In 1934 Robert E. Howard gave us Bêlit the pirate, the self titled ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, with a novelette of that name first appearing in Weird Tales. In this comic, readers new to the character are briefly introduced to her just before her nasty demise, learning quickly that Conan had true, deep affection for the character This idea came partly from the Marvel comics, where Bêlit becomes a strong, recurring character. Readers also learn that Robert E. Howard could, at times, have his characters speak absolute poetry. Cheesy, but wonderful. Across a few panels we’re treated to an absolutely belting bit of his original prose: “My love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love… My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul!”
Fans of the original know that Bêlit goes on to promise that, were she dead and Conan were fighting for his life, she would come back from the Abyss to aid him. A promise spoken and kept by Valeria played by Sandahl Bergman in the 1982 movie. Valeria is another character created by Howard but the movie version owes far more of a debt to Bêlit in characterisation.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Bêlit has become an incredibly important character in Conan mythology, and so it makes sense that her death sees our hero understandably upset and lost deep in his cups. But from here it’s got to get better as he hooks up with a rag-tag group of highly skilled rogues, each an expert in their respective field, hired to pull off an impossible heist. Perfect.
Writer Jim Zub, who has always shown a flair for speech, has perhaps been inspired by including Howard early on in the story. The lyricism he brings to his characters here is excellent, creating a believable yet epic grandeur to their actions. His descriptions of the exotic sights manage to also pique the readers’ interest, making the job of new artists and colourists Doug Braithwaite and Diego Rodriguez that much easier.
Braithwaite brings a far more naturalistic style to the page, and one that is very welcome. Away from the stark grimness of the north where the previous comics were set, his attention to detail lends a kind of glow to the far more urban setting of Shadizar, a city of iniquity and wickedness. It seems Braithwaite and Rodriguez are the men to make that city a reality, with the opulent double page spread not reserved for an epic fight scene as we have seen previously, but instead a lovingly drawn temple of Bel. One can practically smell the the spices and heavy incense coming off of every page.
The story is a real rip-snorter, right up to the final moment. Put bluntly, this current run hasn’t been going long enough to make importing a plot element from a previous story that big of a deal. It’s a shame as, given perhaps a little more distance and time – perhaps another, unrelated arc between them – this comic would be pretty much perfect. Instead the moment feels squandered. But this is still wonderful work, and something everyone involved should take great pride in.
Conan the Barbarian #5 is out on 29th November from Titan Comics.