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Conan The Barbarian #8 (Dark Horse): If you subscribe to Alanis Morissette’s worldview that love is a verb (and really, who shouldn’t?), in that it's something you actively work at, not a noun you haphazardly fall in and out of, something she recently described in a Piers Morgan interview, and that couples go through cycles of infatuation, power struggle (where most break-ups occur), and ultimately being able to nurture their partner, then you may start to understand what this issue is truly about. Sure, Conan and Belit are still in Cimmeria tracking his mysterious namesake doppelganger east, like a band of Uruk-Hai across the Gap of Rohan, and it’s a harsh land both physically and emotionally, but ultimately this issue is about their relationship. Belit too is a pillager and a reaver, her identity crisis comes into focus, as she wonders how Conan can love her for doing little more than the one they’re tracking. She’s also a city girl, a sea girl, not cut out for the rough terrain and the moors, stuck in her country boy’s land; are their cultures of origin and learned values so different as to drive a wedge into the heart of their young love? Ultimately, the lovers settle on trusting each other to be the independent and uniquely worthy individuals they are, resisting co-dependency. The other “Conan” has never been on screen, yet he’s already building toward being some classic foil with familiar ties, like a Butch Cavendish to The Lone Ranger, maybe revealing the shared pulp roots of these two properties. Has Brian Wood ever done a Western? I’m just sayin’. I wouldn’t put it past him. He still portrays Conan as a more introspective thinker, not a mindless brawler, and the script is more engaging because of it. On the art front, I’ve honestly been off and on board with Vasilis Lolos in the past. Here, his Conan is, at times, a little too soft and doughy and androgynous for my taste, yet he’s able to deliver Belit’s wry smile or a battered old man just fine. This is, no doubt, due in part to the fantastic colors of Dave Stewart bridging all the different art styles we've already encountered. Lolos is probably at his best in the action-oriented scenes, such as the sequence where Belit wings a knife up into the trees and, a full story beat later – an excellent pause showing absolute mastery of pace from Wood, a mysterious assailant drops from the trees. Grade A-.
X-Men #35 (Marvel): Storm’s strike team is still embroiled in the machinations of a religious cult wielding proto-mutant DNA, now being labeled “bioterrorism” by the government. Psylocke and Domino are undercover, and the mutant espionage really gets rolling when a cruise missile is inbound, and the team debates how to resolve the incident in a psychic loop. It’s intense! I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about the issue other than this extended scene is really worth its wait in gold. Pixie is still learning to master her powers (“you have to be supernatural”), there’s terrific banter that cuts the tension on the tail end of the incident (“too much talk, missile on its way”), and it’s just a smart script. Look, I’ve responded to hundreds of emergencies, been Incident Commander dozens of times, taken FEMA training, etc., and I’m telling you this hectic scene, processing data and making snap decisions, weighing risks and outcomes, is the real deal. We used to joke that incident command was all about making important decisions in too little time based on too little information. Hey, the art isn’t my favorite when it’s not exclusively David Lopez (that shot of Psylocke in a bottom panel with her creepy elongated face is downright ugly), but this particular issue is so taut and smart that you hardly mind. One of the most mature and intelligent things that Wood brings to this script is the way he takes a group of people, the X-Men, who have history, and puts them in a situation where they’re all smart people, who all like each other, but who all absolutely disagree on how to handle something. They reason through it like adults, like real people, finding that sometimes compromise is what moves us along, and don’t resort to just beating the shit out of each other, as is the case so often in company owned comics. It’s proof that this can be done right, it can be handled deftly. Grade A-.
Ultimate Comics: X-Men #16 (Marvel): It’s the apocalyptic doomsday scenario; mutants are outlawed, the government crumbles, there are concentration camps and mass graves, Sentinels patrolling the skies. Kitty Pryde and her small band of freedom fighters play a high stakes, all or nothing game. I like Kitty as a soldier. It’s almost like Brian Wood is finally done cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor and has gotten these characters in the situation they were built for. Nick Fury is enabling their rebellion, and once again, it’s raw intensity from Wood. Save yourself. Save mutants. Save the country. Go. The art still has moments of “cartooniness” to it, but I also see some enhanced details, some crispness that tries hard to stand up to the gravitas of the script, thanks to the combined powers of Barberi and Medina. Overall, Kitty and the mutants, as outsiders looking to define themselves, is an idea at the core of what the X-Men are all about, and it’s a good match for Wood since so many of his stories are also focused on identity at their core. For some reason, I’m just really digging Husk too, it shows how everyone has strengths and weakness, a use, evidence that Wood has such respect for these characters. We even get a new character (I think?) named Black Box, as Kitty finds a clever way to motivate and inspire her new army. Grade A-.