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Queen of the Black Coast

Longbox Graveyard #23

For all that comic books are full of half-naked women, there were precious few heroines in 1970s Marvel Comics to excite the interests of this (then) teenage boy. I wasn’t a Spider-Man guy, and so I didn’t have a dog in the Gwen Stacy/Mary Jane fight. Ms. Marvel was too mature, the Wasp was married, and Sue Storm was married to a white-haired dude and had a kid.

Valkyrie — clearly insane

Valkyrie was clearly insane (and her bullet boobs looked dangerous). Jean Grey was intriguing but no one in their right mind would get involved with a telepath (plus she dated the captain of the football team — boring!) Moondragon and Mantis were both high maintenance. Tigra would eat you.

But Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast? Now, there’s a perfect Marvel girlfriend! Impulsive, physical, vengeful, independent, doomed — she’s like some biker girl who blows up your life in spectacular fashion but is crazy fun every step of the way. She even had her own car (if a pirate ship counts, and I’d argue it should count double). Belit was the perfect choice for a first girlfriend, both for me and for Conan, who met Belit in issue #58 of Conan the Barbarian, and stayed by her side until her tragic death in issue #100.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

My previous Conan review looked at the Barry Windsor-Smith era of the book, concluding with issue #25. Frankly that’s as much Conan as anyone needs to read, but with the forgettable Conan the Barbarian movie debuting on Blu-Ray and DVD this week, this seemed a good excuse to look at my favorite barbarian one last time (and for old time’s sake, to linkbait JASON MOMOA NAKED, too).

Following Windsor-Smith on Conan the Barbarian was John Buscema, one of Marvel’s core action artists who helped build the post-Kirby house style on superhero books like The Avengers. In Conan, Buscema would find a subject for his more illustrative talents, and I think that Conan is the finest work he did for Marvel. When he took his time, John Buscema was a superior artist, and when he went fast, he still created strong work, which made him a superior comic book artist. If you doubt Buscema’s ability, check out a few of the Conan issues where John inks his own work. I’m especially fond of issue #70 — the splash page uses negative space of white lines slashing through inky darkness to create a storm so convincing you can practically hear rain hitting the decks.

But for all that Buscema would prove the definitive Conan comic book artist, the first two years of his run on the book were a grind, characterized by formulaic barbarian stories of a lesser sort. Bound as he was to the continuity of the original Robert E. Howard Conan tales, and having decided that twelve issues of Conan the Barbarian would equate to roughly a year in the Cimmerian’s life, scripter Roy Thomas was pretty clearly treading water until he could introduce Belit. Appearing only in a single Conan story from 1934 — Queen of the Black Coast — Robert E. Howard’s Belit is vividly rendered, but she’s also kind of cuckoo for Coca Puffs. In Howard’s story, Belit’s scarcely caught a glimpse of Conan before she’s doing her buck naked mating dance, and then just a few pages later, after a series of unnamed adventures over several years, we’re sailing up the poisonous River Zarkheba to Belit’s doom at the hands of a winged ape.

the mating dance of Belit, John Buscema-style

But in adopting Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas used every part of the buffalo, and from this single tale he spun out over three years of Conan the Barbarian, producing possibly the longest story arc in 1970s comics, and also creating one of the series’ great characters in Belit.

Unlike the quasi-virginal Red Sonja, who reserved her virtue for the man who could best her in combat (a safe vow, because she could lick any man in the room), Belit was an earthy character from the get-go, with her ambitions and lusts on display, whether they were for Conan, a casket of jewels, or the throne of Asgalun, which had been usurped from her by her wicked uncle.

Belit’s greed would get the best of her in the end

Working from the vaguest hints of the character provided by Howard, Thomas created a full-fledged origin story for Belit in issue #58, transforming her into a vengeance-driven girl-with-a-plan who instantly lent structure and urgency to a series that had wandered all over the place for years.

Belit does the Braveheart speech

John Buscema drew every woman with voluptuous curves, but Belit lacks the breast-heavy langor of his usual Hyborian women. She’s long-legged, with a narrow waist and square shoulders, strong and feminine at the same time, and while she runs around in a plunging fur neck line, she isn’t so top-heavy as the average super-heroine.

My memory held that these were superior Conan comics, but re-reading them these past several months has revealed they aren’t so different from what came before and after. Like the rest of Roy Thomas’ run, the Belit era of Conan the Barbarian is a pulpy, adventurous sword and sorcery saga, neither very good nor very bad, and suffering a bit for Thomas’ good-intentioned method of shoehorning in authentic Howard stories and plots whenever possible, even if he had to completely re-write a non-Conan Howard story to do it (we get a voodoo story, an Alexander the Great story, and a mermaid poem in this run, and none of them quite work).

We also get Conan fighting giant swamp monsters, Conan fighting wizards, Conan exploring strange ruins and exotic cities — fun-but-disposable stories, and really nothing special … if not for Belit. It is Belit that elevates this run, making it memorable if not quite classic, and it was still a joy to see her and Conan together again after all these years.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Conan and Belit have the greatest romantic relationship in Marvel Comics. This comes with heavy caveats … we’re talking about a 1970s barbarian comic adopted from a 1930s pulp series, so of course the relationship is melodramatic, exaggerated, and cliched. But it is also authentic, lusty, uneven, and doom-driven in ways rarely seen in mainstream comics. For better than forty issues, the usual sword and sorcery daring-do of Conan the Barbarian was leavened by a relationship that had a little bit of everything.

Such as …

… love a first sight …

… jealousy …

… more jealousy (and arguments) …… and arguments (and jealousy) …

… and making up (after jealous arguments) …

… and plenty of action above-decks, too.

For forty-odd issues, Conan gets to play pirate with a woman who takes no shit from him, but loves him so fiercely she (literally) comes back from the dead to save his life. Conan makes Belit’s goals his own, gorging himself on carousing and slaughter, bringing war to Stygia, helping Belit regain her crown (which she just as quickly gives up), and along the way killing the requisite number of swamp dragons and hawk riders. Belit tries (without much success) to keep Conan on a short leash while she serves as the brains of the outfit, and tries not to think of what life would be like were she to actually become a queen, and have to keep Conan as a consort. Like outlaws on a crime spree the two live day-to-day, and knowing the story ends in death gives it a melancholy, end-of-summer feeling that rises above the usual four-color barbarian set pieces.

This run isn’t perfect. It has too many jungle animals, a bad Tarzan knock-off who kidnaps Belit, a half-dozen fill-in issues unwisely based on non-Conan Howard stories, and a pack of dumbass crab men that even Roy Thomas regrets introducing into the saga. But it also has John Buscema at the top of his barbaric game, and it has Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast, a character as flawed and genuine as any you will meet in Bronze Age comics. These are choppy seas, but they are worth sailing. And when Belit meets her end, and Conan pushes her burning funeral barge out to sea, it is genuinely sad and sweet, thanks in no small part to Robert E. Howard’s original prose (by a man who knew a thing or two about depression and loss).

When that burning ship goes over the horizon, an era goes with it. Roy Thomas would leave Marvel after a year, ending this celebrated run on Conan. The book would continue, but even after Thomas returned it would never be the same. In truth this is a good place to step off the series, having now followed Conan through his adolescence and and finally into adulthood, christened by his first great heartbreak.

You can read the full, forty-two issue Queen of the Black Coast saga in the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan, Volumes 8-12.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #24 Capes & Cowls

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on November 23, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I'm me, you're you, he's Him

    Oh, Paul, Paul, Paul. You amuse me with every click. Since I love you~and you FEEL IT~
    let’s start with this: Surely you know by now that ALL WOMEN ARE VALKRIES.
    (I watched the Agent Coulson/Clark Gregg interview on Tavis Smiley this morning, & loved this part: the little girl, 3-4 years old, says “I want to be a princess & have a prince”, to which the PROPERLY PRIORITIZED parent says “well, that’s ok, but you need to be able to beat him in a fight”. Laughed my rotund posterior off at that. & actually, I think I’m finished. :D )

    Like

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