The Chronicles of Conan
When Giants Walk the Earth
And Other Stories
With the talented embellisher Ernie Chan back to inking artist John Buscema’s work at the end of the previous volume of the collected Roy Thomas-penned Conan comics of the ‘70s, we hit a run of visually arresting issues that are rarely anything other than an absolute treat.
And we have full evidence of that on the very first (title) page of Conan the Barbarian #72, as Conan, Bêlit and the black corsairs of the Tigress launch themselves onto a doomed Shemitish merchant ship that has been unlucky enough to cross their thieving, murderous paths.
With Vengeance in Asgalun Buscema seems utterly energized by the return of his colleague; and the first panel of page two depicts a brilliantly savage recklessness that we haven’t seen in a (short) while, with Conan – Amra, the Lion – landing right in the middle of no less than five crewmen, sending them sprawling as his sword drives through one and his brawny arm goes around the neck of another. And in amongst the headlong action of this thrilling opening we get another clear glimpse of how uncharacteristically foolish the two pirate leaders are in continuing to have the treacherous Kawaku on board. They should have had the good sense to boot this creep over the side some time ago, but for whatever reason have continued to tolerate his barely-concealed insubordination.
Back from the Dead
The tales in this volume are all interconnected, due not only to Conan’s continuing adventures with the Queen of the Black Coast, but also because it begins in earnest her attempt to take back the throne of her father:
“While the traitor Nim-Karrak wears the crown of my home city – my uncle, the murderer of my father when I was but a child – there is no home for Bêlit, not even the rolling sea.”
Within that larger overall storyline, however, there are shorter sequences and Vengeance at Asgalun is the first of roughly a two parter that continues with He Who Waits in the Well of Skelos (issue #73). And again this opens with a really gorgeous splash page, as Cimmerian and Shemite row back to their ship against the backdrop of a sumptuous seascape.
Bêlit has been methodically attacking the shipping of the Black Coast. This is in order to raise enough gold to exchange for Shemite coins that she intends to use to pay for an army of mercenary soldiers that will let her retake the crown. Unexpectedly, though, she finds her hand suddenly forced as her beloved shaman N’Yaga falls ill and the herb required to bring him back to health can only be obtained by returning to the palace at Asgalun.
Here, thankfully, we get a rare glimpse of the pirate queen’s softer sentiments as we see that she clearly cares for and loves the old man deeply. It makes a nice change from her normal moaning demeanor and jealous bitching.
So, more than ten years after she fled the Shemitish capital as a young child, she returns to find to her fury that it is now more of a Stygian outpost than a Shemite city, with a disgruntled King Nim-Karrak painfully aware that he is little more than a figurehead with far less real power than Ptor-Nubis, “emissary of Ctesphon II, King of all Stygia, Master of the Sun-Boat, Rider of the Moon-Steed, Conqueror of All He Beholds.”
Now, there’s a mouthful for you! Never trust a man who gives himself too many titles, says I; and in any case I’m willing to bet a few Shemitish coins of my own that he still soils his britches at the mention of his notorious sorcerer, Thoth-Amon of the Ring.
Well, the two pirate leaders manage to get themselves inside the palace, with Bêlit finally confronting her usurping uncle. In fact she is just about to go to work on his face with a broken bottle when he drops the bombshell that her father, Atrahasis, is actually alive and being held as a hostage to fortune in the Stygian capital of Luxur.
Despite giving me an odd retro-moment where I thought that I had fallen into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty in days of yore, where relatives seemed to come back from the dead every other week, this plot development works rather well. As Ptor-Nubis tells her:
“Nim-Karrak is a poor excuse for even a puppet monarch, admittedly. Still, the people would be driven to the edge of rebellion if a Stygian openly ascended to the throne. Or, if they did not, the Kothians might declare war on us to safeguard their own borders. So you see, you must not kill Nim-Karrak out of personal pique”.
And that is a piece of Hyborian Age political sophistry that I suspect even Robert E. Howard himself would have been proud of. Nice one, Roy.
Returning to the Tigress, they discover what a blind man wearing shades at midnight would have seen coming: Kawaku has taken the ship, with the help of some mutineers who have been less than enchanted at being bossed around by Bêlit and her Cimmerian lover. I don’t know, I guess it kind of had to happen.
In order to save Bêlit from death (although he needn’t have bothered – that lady can look after herself) Conan leads the mutineers to an island where there stand the ruins of the Temple of the Toad. Here Bêlit has been secreting her growing war chest:
“Within, they pass with softly-echoing step over a great, worn stone, marked with a tongue even the Nemedian scholars would take decades to decipher… to stand at last in the center of the vast, time-ruined temple. There is a swift, involuntary intake of breath from Kawaku and his wide-eyed men. For, even they have heard of Skelos, ancient mage and author of sorcerous scrolls; and the Well of Skelos, where demons guard his long-dead bones, is a part of Black Coast lore as well as Stygian and Hyborian.”
I’m going to suppose that there is at least some connection, no matter how tenuous, between the Temple of the Toad here and the modern-day one in Honduras where Howard set his short story, The Thing on the Roof.* Whether that’s true or not, though, Kawaku comes to the same dreadful end as the trespasser in that yarn. And not before time. He was always a bad ‘un, that fella.
At the risk of becoming redundant I have to rave once more about the truly outstanding artwork here. It even manages to take your mind off the fact that this issue’s Creature from Beyond looks pretty much like a giant toad on its hind legs –which, considering the name of its Temple would make sense, right enough.
On the Long Road to Luxur
With Conan and Bêlit now setting out in search of King-as-was Atrahasis, we embark on a four-parter that not only showcases Buscema and Chan’s talents to the utmost but also lets the reader admire the skills that make Conan of Cimmeria the ultimate survivor. Roy Thomas throws everything that he can think of at him. And that ranges from plain, old-fashioned bad dreams (and since they involve Thoth-Amon, that would have been enough to finish me off right there) to being dropped from a giant hawk on to a bloody great big crocodile.
That dreadful phony, the bullshitting jackass called Bear Grylls wouldn’t have lasted two minutes, I can tell you that.
This story sequence is comprised of:
The Battle at the Black Walls (#74)
The Hawk-Riders of Harakht (#75)
Swordless in Stygia (#76)
When Giants Walk the Earth (#77)
“When I sleep, I have no dreams.” Conan finds his boast as a brash young 17-year-old, some six years previously in the Lair of the Beast-Men (issue #2), come back to haunt him. For his dreams today are tormented and seemingly very real, as Thoth-Amon of the Black Ring warns him to give up his plans to follow the Queen of the Black Coast in her rescue mission to Stygia’s capital city, Luxur.
He is also beset by legions of dream-phantoms who urge him to heed the sorcerer’s warning, adding the curious dictum: “For the sake of men unborn.”
They encounter a Stygian ship, which is fleeing under the command of a rebellious noble called Bekhet, who has attempted to assassinate King Ctesphon II.
Naturally, they go after it as a matter of pure principle. I suspect that they would have been booted out of the Pirate’s Union or something if they hadn’t. And anyway, Bêlit hates these guys with a passion. Also, they need some information.
However, with the will power of the true fanatic, Bekhet drives his sword through himself rather than be captured. So the corsairs leave his ship in flames as they take on board a beautiful Zingaran slave called Neftha who, as Conan notes with weary knowingness, Bêlit is hardly likely to become Best Friends Forever with.
As she loots a Set-charm from the neck of the dead Bekhet, Neftha explains that many of the Stygian population consider Ctesphon to be a weakling, which adds a rather interesting dimension to the scenario that the two pirate leaders are about to insinuate themselves into.
Whatever about the fragility of Ctesphon’s hold on power, it is as well that Neftha had a fancy for the amulet, since it seems to be what saves the crew of the Tigress when it attacks the Stygian port-city of Khemi only to find itself assaulted by an enormous sea-serpent. Well, saved by that and a pissed-off Conan, needless to say.
Black Walls is a fine issue, covering rather a lot of events and subjects in seventeen pages, as well as deepening Thomas’s entire adaptation of and additions to the Conan mythos. We are reminded of such events of years ago as Conan’s imprisonment in the City of the Beast- Men and his foray as a young wanderer into Nemedia’s second city of Numalia; and we also look ahead to a time when he sits on the throne of Aquilonia:
“Two decades hence, he will remember with fondness how he made the Stygians howl, when he crept with the black corsairs to the very bastions of the sea-washed castle of Khemi, and burned the galleons lying at anchor there.”
Since Neftha knows the place well, Bêlit takes out the green contact lenses for a change and the girl accompanies Conan and herself up the serpentine and reptile-haunted River Styx. But halfway between Khemi and Luxur they are attacked by warriors of the city of Harakht, who ride on giant hawks.
The illustrations of the River and such of its inhabitants as the lovely Ibis-birds and the enormous crocodiles have already provided pages of pleasure; but Buscema excels himself with the last three panels of page ten. Seeing Conan run forward in consecutive images as a hawk-rider swoops towards him is almost cinematic in nature. Then, when he is high in the air atop the bird and it is careening back towards the earth, whilst the reader gets a ‘bird’s eye’ view of reptile-infested marshland rushing up towards him, that reader will think that this is about as good as it gets.
After that, as I mentioned earlier, with the hawk lying dead beneath him, Conan takes on an enormous Stygian crocodile in a battle that deserves the name of ‘epic’ even in a comic-book of the stature of this title. This whole issue is a tour de force by John Buscema and deserves to go down as a high point in comics’ art.
The last panel of Hawk-Riders shows the indomitable Cimmerian standing over the slain crocodile with dripping knife in hand, glowering southward to Harakht, to where his mate has been carried. It is an arresting image, one that we see from a slightly different angle on the splash page of Swordless in Stygia.[Unfortunately, the effect is slightly jarring as it reminds the reader that these tales were meant to be savoured with a bit of time between each helping. That’s no one’s fault; but it’s something that I try to do in any case – which is partly the reason that there tends to be some long pauses between these reviews. Also, it just plain adds to my own enjoyment as I reread these classics.]
Harakht turns out to be a city in an unusual position:
“Nominally, it is subject to the Crown; but in reality it goes its own way because it lies halfway between Khemi and Luxur. If it fell, the way would be open for a Shemite army to split this land in half in time of war. Better a strong Stygian vassal than foreign hordes.”
Once again I have cause to admire the way in which Roy Thomas depicts Hyborian Age politics in a manner that would meet with the approval of Robert E. Howard himself.
As it happens, the three outlanders have arrived in the city at a time when some rather hot brotherly strife is on the verge of breaking out — this being between King Hor-Neb and High Priest Mer-Ath.
Two very different brothers trying to run a city between them: I could have told them it would never work.
And believe me, a mild little sibling difference is doomed to mushroom out into full-blown animosity as soon as Neftha flutters those big beautiful peepers at the High Priest. It seems that there’s a hell of a lot more to this Zingaran temptress than meets the eye.
Maybe Bêlit was right to be a suspicious cow, for a change; though in fairness to Neftha, being a queen just has to beat being a Stygian slave-girl hands down, I would imagine.
All of this is to the background of a fallen meteor that has caused the phenomenal growth-rate amongst the hawks as well as giving King Hor-Neb ideas above his station. It has also (and tragically) caused an unnatural growth-spurt in the rather decent Gol-thir, the King’s retainer.
Retainer or not, Gol-thir knows a shithead when he serves one and so decides to throw in his lot with Conan instead. This means that it’s only a matter of time before there’s one soon-to-be-dead King breathing his last; and a newly-in-charge High Priest-cum-King sitting on the throne of Harakht.
Only…maybe not as much in charge as he thinks. Because who’s that looking over his shoulder, wearing an enigmatic smile? Yep, it’s former slave girl Neftha.
Listen, I like her; I really do. I just think that she will take a bit of watching, that one. That’s all.
So: everything seems to end well. All of the (relatively) good guys ‘n’ gals have lived to fight another day and Bêlit is in the arms of her lover once more. Only, what’s going on in that last panel?
“And on the arena floor, a dead despot lies, not far from one who once had faithfully served him. And few remember that Gol-thir’s late wife, who died of grief at the grotesque fate that separated her from her husband, looked rather remarkably like the woman in Conan’s arms.”
What? Am I reading that right? Is this another Dallas-like twist I see before me?
The plot thickens!
Another Day, Another Giant
Issue #78 was a reprint of Curse of the Un-Dead Man from The Savage Sword of Conan #1. As mentioned previously, it couldn’t be reprinted due to copyright difficulties with the character of Red Sonja.
Then, with the next three issues, Roy Thomas decided to give Conan a break from Bêlit for a while. And that’s a wise decision in my opinion since it amounts to giving me a break from the stone-mad bint as well. Jeez, I know that she’s beautiful and all that (if you have a thing for cold-eyed, jealous, murderous bitches, that is) but a day in her company would give you a ball-ache — and not in a good way, either. And by my calculations Conan has now been with her for around a year and a half. Hell’s bells, I never thought I would say this about the Cimmerian, but he must have been a bloody saint.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, by the way, that the barbarian adventurer is now in his 24th year, a battle-hardened warrior at the very height of his powers.
Anyway, apart from allowing himself a diversion from the she-pirate, Thomas loved tinkering with (or as he likes to put it, ‘freely adapting’) Robert E. Howard’s non-Conan tales, and here he picks The Lost Valley of Iskander. This is one of the El Borak stories, a series that I’m rather fond of. El Borak — or Francis X. Gordon, to give him his real name — being a Richard Francis Burton-type who was originally an El Paso gunman but became an adventurer in Afghanistan. Good, non-supernatural big boy’s tales, they are; and I recommend them wholeheartedly.
The story covered:
The Lost Valley of Iskander (#79)
Trial by Combat (#80)
The Eye of the Serpent (#81)
John Buscema needed a break for a while in order to work on another project and so in stepped none other than Howard Chaykin. I have to admit that when I saw his name in conjunction with Conan I was pretty excited as I was a big fan of his brilliant ‘80s comic book, American Flagg! Unfortunately, however, the end result is something of a damp squib, with very little in evidence to show that this is Chaykin’s work.
This puzzle is solved with Roy Thomas’s comment:
“Looking at these pages, you won’t see much of Chaykin, because embellisher Ernie Chan – just as he was asked to do – made the result look as much like usual Buscema/Chan art as he was able to do.”
With the promise of safe passage to Luxur by the newly-crowned King Mer-Ath of Harakht, Conan leaves Bêlit in the city whilst he travels on a peace mission to Iskander, the inhabitants of which share a mutually productive partnership with the hawk-city.
Here he is befriended by a gorgeous, likeable, extremely capable and of course scantily clad blonde woman called Bardylis – and when my eyes nearly popped out of my head at the ass-cleavage on panel one of page twelve I just knew that our lad Conan wasn’t going to be long in pointing Percy in her direction. Nor was I proven wrong. He wrestled with his conscience for all of two seconds (which was two seconds more than I would have done, given the chance) before deciding that what Bêlit didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Brave man.
Incidentally, I’m not sure how they got that panel past the Comics Code, although I’m awful glad they did.
In a plotline that strains incredulity even in a fantasy adventure like this, the people of Iskander turn out to be descendents of Alexander the Great’s army.
Yeah, if you’re thinking of reading that again, don’t bother. That’s what I said.
Apparently, the Conqueror and his army rode through some sort of time-mist in Afghanistan on their way to India and remained in the Hyborian Age long enough to establish the city of Attalus in the Valley of Iskander, before hitting the conqueror’s road once more and leaving behind their own descendents, 10,000 years before they were born.
I think I’ve got that right. But my brain hurts.
In the course of the tale Conan gets to fight yet another giant – and it is odd to see the Cimmerian dwarfed for a change – and to also lead the Greeks in battle against a Stygian wizard and his army.
It’s all good fun in a meat-and-potatoes kind of way; but it very much has ‘treading water’ written all over it; and is a small bit of a let-down after the excellent issues that had preceded it.
Next: Volume 11 — The Dance of the Skull.
*See my review of People of the Dark by Robert E. Howard.
NB: This brought the Conan comic books up to December of 1977. As a new year was about to begin we had seen 81 issues of Conan the Barbarian. There had also been 25 issues of The Savage Sword of Conan, which had just moved from bimonthly to monthly. I’ll just list for my own satisfaction the main contents (there were a lot of other interesting pieces in these) of the black-and-white non-Code magazine:
The Savage Sword of Conan
#1 Curse of the Un-Dead Man
#2 Black Colossus*
#3 At the Mountain of the Moon God
#4 Iron Shadows in the Moon*
#5 A Witch Shall Be Born*
#6 The Sleeper in the Sands/People of the Dark
#7 The Citadel at the Centre of Time
#8 The Forever Phial
#9 The Curse of the Cat Goddess
#10 Conan the Conqueror (concluding The Hour of the Dragon from Giant Size Conan*
#11 The Abode of the Damned
#12 The Haunters of Castle Crimson
#13 The Gods of Bal-Sagoth (reprint of Conan the Barbarian #17 & #18)
#14 Shadows in Zamboula*
#15 The Devil in Iron*
#16 The People of the Black Circle*
#17 The People of the Black Circle: Part 2*
#18 The People of the Black Circle: Part 3*
#19 The People of the Black Circle: Part 4*
#20 The Slithering Shadow*
#21 The Horror from the Red Tower
#22 The Pool of the Black One*
#23 The Pool of the Black One: Part 2*
#24 The Tower of the Elephant*
#25 Jewels of Gwahlur*
As you can see from the asterisks, Roy Thomas was going through the Howard original Conan tales at a hell of a rate. I remain in awe of the amount of scripts that the man was turning out during these years – and almost all of a very high quality.
Meanwhile, on the same timeline there had been six bimonthly issues of:
#1 The Blood of the Unicorn
#2 The Demon of the Maze
#3 The Games of Gita
#4 The Lake of the Unknown
#5 Master of the Bells
#6 The Singing Tower