Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Conan the Barbarian #5

Bird Is the Word 

What's with the pigeon?[*] Perhaps this is a case of a cigar standing for a cigar; perhaps not. Since the latter invites conversation that the former eschews, one sees fit to indulge. Under writer Brian Wood, artists James Harren and Becky Cloonan and colorist Dave Stewart, Conan the Barbarian seeks to play with the idea of identity. This series sets Conan as novitiate -- the education of the barbarian -- a student at the alabaster feet of Bêlit, his teacher and lover. It's Conan as he learns to be Conan. In the opening story arc, Conan discovers that appearances deceive and that truth and fiction are seldom the same. In this second arc, 'The Argos Deception,' identity is a con as Bêlit, Conan and the crew of the Tigress use a ruse as a weapon and if their plan is to work, they'll need that pigeon.
  Conan the Barbarian #5 opens on a moneyed Messantian as he tends to his birds. The omniscient narrator's voice speaks of the ''glittering city of Messantia,'' ''favorable tax laws,'' and the ''assumption of freedom.'' On its face, it looks as if Wood is reaching into Conan's world to ascribe a percentage to the haves and have-nots of this port city and maybe he is, but to what end? An artist or writer's partialities or personal politics are bound to find agency in their work, and yet, those biases should serve the work.  Wood has worn his politics on his sleeve before (Channel Zero and DMZ) and if he is doing so again with Conan the Barbarian -- as is so often said on this blog -- so what? A writer of Wood's stripe doesn't force his opinions for their own sake, so what is he trying to say? If longtime Robert E. Howard fans blanch at Wood taking Conan off script how will the base feel as the politics of today occupy the Hyborian age?
  Veterans of Conan campaigns past and raw recruits can agree on one thing: this has to be the most gentle, the most peaceful start to a Conan comic … ever. Stewart bathes Messantia in early morning shades of heliotrope and tangerine as the city slowly stirs. The man tenderly takes a bird (a pigeon) from its cage and with palms upturned offers it into the air, a holy act. Harren's talent for depth and dimension shows in this scene as the smallness of the man and the bird are set off against the high-walled canyons of the city. Stewart paints the bird white to add a layer of peacefulness and tranquility. Few acts are as symbolic as the release of a bird; even if that bird has been domesticated and trained to return to its home, its cage. For now, however, it alights into the sky sans shackles. This scene of quiescent dawn ends in ragged shadow as the sun stands stunted against the wall of Conan's cage in the prison fortress. 

  So what? So some 'Richie Rich' releases a bird! Big deal. But it's a pigeon. Words and symbolism cut both ways. A pigeon is another word for a dupe, a fool, a mark. Wood uses this very subtle sign to set up the deception that will take place later in the issue with the sudden entrance of the woman [†]in white. In a twenty-two page comic with a ten page fight scene and another single page where Bêlit is masked in arterial spray, Wood takes two-and-a-half pages to show a man setting a pigeon aloft.
Why? Sure this 'free bird' juxtaposes Conan backed up against the wall of his prison cell, but even that is too pat, too on-the-nose. The pigeon counts because it symbolizes a city that can be had, it's world-building by swindle. From the jump, Conan the Barbarian has been about subverting expectations through pledge, turn and prestige -- a magic trick in tripartite arcs. Wood has taken an ordinary commodity, Conan the Barbarian, and turned him (and it) into something extraordinary.
In Messantia, money talks and a pretty face (and an arcane tradition) can overturn blind justice. Conan is kept from the hangman's noose only to be tossed into the arena against an opponent Harren draws as an upside down triangle, a bare-chested, bullet-headed bruiser with a face that looks like it was cut by a jigsaw[‡]. The champion cast to clash with Conan is from a class ''little more than court pets, warriors in retirement.'' Messantians like their fighters like their birds, kept. N'Yaga, the seer, free from the hold makes an appearance in the tumult to offer Conan a blade and sharp words about the fates. The fight finishes in a bloody ''are-you-not-entertained'' splash-page. It's the one image (besides the Massimo Carnevale cover) that misses its target. Harren ends strong with a street-level view of a Messantian boulevard buttressed by two buildings as tendrils of rosy smoke stream heavenward. The image smolders with anticipation of the story arc's conclusion in the next issue as its perspective eerily invokes the attacks of September eleventh.
  At the start of the contest, the narrator says: ''Since he was six years old, Conan has fought bigger opponents.'' It's a sentence that resonates beyond the plot or the page. Conan is totemic and at the same time open to interpretation. Brian Wood brings a novel quality to Conan the Barbarian that shows this character is more than muscle and more than a sword and sandal cliché. The narrative is drum tight. The smallest details (the littlest birds) in the art embellish overt themes and ideas of the story. To dismiss Conan the Barbarian as solely another Conan yarn is like saying the Odyssey is 'only' about a guy trying to go home or that Ulysses is 'only' about a guy who can't get laid. Conan endures.           

[*] In an inspired (read insane) bit of chutzpah I tweeted to Mr. Wood to ask: ''pigeon or dove?''. Wood responded that the script said pigeon.
[†] Little Wilke Collins reference for you English Majors out there. You’re welcome.
[‡] Old-school Mike Zeck era Punisher shout-out for those of you old enough to remember.

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