Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Conan #8

Interpretation all the way down

Eight issues in and Brian Wood's watch on Conan the Barbarian continues to be about something else. This 'elseworld' that Wood crafts is less an alternate reality and more a loose constructionist's take on a well-worn (and well-loved) character. Wood wants to examine the psychology (pathology?) of the barbarian, to overlay a scrim of reality on the fantasy. In Wood's interpretation Conan the Barbarian is a story in which actions get subsumed by motivations -- not a 'what if,' but a why and a how.
The narrative voice contained within its now familiar, torn and ragged dialogue boxes talks about Conan's ''bad feelings,'' and concerns that he is ''loathe to admit'' to himself about the distance that continues to grow between he and Bêlit as the two lovers trek across the wastelands of the north; Cimmeria, it's a relationship killer.
When Conan does talk it's to teach Bêlit about the ''fatalism'' of the North and how its people ''struggle'' and are ''resigned'' to hardship and to death -- call it the Zen of the Cimmerian or a kōan for Conan. Navel-gazing aside, Wood's interpretation of Conan is not an attempt to turn this warrior into a worrier, which has become an irritation for those inclined to a more adventurous and less brooding barbarian. This 'Conan crucible' that Wood has constructed presents the facts and challenges readers to figure out the how and the why for themselves. Perhaps Wood is taking a page from the director Ernst Lubitsch, who said, ''Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.'' To put Conan 'on the couch' so to speak is to examine what is implicit in his actions, what underlies the overt and what to infer from what is left unsaid, heady stuff, indeed.
Like a couple of grim Marlows in search of their Kurtz, Conan and Bêlit slog through devastation and deprivation as they track a killer (an imposter) calling himself Conan of Canach. In a snowy forest glade they are ambushed (if you call three arrows an ambush). On Conan's command, Bêlit flings dagger into the surrounding canopy and brings down the brigand. The rear-guard is able to croak out ''… waiting for ... you …'' before he … well, croaks. Now, for two characters so out of their depth, so hounded by the black dog of depression that each regrets the others presence they remain far from fatalistic or resigned to their miseries. If nothing else, Conan and Bêlit are born survivors.
The Queen may be far from her Black Coast, but she still calls the shots. She tells Conan to go off ahead of her to the ice fields in search of his quarry -- later the narrator will describe Bêlit's call to arms as ''the gift of freedom she had given him.'' As the lovers embrace, Bêlit, on the tips of her toes, says, ''The things I know, barbarian could fill this world and many more. Postpone your departure for a while longer, and come back to bed.'' It's here where the story gets weird, but with sexy results.
What follows is a sequence of a nude Bêlit as she rides bareback on a black horse across desert plains to the sea. Colorist Dave Stewart bathes Bêlit in tangerine and muted honey tones. At first this seems like a tasteful and un-Chaykin like way to show a sex scene, except that it isn't a sex scene or a metaphor, sort of. It's a dream or a memory (maybe) or a memory of a dream that Bêlit has been having. Wood has been playing with dreams (mostly Conan's ) from the jump, but this is the first time the reader looks in on Bêlit's interior life. Like N'Yaga's prophecies and Conan's motivations, these dreams are another aspect that Wood asks his reader to explain -- it's interpretation all the way down.
Not to mix my sports with my comics, but like Conan, I too am resigned when I admit: Becky Cloonan is not walking through that door. The 'sexy people' drawn by previous artists Cloonan and James Harren have been sawn off and become weedy, spindly and crimped. Artist Vasilis Lolos is not helped by the fact that due to the cold Cimmerian climate, Conan and Bêlit have to spend much of their time cloaked and under cover. Even if that's 'what the script called for,' why draw them like unmade beds with hair that looks like an inversion of the 'iron throne' from Game of Thrones? Lolos looks to have the potential to bring sexy back -- his interpretation of Bêlit's dream is very sensual -- and his hard-edge style works for wolves as well as a way to meet Cimmeria on its own terms and yet, it falls far short of the standard set by Cloonan and Harren.
There's been more frustration and little fury in this latest tripartite tale, the wolves and the last panel in issue #8 hint at a ferocious reckoning, but not yet. Some readers may find that this second act of Border Fury leaves them … umm … well, furious. Others, however, should take a page from those hard-won denizens of the north, from Cimmeria itself: don't give up, instead, inquire within for the answers to questions that writer Brian Wood continues to ask.

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