My interest in reading a"Conan The Barbarian" comic is right around zero (despite secretly being a fan of the movies). However, when you tell me that comic is going to be written by Brian Wood and drawn by Becky Cloonan, I suddenly have a completely different idea of what that Conan The Barbarian story might be like. I was not disappointed.
In this first issue we meet Conan mid-escape, as he heads to the coast and hops aboard a ship against the captain's will. But in no time he's made them his best friends and pledged to defend them so long as he's aboard. The captain regales him with tales of BÄ“lit, Queen of The Black Coast, and Conan is immediately drawn to the stories. By the end of the issue, Conan has met the Queen herself, and it's had a profound effect on him.
Wood does an excellent job of setting the stage for Conan, quickly building a world that a reader could easily believe. Even more importantly, however, you immediately get a sense of Conan as a character. He's roguish and charming, talented and enthusiastic, but he's also flawed. Conan is selfish and very much motivated by self-preservation in this first issue. He's noble when it counts, but he's not above taking whatever he needs and he has the power to do so. He's impulsive and brash, but that's also part of his charm. It all combines into a surprisingly layered character in only a handful of pages. You find yourself liking Conan despite the flaws and finding him all the more believable for those flaws. It's the definition of good character work. The last seven pages left me a bit confused, which may be deliberate to show us what we're dealing with when it comes to BÄ“lit, but I found it slightly frustrating. In truth they were also some of my favorite pages, but I wanted to be more certain of what I was seeing, or what Wood wanted me to take from them.
Cloonan's art is a nice change of pace for what you might typically expect in a Conan comic. She straddles a style that is both cartoonish and realistic, blending the best of both worlds to create pages full of emotion and movement. Everything is slightly loose and rough, but in an aggressive raw way that fits the story perfectly. You get a taste of the kinetic energy this book has, especially toward the end of the book where Cloonan is allowed to focus on the sea, and Conan's interactions with The Queen. BÄ“lit's character design is sublime. Cloonan's Queen is sexy and horrifying, powerful and intoxicating, and it's easy to see, without a word spoken, why Conan is instantly caught in her dangerous web.
Dave Stewart's colors are perfect. He drenches his scenes in evocative moody colors -- a nearly monochromatic blue as characters talk late at night while at sea; dreamlike purples as Conan "meets" BÄ“lit; warm browns and golds for daytime on land.
Wood, Cloonan, and Stewart are an exemplary creative team, and Dark Horse deserves credit for bringing them together for this book. There's an effortlessness in their collaboration that makes reading a pleasure. With an excellent first issue under their belt, their collaboration is already leaving its unique mark on Conan, and perhaps converting more skeptical fans, like me.