It must be a perfectly wonderful smile, the smile saved for friends and good times, the smile Becky Cloonan uses to signal her enjoyment. But the smile Becky’s drawn on Conan in the first part of “Queen of the Black Coast”, is sublime. It simply is the act of standing in a cathedral, built to something far greater than ourselves.
The problem of Conan, the problem that makes the character so finely-tuned for finding the measure of a writer or (with the expansion into the comics medium), an artist, is the ‘Why’ of the character. Why, after so long a time, does Conan even still exist? What’s the core of the character?
In many senses, last year’s eponymous movie Conan was a failure for this very reason. Not because it wasn’t the box office smash a pulp-hero movie ought to be. In that regard, the lack of CGI-Special Effects or 3D panoramic storytelling could as easily be read as a creative choice as it could a failure of the producers’ to secure funding. No, Conan wasn’t a missed opportunity because of lower production values, Conan was a failure because it failed to, budgetary concerns aside, create a compelling vision for the character.
Try to remember walking out of the theater after The Matrix, the very first one back in ‘99. It was a movie shot in a completely revolutionary way, its storytelling was less cinematic, more comicbook. And yet, the visualization of The Matrix wasn’t what pulled you in. What put that movie over the top was the idea that anime-style superhuman stories could be told on the big screen, with utter seriousness. If the zany, quirky, offbeat of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction set the tone for a generation of filmmakers, just five years later that generation was extinguished by the work of the Wachowski Brothers. Rather than find the inner-ludicrousness of serious tough-guy movies as Tarantino had, the Wachowskis found the inner soberness of crazy kung-fu flicks.
If only Conan had found this creative a hand.
And now, Conan has. That smile is just everything good and great about the character. That smile is a deep understanding of the boyish, roguish charm of Conan’s brio. But the kind of story latent in the character of Conan, has always been one of tilting at the world. One of daring. Not the usual daring of asserting your will on the world around you (the kind of daring that last year’s Conan offered up as a kind of aw-shucks misogyny). But the daring that reasserts the honesty and the openness of the rule of law, in the face of privilege and power.
Becky Cloonan’s smile, the one she draws for Conan, is a smile unlike any other seen in the pages of comicbooks these last few years gone. It is a return to a classic kind of comicbook artwork, the art of the 30s and 40s, when serious people drew the funny pages with great technical precision. It is the smile of a knowing daring.
It is Conan’s acknowledgement that he starts where he starts, as an outsider. He must enter the societies that build cities as something of a yokel, a rube. The story of Conan isn’t the story of an inhumanly superior (strong, skilled) barbarian overcoming every challenge. It is the story of a young outsider facing challenges even greater than burning deserts or mummy armies or scorpion gods—it is the young outsider facing off against the city and the culture that built it.
But Conan’s acknowledgement of himself and his position of outsider, of rube, and his acknowledgement of the ongoing inequity that cities entrench, is also a tacit acknowledgement of the danger in not playing the role he’s been consigned to. Conan’s only a rube insofar as he plays one for the benefit of city folk. He’s more than a little like that Eyeball Kid Tom Waits sang about in “Eyeball Kid” off of the Mule Variations album. It’s a song about a badly deformed kid who’s head looks like a giant eyeball. A kid who, later in the song, cops to the idea that people will always be staring at him, in the strangest way—he joins a freakshow to make money from that for himself.
Conan’s smile is a seductive smile. It’s a secret confession that he knows all too well the role he plays. It’s a hidden signature that he himself is in control of playing that role, of undermining the flagrant injustice to be found in cities. And it is the perfect smile for a writer as politically astute as Brian Wood. A writer who with Northlanders, DMZ, with Local, with Fight For Tomorrow, has probably done more to set the tone for the philosophy behind the Occupy Movement before it emerged than any other working in comics today.