The Chronicles of Conan Volume 4 is subtitled The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories. And that's most appropriate as Red Sonja's debut is the most important thing that happens in this bevy of stories. But it's not the only thing that happens.
Conan the Barbarian #22 sports a beautiful Barry Smith cover but don't get too excited as the exacting detail that Smith then used in his work slowed him to the point that a reprint of the debut issue was deemed necessary. Great story, but I already have it.
It's in the next issue that we get the story promised in the previous one, but alas under on one of the more pedestrian covers of the series to date. Gil Kane could really do a fantastic job when he wanted, but sometimes it just didn't work out. This one of those times. The story itself tells of Prince Yezdigerd's attempt to get vengeance on Conan for his defiance and the scar on his face. He employs an old ally and a famed assassin named "The Vulture" (note the little wings) to do the deed. Conan is tracked down and the battle is waged but The Vulture doesn't come out on top as Yezdigerd expected. He wanted Conan's head in a box and he gets a head, but not of Cimmerian origin.
Now for Barry (Soon-To-Be-Windsor) Smith's finale on the regular series. "The Song of Red Sonja" is a masterpiece. Red Sonja is a mercenary sent by a neighboring kingdom to help Makkalet against invasion but with a mission all her own, notably to steal back some booty given by the King when he gave his daughter's hand away. She and Conan meet in a local tavern and are immediately attracted to one another leading to one of the most infamous make out sessions in comics lore but ultimately though they fight well together Sonja leaves Conan behind as she completes here mission. It's barely possible I went through puberty reading this comic.
Conan the Barbarian #25 marks the beginning of a new era, a long-lasting era as "Big" John Buscema finally gets the Conan gig. Buscema had been the first choice for the Conan job but was too expensive for the speculative comic book. Now that Conan was a bonafide hit, Marvel could justify putting its biggest gun on the book. And it's a match made in heaven, as Buscema famously loathed superheroes, here was a job he could muster enthusiasm for. He ended up doing the series for many years and he to my mind is the definitive Conan artist and not Smith, for all of Smith's important contributions. Where Smith's Conan had seemed a bit pretty, Buscema's seems immediately older and more rugged and in this story he comes up against the mastermind behind all the intrigue of the Turanian War, the wizard Kharam-Akkad. He's the one who thought it a good idea to kidnap the "Living Tarim" and that sparked all the turmoil. He though has a premonition in his mirrors that Conan will be his killer and by the end of the comic that's future is fulfilled.
Now the war comes to an end at last as Conan the Barbarian #26 brings to Buscema's pencils the inks of Ernie Chan. While Buscema reportedly did not like the effect, there's no denying that the team of Buscema and Chan was dynamic. The forces of Yezdigerd finally gain entrance into the city and the sacking begins. Conan manages to rescue the Queen and using tunnels they make their way out of the doomed kingdom, but barely in time. Conan confronts the "Living Tarim" and finds that generations of inbreeding have made the "god" a babbling fool and events conspire to kill him. But Yezdigerd finds the body and makes arrangements for the bones to carry on in the fallen god's absence, a final commentary on the nature of politics and of religion I suspect.
And that leaves only "Red Nails". In the pages of Savage Tales, a black and white magazine sparked by the success of the regular color Conan comic, Barry Smith makes his farewell to the character with a masterpiece of storytelling.
The two find themselves battling for and against the clans who kill one another for reasons which have slipped most memories. They find though a witch who has been playing both sides against the middle and she almost is the death of Valeria and Conan to boot. Ultimately they survive and leave the city and its immense wealth behind, preferring life to riches. It's a good choice.
And that's a wrap on the career of Barry Windsor Smith and Conan the Barbarian, at least in the early days. Some have objected to the recoloring of these works in these editions and in places I agree. There's a muddiness in places which I wish wasn't there, but I do find that the revisions here do a better job of communicating the senses of night and darkness than the originals and that's important to many of the stories. It's always fun to read these classics and this time was no less so.