Issue #4 finds Conan and the pirate crew of the Tigress preparing for the biggest haul to date, and yet, it places the Barbarian in the greatest risk to date: the known dangers of the hands of his enemy and the unknown dangers of trusting others apart from himself and his sword arm. This issue, like issue #3 before it, provides readers with increased glimpses into Conan’s early years that show how he would become the oft-morose and melancholic slayer extraordinaire. For fans of Robert E. Howard, this graphic translation should not disappoint.
One of the ways I know I have a truly good comic book in front of me is when I can skim along, page by page, without paying close attending to the text boxes and dialogue. Instead, I focus on the artwork and let it carry the narrative through panel and page composition. For me, this is one of the hallmarks of a good comic where the written text supplements an already strong visual story. Brian Wood continues to demonstrate his ability to organize Robert E. Howard’s original material and provide guidance for his artistic collaborators as they translate it into graphic form. How comics from the past (and present) can we think of where the panels are far less concerned about telling the story, and instead, simply look “really cool!” The cynic in me sometimes wonders if this isn’t an instance of the artist drawing the added splash page or two with an eye more towards the tidy sum the original art will earn on the secondary market than the story in front of him or her. In this issue of Conan the Barbarian, however, the art is arranged intentionally so there is no doubt why each scene and character are depicted in the way they are. And this really lends itself to a more meaningful reading experience.
Now admittedly, I was disappointed in hearing about Becky Cloonan’s departure from the series, though I am not certain if there are plans to bring her back on board for future adventures with our melancholic barbarian. Still, James Harren provides readers with an equally enjoyable portrayal of Conan, Bêlit, and the rest of the crew of the Tigress. Let’s be clear here: Wood is only as effective in arranging the elements in his adaptation of Howard’s source material because of the artistic team he has working with him. And while I don’t get the impression that Harren is concerned about superhero-esque splash shots and how well the original art will sell, the quality of art is truly excellent in this issue. Harren is particularly effective in the way he seems to etch lines of wear and concern onto the faces of his characters conveying emotion alleviating the need for Wood to directly tell readers how these adventurers are feeling. And for my money, I don’ know that there are many colorists more skilled in matching the right shade of color to suit the tone and atmosphere of a panel than Dave Stewart. I know few artists in this position get much praise, but I have yet to find an example of Stewart’s work that hasn’t simply “clicked” for me. His work on illuminating Harren’s pencils in the dungeon scene was particularly effective in mirroring the Barbarian’s mood for me.
This month’s review is a little shorter than my other reviews of Conan the Barbarian, but I hope this doesn’t reflect poorly on the issue. The fact is this issue left me disappointed in one thing: Reaching the final page. I’ve religiously collected the Conan trades with Kurt Busiek and later Timothy Truman (also published through Dark Horse) and the one thing I recall from those trade paperbacks is how each one left me anxiously waiting for the following volume. Brian Wood and crew have certainly elevated themselves to this level in a short time with their work in this issue. On to Issue #5!