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Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's Conan: Brash, Cocky and Fresh

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A tale of Conan’s early years sets the stage for a vision of the young Cimmerian unlike any seen before, courtesy of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan.

The first thing you’ll notice upon cracking the spine of Dark Horse’s latest Conan offering is that the typically hulking barbarian is looking a little…well, lean. When the preview of Queen of the Black Coast first hit Broken Frontier, one of my esteemed colleagues summed up what will likely be the reaction of many fans, exclaiming “That’s not the Conan I know!” This, of course, was in reference to Becky Cloonan’s streamlined visual interpretation of the iconic barbarian.

Truth be told, at first glance, I kinda understood his shock. Gone are the chiseled granite features, the rippling slabs of sculpted muscle, the perpetual dour glare promising violence and death at the drop of a gauntlet. Instead, Cloonan’s Cimmerian appears young, somewhat cocky; his body tall and rangy, lacking the heavy musculature of his later years. Which all makes sense, considering writer Brian Wood’s story is set in the lighter days of Conan’s early adulthood.

Even still, it’s hard to shake decades of movies, book covers, and comic books depicting a giant, ‘roided-up berserker lopping off random body parts while a voluptuous, scantily-clad priestess cringes at his feet. Cloonan is taking a risky gamble portraying even a youthful Conan without the long-accepted Arnold physique.

As it so happens, any kerfuffle amongst the purists in fanboy-land may be for naught, if this first chapter of QOBC is any indication. Wood’s story is a carefully crafted tribute to the original source material. Though dense and pulpy, his plot is still light on its feet, blending moments of exposition with scenes of high adventure effortlessly.

Wood’s Conan is brash and cocky, still lacking the grim poise of his later years but exhibiting some of the homespun wisdom and cunning that has already seen him clear of many a close scrape. His reckless pledge to rid the Black Coast of its most vicious, feared pirate sets the stage for a clash of epic (not to mention titillating) proportions. Combining the open adventure of the high seas with the adrenaline-fueled action of traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy, Wood’s first issue is a fun, light-hearted romp depicting a young, refreshingly humorous Cimmerian.

One particularly nice touch was the use of a “typewritten” font in the narrative boxes, which lends Wood’s story a quirky, pulpy flair and elevates the use of lettering to that of a framing device rather than a basic vehicle of expression. You can almost visualize Robert E. Howard hunched over his typewriter, tapping out the latest adventure of his barbarian king.

All of which makes Cloonan such a great match for this project, by the way.

Perhaps one of the most diverse artists working in comics today, Cloonan brings a fresh new approach to the iconic barbarian, while remaining cognizant of the work of her legendary predecessors. Aided by colorist Dave Stewart’s impressively muted color palette, Cloonan achieves a visual tone reminiscent of Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s classic Savage Sword of Conan series for Marvel in the 1970’s.

Her fluid, weighty line and exquisite attention to detail not only  sets each scene with appropriate atmosphere and visual tone but allows her to service Wood’s script by suggesting emotion (particularly humor) with a single stroke of her brush. If her Conan is leaner and lankier than we’ve ever seen him before, it’s a quality that should be lost on us only a few pages into the first issue of Queen of the Black Coast.

Some would argue Wood and Cloonan’s tale of Conan’s youth isn’t a classic interpretation of Robert E. Howard’s original vision but I would suggest true purists wouldn’t get hung up on one aspect of the story. Because at the end of the day, Wood and Cloonan have given us a classic Conan tale with sweeping, exotic landscapes, hair-raising adventure, a perilous quest, and hot, hot ladies wearing almost nothing at all…

Sounds like Conan to me…

Conan the Barbarian: Queen of the Black Coast #1, Brian Wood (W), Becky Cloonan (A). Dark Horse Comics, limited series, $3.50. On sale February 8, 2012.

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