Introduction by Alan David Doane:
I didn't find myself falling into the world of Conan in this latest relaunch of the series in comics form, but then again, I almost never have.
I was too young in the 1970s to experience the original Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan. John Buscema was drawing it by the time I sampled it, and his journeyman approach to depicting the wondrous world Robert E. Howard created fascinated me not at all. It wasn't until the 1980s Baxter Paper era and the reissue in that format of the Windsor-Smith masterpiece Red Nails that I was able to see a glimpse of the brilliance that Howard-in-comics could contain. But still, I mostly ignored Conan and his by then hundreds of issues of appearances. Barbarians, swords and sorcery really didn't do it for me. By the mid-1980s I knew comics held greater thrills than mere superheroes, having fallen in love with books like Cerebus (irony!), Love and Rockets and Elfquest, but Howard and his world still eluded me.
Amazingly, when I met Barry Windsor-Smith in-person to interview him back on the next-to-last day of 1999, I still hadn't read much Conan. I was by then well aware of the general outline of the character's mythology (hotly debated among true fans), but my appreciation for Windsor-Smith's work at that point was more in the direction of his post-Marvel work like Storyteller and the then-current Opus art books.
It was only when Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord launched their longform exploration of Conan and his world, over 30 years after I started reading comic books, that somehow I became hooked. Something about Busiek's approach spoke to me. Nord's artwork bore no resemblance at all to the work of anyone who had drawn Conan in the past, and somehow that Busiek/Nord collaboration (occasionally with other artists contributing) became my entry point into Robert E. Howard. I went on to read all Howard's Conan stories, and at this late date I think those prose stories actually have become my favourites. I am often inclined to like the purest, most original form of almost any entertainment (give me Lee and Ditko if you must give me Spider-Man at all, thanks), and Howard's writing has a visceral appeal that doesn't really translate completely to comics. There have been great Conan stories in comics, don't get me wrong -- but none of them match the power and impact of Howard speaking directly to your brain.
I didn't have much interest in Brian Wood's Northlanders, but that now-canceled series is no doubt what got him the gig writing this new Conan the Barbarian. Becky Cloonan takes a new visual tack for the series, and I applaud her for it, but I still miss Nord's work, and Busiek's canny distillation of Howard's writing, and honestly the only Conan comic book I own at the moment is Thomas and Windsor-Smith's Conan the Barbarian #1. And I own it not because it's Conan, but because it's a reminder of a very different era in comics, when Conan The Barbarian #1 made a huge splash among the readership and changed what people thought was possible in comic books. This new series won't do that. It's professional Conan comics, but it's not as good as the original Thomas/BWS run, or Busiek and Nord -- and certainly nowhere near as thrilling as the actual Howard stories. It fills a space on the stands that dealers and readers have come to think of as the place where Conan comics go every month, but that's all. It's a shame it couldn't be more special or more fun than that. At their best, Conan stories can be both, and more. They can open up whole new worlds of wonder. Maybe some day they will again.
I wouldn’t say my first contribution to the reincarnated Flashmob Fridays is because of Conan the Barbarian, but I will admit that when I finally decided it was time to vacuum the cobwebs off the keyboard and get back to blogging, ADD’s choice of Conan sure didn’t hurt. I’m not a huge Conan fan, but I adored the series Dark Horse began in 2004 with Kurt Busiek at the helm (not to mention artist Cary Nord whose art seemed perfect for Conan and whose tenure on the book ended much too soon). With Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan steering this time around, I couldn’t imagine I would be disappointed. Apparently, I need a better imagination.
The first issue seems to serve mainly as build-up to the confrontation with some kind of mystical temptress/pirate named Bêlit. The comic opens with Conan escaping the city guards of the capital Messantia by hopping aboard the Argus, whose captain and crew are initially not happy about his presence. Conan silences their protests with threats, but soon woos them into brotherhood with the story of why he was being pursued in the first place. Captain Tito accepts the rowdy Cimmerian and even comes to count on his sword-arm. Tito has heard stories of this Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast, and hopes Conan will protect his ship.
The only thing I really liked about the book was Cloonan’s art. There’s a much stronger element of cartoon in her Conan than I’ve seen in previous series and it’s refreshing. It’s the first time I can remember seeing a Conan comic and not immediately thinking of Frank Frazetta.
Otherwise, I was underwhelmed. The first and biggest problem is there’s so little action. It’s all build-up and exposition. Even when given the chance for just a panel or two with some classic Cimmerian bloodletting, Wood and Cloonan shy away from it. For example, when Conan tells the crew of the Argus why he ran from the city guards, there are opportunities for some sword-fighting fun, but instead we get panels of Conan led into courtrooms or a naked Conan puking in his prison cell. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t only enjoy action comics. But if it’s a Conan comic we’re talking about then swords should be getting wet somewhere between the front and back covers, particularly in the first issue.
It also rubbed me the wrong way how quickly Conan and Captain Tito became stalwart allies. Wood never sold me on the idea that the sailors of the Argus would suddenly fall head-over-heels for the guy who just threatened them because he told a story they liked, particularly since the story isn’t even told all that well. The scene in which Conan tells the crew about his adventures in Messantia reminded me of my least favorite parts of Kenneth Brannagh’s Shakespeare films; when Brannagh realizes it’s probably boring having the camera on himself every second of a 5-minute long soliloquy and so occasionally switches to the other actors, who are always crowded around Brannagh, smiling, nodding furiously, and looking at each other as if to say “This guy craps gold!” I just didn’t buy it.
Overall I think Wood and Cloonan made some bad choices about where to enter the story and what to show us. There is perhaps a fine line between critiquing a work and telling a creative team how to do its job, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not this first issue would have read better if it had started with Conan in prison and letting us follow his escape rather than telling it all in flashback.
I would be willing to check out the second issue, mainly because I like Conan and because Wood and Cloonan are talents I trust. Who knows? Maybe this will read much better in a trade. But it has to be said that if this was an unknown property and/or if I had never heard of Wood and Cloonan, I probably wouldn’t bother with it again.
I think there are two ways to look at Brian Wood’s writing on Conan the Barbarian #1.
The first and maybe more natural way is that this is the same guy who’s writing Northlanders. Other than the settings, which are different, both books feature tales of barbaric men and women in olden days. Wood’s Conan fits in with that work on Northlanders. It’s logical that the writer of a very modern take on viking tales would adapt to what is starting off as a pirate’s tale as Conan takes on the deadly beauty known as Bêlit, the queen of the Black Coast. Wood captures the sense of high adventure, opening the book and giving Becky Cloonan a fun and roguish action sequence that’s just a small taste of the adventures this character can and will have.
The other side to Wood’s writing on Conan #1 is that this is from the writer of Demo and Local, books about growing up and that strange transition from being children to being adults. That’s exactly the same point that this version of Conan is at in his life. He’s out, on his own and high on his own self-worth. This is a young and brash character who merely thinks he knows the ways of the world and can hang with the big boys. Conan greats life one adventure and one moment at a time, barely thinking about repercussions before he’s leaping onto the next strange ship that’s on the sea before him.
With those two sides of Brian Wood in mind, it makes for a different and interesting Conan. To me and probably many other comic fans, Conan is defined by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. While there has been the occasional deviation from Buscema’s huge and muscular warrior, Conan himself has always seems to stay constant and defined. He’s Conan no matter whether he’s a Cimmerian or a barbarian or a king. The settings and circumstances may change but the character is a rock and constant character. Wood and Cloonan give him a softer and younger edge. He’s wild, reckless not because that’ a character flaw but because he’s barely a man and doesn’t know any better.
Because of the many angles of Wood’s writing, Conan the Barbarian #1 is a Conan book that doesn’t have to feel like a Conan book. The character is known and recognizable but you can also read this as the story of any barbarian boy on the journey to becoming a man. It works on both of those levels.
The essay at the back of Conan The Barbarian #1 by Assistant Editor Brandon Wright claims the comic was intended as a jumping-on point for new readers, and I’m at an utter loss to figure out how. It opens with Conan racing on to a ship via horse while being chased. This is the only action scene in the whole comic. Conan proceeds to explain how he came to that situation, a scenario which involves a wrongfully imprisoned Conan splitting a judge’s head open, which is not even remotely shown. The captain of the ship discusses with Conan how the Queen of the Black Coast is negatively impacting shipping in the region. Conan swears to eliminate the problem and the story-telling in the issue goes off the rails and becomes incoherent. Let’s try and make sense of this sequence:
* Conan leaves the ship he he is on and swims to the Queen’s ship.
* After reaching the ship, there’s a page of Conan and the Queen meeting in the water and having sex.
* Conan jolts awake on the Queen’s ship, with no one around.
* He looks over at the other ship and sees the Queen, who hisses at him.
* Conan is on the original ship with the crew, raising his sword and yelling “alarm” and there’s a “continued" caption
If not for the last page, this sequence would still have some minor issues of clarity, but that page makes it nonsensical. Maybe it’s a fake Conan or something, but there’s no indication creating something like that is within the Queen’s power.
That a third of the issue is a poorly done sequence is far from the book’s only problem. I alluded above to the lack of action in the comic. All that’s there is the opening chase sequence, and it isn’t much. Now, I do not need non-stop action in a Conan comic, but it becomes odd when Conan narrates his adventures in the town that lead up to the chase, but Wood and Cloonan choose not to show the more visually orientated parts of the flashback like Conan attacking the judge.
Another confusing element of the comic is the narration structure — it has two different narrators, not counting Conan for the flashback sequence. One of them provides information, such as “Town X.” The other, well, that is the weird part. That narration is presented in a font that clearly looks like it was produced by a typewriter and is written in the third person omniscient. My suspicion is that this narration is taken from the Robert Howard novel being adapted, but there’s no indication on the credits page that this is the case, instead pushing my Grant Morrison-addled mind to wonder if it’s taken from a diegetic text produced by a supporting character who Ishamel-like writes about event after the fact and after time-traveling to the twentieth century so he or she can access a typewriter. It probably is Howard’s prose, or perhaps Wood rewriting Howard, but why on Earth is presented this way? It’s unnecessarily distracting.
Finally, I do not think this issue is a very good jumping-on point, and say this as someone who knows practically zip about Conan. My sole exposure to the character comes from occasionally watching the early '90s cartoon series, Conan the Adventurer back when it originally aired. The novels, the Oliver Stone film, and the comics are all pieces of pop culture that I just haven’t experienced. Wood does tells us a little about Conan — he’s honorable, isn’t just a berserker, and pays his debts, but there just isn’t enough here to hook me on the character and care about what happens next. Again, the flashback sequence hurts the book because it reveals more about Conan than any other part of the comics, except the reader only gets brief snippets of it coupled with narration by Conan himself. I really have no way to know if he’s telling truth about those events or not.
Add all of these problems together and you have one of the worst comics Flashmob Fridays has looked at so far, topped only by that train wreck of a Daredevil issue we started with, and at least that was supposed to be a jumping-on point for new readers.
Buy Conan: Born on the Battlefield from Amazon.com.