Written by: Meredith Finch
Art by: Aneke and Andy Troy
Letters by: VC’s Travis Lanham
So, Marvel’s exploration of the Conan franchise continues with this ‘Age of Conan’ book, this time focusing on the mighty warrior woman Valeria who appears memorably in the Robert E Howard story ‘Red Nails’. After last month’s less than stellar conclusion to the Belit book, does one approach this book with hope or trepidation? Let us find out, O prince!
Well, great. As with the Belit book, someone in Marvel’s echelons of power has evidently decided that people would not, after all, like to read the adventures of the canonical Valeria (more of her in a moment), but would instead prefer to read about a younger, more teen-friendly version of the character who has a fine (mediocre, really) line in banter with one-eyed bartenders and would-be pickpockets, a tragic past (well, obviously) and an affinity for cats. Not only are these superfluous to the character, but they actually make her something that, in the Howard story, she is not: a 21st century Mary Sue with a photogenic smile and sick sword skillz and a girl power vibe that everyone around her seems to understand and respect – apart from the idiot blacksmith, that is.
I’d like to make a couple of general points before moving on to specifics. Firstly, who is this book for? It’s certainly not for me. It appears to be aimed at a teen/pre-teen audience who is either already invested in Conan (really unlikely) or sword and sorcery fantasy more generally. Now, if that’s a market that Marvel has identified and wants to exploit, more power to it. But the company doesn’t, I’d suggest, have to mess about with and diminish established characters in order to do so. Which leads me to my second point. Giving a heroine a tragic past as a motivation is not necessarily a terrible thing to do, but doing it twice in a row exposes the tiredness of the trope in a cruel (to the reader) and unnecessary manner. To make things worse, writer Meredith Finch does not do as good a job with Valeria’s past in this issue as Tini Howard did with Belit’s, which only serves to reinforce the sense of a creative team running out of ideas. (Now, you may think that’s an unfair observation to make, but this issue shares a title with the Belit book and thus invites the comparison.)
Tini Howard’s Belit, although unbearably brattish at times, is at least clearly affected by what happens to her father and it’s easy to see that the character is, in some sense, defined by the really rather shocking moment in which she kills her father because she doesn’t want to see him die in weakness. Finch’s Valeria has not one, but two, tragic moments in her childhood – the death of her parents and the murder of her brother by a mysterious cloaked and hooded figure. While I must admit that the creative team does a pretty good job with the former (the death of Valeria’s mother is, in one of the few examples of decent storytelling in the entire issue, genuinely disturbing), the latter is confused and curiously lacking in narrative power, for reasons which I’ll come to in a minute. In the hands of a more competent writer, this double tragedy could have worked better, but even then we’re in such well-worn and familiar territory it would take a storytelling master (or mistress) to make it truly memorable.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there was an ongoing plot to engage the reader. But there isn’t. The issue is titled “Child of War”, but it may as well be called “Hey everyone, here’s Valeria”. We see Valeria’s childhood and upbringing before we see her as (I’m guessing) a girl in her late teens dealing with a friendly old (and pervy) pickpocket in her local, talking with an also friendly one-eyed bartender and visiting an eventually friendly blacksmith. This is a story in the loosest of senses – a number of incidents or scenes connected only by the fact that Valeria is in them all. There is no sub-plot and barely any main plot. In fact, the issue is so devoid of incident that the writer seems to realize this at the last minute and crams in a final page ‘cliffhanger’ which, coming just after the important flashback that explains it, confuses rather than excites and is merely jarring rather than dramatic. It is an entirely fitting ending to a poorly constructed and amateurish issue.
The annoying thing is that it all could have been avoided. Valeria doesn’t need a backstory, nor does she need a supporting (and overly supportive) cast. She appears at the start of Robert E Howard’s ‘Red Nails’ as a complete character in her own right, self-assured, self-sufficient and exuding confidence and power: “She was tall, full-bosomed, and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance… On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at the shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.” This is worlds away from the teenage girl with the engaging smile who likes a drink down at the pub with her mates the barman and the old, slightly creepy, pickpocket, and likes to reminisce about her childhood cats. It’s that Valeria I’d like to read about, not this insipid, uninteresting pretender.
Aneke’s art is nice enough, I suppose. It fits well enough with this story and contributes to its lightweight and overly cozy tone. Which means, ultimately, I hate it. The main cover is excellent and reminds me of the cover art for early TSR Forgotten Realms novels. Very nice. But, because it essentially constitutes false advertising, I’m afraid I hate it, too. How Marvel can get the main Conan book so right and this so wrong, I honestly don’t know. But they have. And it’s profoundly disappointing.
Fans of teen girl fantasy might find something for them here, but there are much better told examples of the genre elsewhere. Fans of the character whose name the comic bears would be best to avoid this anemic travesty and save themselves some money – and heartache – in the process.