I’ve found that trade paperback (or hardback) collections can be far more stimulating that individual issues. Some of that has to do with pacing problems – when readers are forced to wait thirty days between installments of a larger story, the eloquence and magnitude of the broader piece is sometimes lost in the shuffle. Excellent writing is still excellent writing, but the greatness ends up getting mildly diluted by the protracted publishing schedule. This is no fault of the writers or the publishers – it’s just the nature of reading comic books as they ‘street.’ However, successive chapters are drawn together into one anthology, the vastness of a genuinely inspired work is as plain as the nose on one’s face, and such is the case with the stellar work of writer Brian Wood in penning a jaw-dropping tale of a young Conan in new waters.
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of character and plot. If you’re the type of reader who prefers review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my ultimate assessment. However, if you’re accommodating of a few hints of ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
While always a barbarian, Conan still had a youth. Like any young man full of vim and vigor, he probably made a few mistakes along the way. No doubt, those mistakes were costly enough to land him in trouble with ‘the authorities,’ and, as QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST’s opening shows, he’d be safer running away than trying to take on the entire guard. The young warrior flees the metropolis of Messantia, leaping from the edge of the dock aboard a leaving ship … and, unbeknownst to him, Conan found himself in a world of even greater danger. Out on the high seas, the young Cimmerian was destined to meet Belit – captain and queen of a legendary pirate ship – and, together, they found an uncommon love and adventure in one another’s arms.
When you think of Conan, you don’t necessarily think of romance. Part of this is due to the fact that pages and pages of his adventures deal with petty thievery and sword battles with thugs and villains, and, when you’re caught between a rock, a sword, and a hard place, there never is a lot of room for affection. Also, part of that is the simple nature of Conan’s world – it’s one of savages whose idea of ‘love’ is the rape and pillage of small villages. However, what writer Brian Wood brings to this world is a woman quite probably destined to be the barbarian’s equal. This queen – Belit – appears fated to serve as Conan’s greatest lover. As such, she moves him to great emotion, of which love is only one. The other?
Once Conan’s heart has been warmed to the affections of a single mate, he comes face-to-face with the stakes of his adventures. Suddenly, his eyes are opened to the costs of going against dangerous adversaries. While he never backs down from a challenge, he begins to see combat differently: not only can a failure deny him the touch of the woman he loves, but it’s also the obstacle he must overcome in order to find himself at her side. This is a man much different from the barbarian whose tales I read when I was in my youth, one who saw the chance to lie with women as the spoils of war. This is a fully-fleshed character who responds to the fire in his veins the way a young warrior would … and he’s far more interesting to read as a result.
To my surprise, QUEEN ends up being so much more than a swords’n’sandals story. It’s a saga – one befitting the feel of an accomplished novel. It has a great book-ends feature. It’s a violent blood’n’guts opera once the Cimmerian realizes the hazards before him. It hints and teases with secondary characters (the ship’s mate and a traveling shaman) the way a really good book does. There’s a constant undercurrent of epicness to it that fuels a reader’s anticipation – you want to see where this is all going, not because you want to finish it, but because you’re drawn to the character of Conan. You root for the good guy, and you thank God when he has a broadsword in his hand. Once it kicks into high gear (admittedly, the first issue/chapter smacks heavily of set-up, as it is), QUEEN has a wildly cinematic flavor to it. This is serious motion picture material here, and I mean that in the best possible association: I’d PAY GOOD MONEY to see this story on the big or small screen. It’s that inspired.
There’s an ongoing economy of words and images at work from the first page until the last. The artwork is sparse when it needs to be, and it’s much bigger, brawnier, and bolder likewise. It’s a fitting introduction to a great character by way of some truly great writing and drawing. There’s everything you want in a good Conan story somewhere within these covers, and I’d challenge you to go and find it. Now.
CONAN, VOLUME 13: QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST is a publication of Dark Horse Comics, a trade collection of six individual issues (chapters) published previously. The story is written by Brian Wood; artwork is done by Becky Cloonan (issues 1 – 3) and James Harren (issues 4 – 6); colors are by Dave Stewart; letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt; and Conan is the creation of Robert E. Howard. The release bears a cover price of $24.99 … and, in the opinion of this reviewer, it’s worth every penny.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE.
I’d imagine even Robert E. Howard himself – Conan’s creator – would be pleased as punch with the QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST. Once the obligatory set-up gets out of the way, there’s action, adventure, and romance aplenty, much more packed into these pages than you get in a handful of other graphic novels together. Brian Wood’s take on a younger, brasher, less polished Conan is nothing short of brilliant, giving the Cimmerian far less grace and skill than an older, wiser barbarian would spare but no less artistically compelling. It’s a great jumping-on point, that’s for sure, and here’s hoping Wood’s journey with the pulp hero is a long and fruitful one: certainly both deserve it.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with an advance digital copy of CONAN, VOLUME 13: QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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