Monday, August 13, 2012

Conan the Barbarian #7: Border Fury Part 1

Conan the Barbarian #7: Border Fury Part 1


A boy bent to drape flowers on his stepmother’s grave,
Thinking that death had changed her,
But the stone toppled and killed him.
Stepsons! Be wary even when they’re dead!

Substituting Bêlit for the son and Conan’s mother for the stepmother, Callimachus’s short poem deftly captures the relationship between the two.  In issue 7 of Conan the Barbarian, Conan and Bêlit travel to Conan’s homeland to confirm rumors of someone[1] performing atrocities in Conan’s name. The harshness of Cimmeria’s landscape carries mirrors the inhabitants’ familial relations as shown by Bêlit’s initial greeting from Conan’s mother: “Ah. A slave girl. Nice to see you didn’t arrive empty handed. She will be useful…”

Why does Bêlit put up with this treatment?

Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan and Dave Stewart answer by delicately maintaining Bêlit’s marshalled grandeur, regal fierceness, independence, and godlike aura of tamed savageness against her desire to fully and equally become a part of Conan’s life. This desire she holds is changing her, shifting her into something else. The proof (at least in this story) of the transformative power of love is that Conan’s mother, and the rest of the Cimmerian village still live, spared the fury of goddess queen of Shem. The creative team balances this transitional screen of Bêlit with deft and honest images and words.

Such fundamental change rarely arrives with ease. The depiction of Bêlit’s anger, adds to the believability and interest in her character. Bêlit’s words to Conan’s mother on page 6 contain pride, self respect, and a warning: “I am Bêlit of Shem, Captain of the Tigress and descended from the kings of Askalon! Men bow at my feet!” The same attitudes that lace the words inhabit the images of the panel as well. Bêlit’s pale facial skin framed by her black hair draws the eye to the central left side of the panel. Bêlit visually balances both Conan and his mother. Structurally Bêlit is strong enough for them both. While the partial view of the back of Conan’s mother’s head is shown to readers (and the largest element looming in the panel) it’s turned-away face diminishes its power, even though it menacingly haunts the scene. Conan too seems inferior to Bêlit. His upper body is angled away from his lover, whereas Bêlit’s posture is drawn straight. Conan’s right hand is open and is either halted in a comforting gesture of touching Bêlit’s shoulder after proclaiming to his mother that “—she is my lover,” or in the midst of drawing away as a response to force with which Bêlit declared her identity. The expression on Conan’s face, the tilt of his head and eyes, the slightly open mouth paints the Cimmerian with a look of surprise and (I imagine) awe at the power of Bêlit.

These signs of strength allow Bêlit her dignity and power. Also note too, Bêlit never hangs her head to anyone in the Cimmerian village, except when alone (at least visually in the panel) with Conan who provides encouraging and probably wise words on restraining her fury. Even after falling in the mud and getting insulted by the village girls, and drawn with a sad frustrated expression on her face, Bêlit holds her head erect.

So Bêlit maintains her strength and power and dignity, yet she endures abuse for Conan. The last issues have shown how this love existing between Bêlit and Conan has changed the barbarian, and in issue 7 we’re witness to the changes wrought upon Bêlit.

Such changes rarely happen with ease, and this resistance, frustration, and anger in reaction to her shift in character, Wood, Cloonan, and Stewart depict as well, which only adds to the portrayal of Bêlit as a rounded and developed character.

Page 8 shows Bêlit yelling and pointing at Conan, whapping the soup bowl from his hands. Narration is present, but anyone who has ever been in a relationship doesn’t need the words to obtain the basic feelings of the scene. Bêlit’s fear of the wolf and embarrassment at her fall in the mud and jeers of the natives shows readers her feelings other than just anger…although there’s no mistaking the demonic face as she charges towards her mockers with the drawn knife.

Conan and Bêlit are changing from the characters they both were at the beginning of this series, but the change, this alteration of their individual lives to accommodate an equal with respect and love, is one they both approach consciously and sincerely. Just as Bêlit states at the beginning of the issue “Conan…Be my eyes. Look sharply. Tell me everything you see.” and Conan’s own admission of Bêlit at the end of the issue, “I can’t do it without you.”

[1] And what of the Conan doppelganger? I can’t help but think of him as the Mcguffin to this issue, like the birds in Hitchcock’s The Birds. The birds were the main aspect of the movie, but they were the magician’s slight of hand that drew attention away from what was really going on, the mother’s angst at losing her son to another woman, the anger and frustration of which manifested itself in deadly avian attacks. At least at this point in Border Fury, the Conan impersonator seems to stand as the anger and destruction of his mother’s anger…or at least an alternative of how very brutal Conan could be if he had no honor, perhaps if he didn’t have Bêlit’s influence…

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