Robert E. Howard’s original Conan short story “Queen of the Black Coast” is a lush but typically lean affair, concentrating on one boisterous and ultimately poignant story – the story of young twenty-something Conan of Cimmeria’s first great love, the fascinated relationship he has with the notorious pirate queen Belit, leader of a fierce band of corsairs that plunders the sea-lanes between Howard’s ancient kingdoms of Argos and Kush. In that story, Conan and Belit meet, we’re told they have lots of adventures pirating together, and then they share the poignant part, the end of their story. Howard never bothers to show us those shared adventures the two lovers had on the open sea, and that lacuna has proved irresistible to comics, which typically leave no adventure unchronicled. Hence, thirty years ago, writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema spent many issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic serving up trial after trial for Conan and Belit to go through – everything from carnivorous giant hawks to nefarious sorcerers to pig-sized rabid swamp-rats to pythons as long as football fields (and, in a lyrical issue, a mysterious sea-woman). The artwork was smoothly professional but a bit of a disappointment at times – in all the years Buscema drew Conan, he never bothered to change his age at all, so he’s neither visibly young in these issues nor visibly old in his “King Conan” phase – but it was more than compensated-for by Thomas’ memorably complex characterization of Belit, whose impulsiveness appeals to Conan, whose scheming nonplusses him, and whose greed is of a more brittle, more embarrassing kind than his own. It’s a creation such as never would have occurred to Howard, and it makes Thomas’ own Red Sonja look like the one-dimensional knock-off she is.
Dark Horse Comics, whose great success with Conan I’ve already mentioned here, has recently begun a new series featuring another Thomas-style long elaboration of “Queen of the Black Coast,” and the first two issues are absolutely thrilling – another Conan triumph for Dark Horse.
The writing here is by Brian Wood, and he adopts a nice no-frills diction that perfectly suits the material. His Conan is very much still a young man, prone to goofy grins and knee-jerk arrogance, and the story’s hot, equatorial setting is wonderfully evoked by artist Becky Cloonan (surely the first woman to draw Conan in such a high-profile venue? Or anywhere else, professionally?). She draws a Conan who’s far more a lithe tiger of the original stories than the broad-shouldered ox of the Buscema era, and the rough dark lines of her style perfectly match the mercenary setting Wood gives us. Her decision to render Belit as chalky-skinned and more than a little vampiric is stylistically interesting (and not nearly so worrisome as her depiction of Belit’s black crew demonic sub-humans with no hair, no human skin tone, and no pupils to their flame-orange eyes – I’m crossing my fingers there’s a rhetorical justification for it, and I’m hoping that justification is revealed mighty soon), and these first two issues are helped by iconically simple, lovely Massimo Carnevale covers.
By the end of issue #2, young Conan has had erotic dreams about Belit and finally, after much bloodletting, met her. As Wood leaves events, Conan has severed all ties with his past (and with the affable merchant crew with which he originally falls in while on the run from the law in Argos) and stands on the deck of Belit’s ship ready to sell his life dearly at the hands of her crew. Belit intervenes, fascinated by this towering young fighter suddenly before her, and that’s where Wood concludes the issue – with fans (this one, anyway) thoroughly hooked. If the rest of this series is as good as its beginning, the whole thing will be a milestone in Conan comics adaptations. I’ll certainly stick with it.