Conan The Barbarian #21 [Advance Review]
Conan The Barbarian #21 (Dark Horse): Brian Wood, Paul Azaceta, and Dave Stewart deliver the last issue of the “Black Stones” story arc, concerning a mysterious and powerful relic, with the small village where Conan and Belit were investigating/holed up now under siege. Dave Stewart doesn’t really need me heaping more praise onto his work after like seven(?) eight(?) mostly consecutive(?!) Eisner Awards for Best Colorist, but he sure does make Azaceta’s art pop against a sea of strategically rendered monochromatic backgrounds. If you’re reading this site, it’s no surprise that I basically started this series because Brian Wood is writing it, but the art has been tremendous. I’ve loved Becky Cloonan, James Harren, and especially the Davide Gianfelice drug bender issues, but if personal growth is a measure of greatness, then there’s a case to be made for Paul Azaceta’s ascendancy as the best artist the series has seen. (But, watch me change my tune when DMZ artist Riccardo Burchielli comes on for the last arc!) Azaceta’s art has a richness to it, a dense variety of properties that I found myself marveling at. His robust style turns on the variable line weight and detail fetish of someone like Paul Pope, the curvaceous sex appeal of Darwyn Cooke, yet also the rough-hewn edges of fellow Dark Horse superstar Guy Davis. It’s a complex blend of energies, perfectly capturing the love, the brutality, and the magic of a story like the one featuring Conan of Cimmeria, Belit of Shem, and Magda of The Stones.
Conan does an entertaining dash from danger in this issue, thinking on his feet to outwit his pursuers and their hounds, a man so enveloped by danger that he’s literally in the wolf’s den. Many of his decisions are simple, but elegant solutions, proof that Conan is a cunning fellow, thinking outside the box, being crafty and level-headed under duress, decisions like this are what’s kept him alive far longer than any mortal man ought to have lived when faced with similar circumstances. Ultimately, Conan quite directly subsumes evil in the name of his love for Belit. While there’s rousing action, the end of the book starts an introspective, foreshadowing wind-down that’s been brewing for a couple of years. It’s the brief calm before the storm. Brian Wood lets us know that Conan and Belit’s relationship has endured many great trials, but there’s one ominous trial left to go before we’ll leave them. “The Song of Belit.” The final arc in Wood’s adaptation of “The Queen of The Black Coast” era, which will conclude his time on the series. Brian Wood is, of course, perfectly suited for an extended tale of a young hero coming-of-age during tumultuous times, gaining the experiences that will forge his ultimate identity. It’s exactly inside his wheelhouse as a writer, and “The Song of Belit” is essentially what the last two years has all been laying the foundation for and building toward. The establishment of this great love story, with the lingering realization that all great stories must come to an end, because as the Jem song “Flying High” tells us, “there’s no such thing as painless love.” Grade A.