When Marvel Comics first announced the series they would publish upon reacquiring the Conan The Barbarian license, I was stunned to hear that one of them would be a T-rated mini-series focused on the teenage years of Belit – Queen of the Black Coast. This stunned me not because I don’t think Belit is worthy of such a story but because Belit is… well, let us just say problematic as a character. Particularly if the intent is to market this mini-series to the same YA audiences that read Squirrel Girl and Marvel Rising.
Belit only appeared in one of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. While she is said to be a fearsome pirate, she seems to depend more upon the strength of her crew, whom literally worship her as a goddess. Given that her crew are all said to be black men… well, that’s a bit of a problem.
Her love-at-first sight romance with Conan begins with him single-handedly slaughtering a dozen of her men and ends with her ripping her clothes off and dancing naked before him and her crew with a cry of, “Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance – the mating-dance of Belit!” Even her boldest feat in the story – coming back from the dead through sheer force of will – is tainted by the fact that she only returns from the dead to save Conan’s life.
Small wonder there haven’t been a lot of in-depth feminist analyses of Robert E. Howard’s work. Most modern readers tend to throw the original Conan books at the wall in annoyance after a story or two. Given all that baggage – and a comic cover depicting an adult Belit in an outfit that Dejah Thoris would dismiss as impractical – I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to the Emma Frost mini-series from several years ago, whose beautiful and touching coming-of-age story of a teenage Emma was completely ignored by its intended audience thanks to a series of Greg Horn covers that were more appropriate to the cover of Hustler than a YA series aimed at young women.
It’s a damnable shame because there is much to recommend Age of Conan: Belit #1 beyond its packaging. Tini Howard’s story introduces us to Belit, showing her to be anxious to grow up and obsessed with following in her father’s footsteps as a legendary corsair. She quickly finds herself having to grow up in a hurry, as her father is left for dead and his favorite ship, The Tigress, stolen. This leads to Belit taking her first steps on the road to adventure and quickly finding out there is more to the sea than she ever suspected.
The tale is a bit cliche in terms of coming-of-age stories, but Howard takes the curse off of it with a fair bit of humor and a lot of action. Yes, Belit is captured by slavers almost immediately after embarking on her rampage of revenge, but we later find that she proved troublesome enough as a captive that she was bound hand-and-foot in chains AND locked in a treasure chest. This speaks to whom Belit should be as a character rather than what she comes off as in the original tales today.
The artwork by Kate Niemczyk is generally good, but her design for Belit leaves me perplexed. Granting that Belit was described as ivory-skinned and raven-haired in the original Robert E. Howard stories, her appearance here leaves her looking more like an Emo club kid than the sort of character who spends hours a day on the decks of a sailing ship. Her costume also makes it look like she’s wearing Lycra bike-shorts and a tank-top under an over-sized shirt. The rest of the characters look fine, but Belit sticks out and not in a good way.
Ultimately, I’m not sure who the intended audience for Age of Conan: Belit is. The reputation of the character will scare off feminist fantasy enthusiasts. The cover will likely drive away the YA audience. And Conan purists will turn their nose up at the attempt to appeal to another audience. It isn’t bad for what it is and it is well-presented, but I’m hard pressed to think who, apart from existing Conan fans, might be a good fit for this series.