"Conan the Barbarian" #5 feels incredibly fresh. It offers us the usual barbaric action, muscle against muscle and devious plots, but it also shows weakness where we normally wouldn’t find it. The opening pages are honestly harrowing as Brian Wood and James Harren slowly walk us through the city of Messantia. Heavy prose captions build a sense of tension until we settle on the face of our beaten Cimmerian. This isn’t where we normally find Conan and the subversion of his place and status draws us in and down so very deep with a violent path in order to come back up.
Wood writes the style of Robert E. Howard while honoring the specifics of a comic page. Layout and form match with tone and manner. The text layers one aspect of the narrative while what we see and feel offers up another angle. Seeing Conan not only defeated but finally understanding defeat is a crushing scene with which to open. Our hero is completely lost -- all for the touch and attention of one lady. The power of lust has wrestled his use of force and wits to place him into a precarious position. You feel Conan’s thoughts and such an insight into this classic character is both intriguing and welcomed.
The rest of the issue is occupied with one very spectacular fight scene, which comes about due to some clever thinking -- but it isn’t an assured victory. Conan must fight for his life and the ten-page sequence of blood and battle brings him very close to the end of it. This fight is not decompressed in the slightest. A contest of champions pitting blade against blade is in itself a vital second act component of this issue. What we see is necessary for plot, for character and also for our entertainment. This issue isn't filler and becomes the epitome of why Conan has endured decades of fandom.
It is also spectacularly interesting to notice that for all of Conan’s theatrics and feats of brawn, one panel from his pirate queen, Bêlit, trumps it all. She has her part to play in this scheme and when she lunges out of the page with a blade in her hand and a blood smeared look of determination on her face you will understand why Conan loves and trusts her so completely.
James Harren is a great artist to pick up the reins from where Becky Cloonan started. Harren’s style has been a worthy successor and he showcases this many times within this issue. His fight choreography is stellar and gives the reader an understanding of the little moments that come together to make big things happen, focusing our eye on the important aspects within any given panel and ensures we understand what is happening and why we should care. Harren’s Conan also keeps with Cloonan’s as he draws the Cimmerian lean and mean. Conan’s face and body language tell us much more than his words.
"Conan the Barbarian" #5 is proof Brian Wood knows what he’s doing with this title and he'll continue with every little storyline he drops into this growing massive ocean. It's also proof that the other artists who will fill in around Cloonan will all be chosen because they can compete at this level. You don’t need to shy away. Mostly, however, this issue is a violent load of fun matched with a narrative that isn’t forgotten or shelved to fit in an obligatory fight.