The Chronicles of Conan
The Monster of the Monoliths
And Other Stories
During that endless golden summer of 1971 (hey, they’re my memories) just after I turned twelve, it seemed that fantasy novels– and in particular what was becoming known to me as ‘heroic fantasy’ novels– were everywhere. And, just as it was after seeing the 1931 Frankenstein at the age of nine, I never really grew out of them. Sure, my tastes became more ‘sophisticated’ as is natural; but I can still go back to them as happily today as then.
Lovecraft was in a darker place, waiting for the grimmer side of my emerging self; what belonged in that summer sunshine were the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. My parents were great ones for taking us on day trips, so those fellas went everywhere for reading in the back of the car or lying on the beach at the Maidens. Happy days.
And then there was Michael Moorcock.
Even then there seemed to be something a bit different about Moorcock. For a start, he was alive and relatively young. And he lived in Notting Hill, London, so in theory we could have dropped in on him. And then there was the writing: seriously hallucinatory, weird and cosmic; and he sang and wrote with the great rock band Hawkwind! Amazing.
His most famous creation was a sword-and-sorcery character but about as far removed from Conan of Cimmeria as Moorcock could make him. Elric of Melniboné was a thin, crimson-eyed, self-pitying, half-human, albino sorcerer-king—and try saying that after a few pints. He was also metaphorically a junkie, depending almost exclusively for his continued existence on his black hellsword Stormbringer. Which, incidentally, was sentient and drank the souls of those slain by it. Conan would have run a mile. But in 1972 Roy Thomas thought that it would be a good idea to team them up.
A Sword Called Stormbringer and The Green Empress of Melniboné (issues # 14 & 15) comprised Marvel’s first two-part Conan saga. The outline was by Moorcock and his friend James Cawthorn and was much more of an Elric tale than a Conan one. It teems with characters from his world: Lord Arkyn of Law is there, as is Queen Xiombarg of Chaos; and one of my favourites, Prince Gaynor the Damned, who has committed atrocities so appalling that he is willing to commit atrocities even more appalling in order to be granted the gift of death. Now there’s a fucked-up character for you.
The now-crippled wizard Zukala makes a return as does his daughter Zephra, although the former is now mercifully less of a Dr. Strange character than he was when we last met him.
It’s all a little cluttered, to be honest. And there seems to have been a cooling between Thomas and Smith, so this was meant to be Smith’s swan song. Whatever the reasons for his departure it certainly brought out the best in Barry Smith’s art which is some of his finest to this point. He even ends with a splash page as Conan takes his leave and resumes his road to Argos.
A Change of Direction…
This seems like a good point at which to review the Cimmerian’s career to date.
I’ve never understood those yo-yo’s who say that Conan never develops as a character. It wasn’t true of Howard’s original tales and it’s certainly not true of Thomas’s comics version. We have seen in only fifteen issues how Conan has grown from a raw, reckless young barbarian mercenary into an accomplished thief. Issue #15 also leaves him a more sober and even grimmer, more cynical protagonist as civilization changes him to a degree without ever softening him. And he has become a real wanderer: by my count he has travelled through Cimmeria into Vanaheim and Aesgaard; through Hyperborea and southwards to the warmer climes of Brythunia, Zamora, Nemedia and Corinthia with stopovers in some of that country’s city-states. (I discount Ophir in Web of the Spider God and believe that even the Marvel database is wrong on this count. It is clearly back into Zamora.) Not bad going for a twenty-year-old.
And now this latest sees him in Koth and heading westwards.
Issue #16 was The Frost Giant’s Daughter, the reprint from Savage Tales #1 and out of continuity with the rest of the saga. It was discussed in relation to Volume 2.
When we pick up events in #17 and 18, not only the artist has changed but so has Conan’s westwards drift, in The Gods of Bal-Sagoth and The Thing from the Temple. With Gil Kane now doing the honours on the illustrations, we pick up the Cimmerian as a passenger on board a Turanian galley that has just been attacked by pirates of the vast inland Vilayet Sea. As it happens, the pirate captain is the giant Vanirman Fafnir, who we met briefly back in #6 as a thief in Shadizar.
It’s a puzzle, because this means that Conan has turned aside from Argos, travelling many miles to the East and obviously spending several months in doing so, given the distances involved. Again, a decent map would have been welcomed for those readers without one.
Shipwrecked, the two struggle ashore on the Isle of Bal-Sagoth. There they are caught up in the battle for a crown, in the process become firm friends. It is a two-parter based on one of Howard’s historical tales of Turlogh O’Brien and is well-adapted, headlong action. Kane’s artwork never appealed to me, however, despite his enormous popularity and so I wasn’t sorry to see the great Barry Smith make a return in the very next issue, after Cimmerian and Vanirman are picked up by a Turanian war galley. Gods… does however have one of my favourite endings in a Howard story, encapsulating one of the writer’s most common themes:
“…Bal-Sagoth and my kingdom is fading in the morning sky. And therein it is like all other empires of the world—dreams and ghosts and smoke.”
The War of the Tarim
One thing Gil Kane did that I really liked was to get Conan out of those high-strapped sandals that we’d been looking at since the first issue and into a comfortable –looking pair of sea-boots. In Hawks from the Sea Barry Smith goes even farther and dresses him as the Turanian mercenary that he now is—in a very fetching chainmail top with helmet accessory. (It’s highly unlikely that Victoria Beckham reads these musings, but just on the off-chance…I hear she pays well.) And that helmet is a hell of an improvement on the horned one of yore.
This issue really made people sit up and take notice of Conan the Barbarian. The splash page is one of the most memorable I’ve seen: a massive, sullen-looking Cimmerian and a lean Turanian soldier watch with varying degrees of interest as war galley crewmen lash to a mast the image of the Tarim—the man-become-god of the Eastern Hyrkanian race. The viewpoint is tilted slightly and I swear you can almost feel the swell of the Vilayet Sea and the groaning of the rigging. Extraordinary stuff.
The city of Makkalet on the Eastern shores of the inland sea has stolen the Tarim from Aghrapur, which lies on the Western side; and Prince Yezdigerd wants him back since the Hyrkanian city that claims him streaks ahead in prestige. Although, as Fafnir explains with some cynicism:
“You forget that Makkalet is also the chief trading rival of Aghrapur. To rescue a god, and lay low a rival all in one fell swoop…what could be more holy than that?”
Indeed. Whether in the long-ago, fictional Hyborian Age or in our no-less fantastic present one, some things never change. Indeed, the War of the Tarim (or the Siege of Makkalet) storyline is in some ways Roy Thomas’s take on Vietnam, which was at that point dragging towards its less-than-glorious conclusion.
There is a sequence here that is as good as anything done in these first nineteen issues: with a seagull as a motif Conan broods on the many strange events that he has seen since he left this far-off homeland. It is, quite simply, beautiful and gives to the whole a feeling of richness and texture. Then there is the stunning approach to Makkalet itself.
Hawks from the Sea was on its way to becoming one of the great comic book presentations when something happened in the second half as inker Dan Atkins fell behind schedule. Yet it remains a classic; and again I have cause to mourn the decision by Dark Horse Books not to reprint the original Marvel Comics Barry Smith covers, because in this case it had a berserk Conan laying about him with a heavy, wicked- looking mace.
If perfection eluded this issue then it arrived for sure with #20 and The Black Hound of Vengeance. This is utterly gorgeous work and close to the pinnacle of Smith’s craft, rounded off with a prose epilogue that blew me away when I first read it. It was as if parts of the fabled Nemedian Chronicles had come to life, as if the story was emerging from the very stuff of History itself.
Unfortunately, the follow-up, The Monster of the Monoliths (which sees Conan change sides and now riding as a mercenary of Hyrkania) is rather disappointing—and again it was down to deadline pressures. It is very loosely based on Robert E. Howard’s first Lovecraftian tale, The Black Stone…and the War of the Tarim is now well and truly raging.
It seems almost a shame that the book didn’t just go bimonthly in order to give Smith all the time he needed to complete his beautiful work. However, he was rapidly becoming less than enchanted with the attitude towards their creators of those then in charge at Marvel, so perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference. In any case, the imposing figure of John Buscema was striding closer…but we’ll be meeting him in the next volume.