Graphic Novel Friday: Reinventing the Steel

After reading Dark Horse’s latest volume in the comic book exploits of Conan, I say this as a fan of Robert E. Howard and his Cimmerian: it’s about time. Writer Brian Wood, artists Becky Cloonan and James Harren, and lauded colorist Dave Stewart take Conan in a stylistically new direction in their adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast. Before purists cry “Crom!” and have at me, let me quickly say that there are countless volumes in Dark Horse’s library where Conan is traditionally represented as a hulking warrior with an unfortunate haircut. Hey, he has far more pressing blades to worry about than those that cleave his black locks. These timeless adventures will always be there, but it’s here that Dark Horse takes a chance at establishing a fresh starting point for new fans--and it works.

Very early on, there is a double-page spread by Cloonan, where Conan escapes on horseback only to look over his shoulder to give his pursuers a sly smile--a make-it-or-break-it moment for longtime fans. It’s a knowing look, a contemporary awareness that Conan has heretofore lacked. Readers will likely cheer, however, as he leaps onto a nearby ship and immediately takes command of the vessel based not only on the edge of his blade but the sharpness of his tongue.

Wood and Cloonan introduce a Conan who is clever, insufferably handsome, and in possession of a physique that, while still imposing, allows him to pass through most doorways. He’s even fully clothed in many of the pages! Conan romances the fierce titular queen, Belit, and schemes with her to pull off a daring heist. Fear not, there is plenty of bloodthirsty violence, featuring at least two beheadings and an all-out Conan rampage in the latter third of the hardcover. These moments are tempered by Conan’s passion for Belit--yes, he is legitimately concerned for his queen’s welfare, and Crom help anyone who dares lay a hand on her eerily milk-white skin. This is bloodlust.

As I read Queen of the Black Coast, I marveled at the sweeping, gorgeous, and richly detailed vistas. Cloonan and Harren spare no detail when revealing ships, port cities, or character designs. Belit, for example, is as scantily clad as they come, and yet what garb she does sport is riddled with steel mail, belts, loops, and fantasy esoterica. This creative team cares about the preexisting world in which they are allowed to play; they are attempting to make Conan relevant again. I laughed at the quips and sat riveted by the drama; I squirmed at the splashes of blood that are so eloquently realized by Dave Stewart; and when there were no more pages to be turned, I was thankful that there are plenty to come in future volumes. Long live Conan.


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