Conan faces foes like he’s never faced in the past 100 issues of Dark Horse’s Conan. Given the barbarian’s rogue gallery, such sinister villainy would seem to strain imaginations, yet Brian Wood takes familiar material in the barbarian's mythos and bends it in a new ways. He makes it look obvious and easy. This current issue evokes “I could have thought of and done that” from readers; except we can’t. Only Wood’s unique voice can sing this song of Conan; which is fine, because the rest of us get to listen.
Conan’s new challengers still lurk in the technological laden 21st century; self-doubt, illness, helplessness at watching the suffering of a loved one. The creative team (Brian Wood, Declan Shalvey, and Dave Stewart on script, art, and colors, respectively) depicts this helpless inaction with some tension and spear throwing to propel the action of the issue.
The pace Wood sets in the 12th issue of his 25 issue run in the port of Bakal sine curves from inaction, to violent action, to debilitated inaction again. In parts one and two of “The Death,” the crew of the Tigress contracted a deadly fever and Conan set out to find a cure. Bêlit numbered among the ill and instructed Conan to leave them while he still possessed his health. Issue 11 ended with Conan trying to decide whether he’d follow Bêlit’s orders. Issue 12 opens with Conan in a tavern, having decided to stay, drinking breakfast and finding some medical help for the crew.
Conan’s immobile brooding drinking soon leads to violent action that raises the apex of the sine curve with some distracting bloodletting as Conan and N’Gora defend their ship against a meager mob.
After the fight, N’gora informs Conan that Bêlit’s screams have been continuous throughout their entire battle on the dock. These howls Wood describes as “It was not the scream of a dying person, but rather the agonized despair of someone in pain with no hope of the release of death.” And having run to the threshold of Bêlit’s room, the narrator says of Conan “He would follow Bêlit to the ends of the earth…but he could not will himself to enter that room.”
This immobility of Conan depicts the helplessness one experiences during the suffering of loved ones. No matter the amount of love, skills, power, and prowess one possesses, it’s useless to the suffering one. Physical pain, perhaps all the more terrible for it, isolates and ultimately must be endured alone.
Wood and Shalvey’s tale captures and heightens this helplessness and isolation with the two-page spread of Conan sitting against Bêlit’s cabin door—all of the space and Conan is alone (except for a dead rat in the lover left hand corner) impotent and waiting. His sword is discarded, tossed on the deck for the useless item it is in this situation. The point of the bloodied blade (symbolic of the dire future for Bêlit?) points at the She-pirate’s door. Conan remains a diminutive slumped figure against a large background, again sitting immobile, waiting amidst Bêlit’s pain-filled shrieks. No words are given—none are needed here. Both speech and action remain useless as balms for Bêlit.
Bêlit lives, but that doesn’t end the helplessness of Conan. After learning that Bêlit was two months pregnant and that she lost the baby, the captain of the Tigress doesn’t speak. Conan is unsure of the cause, and is again at a loss for how to aid and comfort his companion.
The final three pages of this issue greatly enhance the mood of helplessness. The colors are muted grays and oranges and blacks in depicting a lone ship upon the sea. In the seven panels on pages 20 and 21 where Conan sits in Bêlit’s bed chamber, four of the panels show only one of the couple, alone, which adds to the isolation. Conan’s head always tilts down, and contains heavy shadows. In the three panels where Conan and Bêlit share the space, they are not looking at one another. Bêlit has her head turned away from the barbarian, and after Conan speaks the words, “…Bêlit. Why will you not speak to me?,” Bêlit turns her back to the barbarian. Conan is left helpless and at a loss of how to remedy the situation. The suffering aftermath of the pain Bêlit endures alone, leaving Conan to battle silence, speculation, and doubt alone upon the deck of the Tigress.
Wood’s Conan continues as a fresh and inventive exploration of new possibilities of Conan’s character. While Conan’s adventures still contain high body counts, reading the confrontation of Conan considering the futility of the sword in various situations enlarges the scope and power contained within the character of a young man from harsh northern isolation exploring what the world and life offers.