Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Conan the Barbarian #6

Bloody Romantic
Pigeons have flown their arcs, shortened their circuits around ''the glittering jewel of Messantia'' and decided to get their boney bird-asses back home. Smoke chokes the tiered and tiled city, bodies slump in alleys, a head recently separated from its body lays idle, now an obstacle to panicked passers-by -- legs stretched to their limits, feet barely touching the ground -- sprinting across courtyards, boats, ablaze in the harbor, bear witness to the bedlam and the devastation. ''So much destruction … so much chaos … for a robbery?'' says the sword-toting, shackle-free Conan. His interlocutor, the seer, N'Yaga replies: ''This is Bêlit.'' To which the Cimmerian, his face spiculated and swathed in wide veins of blood (not all his own), smiles and says ''Crom. So it is.''
  'The Argos Deception' ends as it began with a ship asea. Artist James Harren and colorist Dave Stewart set the Tigress, laden (presumably) with riches, on a stolid ocean in contrast to a dreamy cloud-streaked sky[1]. The closure that this image provides its arc is apt, a mirrored bookend to a tale in which little happens and almost all is left to the imagination. Writer Brian Wood uses the concept of closure to join up the loose ends of this story, while at the same time, Wood knots this arc with the previous one by using the cords of Conan's budding psyche and lashes them to the most powerful tie that binds: love.  
  In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud hangs his blue check shirt in the gutter, that space between the panels that transforms images into ideas (the seen and the unseen) and makes us all complicit in the crime and the craft. Comics kids! McCloud draws his definition like so: ''This phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole has a name. It’s called closure'' (63). Four pages later, an clear McCloud states: ''Comics IS closure.'' The kind of closure, McCloud seeks is from panel to panel, the whole sequential art thing. McCloud ends the chapter emphasizing that closure is (only) the result; the act (the work) must come from the 'faith' and the 'imagination' of the reader.
  Conan and Bêlit's Messantian vacation (escape?) centers on a raid. Sure, Conan 'could' have been executed, but that's a minor detail and Bêlit (and the REH estate) wasn't going to let that happen. Like a practiced pickpocket, Wood has light fingers as he masks the lift and hides the heist. If nobody sees you take it, is it really stealing? In Conan the Barbarian #6, Wood achieves closure with closure. Plans and plot points resolve themselves in the gutter. So why all the friggin' around? Why all this deception? Are N'Yaga's words, ''This is Bêlit,'' the Hyborian Age equivalent of 'it is what it is?' Wood wants this Cimmerian shaggy-dog story to provide more than mere closure; it desires belief and requires trust on both the part of Conan and the reader.     
   The only clue that the crew of the Tigress was successful comes when Conan and N'Yaga arrive dockside. Each notices that the ship has yet to cast off, N'Yaga says: ''See how low in the water she sits. The hold is full of treasure.'' Mission accomplished, sort of. The Tigress's lack of departure signals that something is off, the queen remains afoot. To close out this story, Conan takes off like a speeding bullet, with locomotive might his sword severs heads left and right, and he is able to leap from quay to quay in a single bound. The race to find and rescue Bêlit is all a call-back to the first issue when Conan took his first leap of faith onto the Argus. Bêlit has been belayed by some of Messantia's finest. How this happened (who cares!) is left to closure and the imagination.
  Harren gets his final whacks in showing Conan as he gashes, beheads and impales his foes with a respective 'Whhikkkttt,' 'Slllkkkk' and 'Thukk' and oh the blood doth flow as if from a hydrant. Stewart selects a gooey shade of red as blood bursts from bodies and aprons off the blade of Conan's sword. Harren slashes the page with ferocious speed lines capturing momentum and the precise and precious moment that Conan makes widows of soldier's wives. In the penultimate splash page, Conan embraces his beloved and in what could be called an 80's action-movie-moment, the two gaze into each other's viscera flecked faces, as Bêlit says, ''Conan, you doubted me? When will you learn?'' And scene.
  Six issues in, Wood's adaptation of Howard's ''Queen of the Black Coast'' is as much about sword and sandal adventures as it is a story about boy meets girl. It's a love story, yes, and in some crazy way it's damn near a romantic comedy. Wood appears (desires?) to be interested in the process, the how's and why's that occur to form this relationship between Conan and Bêlit[2]. For some, the early stages of a relationship are fraught with doubts and profound conflict of all kinds. We are all (supposedly) free and can walk away, none beholden to any other. So why stay? What ties one to his or her Tigress?
   As N'Yaga and Conan make their mad dash to the docks, N'Yaga offers some sage relationship advice when it comes to taming or changing Bêlit: don't. Instead, N'Yaga tells Conan, ''you can understand her. And in that, perhaps she will understand you too.'' Ah, yes, understanding, relationship bedrock. If this scene occurred not at breakneck speed while on horseback, though the cobblestone streets of a burning city between a barbarian and his white haired wizened bro, but instead took place at a comfortable bar between the Seth Rogen character and the Paul Rudd character, would it smell as sweet? Good advice is good advice, you take it where and when and from whom you get it. Don't tame. Don't change. Understand. Understand?

[1] I'm guessing, since the next arc takes place (thanks to the requisite keeper of the letter column, assistant editor, Brendan Wright) in ''the frozen plains of Cimmeria!'' one could add to the end of this sentence: 'And the ship sails on, back to the north / Through the fog and ice … ' but there's no need to force and Iron Maiden reference into every review I write. Right?
[2] So far, the anatomy of this relationship has been one-sided. Perhaps, Wood will plumb the depths of Bêlit's motivations instead of making her only the object of Conan's desires. I, for one, look forward to the Bêlit and N'Gora shopping montage where at the end Bêlit tells N'Gora how much she loves Conan and why. In this scenario, of course, N'Gora is gay.   


  1. Man, that is the 800 poung gorilla in the room, innit? I never even noticed that they don't show you the heist! That's the one of the things I loved about Reservoir Dogs, you only see the prep, then the aftermath, and closure provides ther rest of the story.

    1. J.,

      I came 'this close' to making a 'Reservoir Dogs' ref. Leave it to you ... again I ask, why, why tell the story this way? What's all the hub-bub, bub? Brilliant or something else?