Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Conan the Barbarian #4

Trust Exercises
  The images of splendid isolation that bookend Conan the Barbarian #4 present a poeticism that epitomize the themes of identity and belief that have been inherent in the series so far. Artist James Harren announces his presence with authority as he draws a 'Crom's eye view' of seagulls awhirl on thermals above as below the Tigress plies the waters of the Western Ocean. Harren invests this ship asea with a primal and indomitable quality as it cuts its briny wake. The image is made more resolute by colorist Dave Stewart[1] who affects a painted ship upon a painted ocean of grays and greens. In the issue's final image, Harren and Stewart change perspective and ratchet up the majesty as they call attention to starry skies and cloudy climes that dwarf a lone sentry atop a parapet. What chance does a barbarian from the north, his influential queen and their stalwart crew stand when set against the vastness of the ocean or the immensity of space? Who is on their side? Existentialism sets no sail and pulls no weight upon the deck of the Tigress. Harren's barbarian is an uncarved block, an object of pure potential. Gone is the boyish charm that Cloonan had conferred on Conan in the story's first arc. Harren hatchets[2] the Cimmerian into a sinuous cast with a wide grin that slips into awe (and awwww) when his Queen -- ''the she-panther of the Western Ocean'' -- Bêlit blots out the sun. She is his world. In Harren's hands, Bêlit becomes elfin with big doe eyes and while she still retains Cloonan's wide-hipped and long-legged design, Harren's Bêlit has become less seductress and more softened; her time with the ''grey wolf from the North,'' it seems, has taken off the edge.
  The plot of issue #4 is a customary caper in which Bêlit by proxy of N'Gora turns Conan in for a bounty (he is an escaped criminal after all) and while the good and law-abiding people and magistrates of Messantia celebrate the capture and fit out the gallows, Bêlit and the gang rob the place blind. N'Gora says, ''what else would pirates like us do, safely docked in the richest port in the land.'' 'Nuff said. In order, however, to pull off the ol' 'Wookie to cell block 1138' ruse the faux felon must believe that his friends will bust him out. Bêlit, in confidence with Conan, says, ''give me your trust.'' Conan hesitates and does not answer. Bêlit tells Conan that an army could not keep her from his side, she asks him again, point blank: ''Do you trust me?'' Conan remains silent. Conan is a work in progress at this point. Sure, he's got the girl and adventure is on the horizon, but Conan is a sole proprietorship. Conan answers only to Conan. The next stage of his apprenticeship aboard the Tigress will be to see how well he can crew.
  The port authorities take the bait (shocker!) and Conan, bound and broken, spends a dark night of the soul in a prison cell. Conan dreams -- in what's becoming a trend, Conan always dreams in the first-part of a three-part-arc -- he is out in the cold and on thin ice. He hosts a pity party, calls himself a ''fool,'' ''stupid'' and ''doomed'' for throwing in his lot with ''criminals, murderers and strangers.'' One night apart from Bêlit and Conan becomes a forlorn and lovesick naïf, ah the vagaries of the infatuate.
  As before, Conan's dreams summon Bêlit to his side. She arrives in disguise at his cell with a revised plan for escape; more than that, she gives him what he needs: solace and assurance. She confirms his thoughts and belies his fears, ''You are a fool'' says Bêlit, ''for thinking I would not shift this mountain off its base to find you again.'' What a woman. Conan still has much to learn about the power of love and that ''to become as one,'' as Bêlit says in issue #3, means more than sex, it means mating the physical (the self) to something larger, the spiritual -- love grows where Bêlit's Conan goes.
  There is an alternate and (perhaps) much more thought-provoking (and zany) reading of Conan the Barbarian #4 as a petition to long-time fans of the franchise from writer Brian Wood. Here goes: Wood is Bêlit; and the question that he asks is the same one she puts to Conan: ''Do you trust me?'' 'The Argos Deception' takes Wood off script which assistant editor Brendan Wright confirms in the letters column: ''Chapter 2 [of the source material] begins with an account of the Tigress's growing infamybeginning in this issue Brian is creating new stories set during those years.'' When it comes to the work of Robert E. Howard, 'The Queen of the Black Coast' is a canonical text, so taking the story off course can be, as is said in Wood's native New England, tough sledding. The plot of this issue is a bit old hat, a barbarous retelling of the Trojan Horse, the Trojan Conan(?). Wood works as well with themes (see DMZ and Local) as with characters, so it would follow that this stopover in Messantia means more than a chance for fortune and glory. Longtime Conan readers refer to Wood's adaptation of the Cimmerian as unconventional[3] [my emphasis]. How an artist adapts source material is a highly personal choice as is the audience's reaction to that adaptation. A further investigation into a Conan's psyche (his identity) and his anxieties about trusting someone as powerful and influential as Bêlit -- not to mention that she is his lover and a more experienced one at that -- would seem to be a valid tact and consistent with the story so far. DMZ and Local are both bildungsromans. Is Wood, perhaps, attempting to do something similar with Conan? Or is Wood playing it safe by making Conan fit his style?
  Bêlit needs only a couple of minutes to convince Conan that her aims are true. How long will it take Wood to do the same? The question remains: Do you trust him?

[1] It seems like every week I read at least one book in which Stewart is listed as colorist: Fatale, B.P.R.D and Conan the Barbarian to name a few. The man either requires very little sleep or is the pseudonym for a collective.
[2] Harren also hacks up N'Gora's face by carving deep fissures into his skull.
[3] In his review on Comics Bulletin, Zack Davisson writes, ''Wood is showing us a side of Conan rarely seen in comics … It was hard to grasp at first, because I am unused to this side of Conan. Most writers would give Conan a paragraph or two at best of brooding, and then have him shake such doubts from his head, realizing they won't help the situation.''

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