Sunday, February 26, 2012

Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast #1 Review

             Believe green buds awaken in the spring, 
                 That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire; 
             Believe I held my heart inviolate 
                 To lavish on one man my hot desire. 
                                                 from The Song of Bêlit (by Robert E. Howard)  

Desire saturates the pages of Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan and Dave Stewart's “Queen of the Black Coast” in Conan the Barbarian #1. This raw craving resonates curiosity and joy and directs a barbarian who accumulated a sufficient amount of life experience but still possesses youthful enthusiasm to daring. Desire drives.

The opening page of this issue hastens readers into this tale with a close up of a horse head, followed  by the next panel with pounding hooves, a horse running at full tilt, an animal relishing indulgence in its natural act. This opening scene mirrors the role of desire in the story; it exudes energy, power; it allows an individual to savor a needed and essential act; it invigorates. The third panel on the first page depicts Conan riding hard, escaping the guards of Argos, crashing through the middle of a market place. Here, his desire to escape, for freedom, disrupts mundane routines and rouses joy and the satisfaction of luxuriating in the moment. Cloonan conveys this young Conan's roguish delight by including a smile with the barbarian's backward glance.

While enjoying the moment, Conan doesn't let the pleasure of the chase recede after only one taste. Having escaped the hostile port of Argos aboard a merchant ship Argus, he reshapes his experience and shares his tale with the merchant crew who can vicariously indulge their own desires through Conan's story.  After relaying his adventures in Argos to the crew, narratorial Wood wrote, “The Cimmerian, young in years though he may be, possesses a rare quality of charisma, and the crew of the Argus…having known him only minutes, loved him like a comrade.”  Conan's own vicarious desires are roused when the Captain of the ship spins a tale of the fiery-eyed Bêlit. Desire intrigues.

Bêlit's image, as imagined by Conan, haunts him, and the desire of it transforms him into a new version of the character. Cloonan, Wood, and Stuart are revealing to readers a decidedly different aspect of Conan, treating us to the “gigantic mirths” of the barbarian and leaving the “gigantic melancholies” for the Cimmerian's future. In Kush, Conan has his hair up in a bun….A bun!? It's this freshness, something different, of this Conan series that gives freshness to a character of an ongoing nine year series from Darkhorse. Desire transforms.

Cloonan's compositions of close-up panels of faces, of Conan and the captain of the Argus discussing the legend of Bêlit, illustrates camaraderie between the characters and builds it  between the reader and the characters. Desire brings intimacy.

Close friends, a new hair-do, a fast ship, a bottle of wine and stories…what more could a young Cimmerian desire?

You know.
Robert E. Howard knew.
Cloonan and Wood know.
A woman.
And power.
Conan will find both in Bêlit.

The fierce imagined images Conan conjured of Bêlit return and are elaborated upon with a dream of Bêlit rising from the sea, her loose dark hair floating on the water, not like Botticelli's Venus, but like the dark-haired version of the undead beauty in Coleridge's “The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner”:

          Her lips were red, her looks were free
          Her locks yellow as gold:
          Her skin was as white as leprosy,
          The nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
          Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Conan's dream-Bêlit rises from the sea, seduces him, and takes him into the depths of the sea. Our hero, just like any other 20-year-old falling in love for the first time, is in way over his head, literally drowning in his desire of this, ahem, wet dream. Desire has given Conan a foe against which even his sword is utterly useless.   Reveling in immediacy, motivating, rousing variety, and transforming desire brings all of these motions about in the story, along with dreams. And, since after all this is a fantasy comic book, desire delivers the dreams of the lusty smitten Cimmerian into reality….

This story arc promises to be a fun and wild ride for both Conan and readers.

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