Sunday, February 12, 2012

Conan the Barbarian #1

I was rather amazed at the amount of reviews that showed up in the blogosphere and other areas of the Internet after the first issue of Dark Horse Comic's Conan the Barbarian was released on Wednesday. However I avoided reading any of them until I'd actually had time to sit down and read the comic myself. Now I have read comic and reviews. What threw me just a bit, was that I'd been expecting lots of scathing reviews from grumpy old Conan fans who were predisposed to hate the comic no matter what, and what I got were lots of fawning reviews from fans of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan who seemed predisposed to love the comic no matter what. To be fair, there were some more objective reviews as well, but a surprising amount of gushing.
Anyway, here's my take on the first issue of the adaptation/expansion of Robert E. Howard's Queen of the Black Coast. I liked it quite a bit. While writer Brian Wood doesn't seem quite as concerned with keeping REH's prose intact as some of the previous comics writers have, he still keeps the spirit and the outline of events mostly by the original story. One has to keep in mind, that just as Roy Thomas did 30 years ago, Wood is expanding the story and so he's going to have to draw things out and move elements around so that he has the 23 issues of material he needs to fill the gap between the beginning and ending of Howard's Black Coast.
He also did a couple of things that I really liked. One was setting up Conan's fascination with Belit even before he meets her. We don't actually see Belit in the first issue, but rather Conan's erotic imaginings of her. The idea of this wild eyed pirate queen had already captured his imagination. The other was showing Conan's still growing understanding of civilization. If you read REH's Queen of the Black Coast, the scene where Conan is explaining how he ended up in jail is hilarious, as the barbarian explains why he can't just turn in the man the court is looking for.

"Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position. "But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts."

To Conan, his duty to his friend is clear and he's amazed and confused that the judge would want him to rat out a comrade. Wood does a good job of showing this (aided by Cloonan of course.). To go slightly off topic, I wanted to mention that when I re-read QofBC a few weeks ago I was struck by how much this passage sounded like Robert E. Howard himself in his letters. The tone also reminds me quite a bit of some of Howard's more humorous heroes, Breckenridge Elkins and the like. Made me think that if Conan had narrated his own stories in the first person, they might have had a lot more ironic humor to them.
Okay, now to the artwork. For the most part I absolutely love Becky Cloonan's art. Her visual storytelling is good. Her characters are well designed and have expressive faces. She draws the drop-dead sexiest take on Belit I've seen so far. She also has one of the best inklines in comics. The lady can draw. But...I'm still not taken with her Conan. His face is too boyish and he's just not big enough. Lest you think I'm just a grumpy old fan, pining for John Buscema (Well, Okay that might be true) Robert E. Howard's own descriptions of Conan in his teens and twenties show a brawny burly youth. Conan's first artist, Barry Windsor Smith, drew a more slender version of Conan as well, but he was well defined. Cloonan's just isn't physically imposing enough. That's pretty much my only quibble with the art and really, I can get past that as long as the comic is good.
So all and all, thumbs up for Conan the Barbarian #1. Looking forward to seeing how things go.


Taranaich said...

I was expecting most of the reviews to be of the Wood/Cloonan fans, since they're pretty massive among the Indy scene. I was less surprised by the number of reviews which seem to think this is the first Conan comic *ever*, as if the character only existed in films.

I'm still very guarded about it. As an adaptation, I think it has a lot in common with Jackson's LotR, in that the parts which are directly from the source material jar (to me) because they're... well, better written, and the tone of many of the scenes are different. And yet, plenty of people loved the films and found them perfectly reflective of the source material. Go figure.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Al, yeah the LotR comparison is a good one. One of the reviewers seemed to feel that Robert E. Howard's Conan had been waiting for Wood and Cloonan to come along and make it better. When I read that I thought, "I bet you're one of those guys who thought Peter Jackson 'improved' the Lord of the Rings."
I too was surprised at how many folks seemed to think this was the first ever Conan comic book.

zornhau said...

Nice to see Conan in a recognisable longsword guard. Suspect the Western Martial Arts are gradually penetrating geekdom... :_