NOTE: The writer of this collection, Brian Wood, has a history of sexual misconduct allegations. While we do not condone Wood or his actions, in an effort to recognize the artists who worked on this collection, we have decided to review this book on its own merits.
The famed barbarian finds love in Conan Chronicles Epic Collection: The Song of Bêlit. Collecting issues #7-25 of the 2012 Conan the Barbarian series originally published by Dark Horse Comics, this volume centers around an adaptation and expansion of Robert E. Howard’s short story, “Queen of the Black Coast.”
The book’s narrative centers on Conan and his lover, the pirate queen Bêlit, and their adventures together. They travel across the fictional world of Hyboria, from Cimmeria to Shem. Depicting these adventures is writer Brian Wood, who uses narrative captions that evoke the visceral prose of Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard and brief dialogue that creates a rugged world. A group of talented artists bring both the characters and the world to life on the page. Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, Declan Shalvey, Mirko Colak, Andrea Mutti, Pierluigi Baldassini, Davide Gianfelice, Paul Azaceta, Riccardo Burchielli, and Leandro Fernández all bring their talents to telling these stories.
With a roster of artists large enough to take on Thanos, the MVP here is undoubtedly colorist Dave Stewart. Stewart’s use of grays, olive greens, and milky ambers help give this world a consistent feel, even as the art style changes between arcs (and sometimes between issues). The splashes of more vibrant colors also help highlight key story moments, evoking the feel of something beyond the natural that works really well for sword and sorcery.
The titular arc in the collection appears at the very end of the book, and is a relatively straightforward retelling of “Queen of the Black Coast,” down to the point of Wood splicing in Howard’s prose and dialogue. It’s here that the time spent in the preceding stories really pays off. While Howard’s original story is a horrifying tragedy, the emotional beats are heightened thanks to the extra time spent with characters like Bêlit and N’Goro. The adaptation from short story to comic also helps nullify some of the racism in Howard’s work. While there’s no real navigating around this story having a white woman at the head of a crew of Black sailors, the simple fact that Wood omits the subhuman descriptions that Howard uses for the Black characters makes for a marked improvement.
In the same way, the comic’s depiction of Bêlit is much more in depth than Howard’s depiction, where she is simply another woman for Conan to seduce. Wood fleshes out Bêlit’s backstory and parentage, and makes sure that the narrative captions depict her thoughts and feelings as well as Conan’s. This makes their relationship less one of sexual conquest and more of a torrid romance, and makes for a stronger emotional connection between readers and the protagonists.
It’s frustrating then, that the collection omits the first six issues of the series. When the collection starts, Bêlit and Conan are already involved, with their meeting having been shunted off to a different collection. While I understand that the Epic Collection has a size limit, at $44.99 and already 19 issues long, I can’t help but wish that they simply collected the whole thing and raised the price for this volume. The supplemental material here is almost nonexistent, consisting of Massimo Carnevale’s sketch and inked cover for issue 13 of the series. For those that wish to read the first six issues, they can be picked up individually on Comixology, and are collected in the Conan Chronicles Epic Collection: Horrors Beneath the Stones volume.
Conan Chronicles Epic Collection: The Song of Bêlit is a really strong volume, and those who like the sword and sorcery genre or just Conan may definitely want to check out these comics. However, given the fact that the volume is missing the first chapter of the story, readers may want to consider pursuing the digital version, where the first six issues are more easily accessible and the price point isn’t so steep.
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