Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Conan the Barbarian #1 and #2: a comic review!

Conan the Barbarian #1 and #2
Publisher:  Dark Horse
Script:  Brian Wood
Art:  Becky Cloonan
Colors:  Dave Stewart

 Conan gets run out of town and signs on as bodyguard for the merchant crew of a small trading galley.  Well, he actually bullies his way into the job to save his own skin.  It doesn't take the young barbarian long to befriend his sailing companions, especially Tito, their boss, but there's troubled waters ahead.  The pirate queen Belit haunts these waters and Conan's dreams.  One day Conan, Tito and the other sailors sight black sails on the horizon and two who were destined to meet join battle on the open waves.  And so scripter Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan open this new Conan series from Dark Horse, called, cleverly enough, Conan the Barbarian.  They're adapting Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast" into comic book perfection.

To continue this nautical theme, there's a typhoon headed our way here in Japan.  We're sending our kids home early because many of them have to take buses and trains to outlying communities along the coast.  If we didn't, and the winds and rains lash us hard enough, these kids would be spending the night here at the school or at the train station.  And w would be in a lot of trouble.  And what thrills me almost as much as the darkening skies and quickening winds and an afternoon that looks suddenly like twilight?

Becky Cloonan's arwork!  I have to admit I'm partial to this kind of expressionistic linework a la Guy Davis, Paul Pope, Joe Kubert.  But it's not simply personal preference for a particular drawing quality or style.  Rendering style aside, Cloonan shocks me with how boldly inventive she is in visualizing her action sequences.  In the second issue, Conan jumps from a ship and kills a couple of pirates underwater.  Cloonan pulls back from the the aftermath into the watery depths to give readers a glimpse of couple of sharks looming for a quick and easy meal.  Truly gruesome!

This she follows with two bravura pages where Conan surfaces then cuts his way through some almost inhuman pirates.  Cloonan uses stacks of skewed wide panels for a dizzying effect, emphasizing movement then freezes time at the climactic moment with a full-page splash.  Why do so many artists refuse to take full advantage of these tricks, rather than relying on static, "widescreen" layouts with inset panels for close-ups and splashes seemingly at random just to show off their detail work?

Cloonan also excels at acting.  This is how you make your characters really live in breathe within your story.  She doesn't rely on stock poses and her characters never have the same expression from panel to panel.  Her young but scarred Conan looks back over his shoulder at his pursuers early in the story and there's a look of pure enjoyment on his face.  Later, he and Tito share more sober quiet moments, and they look at each other with manly seriousness.  Belit, however, is something else entirely.  More on her in a moment!

As strong as Cloonan’s art is, she’s working from a ripping script by Brian Wood.  I’ve enjoyed Wood’s work on DMZ, at least until I finally lost the narrative thread of the strong early issues, but I was so caught up in this Conan yarn I almost forgot he was the same guy.  From a war-torn New York City to the pre-historic Hyborian Age?  Quite the reach this Wood fella has.  And he’s not intimidated by the material.  He’s done no straight lift from Howard’s original, preserving it to the detriment of surprises and fun.  Because of Belit’s supposed significance in Conan’s life—as near as I can tell, she’s the only woman he ever fell truly in love with, although he slept with hundreds, virile barbarian was he—Wood introduces the idea of her earlier than in the short story and gives Conan a foreshadowing dream that appears nowhere in Howard. 

I’ll have to give Wood the benefit of the doubt when he waxes philosophically about war-time archery.  That’s not from Howard, either, but then Howard’s sea battle—while descriptive—is truncated compared to the wild fight found in the comic.  That’s some snazzy expansionist stuff, Wood taking an adapter’s liberty with the material and actually doing Howard one better.  Certainly when you adapt, you change and if you change, by all means you try to improve on your source.  Of course, it helps that Wood has some of Howard’s meatiest prose to build from, and, again, the unforgettable Belit.

Belit isn’t unique, at least in Howard’s work.  A little Internet digging turns up references to others and an image of paperback with the unfortunately generic title Sword Woman.  She's not even the only female pirate to cross Conan's path.  There's also Valeria from "Red Nails," but she's not a patch on Belit.

I’m not about to dig to see if Belit was the first of Howard’s warrior women, but she’s certainly—especially as envisioned by Wood and Cloonan—the fiercest of any I’ve encountered in years of reading Conan stories, including the previous adaptation of this particular one by Roy Thomas, Mike Ploog and John Buscema.  Howard had a tragic fixation on his mother, but I’m not about to engage in pop psychoanalysis.  He created at least two swordswomen—or, if you prefer “sword women”-- for other stories, one of which Thomas transfigured into Red Sonja while imposing some retrograde sexism on her origins and abilities, but I’m not about to make a case for Howard as an early feminist or 1930s Texas version of Joss Whedon.  He wrote this stuff for money, characters had to fit audience demands as interpreted by the editors buying the stories for publication.  Despite the often tossed-off nature and even the racist strains that unfortunately run through the original short story and more than a few of his others, Howard repeatedly shows his knack for making up compelling characters that elevate his better stories above those of his peers or consideration as mere hackwork.  

Whatever inspired Belit, wherever she came from in Howard’s imagination, thanks to the gang at Dark Horse, she prowls the seas again as one of Conan’s most formidable lovers, with a vitality and complexity that’s largely to Howard’s credit as a writer.  And this fresh take by Wood and Cloonan makes the Marvel version do a quick fade for her own safety’s sake.  According to the Conan Wiki, Conan and Belit spend “1000 days” together.  Howard telescopes that into a couple of short paragraphs limned in legendary language.  Poul Anderson also gave Belit completely detailed and completely extraneous backstory with the obligatory “out for revenge after a rape” cliché that I could have, in all honesty, done without.  That trope is moldy now and it was probably pretty moldy when Anderson slapped it on Belit with Howard too dead to protest. 

We all know action men seek vengeance for the murders of their girlfriends, their wives, their families, their soon-to-retire partners on the police force.  Action women go through arranged marriages and then get raped.  Alan Moore’s use of rape as an inciting element in an action woman’s life reaches its apogee League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1910 with the whole Jenny Diver/Pirate Jenny section.  I wouldn’t have cared if Pirate Jenny/Janni killed all those people simply because they were drunk assholes.  Whether or not she would be justified is beside the point because as Captain Nemo’s daughter she had it in her anyway.  Her inspiration, Berthold Brecht’s Jenny Diver, certainly dreamed about it enough without having been raped.  Or maybe it was Polly Peachum.  Whoever.  Howard didn’t see fit to introduce it into this story and hopefully, if he decides to flesh out Belit’s past, Wood will leave it out as well. 

In fact, let’s all agree to retire this bullshit forever already.  In my mind, Belit grew up wild and untamed—holy terror of her hometown, scared her parents and playmates half to death on a daily basis-- and when she was ready, she left home to explore the world because she’s a hot-blooded seeker of wealth and adventure.  Everyone was glad to see the back of her and they still have nightmares she’s going to show up at the door one stormy night with a severed head in every hand.  If it’s good enough for Conan, it ought to be good enough for Belit.  I have no idea if Howard put much thought, or any at all, into Belit’s backstory.  When you read the story or this comic, you see he just throws her at Conan at a time when she’s already a mythic figure, a near-goddess to her crew.  She sees Conan has a hot bod and likes to kill—he’s damn good at it, in fact—so she does her mating dance, and off they go!

John Milius and Oliver Stone would later loot then soften elements of Belit’s personality and ultimate fate for the character Valeria in the Arnold Schwarzeneggar-starring Conan the Barbarian.  While Sandahl Bergman cuts a dashing figure in that movie and steals scene after scene from the stolid Schwarzeneggar, she’s more a late 70s/early 80s southern California surfer-girl hedonist than untamed pirate queen.  Better Howard’s fully-formed Belit with her rage, her greed, and her lust for life, a singular figure flashing in and out of Conan’s life, the one Wood and Cloonan present in their Conan the Barbarian.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to educate myself on Becky Cloonan's comic book career.  That is, if this typhoon doesn't blow me to Crom's mountain first.*

*Written during Typhoon Guchol, which I seem to have survived.


Taranaich said...

I'll have to disagree on Wood "improving" on Howard with his adaptation: most of the changes are ones I don't think are at all in keeping with the mood and intent of the story (Conan looking over his shoulder with a look of pure enjoyment being a prime example), and I feel as an adaptation it falls well short of the subtlety and mythic grandeur of the original. Then again, I tend to think that if you're going to the trouble of doing an adaptation, it doesn't make sense to stray too far, unless it's an explicit reimagining: this series is very much Wood's reimagining of Howard's story rather than a faithful adaptation, at least in my opinion.

Conan certainly enjoyed women, but I wouldn't say hundreds by any means: like Captain Kirk, legend of his sexual prowess seems to be grossly exaggerated. In Howard's stories, there are only *two* where it's almost certain Conan had sex with the female protagonist, one of which was Belit (the other Yasmela, and even then it was a "fade to black" type deal, and it's actually contradicted by early drafts of the story.) Belit was probably Conan's greatest love, but what we see of Zenobia in "The Hour of the Dragon" suggest she could take that place in Conan's heart after her death.

Howard was pretty far ahead of his time when it comes to his female characters (you're right not to engage in psychoanalysis, considering the "mother fixation" has been long discredited). You note at least two other sword-wielding women (presumably you mean Red Sonya and Dark Agnes), but there are a good deal more: Tarala the Briton, Helen Tavrel (one of his earliest, first appearing in 1928), and Conchita the Pawnee the most notable. I wouldn't sneeze at Valeria, either: she may not be quite as memorable as Belit, but she's pretty formidable all the same.

Joel Bryan said...

I feel somewhat the opposite about adaptations across media. Obviously we differ a great deal, but that's fine by me.

Take the little moment of Conan looking back-- I liked it because it makes him feel more real than simply the glowering, sullen barbarian we've gotten in so many other comics. I mean he must have enjoyed his life and he was a man of action. Plus, I kind of have the feeling as a lusty young guy in his prime freebooting it around the world and spending a lot of time in taverns and whatnot, Conan must have hooked up with the odd barmaid or dancing girl or whatever it was they had in those days, even if Howard didn't write about it. As a character he's vivid enough to live between the stories and certainly complex enough to invite multiple interpretations.

Thanks for the fantastic comment. I think it's a shame Howard's female characters are so under-used and under-appreciated. I'm just now learning about them myself and it's certainly given me a new appreciation for the man's abilities as a writer. His suicide really robbed us of something special-- it would've have been something if he could have moved into more mainstream directions. I really think he had it in him.