9.18.13 [Weekly Reviews]

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Conan #20 (Dark Horse): It seems odd now that Brian Wood only has a few more issues left on his Conan The Barbarian tenure. Now that we’re nearing the end, it feels like it went by incredibly fast. In any case, Paul Azaceta and Dave Stewart help deliver part two of the “Black Stones” arc. It witnesses Conan and Belit on the run over the matter of a strange artifact, holed up in the Forest of Ghouls, and huddled around a campfire telling stories. The art in this sequence is particularly grand; Azaceta and Stewart create an environment dense with shadows. In fact, some of the small inset panels are like 80% darkness, with the fire lighting up only about 20% of the faint outlines of their figures. Night is enveloping them, just like the forces hunting them over an object whose power they don’t quite understand. Azaceta and Stewart hit these tonal beats, totally in sync with Wood’s script. The strength of the art runs the course of the issue, from the creepy-ass crows/ravens straight from Beyond The Wall in Game of Thrones, to the silent panels which carry the actions of their pursuers, to the way Azaceta flips the POV between Conan and the bowman, to the light of the relic being activated, which pushes nearly everything else off the panel. The list goes on, you can almost take any panel at random and study the way the composition is full of smart storytelling choices. Conan’s story itself is interesting. Superficially, there are elements similar to his own predicament, but ultimately it’s not just a dark disturbing tale, or a parable parents teach their kids to make them listen. Ultimately, it’s a story about belief. It’s about how belief can be stronger than reality, belief in something, belief in your inner strength, belief in a lifestyle, in a mission, in having the fastest horse, or the belief in each other between two lovers. The belief in young idealistic love, that it will outlast any challenger, that you’ll reunite despite the odds, the belief in a lover’s skill and her final gambit. The love between them is so comforting that it really drives a lot of their adventure, forcing them to throw caution to the wind and just let the chips fall where they may. It’s why you can look back and see the effects this all has on Conan and his life to come, how you can mark time in the Conan canon (interesting, just flip the two vowels in those words around) before and after his time with Belit. Wood uses the omniscient narration to great effect in this series, getting into Conan’s head in a way that feels true to the character, and with the cover for the next issue one of the most beautiful in recent memory, I can’t wait to see how this arc wraps up. At some point, it’s going to be the beginning of the end of Wood’s stewardship of the title, probably feeling as bittersweet as Conan’s time with Belit. Grade A+.

Harbinger #16 (Valiant): Joshua Dysart and Barry Kitson, in just the space of these two issues, have taken us on a roller coaster ride of emotion in this “Perfect Day” arc. The team paused for some R&R in the last issue after the Harbinger Wars, they relaxed on some of the beaches near where Dysart lives in LA (always dig those personal references), the team collectively took stock, and Dysart seemed to being giving the characters everything they wanted/needed in some nice exchanges of character development. But, then he just cliffhung us real good last issue with Kris experiencing some kind of breakdown or mind control and demolishing Torque. The issue picks up right there, with Charlene and Faith coming in to find the mess, allowing Kitson to give us some great reactions. From there, Kitson (who seems to be channeling someone like Scott McDaniel when he’s really on) also just nails (what we guess is) some sort of psychic projections gone awry. You get pulled into this. It feels like one of those fun old detours they’d do in Byrne/Clairemont X-Men comics, where the gang would hit another dimension or just take a fun trip into the city. Here, it’s Torque’s weird heaven, “Torquehalla,” where everything is so over-the-top tough and never dies. His monster truck can be spotlessly reincarnated now matter how bad he thrashes it. Dysart writes so forcefully that you start thinking, yeah, maybe this is the type of overcompensated projection that a disabled kid’s scarred psyche would deliver, maybe this is where his mind would go in some form of afterlife, or a purgatory as he clings to life, the kind of place he might actually want to stay in order to stay dead and not return to the harsh reality waiting for him. Maybe his crazy powers would pull his friends into this world, where in a bizarre Dungeons & Dragons meets the Valiant Universe mash-up, they do need to solve something in the weird plane in order to solve the actual problems in their own reality, ala those Bronze Age X-Men stories I alluded to. Their reactions are realistic, more sound than the choices that typically happen just to advance the plot in schlocky comics or TV. Yeah, Dysart lulls you into thinking he’s *just* telling that kind of story. But, leave it to Faith and her keen powers of observation, which seem to best her powers of flight, to start unraveling what’s really going on. I won’t spoil it outright, but it’s a clear WTF ending that nobody will see coming. It’s one that upsets a good chunk of what’s come before. It’s proof yet again that Dysart keeps defying audience expectations, as well as genre conventions, fucking with us in the best ways possible. Grade A.

Dream Thief #5 (Dark Horse): Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood have been traipsing all over the damn place with this series, from porn stars in Wilmington, to the clan in Tupelo, to gangsters in Memphis, all the way to a dimly-lit dive restaurant in Spanish Harlem. This “final” issue sort of wraps up what is, at heart, a murder mystery. The entire plot isn’t resolved by any means, but there’s enough solid evidence put into place that it feels like the satisfying conclusion to what, I guess, is going to function as the first arc. It’s clear from where the story left off, as well as the letters and ads in the back, that the story will continue either as an ongoing, or perhaps a series of mini-series(?). “Dream Thief,” as a title, sometimes feels like a bit of a misnomer, it could have just as easily been called Memory Thief or Ability Thief or Identity Thief. How do you describe what is sometimes referred to as being “possessed by ghosts” due to an aboriginal mask, but also includes the innate ability to not only recall their memories, but to duplicate their physical skills and abilities as well? It’s an intriguing premise that has miles of storytelling potential left beyond the personal/familial turn that this introductory foray demonstrated. In any case, this issue functions aesthetically as those before it, being one of the most progressive books I saw all year. The action is well-choreographed and pops with color, and the layouts and panel designs are particularly innovative. It’s like, the outline of a stray “WHAM” in a fight scene will function as a panel border that integrates the kick which delivered the SFX. Writing and art is being synthesized into one “thing,” which blurs the line between the two. In many of these panels, there’s isn’t the writing over here, and the art over there, the two actually become one act visually. It’s really capitalizing on what the medium can do. It’s just storytelling. Grade A.


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