The Chronicles of Conan
The Dance of the Skull
And Other Stories
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore.
With writer Roy Thomas’s regular collaborator –the artist John Buscema — otherwise engaged, cult-favourite Howard (American Flagg!, Black Kiss) Chaykin had stepped into those very large boots for a few months. As I mentioned in the review for Volume 10, however, it was hard enough to see much of Chaykin’s later, very distinctive style. This was because Thomas had asked embellisher Ernie Chan to make Chaykin look as much like Buscema as he could.
Well, whilst I can understand the idea behind that thinking – continuity for the regular reader, for one thing – I’m not sure how successful it was. It’s not bad, just very stiff looking. That, however, is just this man’s opinion.
To give Chaykin a chance to cut his teeth on Conan (your bizarre image for the day), Thomas had adapted a modern-day Robert E. Howard tale over three issues. It was one of the Texan writer’s El Borak outings, as well as being a ‘lost race romance’ called The Lost Valley of Iskander.
Now, with issues #82 and #83 he picked another modern day tale, this being one of Howard’s Southern Gothic, piney woods stories, and a rather contentious one at that: Black Canaan.
I’ll be talking about this story when I reach the appropriate volume in my reviews of Wildside Press’s Collected Weird Tales of Robert E. Howard. For the moment I will stay mainly with Roy Thomas’s adaptation of it into a Conan comic book story.
It is necessary, however, to point out that there is quite an amount of sexual confusion – or at least heavy undercurrents — in the original tale. I’m one of those Howard enthusiasts who believe that he felt a strong attraction towards African-American women, which sometimes surfaced in his work and would have been quite problematic in ‘20s and ‘30s Texas. Certainly, I think it comes through in Black Canaan.
I also feel that it is a story which, when one looks beneath the surface, is sympathetic (or at least understanding) to the plight of blacks in his time. And I say that in full knowledge of how difficult it is to read today. Although not a particularly big deal when Weird Tales first printed it in 1936, the seemingly never ending repetition of the word ‘nigger’ is almost hypnotic, so often is it used. I’m surprised that some rapper hasn’t turned the whole story into one of their unbearable songs.
Maybe Kanye Kardashian will get around to it, sometime.
Steaming Swamps, Stygian Swords and Sultry Sabia
As The Sorceress of the Swamp (#82) opens, it appears that Conan has stayed on a bit longer in the city of Attalus than he had intended. This no doubt had more than a little to do with the fact that the lovely Bardylis had made it crystal clear that she was well up for a bit of slap-and-tickle with the Cimmerian. Just to stop him from feeling too lonely for his absent lady-love Bêlit, you understand.
This will tell you that Bardylis had never actually met the Queen of the Black Coast. As anyone who has been hanging around these pages for any length of time could tell you, if that lunatic had found out that Conan was slipping Bardylis one, looking out for her pet Stygian rabbit to turn up in a pot of boiling water would have been the least of her worries.
Anyway, travelling northwards back to the hawk-city of Harakht, the Cimmerian decides to go through heavy swamp country rather than risk encountering any supporters Hun-Ya-Di, the latest in a long line of wizards that he’s just done away with. And damned if it’s not only two pages before his libido is proving once again to be more likely to get him killed than the swords of a dozen assassins.
In the swamps he encounters a very nubile black woman, Sabia, to whom he feels an irresistible attraction; and in fairness, it seems this time to be as much to do with magical suggestion as good old fashioned lust – although there is quite a bit of that here, too. Whatever the reason, it almost costs him his life as she leads him into an ambush from which he escapes and continues northwards.
There seems to have been some confusion either with Chaykin or Chan as to how Sabia should be depicted. The first close up of her (on panel 2 of page 3) puts me in mind of one of my favourite movies as a kid: the 1942 Beyond the Blue Horizon, with the delectable Dorothy Lamour. Here, Sabia is of the flower-in-the-hair and leopard skin loin-cloth persuasion, yet essentially comes across like a Caucasian Hollywood star of yore who is only pretending to be a dusky jungle princess.
When she reappears on page 17 she is more recognizably a Chaykin temptress and a very beautiful, dangerous black woman. Then in the next issue — The Dance of the Skull (#83) — she changes once more and this time into an almost cartoonish caricature. It’s all a bit irritating.
Conan’s journey is again interrupted when he runs into Neth-At, the leader of a colony of Stygians who moved into the territory of Viper’s Head some years before. They had maintained an uneasy peace with the Kushite natives until the latter were stirred up by a sinister witch-man known as Toroa.
This worthy is actually an outcast from Kheshatta, the City of Magicians. And there’s something that should tell you what a totally mental place Stygia would be to book your holidays in: a country that’s got so many bloody magicians that they fill an entire city! Imagine trying to keep up with the Jones’s in that neighbourhood.
Along with his sorceress assistant, Toroa is determined to take over the entire region, eradicating the Stygians along the way.
Needless to say, Conan puts a halt to their gallop and Toroa and Sabia both end up dead.
Overall, Thomas does a surprisingly faithful adaptation, following the original more closely than I had expected. There is a nice additional touch when we see just how much the name of Amra has come to be feared with an almost superstitious dread along the entire Black Coast.
However, particularly in The Dance of the Skulls, the panels are just too static and overwhelmed by Thomas’s captions. This issue is another example of one where I wish that the cover art was also being reprinted. Even though John Buscema was having a Sabbatical from the title he was turning in some fine covers, of which this was a particularly good example: Conan is underwater, being confronted by the half-man, half-crocodile creations of the soon-to-be late Mr. Toroa. Come to think of it, it’s actually better than the contents. Ah, well; you can’t win them all.
The Lost Art of Gratitude
In Two Against the Hawk-City (#84) Conan returns to Harakht and John Buscema returns to Conan. For the former, it is to discover that the newly crowned priest-king Mer-Ath has turned out to be a right snake-in-the-grass (and what a country to be one of those in). He has attempted to have Bêlit arrested and imprisoned ‘for all time’, which does not sound good, no matter how cheerful a slant you try to put on it.
It has something to do with the Gods’ telling him in a bad dream that Bêlit will be the cause of harm coming to King Ctesphon II. The fact that she and Conan are responsible for Mer-Ath sitting on his throne to begin with, and the lovely Neftha sitting on his lap as a consequence, is completely forgotten by this ingrate.
As it happens, Bêlit was less than enthusiastic about being captured – something to do with the ‘for all time’ bit, I’d imagine – and breaking free of Mer-Ath’s guards, she fled the city, taking his new lady-love with her as a hostage. And so the Cimmerian finds himself taken as hostage and bait in order to bring the she-pirate back to Harakht with Neftha.
Luckily for him, he gets as dungeon-mate a prisoner called Zula, who is a very handy, musclebound black man with a Mohawk haircut; and it’s not long before the two new friends are off riding to freedom on giant falcons and in search of Bêlit, whom Conan believes to be in Luxur.
The Last of the Zamballah
Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers (#85) is one of those old-fashioned ‘origin of…’ stories that as kids we used to look forward to so much. Why exactly we did this, I now have difficulty recalling in my dotage.
We learn that Zula is the son of a chieftain whose entire tribe – the Zamballah — was massacred by treacherous Kushites on the eve of his Rites of Manhood. He was enslaved, the Kushites not realizing he was of royal blood, and taken to Kheshatta. Yes, it’s that City of Magicians again.
A large panel on page 8 shows us the gates of this grim place and it is a rather nice illustration.
He is given to a wizard by the name of Shu-Onoru, who seems to think that he has an unintelligent pet monkey on his hands. Accordingly he treats Zula with a casual racist contempt that is galling for the reader to witness.
Zula, however, is taking the long view in planning his revenge; and so spends the passing years acting dumb whilst soaking up enough knowledge to become quite the sorcerer himself.
I wasn’t all that crazy about the magician’s den of Shu-Onoru. It looks a bit Harry Potter-ish, to tell you the truth. (Although of course the young wizard wasn’t even a twinkle in JK Rowling’s eye back in 1977. In fact, Rowling herself was barely a twinkle either, so it’s probably more Fantasia.) And one of the demons that are called up is about the most ridiculous looking thing since the Fiend from the Forgotten City – also of a puke-inducing red hue – back in issue #40. This yoke even feels the need to cover his demonic nether parts with a modest loin-cloth. Dear oh dear.
I can’t say that I was all that happy with Zula or his origin. I get that Roy Thomas wanted to introduce a completely new character, but I found the whole thing a bit soap-opera in feel; and that was a reaction I found myself experiencing a lot with these issues.
I also had a problem with the actual sorcery that Zula is accomplished at. The physical look of him is based on Lothar, the manservant of Mandrake the Magician in the old comic strips. And the sorcery is based on Mandrake’s ‘hypnotic gestures’.
Even when I was seven years old I used to cringe when I read: ‘Mandrake gestured hypnotically’.
And if that’s not bad enough I’m not really clear on how Zula has kept his swordsmanship so sharp during his years of captivity. He even, with incredible implausibility, fights Conan himself to a standstill.
Moving on and plot points aside, in terms of beautiful artwork The Devourer of the Dead (#86) is a real high point.
There is a breathtaking two-page spread of the Stygian capital of Luxur that I like a lot. Perhaps the city itself doesn’t look quite big enough to be a capital; but the detail on the River Styx, its tributary, the boats sailing on it and the dust cloud raised by a group of Stygians riding towards the city is quite lovely; as are the finished and half-finished pyramids outside the Serpent Gates.
As Conan and Zula attempt to find a way to enter the palace, I can also say that the Cimmerian looks pretty good in disguise as a mercenary for Stygia whilst wearing some very nice headgear. Obviously the rather fetching tavern-keeper, Ayeeda, thinks so too, since about five minutes after he chats her up she’s offering to play the Stygian equivalent of ‘hide-the-salami’ with him.
And this leads to one of the more minor mysteries of what becomes of many of the women in Conan’s saga, especially in the original stories: Ayeeda gives him her name and a cute-as-hell wink as she invites him into a back room, telling him that after this night he may want to remember it. Then he’s out the door and we never hear tell of her again.
For all I know she’s still waiting there for him to show up.
Country & Western, Hyborian Style
The obligatory monster is another Lovecraftian one; and it really deserved its own splash page. Instead, the whole scene with it is rushed through in order for us to have Bêlit rescued and then the bombshell dropped that Neftha, the former slave girl, is in fact the older sister of King Ctesphon II – and the rightful heir to the throne.
As I say, it was all getting to feel like a daytime soap opera by this stage.
Due to the usual deadline hassles, issue #87 was a colourized reprint of The People of the Summit, one of the stories from way back in The Savage Sword of Conan (#3); and then we took up where we had left our three intrepid heroes, with The Queen and the Corsairs (#88), rushing straight through at headlong pace to The Sword and the Serpent (#89).
Not unexpectedly from the hints that had been dropped, King Ctesphon is a miserable, cringing weakling and little more than a puppet of the usual High Priest, in this case one Hath-Horeb. It is ordered that Neftha be beheaded but Conan, Bêlit and Zula arrive just in the nick of time. What they see as they burst onto the scene is a stunning panel on page 11.
She is crowned ‘King Ctesphon III’, the Stygians having only male rulers…whether they are male or not. Well, it’s hardly more confusing than our own times, I guess.
Sadly, no more than Mer-Ath before her, Neftha isn’t exactly overflowing with feelings of gratitude to her two erstwhile companions; and soon they are on the run again.
Neftha, settling in to her role as ruler, does have a sentiment that I rather liked:
“Yesterday is gone forever; and tomorrow is an undrawn sword.”
Set that to music and you would have a Hyborian Country-and-Western song; and words to live by.
The big event for issue #89 is the arrival at last and in the flesh of the wizard Thoth-Amon. Visually, Buscema and Thomas have kept upon his head the ram’s horns that he wore when Conan –as a young thief in Nemedia — first saw him in a vision, as long ago as The Lurker Within (#7). It’s a good, dramatic choice. Think of the gorgeous Barbara Steele in that old sixties movie, The Curse of the Crimson Altar.
Except, of course, that Thoth-Amon doesn’t have sexy blue skin. And probably not even his mother ever called him gorgeous.
Apart from that, the menaces this time around have a very second-hand feel: one is a replica of the snake-headed God in the Bowl from that long ago incident in Nemedia; the others are the serpent-men from King Kull’s epoch.
Not for the first time I wondered about the function of the Comic Code by this stage of the game. Did it have any relevance at all now? Because Bêlit kills both Hath-Horeb and Ctesphon II – and in the case of the king it most certainly was cold-blooded murder. Not that I have a problem with either. I’m just saying, like.
Oh yeah; and I guess that means that there was something to Mer-Ath’s dream, as it turned out.
If you’re thinking that I went through an awful lot of issues at a breathless pace…well, that’s the way these read. So at least with the three hijacking a boat to take them back downriver westwards to Khemi we could look forward to a few days’ break.
The Diadem of the Giant-Kings (#90) opens with one of Buscema’s growing collection of utterly mouth-watering title pages: Conan and Bêlit stand at the prow of a Stygian boat as it sails along the River Styx in the direction of Khemi, just the slightest look of satisfaction on the face of the she-pirate, probably at both being back with her lover and with a deck under her feet again.
Behind them, Zula gives orders to the Stygians from who they have stolen the vessel; whilst the sea looks good enough to swim in. Smashing.
This issue is a good, solid one and a break from the eternal intrigues of Hyborian Age courts.
The small group abandons the boat and begin to trek south to where they hope to meet up with Bêlit’s corsair crew, stopping only long enough to slay an ancient giant-king. As you do.
In a short cutaway scene it is interesting to note that this is Thoth-Amon at a mid-section in his career, where it suits him to be throwing in his lot with the current king –or Neftha, as of course we know her better. We also learn that, interestingly enough, she is planning to totally annihilate the hawk-city of Harakht.
So I guess that Mer-Ath is about to learn that she was only faking it with him, after all. Bummer.
Next: Volume 12 — The Beast King of Abombi.