Usually when a high profile creative team takes the reigns of an established property, issues are spent revising, rehashing and reviving ideas, characters and concepts before the bare threads of a good, old fashioned adventure plot start to show. Luckily, Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan side-step all of that and just get right down to business in this opening issue of Conan the Barbarian. Rather than directly re-imagining the barbaric warrior, Wood and Cloonan keep to the base, up front idea and make their presence known through craft rather than dramatic statements in the narration or other elements of in-your-face territory marking. For the most part, this is a good first issue which seems to indicate a forth coming plot that fits right well with this character's other tales, but up front I'll say this first issue lost its clarity toward its finish, inhibiting any sense of complete satisfaction. How about some details?
As I mentioned, Wood and Cloonan pretty much keep to the surface definition of Conan the Barbarian.
- He's a brute. - He fancies combat. - He dislikes shirts.
That's all I knew of the character going in, and the creative talent make sure that's all you really need to know. Wood and Cloonan understand the importance of keeping Conan simple. They're not in this to provide the character with a Grant Morrison-style zip file filled with teaming, explosive information and larger importance. Instead, they're here to tell another Conan story using the specific talents they possess as storytellers, and the issue's brief, action oriented opening pretty much sums up that attitude. It doesn't waste time reselling the character or the story world. It just shows Conan in his element as he rides away from trouble he has, no doubt, caused.The team makes the right move choosing this direction. There's no need for a long intro or complication of the character. His existence on paper serves a certain role, and it's clear Wood and Cloonan understand that.
But it's not to say they lock Conan into a loop of stupidity. If anything, I'd call the simplicity of the take charming as well as mature. Like Glory #23 from Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell, a certain balance is achieved in Conan #1 where the subject matter isn't taken too heavily yet simultaneously finds respect via the comic's attention to structure and visual detail. It's the reverse of what we may usually consider substance in storytelling. The plot exemplifies simplicity, but all of the other elements that shape the comic (line work, color, characterization) contain the code worth deciphering.
What really stood out to me was the characterization. While Conan is kept simple, Wood and Cloonan do make a point to personify him a bit. Conan's age, oddly enough, is what seems to bring Wood and Cloonan together the most, really causing two talents to work together. This is a young Conan, after all, and because of that Cloonan's expressive line work makes a lot of sense. She's spent plenty of time illustrating young characters and for good reason. I've always considered her to be one of the more articulate comic book artists of the now, and you see that here. Her line breathes a new life into this old character, and it builds the idea that the Conan we're reading about is a charged young man. Wood's dialogue sows that idea together. His Conan comes off as someone who's undoubtedly loyal and ready to go to work, and it's from this his Conan carries a nice sensibility of vitality and strength.
So, I've shown Conan the Barbarian some love. Now, I must offer the negative.
The end of this issue makes little sense. I'll leave it at that. We reach a point in the story where Conan confronts this supernatural woman of the sea who does bad things. Some of this confrontation appears to take place in a dream state. Some of it appears "real." The connection between the two, as well as the order of the events, is where the through line falls from the spotlight. It honestly feels like pages are just out of order, that when the book shipped to the printer the computer controlling the printing machine made a goof. I don't know how else to describe it. They're nicely drawn, sure, but ultimately, in the moment where audience attention is probably most vital, the audience misses an important hook - the cliffhanger. I'd even go as far to say the final scene's uncomfortable chaos takes away from the issue's other successes. The mistake isn't just a small one. I had a hard time brushing it off, and it keeps me from citing this particular comic book as a good one.
Overall though, I feel Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan do a nice job here. The issue's conclusion got in the way of some things, but I feel the good of the comic outweighs the bad--in page count as well as reaction. If anything, I think this run will end up as another solid tale of Conan which could easily sit with the numerous others yet not fall to the back of the shelf. This team works well together, and they seem to have given a new life to a one time Arnold Schwarzenegger role.
But hey, if you want another review, read Nina Stone's. It's good.
TL;DR: For the most part, Conan the Barbarian #1 is a good first issue. It seems to indicate a forth coming plot that fits right well with this character's other tales, but up front I'll say this first issue lost its clarity toward its finish, inhibiting any sense of complete satisfaction.
Conan the Barbarian #1 was written by Brian Wood, drawn by Becky Cloonan and colored by Dave Stewart. It is published by Dark Horse. It was on shelves in comic shops everywhere Feb 8 and is part of an ongoing series.