Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: Conan the Barbarian #3

The Lay of Conan and Bêlit

  Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast Part 3 is all about the lay. Be it Germanic (and long) like The Song of the Nibelung or short and sweet like the Celtic, French or English equivalents, a lay lasts -- its stamina a result of its inherent potency -- because it sings of love and adventure. People, let's face it, love a good lay. For the final chapter of this first arc, writer Brian Wood, penciler Becky Cloonan and colorist Dave Stewart embroider a story that -- 'lay' is also appropriate here (in part) because it is means any movable part of a loom -- like the BayeuxTapestry (another bit of narrative art), contains details only understood when seen as a whole. Come for the lay, stay for the multi-layered thesis on how to mate reputation to identity and subvert the lay-person's expectations.
  Reputation is perception; it presupposes a gap in an outsider's (or other's) knowledge, only experience, belief or faith completes the circuit. One's reputation -- be he from a Northern race like a Cimmerian or from hardy stock found in northwestern Vermont -- can only precede him if it is known, it does not (necessarily) need to be experienced. Without belief, however, one's reputation cannot precede or for that matter, proceed. In issue #2, when Conan announces himself as a Cimmerian, Bêlit is in awe. She is not naïve, naiveté suggests ignorance, no, Bêlit knows of Cimmeria, she's heard the stories, she is a believer, which is why when a 'white warrior with ice-blue eyes' stands astride her deck, 'our daughter of Shem,' knows the word made flesh when she sees it. Belief curbs Bêlit, so too, does it stay the sword of Conan. Many live on reputation alone, but many more have died when their status finds no purchase. For Bêlit and for Conan, reputation is an invitation to identity, self-awareness and experience.
  Bêlit is a seer of sorts[1], she has perspective; she is perception personified. A post-coital Conan is told by Bêlit's first-mate, N'Gora, about how his mistress became a leader of men. N'Gora, a (former) captain -- a timber trader by trade -- and his crew were being pursued day and night by raiders when, ''Bêlit appeared on the third night, alone and in a native craft, offering assistance. She was … compelling.'' When Conan asks what help she could offer, N'Gora responds: ''Perspective. We were blinded and bound by value of our cargo. We were placing that above the lives of the crew.'' After telling Conan of the burning, pillaging, and looting that took place once Bêlit was in command (apparently perspective is relative), N'Gora ends his history lesson with the words of an adherent: ''She liberated us. She delivered us.'' No wonder the crew considers her a goddess.
  The scene between N'Gora and Conan takes place directly after Bêlit and Conan have, as Bêlit says,
''become as one.'' The placement of these two scenes echoes a similar coupling in issue #1 when Conan first learns of Bêlit's reputation from another sailor, Tito, the (former) captain of the Argus. At that time Bêlit was a fiction reputed to be fact. She appears to Conan in a dream, she is his projection, false, imaginary; reputation precedes experience. In issue #3, the story takes the exact opposite course; experience (in this case, sex) precedes real knowledge of a person. Bêlit becomes physical, flesh and blood and Conan sees her naked and as she is, fully-formed, a truth transformed from fiction. It's after this that N'Gora tells Conan what he knows of Bêlit, a better source, perhaps, and an eyewitness account, yes, but another sailor's story and not (one suspects) the whole truth. After all, a woman must have her secrets. Character exposition is seldom so subtle or economic.
  Conan the Barbarian and The Queen of the Black Coast have long-standing reputations to uphold and expectations to be met. They both bear official licenses, but in the hands of Wood and Cloonan those expectations are subverted. Like Bêlit, Brian Wood knows the reputation of ''the North.'' He knows the identities of these characters and what he is dealing with when it comes to the Cimmerian, in both perception and reputation. He chooses to adapt (to overcome) these expectancies by building them into the architecture of the story. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It's a bit of authorial prestidigitation that speaks to an efficient and elegant way of storytelling, not to mention, damn clever. The reader is complicit in Conan's vision quest to find (and to know) Bêlit, but at this point in the character's development, Conan is also learning what it means to become Conan. As Cloonan's rendering of barbarian-on-queen action shows, neither character is a top or a bottom, but both; it is lovemaking, egalitarian-style. Cloonan matches Wood beat-for-beat. Her composition is always mindful of physical space; panel layouts and framing never call attention to themselves, but always in service to the story. Even when she's making a visual pun (showing swords being stroked and shined prior to the sex scene) it's all done in concert with the pulpiness of the dialogue. It will be interesting to see if James Harren can complement Wood as well as Cloonan has through this first arc. Hareen will be helped (no doubt) by Dave Stewart, who really shows himself off as a painter of light in part three of this story, bathing naked flesh in soft shades of scarlet and the florid flush of pink, washes of passion and the colors of sex.
  Through the first three issues, Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast has established its reputation and forged its identity as an appointment title proving the metal of its creative team. Such is the lay, or as the narrator says, ''Such is the song of Bêlit.''     

[1] The actual shaman (a Fedallah that Bêlit has kept tucked away) that appears in issue #3 provides much when it comes to sight. Perhaps, someone with the foresight and time to investigate this character's appearance will unlock that tale, for it is a deep well indeed.

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