Continuing on with Brian Wood’s work-for-hire endeavors we come to his take on Dark Horse’s “Conan” series which I’ve also been anticipating. “Northlanders” was entertaining and even thought provoking at times, but it never really evolved into a must-read series as the stories being told there often felt like on-the-nose metaphors for our current world situation. That’s less of a problem here as we’ve got a clearly defined main character with a (unstated) goal of getting in as much trouble as possible while still living to talk about it. Wood takes a different approach with the Conan that we’ve been getting in these series so far. Though there is plenty of wanton, gruesome violence and disdain towards the “civilized” world of man, “Queen of the Black Coast” is the story of a barbarian... in love!
Who better to become the object of the title character’s affections than a pirate queen whose idea of a “meet cute” is to board his ship and have her crew slaughter his crew. Belit, the queen in question, recognizes the Cimmerian’s immense savagery as a sign that this is the man for her and the two become lovers in short order. Nothing dim their fire, even when Conan agrees to be thrown into jail for his crimes in the city of Messantia to allow her crew to pillage the city.
That sounds like an extraordinarily bad lapse in judgment on his part right there, but love will make you do crazy things. In fact, we get to see a more emotional and uncertain Conan than we have in previous volumes. Part of this rubs me the wrong way since I like my Cimmerian to be sure of himself at all times and ready to fight back at an instant even when he finds that things have gone horribly wrong. Wood, however, with his artistic collaborators Becky Cloonan and James Harren actually manage to make the barbarian’s fits of passion and melancholy believable, if not compelling, in the way they capture the spark between the two lovers.
Cloonan gets a good deal of the credit since she’s the first to take a crack at Belit, portrayed as an ivory-skinned goddess with ebony hair and an aversion to wearing real clothes. However, there’s a savagery to her appearance and even some madness in her eyes that immediately makes you believe that there could be no other woman for the title character. No damsel in distress, she’s the one who makes the first move in their relationship, and is clearly the brains of the whole pirate operation. Cloonan also gives her issues an animated look to them that’s unlike what we have seen in the title so far. It works, though, as the savagery of the battles and the characters’ expressions stand out all the more without compromising the book’s gritty intensity.
Harren’s style may be more in line with what we’ve come to expect a “Conan” book to look like, but that’s not a bad thing here as he illustrates the raid on Messantia and gets some of the volume’s best scenes. There’s a prison sequence that threatens to become unbearably emo until a surprise visitor shows up to make things more interesting, and a spectacular brawl between leg-manacled Conan and a giant mongoloid fighter that ranks amongst the book’s best. He also nails Belit’s encounter with two guards who chase her into an alley and find out the hard way that she’s not a woman to be trifled with. The book’s second half may take a little while to get going, but when it does it does so with a vengeance as it’s nonstop action and adventure from there.
Now there is a damsel-in-distress moment towards the end of this collection and it’s dealt with the book’s customary brutality to emphasize how much Belit has come to mean for the character. In fact, it probably shows us that she has him wrapped more around her finger than he does her. I won’t say that “Conan” represents a particularly progressive approach to romance, but it does represent the kind that I can appreciate in my fiction. There’s no will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Conan and Belit -- they recognize the other as a worthy partner and get right down to it. Wood gets credit for that, though Cloonan and Harren make the pairing sizzle on the page.
I wasn’t expecting to go into a “Conan” book and wind up praising its romantic elements, but there you go. It’s a different kind of story than what we’ve been getting with the title and makes me look forward to seeing where this relationship goes in future volumes. That being said, we know that Belit doesn’t wind up being King Conan’s wife so we’re either headed for a tragic death or a breakup of epic proportions. (As for the third option of the two just parting on a “let’s be friends” note... this is “Conan” so that’s not even an option.) Even though the common wisdom is that a writer’s creator-owned work will be better than their work-for-hire jobs, there’s a vibrancy to the action here that “Northlanders” often lacked. I won’t say that Wood’s “Conan” is better than his viking series, but the potential for it to be is clearly here.