Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Conan the Barbarian #11: The Death Part 2

Conan the Barbarian #11
The Death: Part 2

Script: Brian Wood
Art: Declan Shalvey
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft

The story so far: Controlling an enriching oceanic campaign of plunder ad terror, Bêlit and Conan enjoy a piratical life with their crew aboard the Tigress. Their reputation conveys such power that the mere sight of the Tigress causes other ships to instantly surrender and transfer their cargo to the raiders. A prisoner secured by the Tigress spreads a life-sapping fever amongst the crew. All aboard the Tigress suffer, with the exception of Conan. In issue 11, Conan attempts to find a healer for the crew, experiences a dream vision, and wrestles with the moral choice of whether he should abandon Bêlit.

Barbarian Ethics

Conan has always been a love ‘em and leave ‘em type of guy. A profession of “sword-wielding barbarian mercenary/adventurer” lifestyle doesn’t offer much stability or  promise for an exclusive and devoted domestic life. Conan never pretends otherwise, and at least from the Conan stories I’ve read, his paramours understand the situation and willing lock arms around the barbarian.

Bêlit changes the situation.

While Dave Stewart’s need for blood-red ink remains minimal (which is good since Luther Strode has returned to the shelves and Tradd Moore will monopolize the crimson solution for each page of each issue…) yet Conan’s ethical battle proves greater and far more interesting than any physical foes he’s faced so far in Brian Wood’s manipulation of the barbarian’s tale.

Fever flaunts the question of whether Conan should jettison Bêlit or remain by her side and accept whatever consequences this attachment churns forth. Normally, such a situation would carry a simple answer if some formal ceremony of bonding was present (“in sickness and in health” for “richer or poorer” and so forth) yet, Wood makes Conan’s choice more complex by never having Conan and Bêlit formally and ceremoniously setting forth the conditions of their relationship, and Bêlit states (after saving Conan from a tavern tussle by her mere appearance)
“Conan, my love…carry me back to the ship, back to my Tigress. Make me my tea, and put me to bed. And then you should go.” Bêlit clarifies when Conan asks if he should return to the healer, “No. Go. Leave, leave us. This is a dead end for you. By morning we will all be dead, no doubt.”

Conan’s initial responds by accusing Bêlit of fever madness and exclaims “I cannot. I won’t. I won’t!”

But he can.

Bêlit’s words spiral into Conan’s conscience where he ponders the validity of her predicted demise and command to go, to leave. He struggles with his choice, a choice not based on duty, or obligation, but what seems a pure choice revelatory of Conan’s character and his values and ideals and the man he is and will be.

If ever a Socratic dialogue could take place within a Conan comic, this moment seems an appropriate place to debate and churn the mind for the meaning of “love” and “commitment,” “devotion,” “freedom.”

Robert E. Howard frequently used Conan (as well as other characters) to examine the dark side of civilization and contrast it with a natural state of existence that remains superior to civilization.

This natural state versus civilization works with Conan’s current choice.  When considering whether to return to the Tigress and her ill captain and crew, Conan thinks “What of his promise to Bêlit? For whatever reason, he cannot recall ever making any.” A promise, some vow, some ritual, would obligate Conan and have him shackled to duty to return to Bêlit. Such a move, a binding of words, contains the stain of civilization; a human-crafted device to clarify a desired course of action, a set of choices made in advance. When thinking at night while overlooking the harbor where the Tigress rests at anchor, Conan continues to consider his relation to Bêlit, “Theirs was—is—a romance very much about the present, the simple pleasure of the day to day.” While reveling in each moment, Conan and Bêlit’s romance supersedes a mere groin-grinding dalliance. The first issue makes clear some powerful and unknown might has united Conan and Bêlit.

Neither can clarify the reason for their unification, but neither denies the connection. Some power of nature (always powerful and unknowable despite the best attempts of meteorologists) has united these two humans. Issue five revealed Conan’s prison-bound contemplations of Bêlit’s care and commitment for him (It’s interesting Wood keeps Conan’s mind away from this “debt”;  it certainly makes Conan’s moral conundrum far more fascinating). Conan stands at a threshold as difficult and influential as any hero has faced. The issue ends with Conan stating “I could run. I could be free of all of this. I could have a long life and see the world. It is what Bêlit asked of me. And who am I to refuse a Queen?”

Alas, readers are left to ponder whether the great melancholy expression adorning Conan’s face sprouts from his abandoning Bêlit or from his distaste at returning to the fever-filled hull of the Tigress. Wood masterfully has framed this situation in such a way that the reader’s interpretation of Conan’s expression reveals just as much (probably more) about the reader as it reveals about Conan.

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