We’ve arrived at what’s going to be the last of these columns for a while, quite possibly for good. But we’ll get to the signing off bit at the end. First, a comic that feels kind of fitting as a coda to this whole rambling discourse about the medium.
Why fitting? Partly because it’s heroic fantasy – Conan, THE heroic fantasy some might say – and that’s a sub-genre my own prose writing has often ventured into, so it feels kind of right that I finally get around to talking about it in this here column. Oddly, compared to horror or science fiction at least, secondary world fantasy in general is a speculative genre that hasn’t acquired really hefty traction in the comics medium. The reasons for that aren’t entirely obvious to me, but in any case Conan is an exception, having a loooong list of comics in his history. This volume of which we speak today is the first in a continuing run by writer Brian Wood, paired with a succession of interesting artists.
More importantly, it’s fitting because this is an adaptation of a story about a character who has been the subject (victim might be more apt) of several adaptations in the film medium. It therefore gives me a chance to parade my pro-comics bias by insisting that this is a better and more interesting adaptation than any Conan movie has been.
written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Becky Cloonan and James Harren, published by Dark Horse
There’s one more reason why I’m glad Queen of the Black Coast is providing the swansong for this column: I’ve talked less than I should have done about the artists during my residence here. Blame it on my background as a writer. With this comic, I get to balance the scales a little, because the visuals are a huge part of its appeal for me.
The writer, Brian Wood, is adapting an original Robert E. Howard story of the same title. Being a dedicated columnist who takes his responsibilities seriously, I went back to re-read Howard’s original story, and confirmed something I suspected: it’s not one of my favourite Conan stories. It’s fine – most of Howard’s Conan stuff is, if the basic concept, style and (ahem) ‘old-fashioned’ assumptions and prejudices don’t put you off (and I’ve got to admit, I would not entirely disagree with anyone who did find them off-putting) – but I always found Queen of the Black Coast just a little structurally unsatisfying.
Conan has to get out of town fast, following a violent misunderstanding with local law enforcement, and takes ship with some traders. They run into the most feared pirate captain in the vicinity – Bêlit, the titular queen – and duly meet a bloody end; all of them except Conan who, of course, forms a romantic and larcenous partnership with Bêlit. That process, which is arguably introductory stuff, takes up a big chunk of Howard’s tale. He then more or less jumps straight to the ending: a violent climax amidst forgotten jungle ruins. By modern standards, the story’s all beginning and end. It actually works better than it should in this de-middled form, since the beginning and end are the most dramatic, engaging bits really; but still, makes it hard to adapt.
Wood has a solution to that. In this first volume of his adaptation, we initially get a very faithful retelling of the story’s opening. As illustrated by Becky Cloonan, it’s a moody and engaging tale, laced with restrained eroticism, in which Conan first encounters and allies himself with Bêlit’s corsairs. In places, Wood uses Howard’s exact words, lifted from his prose.
This introduction completed, Conan and Bêlit joined together, Wood’s intent becomes clear: he’s going to flesh out that middle bit that Howard skipped so quickly over. The second half of this volume is a pretty entertaining tale in which the newly united pirate king and queen wreak havoc upon the city from which Conan was forced to flee at the very start.
This second part is illustrated by James Harren, whose work I don’t think I’ve seen before. And I think it’s terrific. Intensely characterful, detailed, brimming with energy; replete with implied movement. His action scenes are wonderful, and bloody. The contrast with Cloonan is marked, but there’s the magic of comics for you: two different artist doing connected stories with the same characters, in two different styles that both work wonderfully. Cloonan’s stuff is moody, beautifully composed, sensuous, striking. Harren’s is all vigour, expressive lines, well-judged exaggeration. And both united by the (inevitably) excellent work of colourist extraordinaire Dave Stewart.
Wood, Cloonan and Harren do many specific things here that make me prefer this to any of the three Conan movies I’ve seen; they are also well-served by the particular strengths and nature of the comics medium.
One example of the specific: the characters. This is a youngish Conan, lean but toned, wild and impulsive but also moody and in some (very modest) ways emotionally and psychologically vulnerable. It’s an appealing portrait. And because we’re talking about good artists here, the images are enormously more expressive, more subtly communicative of emotion, than any screen portrayal of the character. Bêlit also has a lot more effort put into her than REH managed. She is a haunted and haunting, powerful presence in the story, and in some ways it is her relationship with Conan – rather than our barbarian hero himself – that constitutes the heart of the tale.
Now, it is only fair to acknowledge that one consequence of this character work by all concerned is that there’s a certain … distance, shall we say?, between this version of Conan and the REH original. That didn’t trouble me at all because I personally don’t find the distance too great and, to be honest, I prefer this Conan to the original. Your mileage may however vary, I suppose, depending on the degree of your attachment to Howard’s pure conception and the extent to which you consider ruthless fidelity to source material an essential attribute of adaptations.
What about the particular strengths of the comics medium, then, as compared to film? There’s a lot I could waffle on about there, but most of it boils down to one thing, I suspect: the distinction between the implicit and the explicit, the active and the passive. This is a complicated topic, which I’ve neither the space nor the abilities to fully unpack, but generalising horribly to make a point let’s just say that putting stuff on film makes everything literal, visually and aurally complete. Skilled film-makers can nevertheless achieve astonishing subtlety and complexity, of course; the film medium is capable of its own kind of magic.
Comics, though, have a different, inherent magic to them that enriches and complicates the experience of ‘consuming’ them, moving it from the potential passivity of film in a more active and imaginative direction: the magic of the incomplete, the implied, the indicated. The images are static and silent, yet by that very quality they create opportunities for a skilled artist such as James Harren to imbue them with more energy, more impact – through the use of blurring effects, motion lines, wonderfully posed figures – than any action scene I recall from a Conan film. On some deep level, they imply and indicate, rather than show and thereby acquire tremendous vigour.
There is no score, no soundtrack at all, yet the combination of Becky Cloonan’s eloquent images and Dave Stewart’s colours delivers more mood and more complexity of message in sequences and even single panels than the Conan films managed (or I suppose attempted, to be fair!). All of this precisely because the inputs of writer, artist, colourist, letterer are layered in every page, each making their own contribution and building up a tapestry of effect yet still leaving the reader with immense space to make their own contribution.
And that’s it. This column is now condemned to a lengthy hiatus, from which I’d like to think it might emerge one day but can’t be at all sure it will. I’m making the jump from writing about comics to writing the things themselves, with my new Rogue Trooper series from IDW kicking off next year.
The only thing I’ll say in departing is please do try a comic sometime if you’re not already a convert to the medium. We are, I promise you, living through a Golden Age, when there are, I reckon, more objectively good and diverse comics around, in print or online, than ever before. Conan’s fun, if he’s your cup of tea; Saga and Pluto and Locke & Key and Thor, God of Thunder and Finder are wonderful, if your tastes run in other directions. These and other highlights of the comics world are all in their own ways as carefully and skilfully crafted, as engaging and exciting and moving and complex, as most prose speculative fiction that’s around, and sometimes (whisper it!) they are better than a considerable majority of it. Because comics can be utterly remarkable in utterly unique ways when the people making them really know what they’re doing.
Thanks for reading, and many thanks to the estimable SF Signal crew for having given me a platform to talk about this stuff, and remember: when words and pictures meet, they can make magic!