Sunday, December 31, 2023

Savage Reflections On Cimmeria!

While I did not take time to review the issues specifically, I did finish reading the original Roy Thomas run on Marvel's remarkable Conan the Barbarian comic book. Roy wrote the book for a decade, leaving in 1980 with issue one hundred and fifteen. Three artists worked with him throughout most of that time - Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, and Ernie Chan. When BWS left the book, it lost a little of its special charm which had been watching a new kind of comic and a new talent of remarkable quality develop and find their way. Buscema is such a sturdy and reliable artist that it's easy to take the work he does for granted, and to some extent I confess to doing that here. 

There's no doubt that the comic post Smith, looked best when "Big John" was either inked by Ernie Chan or himself. Dick Giordano and Tom Palmer both have brief stints, and while the art looks great, but still lacks the specialness which CtB demanded. A fourth talent who spent a lot of time on the book was Gil Kane, once considered to draw it regularly, it's a good thing in the end that he was mostly doing covers. I had forgotten how many issues Howard Chaykin had drawn, but thanks to Ernie Chan those issues still keep the essence of what had come before. Of course, for many of us Neal Adams made a lasting impression with only a few Conan stories, and only one in the regular color run. And while he was not part of the color run, Alfredo Alcala deserves a special mention since he performed a similar task as Chan over Buscema's pencils in The Savage Sword of Conan. Thomas remarks several times that Buscema did not cotton to these inkers, but in this instance "Big" John Buscema, a might man and a might artist was wrong. 

Roy himself seem to have found his way to Conan in the most backhanded of ways. He wrote it because he had overpromised the REH estate on royalties in the beginning and planned to take the difference out of his fees if called on the carpet about it. But it seems quickly enough the Hyborian Age got into his blood and before you know it, he's writing the book in such a way as to plan for long schemes such as the period when Conan sails with Belit, the Queen of the Black Corsairs. 

Belit's story comes to an end of sorts in issue one hundred where the one actual REH story featuring her is adapted, and of course ends in her death. (That's not a spoiler since most readers at the time knew where the story was headed all the time.) It's clear that with the passing of Belit, Roy seems to lose his passion for the title. The stories which followed the centennial were somewhat listless, though the finale is at once dramatic and memorable. 

It was fascinating to read the first one hundred and fifteen issues of Conan (with Giant-Size books and annuals included) all the way through. I've been meaning to do it for several years and it didn't disappoint. I was surprised how many of the stories wrote concocted were adaptations of works by REH and other writers such as John Jakes and Norvell Page. The issues in which Roy develops his own plots are pretty dang good and sometimes the adaptations feel a little forced, and make Conan do things which seem out of character. But what is apparent reading the comics in order like this is seeing how Conan matures. We begin with a young teenager just finding his way in a world which often makes little sense to him and we leave him ten years later, a man in his late twenties (though the way Buscema drew him he always looked at least thirty to me all the time) who has had to lead men and so has become less impulsive, and has fallen in true love for the first time making him more responsive to the needs of women and others in general. Conan after Roy Thomas left him has adventures for sure, but he seems to quite growing up. (Not unlike Peter Parker who matured swiftly in his first decade, but then became rather static.) 

Those are my reflections on Conan the Barbarian for now. Let me close things out with a poem by Robert E. Howard. I think that's how the great writer thought of himself, a man who wrote the pulp adventures to earn a living, but who in his heart of hearts yearned to make poetry. Here is the poem "Cimmeria".

by Robert E. Howard

It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.
It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

The 1932 poem "Cimmeria" was discovered by Glenn Lord and first published in The Howard Collector #7 in 1965.

Later Barry Windsor-Smith got hold of it and developed an interesting version of his own. It first appeared in Savage Tales #2 in 1973.

That Smith original was apparently in a somewhat incomplete condition and later Roy Thomas and Tim Conrad developed another version using much of Smith's original material. Here are Conrad's version and a more complete and more lush Smith version compared page by page.

You can see that the endings in particular are different. 

And that wraps up a month of Conan and all things REH. It also wraps up another year. 2023 has been a mixed bag for sure, and we can only hope things get some better in 2024. See you tomorrow for news about what's up here at the Dojo in the coming year. Changes loom. 

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Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Books Of Amra!

Robert E. Howard died in 1936 after a blistering decade of writing for the pulps. He created characters in all sorts of genres such as Steve Costigan for his boxing tales, Breckenridge Elkins for his frontier adventures, Solomon Kane for weird tales of the supernatural, and Conan the Barbarian for stories of sword and sorcery, a genre Howard largely invented. There were many, many others, but with his death no new stories were forthcoming to keep his fans satisfied, so they chose to satisfy themselves. 

The did this with the invention of a fanzine title Amra. Amra was published by a group of fans dubbed "The Hyborian Legion" and it was headed by George Scithers among others. (This was not the first fanzine dedicated to REH, that would be The Howard Collector helmed by Glenn Lord who was instrumental in preserving and publishing so many of Howard's unpublished poems and stories and was instrumental in bringing REH's work to Marvel Comics.) L. Sprague De Camp who had edited the Gnome book series which gathered the extant Conan stories and added to them with pastiches by De Camp, Lin Carter, and others was a part of this fan movement and contributed to Amra. The first collection of articles by De Camp is titled The Conan Reader and is a slim collection from Mirage Press of a mere fifteen hundred copies. I'm a proud owner of volume #1034. Under an incredibly handsome Berni Wrightson slipcover, this tome runs clocks in at one hundred and fifty pages. 

The Conan Swordbook from 1969 is a thicker volume coming in at over two hundred and fifty pages, and this book takes advantage of the wide range of articles and art and wide array of authors. The volume is divided into sections such as "Robert E. Howard and his Fiction", "His Colleagues", and "The Complete Sword and Sorcery Hero". Among the writers in this volume are Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, and L. Sprague De Camp among many others. There are letters from REH, as well as articles which explore The Hyborean Age. Gregg Barr created the very handsome cover. I have volume #16. 

The Conan Gimoire is structured much like its predecessor and sports some lovely artwork by Berni Wrightson on the slipcover. This two-hundred-and-sixty page volume features writers such as E. Hoffman Price, Fritz Lieber, Jerry Pournelle, and Poul Anderson among many others. REH is represented by new letters. This volume edited by De Camp and George H. Scithers was published in 1972. The books in this last run seem not to have been numbered. 


At the end of the 1970's another fantasy boom was peeking and to service that renewed interest in heroes like Conan and all things Robert E. Howard. Much of the material from the three volumes above was reprinted in two paperbacks from ACE. The first was titled The Blade of Conan and the second The Spell of Conan. The latter features several new pieces as well as heady reprints. 

I've owned the paperbacks since they were first published. The original hardbacks came into my possession around a decade ago. I was able to buy The Conan Reader, the first volume of the trio. (It just so happens it has been autographed by L. Sprague De Camp also.) Alas, a friend of mine had already picked up the other two volumes. I was a bit strapped for cash back then, and when I expressed interest in them, he graciously gave them to me. His generosity makes me treasure them all the more. 

To read more about these volumes check out this link to The Barbarian Keep. 

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Friday, December 29, 2023

Vengeance In Asgalun!

Sadly, Marvel lost the license to the Conan the Barbarian property before they finished getting all of the first Roy Thomas storyline in between some Epic covers in fresh new color. A few more volumes would've done it. But beggars cannot be choosers. I'll enjoy what I have. 

As I read the Conan stories this time, I consulted the recent book by Roy Thomas where he once again illuminates from his perspective how those stories came to be shaped and how they fitted into the larger Marvel publishing scheme. It was a hectic time for comics in the early 70's and the eventual success of Conan the Barbarian helped shape it to no small degree. 

Roy goes to great lengths to explain that the story of Belit which is revealed in the issues of Conan the Barbarian which feature her are exclusive to the comic book. Nowhere in the single story by REH is anything suggested about her being of royal blood, but it's a natural assumption. Giving her a reason for her plundering the seas in order to gain wealth to win back her throne and gain vengeance on those who killed her father was a sufficient fuel and explains nicely her aggression. In issue seventy-two she and Conan head to the city of Asgalun to find a medicine for her mentor and they also learn that Belit's father might be alive and held captive in Stygia. 

A few disaffected corsairs stage a revolt and force Belit and Conan to take them to the secret location which holds the assembled riches. But Conan is able to turn the tables with the help of an extremely aggressive toad monster from the depths. Ernie Chan is finishing John Buscema's pencils through these issues and the book looks fantastic. Apparently Buscema didn't like Chan's inks nor according to Roy did he like Alfredo Alcala's. There is little better than pure John Buscema, but the teaming of he and Chan and Alcala were true highlights of the comics at this time. 

Things get complicated as Conan and Belit scheme to get to the Stygian city of Luxor but to do that they have invade the interior of Stygia which means going up the river. And that proves quite dangerous for a host of reasons, not least of which is a not insignificant sea monster. Roy says he wanted to evoke that classic King Kong feel with this monster. 

Things get further complicated when Belit and a slave girl who is guiding them are snatched by warriors riding giant hawks. The artwork is stellar as Buscema and Chan team to render these amazing fights in the air. 

Roy says the Hawk-Riders' distinctive headgear was inspired by Hawkman, his favorite Golden Age superhero. I have to agree, that few superheroes look as awesome as Hawkman when he's drawn by the right hands. 

The battle rages as Conan fights his way into the city to rescue Belit and their guide. The Stygians aren't used to fighting Cimmerians, especially pissed off ones. There is a great deal of castle intrigue in these issues as the story unfolds. Roy says in hindsight he saw the Conan-Belit saga as something of a novel and this is just one chapter. 

Conan finds himself in a deep recess with a giant man. The man, a trusted Stygian warrior has been affected by the "Starstone", a meteor which he carried back to his leader and which is responsible for the growth of the giant hawks, with which the ruler wishes to take over Stygia and more. Conan is able to win something of a truce with this giant who suffers mightily from the effects of the rock from space. 

Roy admits that the inspiration for the "Starstone" was the Lovecraft tale "Colour out of Space", which is one of HPL's very best. In that story a meteor lands on a remote farm and the radiation wreaks havoc on nature and the people who live there. Getting a taste of sci-fi into a Conan tale was risky perhaps, but I love that story and like how the idea is carried forward in these comics. 

Issue seventy-eight is a reprint of the Conan story from the debut issue of Savage Sword of Conan in which he teams up with Red Sonja. This is the first time this story, originally intended for inclusion in the Conan the Barbarian run gets a treatment in color. 

As evidenced by the use of the reprint in issue seventy-eight, the always present "Dreaded Deadline Doom" was descending on the color Conan comic and so a three-part tale drawn by Howard Chaykin was pulled from The Savage Sword of Conan, modified by Ernie Chan and slated for three consecutive issues of the color run. This story which adapts the El Borak story "The Valley of Iskander" is not all that great. Conan's role feels forced and the whole idea of Alexander the Great slipping into the Hyborian Age even for a short time rankles me. There's no end of action in this off-the-cuff trilogy, a sure sign the characterization is off. 

John Buscema was still called away and so Howie Chaykin gets the nod for two more issues, this time adapting "Black Canaan", a modern horror story by REH which is laced with racist terminology. As it was originally set in the American South that makes sense, at least in terms of setting but still it's a fussy thing when projected into a whole new arrangement. Again, Conan seems out of character, more reckless than normal, doing things because the plot requires they be done and not arising from some necessary aspect of who he is. Since meeting Belit Conan had been a bit more reserved and responsible, but in these stories he seems to have less regard for his safety than makes sense. 

It seems Roy Thomas was a fan of Mandrake the Magician and his loyal ally Lothar. So when it was time to introduce a new character into the Conan mythos who just happened to be a magician, Roy looked back to Lee Falk's creations for inspiration. 

The result of Zula, who as the cover blurb announces is a "swordsman and sorcerer", a blending of Mandrake and Lothar into a single dynamic hero. Zula is a slave as this story begins and soon enough Conan and he are together in the dungeon of the king who has betrayed the Cimmerian and Belit who has already had to flee the city. But Zula and Conan escape and fly away on the giant hawks. 

The next issue is largely a series of flashbacks as we are reminded of Conan's mission and his battles over the last many issues and later we learn of the history of Zula who it turns out is the last of his people the Zamballahs. He was the prisoner of a sorcerer in the City of Magicians and now seeks Conan's help in returning there and wreaking his vengeance. He and Conan work out a deal where Zula helps the Cimmerian and then he reciprocates. 

They travel to Luxor where after many twists and turns they enter a deadly tomb and surprisingly find Belit in a casket ready to be consumed by the monster which regularly munches on the deceased from the city. A furious battle and the three of them escape, but just barely. It should be noted that the team of John Buscema and Ernie Chan are in top form with Buscema having returned a few issues earlier. I love this particular Buscema cover. 

But he gets a break when the editors decide to insert another classic black and white tale from The Savage Sword of Conan, this time with color. It's a so-so story with decent artwork by Tony DeZuniga which pits Conan against a strange mob of almost-humans on a mountain top. It's all he can do to rescue the daughter of an enemy, but you know how Conan can be. The balance of this issue is taken up by a new piece by Roy and  Ernie Chan which summarizes the history of the Hyborian Age. 

Sadly, this Marvel Epic run concludes with issue eighty-eight in which we find Conan at long last reunited with Belit and together with Zula they seek to attack the King of Stygia who sent Belit to her doom to begin with. But the worm has turned and the slave girl who has been helping them turns out to be the sister of the King and untrustworthy to boot. The story ends with Belit learning that her father might well be dead after all. The next step is unclear. 

As usual this volume includes some extras such as the wonderful cover to Conan's second Treasury edition. He will prove a popular choice for this oversized format with at least two more issues. Conan had become at this point in the late 1970's one of Marvel's best-selling features. The Savage Sword of Conan was successful, and Marvel was able to market the character in many ways. Roy Thomas mentions how Marvel wished always to find ways to integrate the Cimmerian's world with the larger Marvel Universe, but Roy properly resisted. Thomas and the artists such as Windsor-Smith, Buscema, Chan, Kane, and others had worked to create a thoroughly realized version of Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. It was not the one exactly like the short stories and novels, but it was a compelling place to visit, nonetheless.

I will continue my reading of the first Roy Thomas tenure on the book, though I have no plans to report on those issues here. This marks the end of the road as the end of month and the end of the year looms. More Conan content arrives tomorrow and the next day, then prepare for something completely different. 

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