Sex & Violence Comix: Conan The Barbarian
Brian Wood’s scripting the latest relaunch of Robert E. Howard’s Conan character, this time in a series called Conan the Barbarian. The DMZ and The Massive writer is using Howard’s short story “Queen of the Black Coast” as a springboard for new stories featuring the barbarian. Wood’s telling a classic Conan story here, one that’s full of the two-fisted barbarian action we all know and love, but with the addition of a significant amount of sex appeal. Becky Cloonan and James Harren, the two artists of the first two story arcs, are more than capable storytellers with complementary skills. When you add Dave Stewart on colors, Conan the Barbarian quickly becomes one of the best-looking sex & violence comics on the stands.
The wheel around which Wood’s story revolves is the pirate queen Bêlit, an impossibly fair-skinned woman who’s terrorizing the seas and building her fortune. When the story begins, she’s more legendary than concrete, more rumor than woman. People tell Conan about her and he’s both thrilled and curious about what she’s actually like. As time goes on, Conan and Bêlit become a couple, a pirate queen and king, and set about the business of making money.
If Bêlit isn’t perfect, from our perspective, the story fails. We need to believe that she’s fearsome enough to lead a band of pirates, cunning enough to survive on the seas, and more than anything, we have to believe that she’s the woman Conan wants.
“Wants” is the key word there. Conan and Bêlit have a relationship that may blossom into love at one point, but from where I’m standing, it’s predicated on lust. Conan isn’t going to exit a hut and see Bêlit standing there in the snow, purring “Face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot” into the cool night air. This isn’t a traditional romance. It’s about sex. It’s about lust.
Conan wants Bêlit like a lot of heroes in these stories want their love interests. She’s unknown and deadly, and therefore a challenge. To bed her is to conquer her, and to conquer her is to possess her. Bêlit becomes Conan’s woman, rather than her own person. There’s a sadomasochistic element, too, in that Bêlit is very much a danger, both directly and in general, and Conan begins as her enemy. Eventually, as the story goes on, she welcomes him as her king and equal… but only after he proves his worth and lethality.
That’s a tall order. Bêlit can’t look like your generic adventure comic woman, with stick legs, fake breasts, and arched backs. That isn’t sexy. It’s comic book sexy. It’s Gen13 sexy. No, Bêlit has to be more. Becky Cloonan drew Bêlit’s first appearances, and that means that convincing us that Bêlit and Conan was a viable couple fell to her.
The short version is that she knocked it out of the park. Here’s the long version:
Cloonan’s Bêlit oozes passion. She engenders passion. She forces passion into being. Under Cloonan’s pen, Bêlit practically smolders. She’s nearly nude, but rather than being alluring, her nudity comes across as more of a danger than a tease. Her eyes are cold and menacing, the sort of eyes that peek out from behind Dr. Doom’s mask or narrow on a femme fatale’s face before she slips a stiletto between your ribs. She’s sexy, but she’s a danger. You know that you don’t need to interact with her at all, but you can’t help wanting to possess her.
Bêlit crawls into Conan’s imagination before invading his life. It’s easy to see why. Becky Cloonan’s Bêlit looks like the type of woman that heroes obsess over. She’s equal parts sex-bomb and snake pit. Just looking at her hints at the extremes of pleasure and pain. She’s the personification of the intersection between sex and death, a primal force that’s impossible to ignore. And that makes her a challenge, which in turn makes her irresistible. Conan doesn’t get a choice. Bêlit positively smolders, and her flame consumes him.
Bêlit’s smoldering is a low burn, something that inspires pleasure and pain all at the same time, or at least in quick succession. Men are like moths to her flame. Her crew are completely subservient to her, which is partly a reflection of Robert E. Howard’s racism and partly a reflection of her power over men. When Conan imagines Bêlit challenging him, she’s stepping over dead bodies in a boat floating on a bloody sea. Her feet are filthy, but her body is pristine. Sweat or drool spills over her lips as she talks, lending a distinctly erotic flavor to her challenge. There’s the promise of sex in her hips and poison on her lips. In a way, that is what Wood’s story is about, so it’s perfect. This is a detour with a young Conan, brash and fiery, and Bêlit matches him fire for fire.
What I like about Cloonan’s depiction of Bêlit is that everything you need to know is right there on the page. If the comic were wordless, you could still tell that Bêlit was sex and death and pleasure and pain. Just looking at her and thinking a little gives you everything you need to know, which makes it easy to buy into the fact that Conan wants to possess her and she wants to possess him.
James Harren exploded onto the scene for me with Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest. The fight scenes in that comic were wet, visceral, disgusting, and beautiful. In Conan the Barbarian, Harren and Dave Stewart are working with less supernatural fare, but they still manage to crank the violence up and show us carnage like never before.
Example one: While Harren’s Bêlit is rounded and alluring, his men are all muscle. And I don’t mean Popeye or Superman-type muscles, either. Harren’s men look like they’re made of leathery skin stretched over stacks of stringy sinew, and then someone gave them a thorough pass with sandpaper after that, just to give their skin the properly rugged feel it needs.
We’re used to a certain level of rugged for our heroes. Generally, that equates to body hair (Wolverine) or stubble (Dirty Harry). Past that, they’re pristine figures, and tend to look like basketball players or weightlifters who are fresh out of the showers. Your average rugged hero is more calculatedly rugged than actually rugged.
Movie star good looks and facial stubble does not result in true ruggedness. No, if you want to be rugged, you’ve got to be willing to be ugly. Conan’s got a face like a caveman that’s been hit by a hammer that was coated in glue and glass. He’s attractive in a Mickey Rourke type of way, at best. He looks different from Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Conan, and different from Cloonan’s, but he’s still recognizably Conan. He has muscles that make it look like he’s been wrapped in beef jerky, but he still looks more formidable than everyone else.
Example two: when Spider-Man or Batman get bloodied, they’ll bleed from cuts across the chest or from the nose. Whenever there’s an occasion for a lot of blood to spray, it’s usually colored black or kept to the shadows. Even the grimmest of DC’s New 52 relaunch still played it safe when it came to blood.
One subtle thing I don’t think I’ve ever seen in comics is something like this:
A little something goes a long way, and the Harren/Stewart tag team is proof positive of that fact. The two streams of blood out of Conan’s nose are familiar, but when’s the last time you saw blood staining someone’s teeth? And yet, that’s exactly what a mouthful of blood, a likely side effect of a punch in the jaw, would result in. It doesn’t just go away with a wipe of your mouth, and Harren and Stewart kill it here. This feels real. The blood on Conan’s teeth is lighter than the blood coming from his nose, proof that Dave Stewart knows how to use colors to tell and enhance a story.
Example three: On top of rugged physiques and subtle storytelling, Harren and Stewart sometimes crank the violence up to ten and get it really going. Like so:
This scene is Bêlit infiltrating a city and then evading two guards. There are three things I like about this page. First, it takes place over the course of maybe half a sentence. The word balloons set the pace and show you just how fast Bêlit is moving. Second, Harren wildly varies the point of view, but the action never becomes confusing. Panel four is from Bêlit’s point of view, even, and the speed lines focus your attention toward Bêlit’s next target. Third, the fifth panel is amazing. There’s the Sanjuro-style blood spray coming out of the guard’s neck and Bêlit, covered in blood and eager for more. It really sells her as being just as lethal as every other member of her crew, if not more so. She’s bloodthirsty.
Example four: Sometimes Harren and Stewart crank it up so high they break the knob. Like so:
Sex and violence in comics is one of those things that’s incredibly subjective. What’s arousing to her may be disgusting to him, and what’s viscerally thrilling to this other guy might make someone else sick to their stomach. For me, it always comes down to execution. If you’re showing me something I’ve seen before, and not doing it as well as the first person to do it, then why should I care? But Cloonan, Harren, and Stewart, in concert with Brian Wood, have turned Conan the Barbarian into a series that impresses me in addition to entertaining me. That’s a killer combination, and if you like comics like I like comics, you need to check this out. The first seven issues are available now.