Conan The Barbarian #1 – REVIEW

Who is Conan? He doesn’t appear to be either a Barbarian or Austrian, for one thing. Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s relaunch of Dark Horse’s Conan series gives us a rather smart, somewhat entitled hero who spends more time sitting around on boats talking about beer than he does smiting civilised heads from their shoulders. Dark Horse are pitching this relaunch, which begins with Wood’s retelling of the original Robert E. Howard Conan story “Queen of the Black Coast”, as a perfect jumping-on point for new readers. And for Conan too, who literally jumps into this story to kickstart what seems to be a somewhat intense mythical and personal journey which will at some point also feature a big swordfight on a pirate ship.

I know nothing about Conan apart from the films, which are routinely terrible and don’t feature nearly enough wrestling with boars for my liking. So even before I picked up this issue, I was highly sceptical about even a stellar creative team like this being able to get me interested in Conan. As ever, I was absolutely wrong. Conan The Barbarian #1 is not about gore and boobs and people wearing animal pelts and eating raw meat. It’s instead a fascinating comic which plays directly into Wood’s strengths as a writer: his narrative and pacing. The bulk of the issue has the main character lounging around on a boat, telling a few stories about his past and hopeful future to a group of surprisingly accommodating merchants. But rather than seemingly dull or draggy, this sequence perfectly leads the reader into an unnerving dream sequence, drawn by Cloonan with incredible precision and inflection. Can images have inflection? They can when Becky Cloonan draws them.

The entire issue flirts with reality, giving us a look at a different time and throwing Conan entirely out of his comfort zone. Perhaps going straight into an adaptation of one of the more off-kilter Conan story wasn’t the best idea for an issue #1, as we only get to hear about Conan’s strengths as a swordsman and not see them. But instead of it building into a weakness, Wood instead deftly plots around the issue and makes it a point of tension for the readers – to what extent is Conan actually gifted, and to what extent is he bluster? This conflict is explicitly pointed out to the readers, and is one of several moments where Wood predicts a reader’s reaction to a page and acts out on it within the narrative.

The writing is poetic in the extreme, mixing Moby Dick with Treasure Island and throwing in some Edgar Allen Poe for good measure. Not literally. There are no crows in this issue. Cloonan’s art is obviously another big draw for readers, and Wood immediately bows to this with an opening double-page splash which has only one narrative caption but tells the reader everything they want to know about the main character. It’s wonderful, and Cloonan’s character design and background work only improves from there. The Black Queen herself is a fabulously beguiling creation, playing with gothic fiction and dramatically seizing attention from the readers. Cloonan’s helped in no small part by the stellar colouring of Dave Stewart, whose work again offers a mix of the startling and the subtle. The sailors, for example, all have eyes tinged slightly red from all the sea spray they encounter. A tiny detail, but one which adds to the story greatly.

Conan The Barbarian #1 is a surprise, a wonderfully written (I desperately want to use the phrase deftly written a second time, but shall refrain) comic which acts as a showcase for Wood and Cloonan’s unmatchable comic chemistry. Every panel is carefully placed and written and drawn, and the quality shines through on each page. A masterclass in how to produce a comic, Conan #1 is on sale right now. We’d well advise you to pick it up.

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