A very famous play begins with the question, ‘who’s there?’ No matter if the question is asked by a watchman upon the ramparts of Elsinore castle or by a merchant captain sailing for Kush … the intent is all the same. Brian Wood’s script for Conan the Barbarian #1 does not open with the same two word phrase as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it might as well because Wood and Shakespeare are both interested in the same thing: identity.
Trying to breathe new life into a long-running character – an officially licensed product, no less – is bloody business. Wood escapes the slings and arrows of fanboys and newbies alike by letting his story unfold in a practical albeit adventurous manner.
How much is of Wood’s design and how much is the source material matters little; it works. The reader is, literally, along for the ride as the titular barbarian makes a mad dash for the coast and then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to freedom. When our hero lands on his feet like the matinee idol he is, he’s asked: ‘who invited you aboard.’ Who indeed? Wood creates a clever symmetry for the reader and the character is aliteral jumping on point. Brilliant.
Behind every great man is an even greater woman. For Conan it’s the pirate queen Bêlit. For Wood, it’s artist Becky Cloonan who brings the barbarian to bear with straight-lines and an angular cockiness softened by a goofy smile that betrays his youth and his, ahem, experience with the fairer sex. This Conan is a romantic. For this story to succeed the reader has to believe that this ‘warrior from the north’ is capable of more than lust, Conan must love.
Who is Bêlit? Bêlit is a fiction, a sailor’s story told on an inky night – as to be expected and no less appreciated; Dave Stewart’s colors are exquisite – over a bottle of something by the ship’s captain to Conan. One man’s ‘scourge and a plague upon the open seas’ is another man’s ‘winged warrior goddess of the north,’ a harbinger ‘of pain and pleasure.’ Conan is kinky. Wood chooses, wisely, to let an omniscient narrator explain not what Conan is told, but his interpretation of what he hears. When drawing a line between truth and fiction, perception and reality it comes down to interpretation. Not a bad topic to tackle when one is writing an adaptation of a sacred text. Cloonan shines with her interpretation Conan’s dream-girl drawing her as an anemic sex-kitten Goth goddess. This is Conan’s fantasy, after all, we’re just along for the ride.
This being the first issue in a proposed twenty-five issue arc, I’ll be interested to see how Wood and Cloonan flesh out Bêlit. I’m wondering if the Bêlit that graces Cloonan’s variant cover – less zaftig vampire and more graceful and confident than comely – is more of the final design for the character. If I have one disappointment it’s that for all the ‘hair like liquid ebony’ and ‘milky skin,’ Bêlit is nothing more than a barbarian’s wet dream. In a very literal dream sequence, Conan dives into a pastel sea only to be dragged to the bottom by the blood-red lipped, alabaster succubus of his dreams. Conan then wakes up foggy and fogged-in on the deck of the ship. As he comes to his senses he sees Bêlit, for real this time, and sounds the alarm. The dream sequence and the cliffhanger ending are placed back-to-back which is problematic because it is both confusing (probably the point) and it plays as too rote even for a pulpy adventure story. Then again, perhaps, it’s a warning to every barbarian (man?) about having one’s fantasy girl brought to life. Bêlit belies identification, for now. As the series sails along, I'll be very interested in how Wood, Cloonan, and Stewart answer the question, 'who's there.' This is going to be an epic for the ages, be it Hyborian or any other.