

    (Thanks for clarifying!)

  18. AndyD says:

    part of the fun here is seeing how people interpret them,”

    Of course you are right, this is part of the fun. But the problem with the Howard material of course is that they already did adapt every story and even every sentence left on a napkin in the past. I think the second Solomon Kane miniseries from Dark Horse was the third or even forth version of this particular story-fragment I read. So a new adaption is not automatically a selling point.

    As far as the art goes, interesting is fine. But this art I find not very well suited for this genre, it reminds me of a cartoon like the animated DC shows. I loved the JLA or Dini´s Batman, but I don´t like it for S&S fantasy. Not to mention the animeesque character-design, which I truly dislike in genre comics.

  19. James says:

    Isn’t that exactly the point? This stuff has been done to death. Every story has been adapted ad infinitum. Yeah, Frazetta nailed the look of a murderous older Conan pretty well in his covers but then Smith did a great job capturing a more magical, romantic atmosphere. It made his name and I haven’t seen him do better since. I really never like the thug-ugly Buscema look and everyone and their uncle has done that. Grunt, arghh, slash. Boring. That last bunch of DH overpainted glop was really off-putting. Never saw Cloonan’s stuff before, it looks real nice. Otherwise, time to trash the concepts, they are so last century.

  20. Chris Duffy says:

    Conan is so boring to me! And yup I read all the Howard stories. But Becky Cloonan might make me read a Conan story as I think she’s a great cartoonist.

  21. Adam says:

    I tried to like this book, I wanted to like it, I like the creators, just not on this book. It feels like teen Conan’s romance adventure. I want brutal Conan killing and fucking. Doesn’t seem very difficult. Unfortunately it seems most books with brutal characters have turned into explorations of the effeminate, adding to the growing pussification of mainstream comics in general.

  22. ant says:

    I love the Ernie Chan stuff from Savage Sword of Conan. Can’t remember off-hand who wrote it. I think Ms. Cloonan’s take on Conan is certainly a nice change but I’ve never liked her art–I think it’s pretty hard to deny that it isn’t influenced by certain manga/anime drawing styles. That’s not the reason I dislike it though.
    And is that supposed to be a woman on the cover to issue one? Maybe androgyny is the point, I dunno.

  23. Alan Dimes says:

    I was a little disappointed in Cloonan’s take on Conan because I thought the stuff she did with Wood in Northlanders was excellent. Her version of Belit is good but I think she would have better suited to some tale of Conan before he travelled south. What I miss is a feeling of lushness and colour, the allure that brought the boy from Cimmeria to the more civilised lands. I have to say that generally speaking I still prefer the Marvel adaptations of the original stories to those of Dark Horse, although the new stories that DH has come up with to fill in the comes have been very good and Giorello is one of the best artists to have drawn the character. No problem with Wood’s story; I think having Conan mixed up with the supernatural in every single story runs the risk of being boring. Intrigue and battle were also part of the originals and they should be played up as much as the magic aspect.

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