Brian Wood’s take on the legendary barbarian reaches its second volume and some growing pains along with it. As was the case with vol. 13, it consists of two three-part arcs which present new challenges for the character as he now shares his life with the pirate queen Belit. The stories represent a solid read overall, though you likely won’t be able to escape the feeling that you’ve read better from this title before.
The opening arc is easily the better of the two as it features Conan and Belit heading to Cimmeria to take care of some business. Now, I was expecting this to feature some “Conan”-style “Meet the Parents” antics, but we only get a few pages of Belit and Conan’s mom being catty to each other. No, the main focus of this story is in showing the pirate queen completely out of her element and how both she and Conan cope with this. We definitely get a more vulnerable side of Belit here as she has great difficulty dealing with Cimmeria’s people, land and wildlife at first, but it’s eventually shown that she has the strength of character to overcome these difficulties and survive in the wilds.
As for Conan, he has come back to his homeland to deal with a marauder who is destroying settlements and indiscriminately murdering their inhabitants in the barbarian’s name. This sounds like a perfectly vile individual for our hero to brutally dismember. That is, until we find out what the man’s beef with the title character is. It’s not surprising that Conan would’ve acted this way as a kid as someone with his natural strength and charisma would’ve seen little problem having sport with those less gifted than he. It’s a good idea, yet though we’re told that the character will carry this shame with him for a number of years, the impact is lessened because we don’t actually see it affecting him at all here.
Even if that part of the story is underdeveloped, at least the narrative is more consistent than the art. Becky Cloonan illustrates the first part of the story with Vasilis Lolos taking care of the rest. Cloonan provides typically strong work here, with her take on Belit providing ample justice to the character’s many moods. Regrettably, Lolos suffers in comparison as this artist works in a similar style to Cloonan here. I don’t know if he was trying to maintain artistic consistency here, but he comes off as a thinner, paler imitator of the woman’s style.
Declan Shalvey provides the art for the second arc, a more meditative story where the rescue of a prisoner adrift on a boat at sea has consequences for the crew of the Black Queen. The art is capable enough, yet it feels more functional than anything else. Shalvey’s work lacks the vibrant expressiveness of Cloonan, and even Lolos, and makes me miss the gloriously dramatic ugliness of James Harren, who illustrated the second story in the previous volume. Maybe he’ll be a better fit with Warren Ellis on the upcoming “Moon Knight” relaunch, but he’s not all that impressive here.
The story itself is also a change of pace from the usual “Conan” business as it concerns itself with a question hanging over the story. Can Conan and Belit’s love survive each other? We get a taste of that here as the entire crew of the Black Queen contracts a mysterious illness that seems to spell certain doom for all. I was expecting some kind of mystical source for this malady, but the reality behind it is pretty anticlimactic. There is a fairly dramatic sequence towards the end when Conan, after brutally murdering the people attacking the ship finds himself unable to enter Belit’s room due to her screams and the feminine reason behind them. It does bring things to a fitting dramatic conclusion while providing an answer of sorts to the question. The answer is, of course, one that anyone could have seen coming.
I’ve read “Conan” stories that are better and worse than the ones collected here. Wood gets some credit for writing stories about the character that try to find new things to say about him as he murders those who would do him and his companions harm. Yet they don’t quite click in the way more straightforward takes on the barbarian have done in the past. If nothing else, I’m still content in waiting to see if he gets things right in the next volume.