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.