The Chronicles of Conan
The Shadow in the Tomb
And Other Stories
Over a span of 26 issues of Conan the Barbarian and three of the black & white magazine Savage Tales, the team of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith had (with a little help from Gil Kane and John Buscema) taken a character who might in lesser hands have remained pretty much the by-blow of a typical Marvel hero and created something rather special in early ’seventies comics. Along the way the pair had done some pretty decent –and on occasion quite outstanding—adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s grittier, bloodier originals.
In fact they had adapted no less than four Conan short stories and one novella, as well as five solid re-workings of non-Conan pieces, a fragment and a poem. It was impressive stuff, made all the more so when one considers that Thomas was also overseeing the related Kull the Conqueror title in addition to his other work at Marvel.
And of course there was also his own original work (plus occasions when he would be inspired by as little as a single line from Howard) as well as two issues attributed to John Jakes and Michael Moorcock.
They had created a series with a specific look; but as of issues #25 and #26, the artwork was in the hands of John Buscema; and by issue #27’s The Blood of Bel- Hissar—which kicks off this fifth collection from Dark Horse Books– the two had gelled well and a new era was at hand for Conan. Whether it was one that would match the previous team remained to be seen.
Blood… was based on another non-Conan tale, Howard’s original being set during the time of Richard the Lionheart and featuring his raging Crusader, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey.
The War of the Tarim is over, but as the Cimmerian attempts to get back on the path to Argos and the Western Sea he finds himself running afoul of Prince Yezdigerd’s victorious soldiery, who are now in the process of decimating much of the East. He meets up with a very capable mute Khitain warrior by the name of Turgohl and he also encounters Suwaan, yet another scheming wench of the kind that he attracted far too readily during this period. He also finds himself in the centre of two feuding groups of bandits who are competing for a sorcerous jewel which first appeared back in the days when the kingdom of Acheron was a power to be reckoned with. It’s a good straight action piece and perfect for showcasing Buscema’s talents.
From a sorcerous jewel to the sorcerous image of a golden ape god called Zemba in #28’s Moon of Zembabwei…!
South of the Vilayet Sea the barbarian runs into a Stygian renegade by the name of Thutmekri who is fleeing with the aforementioned stolen idol in the company of a comely wench called Helgi, who has little do here apart from getting herself tied up and screaming for help. It’s another straightforward action piece, again designed to show off Buscema’s talents and as a result we have a three-page battle with a huge two-legged serpent-thing as well as a thrilling five-page encounter with the Golden Ape. [Apes were becoming pretty regular adversaries for the Cimmerian, what with the Beast Men of the far North and Thak, back in Corinthia. They would also play a part in his future, as well.]
This story is based loosely on a Howard tale of the contemporary world. I’m not familiar with it, but reading a synopsis makes me want to remedy that immediately. Apparently it concerns a two-fisted, not-very-bright Irishman who rescues his beloved from a gang of black villains – and something tells me that Howard would have put the ‘N’ word to liberal use here. It is *gasp* considered very offensive by today’s standards and I can’t wait to check it out.
Hide in Plain Sight
Once again, Conan appears to have been sidetracked from his journey to Argos as #29 finds him to the north and in the Turanian capital of Aghrapur in Two Against Turan. This is one of those tales that Thomas credits as being ‘freely adapted’; this time it is from an uncompleted historical Howard yarn called Two Against Tyre.
The best thing about this issue is the wonderful splash/title page. It is framed looking Eastwards across the bay of the thriving port on the inland Vilayet Sea whilst the birthplace of the giant barbarian is argued over in hushed tones by discreetly-gawping Turanians. Conan himself is wrapped in an impressive fur cape and looks every inch as unconsciously regal as the king that he will one day be.
Unfortunately, after that it is the most disappointing issue since the comic-book’s beginnings, basically one long fight-fest. Of course, Buscema’s art is excellent (with a startling panel where Conan takes out four warriors with one ferocious swipe of his sword!) but there is far too much sorcery, including yet another ‘occult gem’.
It may seem a bit deranged to be complaining about too much sorcery in a sword-and-sorcery story, but the beauty of Howard’s original tales was that he didn’t rely on that aspect to the point where his yarns became completely unbelievable. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a very believable, solid piece of pseudo-history. With its all-powerful wizard, this issue edged a bit too close to Dr. Strange territory for my taste—fine in it its place, but not here.
There is an amusing scene where Conan has made a smart remark about the one true living Tarim and finds himself set upon by a bunch of humorless zealots who were definitely the ancestors of today’s crop of murderous, pain-in-the-ass Allah-botherers. Overall, though, Two Against Turan is mainly there to set the scene for a series of tales with Conan back in the Turanian army once more.
This may seem rather odd, considering that Prince Yezdigerd has offered to the man who brings him the Cimmerian’s head that man’s weight in gold; but that worthy is still raising hell East of the Vilayet and this kind of ‘hiding in plain sight’ in the army of his father King Yildiz is just the kind of thing that Howard’s barbarian might conceivably do.
Issue #30’s The Hand of Nergal sees a division of the Turanian army sent north to quell an uprising by a rebellious satrap, Munthassem Khan; and story credit goes to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard. In fact, there exists only an untitled three-page fragment from Howard. It’s a while since I read it but I recall it as being a tremendously atmospheric piece with Conan (bearing a nasty thigh wound) as the sole survivor of a battle and grimly and systematically looting the dead. Carter fleshed this into a characteristically bad short story. He should have left it alone; and so should Thomas. I found myself shaking my head when confronted this time with not one but two magic talismans.
And the head was nodding like one of those demented little toy dogs when I saw that issue #31’s The Shadow in the Tomb had a bloody magic sword in it! Enough with the magic artifacts, already!
As it happened, however, this was a bit of an improvement – despite being (although unaccredited) roughly based on a characteristically tedious pastiche from L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter.
Yildiz has mobilized his army against the rebellious hill-tribes, but in fact the main story takes place in flashback. It is a supernatural episode in the young Cimmerian’s life which according to Thomas’s always-interesting end notes takes place between the events of issue #2 and #3. In fact there is nothing in the writing to indicate that and left to my own devices I would have said the action takes place before the first issue and indeed the even chronologically earlier dream-meeting with Atali, the Frost Giant’s Daughter. In the messing and bitching around with permission to adapt de Camp & Carter’s original slightly different tale (and God knows why he would want to), I wonder if Roy has made a mistake. Never mind; there is a nice twist at the end that makes you review part of the main story and certainly improves on the woeful original.
A Spy for Turan
Probably the least said about the last three issues — #’s 32 -34 — the better it is for the reputations of all involved. They comprise a three-part story that whilst comparatively harmless is best forgotten: Flame Winds of Lost Khitai, Death and 7 Wizards and The Temptress in the Tower of Flame.
The Cimmerian appears to have made himself something of a favourite in Yildiz’s army, although with the aforementioned price on his head you would have thought that becoming too high-profile wouldn’t really have suited him. As Thomas himself admits, though, this is just never spoken of. And in fairness Conan was never one to hide his light under a bushel.
Here he is enlisted for a spying mission to Wan Tengri, on the westernmost fringes of Khitai, a region which relates in Hyborian terms to China. It is pretty uninspiring stuff and in fact the best thing about it is the trio of beautifully pulpish titles–although Khitai doesn’t appear to be particularly lost. I also liked Bourtai, the monkey-faced young thief who befriends Conan and with whom he flees in a leaky barge at story’s end.
The whole thing was based on a ’30s novel called Flame Winds by Norvell W. Page. According to Thomas he tidied up some of the writer’s weirder logic –and if that’s true I’ve no intention of ever reading the original, that’s for sure.
Volume 5 of the Chronicles of Conan is a marked dip when compared to the previous four volumes. However, I’m sure that Thomas & Buscema would argue that it was with this run of comics that sales really picked up. And that’s fair enough. I can also see why some would prefer Buscema’s work to Windsor-Smith’s. It’s all down to personal taste, after all. For myself, though, I’m reminded of a review I once read concerning Smith’s swan song in issue #24. The writer wistfully said something to the effect that after that issue we were reminded that Conan the Barbarian was just a comic book, after all.
That is really a bit too harsh; still, I suspect he was speaking with disappointment because of the previous very high standard. I know what he meant.