In which the blogger continues reviewing the comics nominated by the splendid winners of the recent TooBusyThinking competition, with today's choice being that suggested by the noble Joe;
There's a radical solution to the problem of today's typically plot-light comics on show in Brian Wood and James Harren's Conan The Barbarian #5. Sadly, it doesn't involve adding any more plot to the proceedings. Instead, Wood has decided to flesh out the thinnest and flimsiest of stories with a host of indigestably uninteresting text captions. As a story-stiffening strategy, it does add a few more weary minutes of reading time to the experience of an enervatingly unconvincing plot, but it does so at the cost of both boring the reader and drawing attention to how absurdly ill-considered the MacGuffin that's driving events really is. (Hint for pirates seeking to distract attention in the middle of a "glittering city"; try not to develop a plan which involves your leader being imprisoned, condemned to death and taken to the gallows on a long-shot that you'll be able to free him and pull off your heist too. That's Saturday-morning cartoon logic, circa 1975. Why, something might go wrong!) What should have been presented as a great exciting blur and misdirecting rush of events is instead mired in a narrative strategy which does nothing other than accentuate how insultingly dumb everyone on the page is here.
Almost half the pages of Conan The Barbarian #5 are bogged down with these momentum-clogging captions. Into them is lobbed great chunks of largely unnecessary backstory, a
discussion of the Cimmerian's most favoured fighting tactics, the possible fate of his corpse had he been executed, the sun-obscuring properties of the city's fortress, choice cliches such as
"the pits of despair", and even throw-us-way-out-of-the-narrative
anachronisms such as "variables" and "moneyed social structures". If
only Woods had spent the time adding a few more character beats, or even
a well-honed plot- reversal or two, Conan The Barbarian #5 might have passed as an entertainment rather than a losing-the-will-to-read-on ordeal. As it is, almost a third of the issue is devoted to a profoundly uninteresting
punch-up between the title character and a Mongo-sized side of beef and muscle who shows not a trace of personality beyond Mean 101 (Wordless). Still, fans of the kind of not-really-so-shocking-anymore moments which seem de rigueur in so much of today's product can at least look forward to an energetic full-page decapitation, in which the victim's expression finally seems to suggest a measure of animation and personality.
Two moments of excellance in Harren's always clear and at times even sumptuous artwork suggest what might have been achieved with the raw material of the story. In the first, we're presented with an imprisoned and clearly despairing Conan. Given how relatively rarely the character's ever been depicted in comics as anything other than adamantine and indomitable,
the frame carries a distinctly compelling and intriguing appeal. With
his flesh as pallid as a corpse and one eye swollen and bloodied and
closed-up, and with the composition of the panel pushing him as far from the light as possible, this is a fascinatingly fallible Conan. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with the concept, but the panel which represents such promise remains to perhaps inspire more compelling tales. In
the second of the issue's highlights, a sequence of events often unhelpfully crammed into a page-full of ill-judged
horizontal frames ends with the suddenly shocking sight of the similing pirate queen Belit coated with the blood of her ambushed victims. In one shot, the idealisation of the noble savage as is typical in so many comic-book Conan tales is fundamentally undermined, and the callousness of the lawless barbarian accentuated every bit as much as the corruption and weakness of the civilisation-stunted tax-payer.
$3.50 is a considerable amount of money to shell out for two telling panels and little more, but they are panels worth the celebrating all the same.
Reader's Roulette Rating; If only there'd been a few more than two such remarkable frames in Conan The Barbarian #5, I'd have been happy to recommend it to you. But there wasn't, so I can't. It looks pretty, but the lily's been gilded.