Edited by Kaitlin Campos
I’m starting to get the depressing feeling that Brian Wood doesn’t handle 2nd issues well. So far, I’ve reviewed 2 different story arcs by him, and both times they started strong only to sputter in the 2nd issue. In the case of The Massive, it comes to a lurching halt with the third.
But we’re here today to talk about Conan The Barbarian, and my ongoing quest to review every comic book starring him that Dark Horse publishes. In case you haven’t been following my ongoing struggle with the black-haired barbarian (you probably have better things to do with your life), the skinny is that Conan is a barbarian, and being a barbarian in ancient times before the ocean sunk Atlantis, his career options were relatively limited to wandering adventurer. So, that’s what he’s up to in Brian Wood’s (known for his work on The Massive and a news story I won’t be commenting on) new story arc “The Song of Belit.”
Conan The Barbarian #23 sees our beefy shirtless hero having shacked up with a female pirate and her crew. Together, the two have set out to pillage an ancient (and reportedly cursed) city deep within a foreboding jungle. I praised the first issue for having great atmosphere and affording Conan actual character instead of using him as a blank-faced vessel to view his world through— this issue, on the other hand…let’s just get started.
We open with a flashback explaining the bat-winged monkey creatures from the previous issue; here shown to be an entire race of beings that built the abandoned city of this story. I’m not really sure what this scene has to do with the story, as it’s clearly stated only 1 is left alive and there are pretty clearly multiple monsters involved in this, but maybe the reasoning will come more into focus later in the story.
Sadly, Conan The Barbarian #23 really peaks in this opening, as the rest of the book is really disjointed and feels a lot like by-the-numbers padding, while checking off certain story boxes. The only really important thing that happens in this issue is that Conan becomes trapped and isolated with his ship and the abandoned city. The problem is that most of the stuff that gets Conan to this point isn’t very interesting, scary, or exciting.
What made the issue 22 of Conan The Barbarian work as well as it did was the thick layer of atmosphere that coated the issue. There was a real sense of tension, and the jungle environment felt truly alien and threatening— but not in any kind of obvious way, which made it all the more scary. By contrast, Conan The Barbarian 23 has a lot of the threat right out in the open, and as far as horror threats go, it really isn’t very frightening— or, more accurately, it isn’t realized in a frightening manner. Honestly, the idea seems like it’d be better fodder for a strait forward hack ‘n’ slash adventure story, but the issue is still being told in a manner more conducive to the horror element. A lot of Conan moving through the jungle, a lot of isolation, one central fight scene, and that’s it; in fact, the central conceit of the issue doesn’t even seem to be a long form plot device, but just a crutch to get Conan alone in the jungle.
Alright this is the part of the review where I actually talk about the thing, so I have to throw up a spoiler warning. Consider yourself warned.
The central horror conceit of this issue of Conan The Barbarian is that something in the jungle has the power to instill a violent, uncontrollable rage upon anyone, causing one of Conan’s warrior pals to violently attack him while the rest all kill each other. This could’ve maybe worked as a central idea for the slow, pressure-cooker style of the story, but the artwork really fails it, as the battlefield of the crew is surprisingly tame and dull-looking. It just looks like the crew all fell asleep and someone awkwardly spilled red paint on them. If they had been drawn as legitimately torn limb from limb and violently killing each other, maybe that would’ve been better at evoking the threat at hand here, but even so, they’re all dead, so it’s still not much of a stakes-raising event.
At the same time, after Conan is forced to kill his warrior friend, we get a lot of pretentious narration about how bad Conan feels for doing it— none of which rings true, as even though we’re told Conan knew this character really well, we (the audience) don’t know him from the other anonymous crewman dorks. The whole issue is very wordy as well, relying on way too much narration to communicate its ideas and not trusting enough in the artist, though, to be fair, with how badly the artwork failed Conan The Barbarian in places, it’s easy to see why.
Overall, it just doesn’t feel like this issue of Conan The Barbarian justified its own existence. So much of the comic feels like padding, or various scenes the Wood felt had to happen but couldn’t fit in anywhere else. The creepy atmosphere is gone, and replaced with a very stumbling and uncertain pace not helped by stating the nature of the abandoned series and monsters right at the start of the issue, as well as the artwork seriously undercutting any sense of gore or threat that could’ve been wrung out of the horror concepts on display. Maybe, if these ideas were being used for a more gorey, rock’em-sock’em fun style story, they would’ve worked, but in the slow build horror approach here, Conan The Barbarian 23 just doesn’t have the artistic talent to make its concepts work; not recommended.