Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Conan The Barbarian #12. Written by Brian Wood (DMZ, Star Wars) and drawn by Declan Shalvey (Venom, Dark Avengers), it’s a tense conclusion to the first year of the title that has major ramifications for the relationship between Conan and Bêlit, the pirate queen.
Brian Wood’s Conan The Barbarian series has been a masterful exploration of Robert E. Howard’s signature creation, focusing on the relationship between the title character and Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast who is as beautiful as she is deadly. Using Howard’s stories as a blueprint, Wood and his impressive array of artists have created a book that has the spirit of the original tales but also the freedom to expand on these characters in new ways. The central romance between Conan and Bêlit has given this book a strong emotional core, and over the course of the title’s first year, their love has been continuously tested and managed to survive. Until now.
“The Death” has been an incredible story arc, pitting Bêlit and her crew against an enemy that they can’t fight with swords and fists: disease. Conan is the only person aboard the Tigress who has not fallen ill, and at the start of this issue, he’s drinking away his sorrows as he ignores his lover’s request to run as far away from the sickness as possible. When a barmaid offers the help of her holistic healer mother to treat the ailing pirates, Conan finds himself hopeful and reinvigorated, just in time to face down a group of natives furious that Bêlit has docked her ship in their harbor.
Wood has shown a talent for telling emotionally rich stories that don’t sacrifice action, and that skill is on full display in this issue. He’s relied on narration to capture the essence of Howard’s prose, but there’s always forward movement underlining the captions so that the energy doesn’t drop. The pacing of the issue begins slowly, with Wood recapping Bêlit’s words to Conan as the panels zoom in on the town, creeping toward the pub where Conan sits with a glass of ale, surrounded by darkness. Once Conan makes his way back to the ship, events quickly accelerate as the crew heals and Conan is confronted by an angry mob, and the intensity continues to build as the women try to help Bêlit, who is suffering from more than just the disease that has plagued the ship.
Wood’s work on Northlanders proved that he understands the mindset of warrior figures, and that comes through in the voice of his Conan, who speaks in jagged word balloons that set him apart from the rest of the cast. In every issue, there’s at least one badass line that would be a great tagline on a movie poster, and in #12, it comes when a man warns Conan of the coming mob. “The wolves are at the gate!” The man screams, to which Conan replies, “You speak of wolves at the gate. I am the wolf.” When the gang arrives, Conan goes into a berserker rage, cutting through the men with unbridled fury. The image is a sharp contrast to the broken man who waits outside Bêlit’s door after she draws him out of battle with her screams.
When Conan asks the ship’s old soothsayer what he meant when he prophesied “the death,” the man asks, “Has she not told you…?” The reason why Bêlit’s sickness is so much more severe than the rest of her crew is because she’s two months pregnant, and the disease ends up taking the life of her unborn child. It’s a shocking development that considerably changes the dynamic between the lovers, and while Conan has no problem facing down a gang of bloodthirsty men, he has no idea how to handle this news. When he sits with a recovering Bêlit, he asks why she will not speak to him, and the grieving woman next to him just stares out in silence, no longer the brave, confident queen that he’s come to adore. As he returns to the deck of the ship, he reconsiders the old man’s premonition, wondering if perhaps the death he saw was that of Conan and Bêlit’s love. The conclusion of this story isn’t part of Howard’s canon, but it adds a new wrinkle to the romance of Conan and Bêlit that gives the title increased momentum as it heads into its second year.
Massimo Carnevale provided covers for the entire run of Wood’s Northlanders, and he knows how to create striking graphic images featuring strong men and gorgeous women. He can condense an entire story into one evocative visual, as evidenced with the cover for #12, which shows a raging Conan holding an unconscious Bêlit, peeking around a corner to see streets running red with blood. The artists that have worked on this title over the past 12 issues are some of the most distinct voices working in comics; creators like Becky Cloonan and Vasilis Lobos brought an alternative-comics energy to the fantasy action, while James Harren’s hyper-detailed yet beautifully stylized pencils took the title to epic heights.
Declan Shalvey’s work on “The Death” balances bold fight sequences with subtle character moments, providing visuals that hit all the emotional beats of Wood’s script while amplifying the brutality of the battles. Shalvey has a great understanding of body language, and when N’Gora and Conan are waiting to fight the fuming crowd, N’Gora stands with one foot forward, ready to leap into action, while Conan has his feet firmly planted, a rock that is going to have to be moved if the natives want to get on to the Tigress. When the fight breaks out, Shalvey is able to show off his strengths with fight choreography, staging a spectacular blood-drenched brawl. There’s a dynamic sense of movement on the page as Conan leaps in the air to grab a spear thrown at him, then spins on the ground to throw the spear back at its owner, impaling the man through the chest and sending him flying into the crowd behind him. Dave Stewart’s drab color palette at the start of the issue suggests that the life has been sucked out of the environment, but once the action amps up, the colors become richer, especially the bright red that gushes from those foolish enough to take on Conan and his partner.
As the group charges at the two warriors, Wood’s narration returns, describing the struggles that Conan and Bêlit have faced thus far and how they’ve prevailed over each one. In a clever juxtaposition of words and pictures, each time the narration states, “It survived,” the captions are accompanied by an image of men being drowned or having their heads caved in. The narration continues as the focus shifts to the women working to heal Bêlit, showing Conan in silhouette as he peeks into the room but is too afraid to enter. This builds to a silent, heartbreaking double-page spread of Conan sitting outside her door, his blood-soaked sword by his side and a dead rat in the foreground, a chilling image that summarizes this entire storyline and foreshadows the rough times still to come. Death may not have taken Conan and Bêlit, but it doesn’t leave empty-handed, giving our hero a new challenge that he may not be able to overcome.