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'Conan Volume 14: The Death' - Advance Hardcover Review

Conan Volume 14: The Death collects issues seven through twelve of acclaimed writer Brian Wood’s adaptation of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s story Queen of the Black Coast. A staple in comics, Wood has created and written innumerable series, from the thought-provoking Demo (with art also by Becky Cloonan) to the hard-hitting DMZ and the savage, unbridled Northlanders to the politically potent The Massive, currently being released by Dark Horse.  And, these are just a few of the most well-known series he has created.  In other words, Brian Wood knows comics, and he knows characters, too.  And, with a title like Conan the Barbarian, knowing characters is incredibly important, because if a writer doesn’t know how to create characters, Conan may easily slip into the broad strokes of pop culture tropes – all heaving muscles and swinging swords, with nary any dialogue or resonance to be found.  Luckily, Brian Wood is interested in telling a complex and intriguing tale, and one steeped in more emotion than some would think possible for someone of Conan’s ilk, especially someone only associated with the cinematic representations of the barbarian. 

The Death continues Wood’s adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast and continues Conan’s passionate love affair with Bêlit, the pirate queen of the title, who in the preceding issues Conan faced in battle and then fell deeply in love with.  Conan has become Bêlit’s king, and his time is spent mostly at sea, aboard The Tigress, one of the most feared ships on the Black Coast, a veritable scourge of desolation and destruction, as is its captain, Bêlit.  The book is broken into two main stories: Conan’s return to the harsh, bitter landscape of Cimmeria to put an end to an imposter who is razing villages and murdering innocents and using the name Conan, and “The Death,” which carries more meaning and menace than Conan is able to fully grasp, and which extends beyond the mysterious illness that plagues The Tigress, and into the hearts and minds of the barbarian and his lover.  “The Death” is at once a physical, tangible threat and a metaphysical, ethereal danger, one that leads Conan down a dark road of contemplation and insecurity, nearly bringing him to a place of catatonic inaction.  This is similar to the low place Bêlit is brought to while in Cimmeria, where she is no longer regarded as a queen or a force to be reckoned with, and the cold, frozen land so unlike anything she has even known, that it chills her to the bone, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Each of these stories challenge Conan and Bêlit’s love and devotion to one another, and this is a theme that Wood runs through all six issues here, and that was started when Bêlit first took Conan as her king earlier in the series.  For forces of nature such as these two, it only makes sense that their love would be torrid and intense, though we have never seen a Conan as introspective as this, and that is what makes this adaptation so remarkable.  The relationship between Conan and Bêlit is anything but simple as both of them deal with ever-shifting, roiling emotions, while at the same time maintaining a steadfast love for each other, and it is this dichotomy that lifts Conan above pure action adventure and into the realm of high drama.  There are three different artists in this collection, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, and Declan Shavley, but their work all flows together seamlessly, while still managing to maintain each artist’s unique qualities.  You may prefer one artist’s take to the others, but the shift is never jarring, and the story never suffers, as each artist is equally skilled and adept at bringing to life seething rage, emotional depth, and raw passion found in Wood’s storytelling.

Wood’s Conan reminds me of his work on Demo, a series that dealt lightly in super powers and heavily in emotions, relationships, choices, the inner workings of the head and the heart, and the way those things manifest outwardly.  For while there is action and bloodlust and while Conan does mercilessly and brutally dispatch his enemies, this series is more about the internal, emotional melee that is taking place within the young Cimmerian’s own self.  This is a Conan who loves, who fears, who feels regret, and who doubts, emotions that would not normally be associated with the stoic barbarian, and yet these tumultuous emotions are what make Conan such a complex and utterly compelling character and what drive the story.  I feel a fair amount of the credit must go to Robert E. Howard, as Queen of the Black Coast is directly adapted from his story, and throughout The Death gallops an eloquent narration that reads as if it could have been lifted straight out of Howard’s original story.  If it is not, then Wood deserves even more credit for crafting such verbose and portentous narration, or maybe for soundly adapting Howard’s words to fit perfectly within the framework of his tale.  This is a younger, more emotional, and more vulnerable Conan than we are used to seeing, and yet through Brian Wood’s storytelling, character dynamics, and grounded, introspective reality, as well as the detailed quality of the team of artists working with him, I believe this is closer to Robert E. Howard’s original vision of Conan than much of what has been done before it, and that is a belief I wholeheartedly stand behind, sword (or rather pen) in hand.

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