Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conan Volume 13: Queen of the Black Coast

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Becky Cloonan and James Harren

            I followed Dark Horse’s Conan series for quite a while before dropping it for reasons I don’t entirely remember at the moment.  Bringing in Brian Wood, who wrote DMZ and Northlanders, certainly intrigued me enough to get back on board.  And I have to say I’m happy that I did, because this is a perfect return to form.
            After becoming a criminal in the city of Messantia, Conan escapes to a ship called Argus.  There he finds out about the pirate ship Tigress and its captain Belit, the titular Queen of the Black Coast.  When the Argus is raided and its crew killed, Conan ends up joining up with the Tigress and falling in love with Belit.
            So let’s get the big thing out of the way first: that big, scary 13 up there.  Does that mean you have to read 12 volumes of Conan before you can read this one?  Not at all.  Having missed a few volumes of the series myself, I didn’t feel lost at all.  It’s a completely standalone story, and that makes it a perfect jumping on place.  I say if you like this, you should feel free to go back, but it also works on its own.
            The big reason for that is that this is the first story arc that Brian Wood has done.  In the past, Wood has been a hit or miss creator for me.  His ideas tend to be top-notch, but his work can sometimes be almost too intellectual and political for me, sometimes going right over my head.  Conan manages to balance this better.  It has enough intelligence to get the reader thinking, especially about the clashing personalities of Belit and Conan and what makes a man like Conan fall in love.  He even manages to draw some parallels to modern-day America.  But there is also plenty of exciting action, with Conan facing down pirates and soldiers.  The omnipresent narration is one of those things that could easily drag the book down, especially during big fight scenes, but it works.  The book is relatively light on dialogue, and the narration fills in those gaps well.  Also, the back-to-basics story works very well.  There’s a single fantasy element with a shaman, but this feels more like sword and sandals than sword and sorcery.  It’s like he wanted to get Conan himself right before he worried about having Conan face monsters.  It’s a case of getting to know Conan again, and it’s welcome.
            The art works well for the book.  Now, the one problem with having two artists is that there’s a rather sudden shift.  Cloonan does the first 3 chapters, and Harren does the latter 3, and it’s obvious.  Cloonan has an almost cartoonish style to characters, while Harren leads more towards realism.  Here’s the cool part: they’re both good.  They both handle the mix of dialogue and action well.  Cloonan handles the more seafaring first half well, while Harren’s style lends more detail as the story shifts back to Messantia.  He also loads the action up with a good helping of blood and gore.  My one complaint across the two of them is a sequence at the end of Chapter 1.  I’ve gone over it several times now, and I still don’t completely know what’s going on.  This could also be a writer problem, since this sequence has no narration.  I’ll chalk it up to Wood taking an issue to get his voice on the book, but it comes through in full by the end.
            Queen of the Black Coast stands as a high point for both Brian Wood and Conan.  It’s an exciting and smart book, letting the reader think before heads start rolling.  

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