Diana the BarbarianWritten by: Gail Simone
Art by: Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan
Colours by: Wendy Broome
Letters by: Saida Temofonte
Published by: Dark Horse Comics and DC Comics
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: October 18, 2017
Last month’s opening installment of this series was big on action, a characterization of Conan that foregrounded his grim humour and mercenary streak, and a Wonder Woman who, divorced from her familiar milieu and suffering amnesia, was cloaked in mystery. There was much to enjoy and I must admit I liked it a great deal. Left with a number of issues to explore, not least the precise nature of this version of Wonder Woman and the intriguing question of how she would get on with a hero like Conan, I awaited the arrival of this second issue with a fair amount of anticipation – and impatience. Was it worth the wait? Let’s find out…
Instead of resolving last month’s cliffhanger straight away, the issue opens with a return to the childhood meeting of Conan and Yanna, the young girl from a rival tribe whom he’s encountered at an annual tribal gathering. Writer Gail Simone develops the incipient friendship between them with a couple of nice moments that establish that Yanna is more than capable of handling herself in a confrontation with a large wild cat and that she comes from a tribe composed entirely of women. (This all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?) The flashback ends with a panel that suggests Yanna is about to fall into mortal danger and a subsequent panel that focuses on two crows that, it is assumed, are the corvidae, magical (possibly divine) crow-women who, as seen in the previous issue, have taken an interest in Conan’s journey. This forms a nice segue back to the ‘present’, but before we move on to discuss that, there are a couple of niggles that might be worth airing first.
The Cimmeria of this remembered past is a touch more bucolic than I’m used to. The place is wild, true, but appears to be a little hillier and less mountainous than it perhaps should be. Dialogue, too, seems just a little off. While Yanna, being someone we’ve not met before, can be as verbose as she likes, Conan’s “But I am learning that my world is smaller than I thought. And that is a footrace I appear to be losing.” seems far too articulate, figurative and reflective for a boy barbarian who has been – or should have been – raised in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Yanna’s response (“It’s not better, just different.”), although not quite a non sequitur, falls flat. Having her say “It’s not a race” might have been better, making the point Simone is trying to hint at here – that Conan’s competitive way of thinking is not the only way to see the world, which would, in turn, resonate in a story where Conan and Diana are going to have to work together to survive – a little bit sharper. Having a pre-pubsecent girl providing (admittedly fuzzy) exposition about an all-female prehistoric tribe’s mating practices is a bit weird, too. But I’ll let that pass for now. It is, after all, pretty entertaining.
What is clear here is the growing friendship between Conan and Yanna. Their friendship is based on equality, co-operation and a mutual love of discovery, and it is rather touching. We’ll return to it later in the issue.
For now, though, we’re back in that dungeon with the two mystical crows who are referring to Conan and Wonder Woman as “playthings”. There appear to be two games going on here: the arena combat arranged by Dellos the Slaver; and some sort of wager between the corvidae with the stakes appearing to be the flesh of their losing pawns. (Full marks to Simone for smuggling the word ‘giblets’ into this issue!) Conan and Wonder Woman are about to be rescued by Tyas, the boy who showed Conan the secret way into the arena last issue, when he’s interrupted by Dellos, who, in a perfunctory panel that effectively nullifies any excitement about a prospective break-out, foils the escape before it’s really begun.
Perhaps the idea is that the forthcoming fight will be excitement enough, but there’s a whiff of the perfunctory about this, too. Not that the combat between Wonder Woman and Conan is poorly executed. The art is dynamic and, although the dialogue is a bit stilted at times, there’s a clear sense of desperation and reluctance from both our main protagonists. It’s difficult to escape the feeling, though, that the fight is at least partly here as an observance of expected form. This is a crossover between two warriors. Ergo, they’ll have to fight at some point. Let’s get it over with now.
That feeling is reinforced by the rather abrupt way Dellos foregoes a promise of profit in the arena and willingly has Conan and Diana transferred to a smuggler’s ship, in which, presumably, he has some sort of stake. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the narration at this point is not especially clear. Our unidentified narrator tells us that Diana and Conan are “magnificent attractions” and that “losing” them would be a “bitter entry in the ‘loss’ column” (and, yes, that use of ‘losing’ and ‘loss’ so close together is a little awkward), but Dellos has already proven himself to be a shrewd showman and clever businessman. Surely, he could find some way of keeping them both in his ‘stable’ without having either of them killed? At this point, Conan has knocked Diana out and Dellos is demanding that Conan kill her. This should be a moment of extraordinary tension, but it’s squeezed into two smallish panels and its dramatic potential remains largely untapped. While the narrator does say that Dellos sees something in Conan’s eyes that tells him he’ll refuse to be “commodified”, surely the same ‘something’ was in Diana’s eyes originally? And yet Dellos had no trouble ‘commodifying’ her. It seems fairly clear that Dellos’ sudden decision to get rid of Conan and Diana is for plot purposes rather than character-based motivation.
That awkward transition to ship-based servitude leads into a section that is predictable and, Lopresti’s art notwithstanding, a little dull. The issue ends on a cliffhanger that is completely given away by the cover and leaves this reader at least with the sense that the promise of the first issue is not even close to being fulfilled at the moment. Which is a shame. That Diana’s current desire is to get back to the place she’s just been removed from doesn’t give us a great deal to look forward to, either – despite the cryptic line that Dellos holds her “memory”. The sense that the book is embarking on one big side journey is unfortunately very strong.
That is not to say that the issue is without its moments. The corvidae’s interaction with the arena crowd is nicely gruesome and enlightens us about their nature very well. (Although if all they turn out to be is supernatural entities messing about with mortals just for their own sick, twisted pleasure, I won’t be particularly happy.) The relationship between Conan and Wonder Woman continues to develop (Conan’s embarrassment at waking up to find that he’s been holding Diana’s hand is a nice touch) in very engaging ways and it’s to Simone’s credit that the strength of their friendship is clear after only two issues. What can’t be ignored, though, is that at times this issue’s storytelling is awkward and just a little predictable. Simone is a better writer than this and I have every confidence things will improve.
Bits and pieces:
A somewhat lacklustre follow-up to last issue’s more coherent opening installment, this issue is still entertaining enough but drags occasionally and errs on the side of predictability. Lopresti’s art remains impressively dynamic and aesthetically excellent (his Diana is genuinely stunning), but that alone isn’t quite enough to lift things here.