I was only halfway through the comic book adaptation of Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, when I thought, "this is the best Conan comic I've ever read." Find out that it's an adaptation, and the mind boggles. Comic adaptations typically suck. This one, based on Robert E. Howard's Conan story of the same name, is a revelation in the hands of writer Brian Wood and artists Becky Cloonan and James Harren.
I've never read any Howard, but I've seen the Conan movies and have sampled a comic here and there. I come to the book with only a basic working knowledge of the character through pop culture osmosis. That was enough. The comic itself is transcendent - not just good Conan comics but good comics.
The story sees the barbarian at an early point in his adult life, slightly more roguish than we're used to, but not out of character. Fleeing captors in Argo, he hops a boat without invitation, and learns from those sailors the threat of Belit, the dreaded Queen of the Black Coast. What other men might find intimidating - Belit's ruthless reputation - Conan finds to be the stuff of sexual fantasy. He must have this woman at any cost.
When Conan and Belit cross paths, she is equally as consumed by desire for the unstoppable Cimmerian, and the two begin a relationship that's as lusty and powerfully romantic as anything I've seen in comics, despite the story's six-issue length. Conan decides that his partnership with Belit affords him the perfect opportunity to return to Argo and put his pursuers in their place.
Becky Cloonan needs some kind of special recognition for her work here. She portrays real sexual heat without a bit of the juvenile comic book shorthand that we're used to. Under Cloonan's linework Belit is appropriately sensual and hypnotic; Conan is the masculine ideal. The artwork is alive in such a way that if this were a film, this would be Cloonan's break-out superstar performance.
Harren is in the unenviable position of batting clean-up for Cloonan. If the transition was off-putting at all, Harren makes it his own during the final chapters, which see Conan cleaving attackers in half through their own wimpy chainmail. Cloonan's sensuality is replaced with Harren's electric action right when the story demands it, making this story one of the few where a two-artist team feels like a creative calculation and not one dictated by deadlines.
Brian Wood works magic with Howard's story. I don't know how many of the words are Wood's and how many are Howard's, but the elegance with which Wood has executed this adaptation should be an example to others looking to do the same. Wood trusts his artists to convey emotions and actions without falling into the adaptation trap of captioning in writing exactly what we're looking at in-panel. In fact, Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword collection, which arrived on the shelves at the same time as Queen of the Black Coast, offers the kind of slavish adaptation we're more accustomed to.
The book is a "variety pack" combination of short comic adventures and prose tales, all pulled from Howard's works. There's some Conan, but most of the book is filled with characters I'd never heard of, like Dark Agnes and the Sonora Kid (probably my favorite tale in the book). It works primarily as a Howard primer, so it should find an audience with neophytes like myself as well as die-hards hoping for a comic book adaptation of guys like El Borak. It's a cheese sampler to Black Coast's fine wine, so adjust expectations accordingly.