Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Conan the Barbarian #2

Myth Metes Myth

  In its first two issues, Conan the Barbarian's Queen of the Black Coast flirts with questions of identity, perception and muscle. Conan is an established character, literally, a known commodity. In the hands of writer Brian Wood and artist Becky Cloonan, however, this iteration of Conan appears more lithe, impressionable and subversive. It's the subversion that this creative team has brought to Conan that makes him more approachable, less legendary and heroic, cocksure, sure, but at the same time, new. Ah, youth. The ostensible queen, Bêlit, on the other hand, materializes in dreams; she is a fiction, a myth, an unknown. Bêlit is notorious among sailors and traders who work the waters of the Western Ocean along the coastline of Kush; her infamy earned as much by her presence as by her absence -- the fear, the mystery, she elicits is a product (a commodity), an agency of her own scarcity.  In both the characters of Bêlit and Conan, Wood, Cloonan and colorist Dave Stewart manage to pour new wine from old vessels.
  Two words bookend the battle-soaked bravado that comprises the bulk of Conan the Barbarian #2: ''Bêlit'' and ''queen.'' The former, a shout, ''Bêlit!'' emanates off-stage (page?) from an unseen caller.  The latter is the final word in issue’s ultimate sentence spoken to Conan by Bêlit herself, ''Make me your queen.'' Each sentence conveys an artful ambiguity and leaves both intent and meaning unmoored. The shout of Bêlit's name beckons, a call to arms that echoes across the waters of the Black Coast. Its intent, however, lies in question: is its tone one of fealty, as a subject to a queen, or is it a statement, a challenge to authority? Both?  Cloonan and Wood want it both ways and are unwilling to fix meaning upon these shifting seas of character development, settling only, for now, on an inclination, and invitation, to subversion.
  The opening page of issue #2 subverts the narrative before it's begun; a timeless moment that suits interpretation in order to undermine explanation. Bêlit toes the deck of her ship with authority and nerve, ''Do you believe you've beaten me barbarian? My lungs still draw air, my heart still beats, and I retain control of my ship. I am utterly unvanquished. You really must do better.'' Blood runs black, both bodies and boards are spiculated with arrows and spears smeared with gore lay idle, idle, perhaps, as that poetic painted ship upon a painted ocean. There is little information that places the hurly-burly lost or won. The enemy has been met, but Bêlit's words lead one to believe that the battle is far from done. Wood's decision to begin the second part of this story in medias res acts as both subversion and a statement about Bêlit as a character. She is, as Wood will later dub Conan: ''battle calm,'' a subversive phrase if ever there was one. This is a woman, a captain that lives beyond her legend. Cloonan and Stewart craft Bêlit as less vampiric than in the first issue, but no less wild-eyed, no less defiant.  She could still stand to spend some time in the sun -- her prison pallor a wash of off-whites and subtle purples.  Her color aside, this is a woman who runs hot, without restraints of any kind and one who commands unbidden. If so, why then, at the very end, does she say, ''Make me your queen.''? 
  Before making her closing statement, Bêlit asks Conan: ''Who are you?'', a question of both identity (what's your name?) and intent (what do you want?). Her question comes as the deck of her ship (the Tigress) drinks the blood of her crew, Conan stands defiant, triumphant, as moments before, Wood writes, Conan ''cleft,''  ''smashed,'' ''severed'' and ''ripped'' each and every one of his attackers. His response to his interlocutor's question is as straightforward as was his attack: ''My name is Conan. I am a Cimmerian.'' What Bêlit hears in Conan's response serves as the impetus to her final line, but the meaning, the intent, lies hidden. The omniscient narrator explains that, ''to one like the pirate queen of Shem Cimmeria is the land of myth and children's stories.'' It would appear that when myth meets myth and identity is born; life borne on black waves.
  Apropos of title (heraldry), of this tale if nothing else, why does Bêlit -- who is already known to Conan (and others) as ''Queen of Black of the Black Coast'' -- need to make such a request or issue such a command to be made a Queen in the first place? Conan wears no arms bears no crown, he states only who he is and where he comes from and neither he nor his words bear title or claim. So why those four words: ''Make me your queen.'' Subversion takes many forms -- ditto shortsightedness -- Bêlit like callow Conan (to this point in the tale) remains more myth than truth. Placing meaning in either character (or their words) is perhaps premature when neither character has fully formed. Authority is unchanged and unchallenged (look at the look on Conan's face in that last panel).  There are no Kings in this story and only one Queen and each character must now participate in a bit of role play before identities can be determined. Conan the Barbarian #2 signals that the dream is over, myth has met myth and been found … perfect.

Author's Note: If it is true that one never forgets one's first time -- precisely which first time, perhaps, should be left to the imagination -- than this series, Conan the Barbarian, will always hold a place in both my heart and mind. I was so impressed by the story Wood, Cloonan and Stewart were setting out to tell in issue #1 that I was compelled to write down my thoughts and then share them with the world -- at least that portion of the world that reads this blog, a dedicated and intelligent lot, no doubt. My goal is to write about each edition in this series (a proposed twenty-five issue arc) with a focus on identity. Who are these characters, Conan and Bêlit, and how they understand each other through the filter of their own identity, the self. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is in this case, than I am very much 'borrowing' this idea from Justin Giampaoli's ''Brian WoodProject.'' I can only hope to match Mr. Giampaoli in dedication and artfulness for he has cornered the market on scope and wisdom when it comes to the work of writer Brian Wood. 


  1. Most of the qualities you describe are present in the original story by Robert E. Howard. There are differences, of course - Howard had little ambiguity in Belit's demand for Conan ("be thou my king" as opposed to "make me your queen"), the dialogue is more poetic, and certain scenes and implications are different, but everything else rings true for the prose.

    1. Taranaich,

      Thanks for your insight into the source material. I've avoided it (so far) because I keep telling myself that because Wood et al. are 'adapting' Howard's story I should (probably?) critique Wood's efforts rather than try to make comparisons with the source -- it's that old strawman, which is better the book or the movie. 'Be thou my king' is an interesting line if it is (as you quote) 'not' a question. I had heard that Wood changed the line and I'm guessing that 'all will be revealed' as Robert Plant once sang in the next issue. Thanks again for reading my review and I look forward to checking out your site!