The Chronicles of Conan : Volume 12 – The Beast King of Abombi : Part 2

Death of a Queen:

The Chronicles of Conan

Volume 12

The Beast King of Abombi

And Other Stories

Part 2



These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore.



The wild sea is beating
Against the grey sands;
The woman, the sea-woman,
Stretches her hands.

Her eyes they are mystic
And cold as the sea,
With slender white fingers
She beckons to me –


There are woods in the sea
Though the leaves are all grey,
The ocean’s pale roses
Lift dim in the spray.


I follow – I follow –
The grey sea-gull flies –
Ah, woman, sea-woman,
There’s death in your eyes.

In talking of the genesis of Sea-Woman (Conan the Barbarian; issue #98) writer Roy Thomas gives us an insight into his somewhat terrifying manner of dealing with deadlines:

“[I recall] that a young woman named Danette Couto and I were standing in line waiting to see a movie somewhere in L.A. when I mentioned I had to get a new plot out to [artist] Buscema the next day.  However it happened, Dannete (who later changed her name legally to Dann,  and her last to Thomas –by marrying me) came up with the notion of the Tigress encountering a sea-tossed female who was more and less than human, and who lured a few corsairs to watery graves before she was dispatched…”

That may seem a pretty casual approach; but the fact is that it worked, since this is a rather haunting little tale, and one which nicely utilizes Robert E. Howard’s lines from the poem of the same name.

Out in the Western Sea the crew of the Tigress comes upon a beautiful, mute girl.  She is almost ethereal and her skin is of a light blue tint.  Strangest of all, however, is that she is standing upon a huge lily pad that by rights she should be unable to stay upright on, given the swelling of the sea.  When a shark comes close to her she opens her mouth in what seems to be a silent command, causing the predator to veer away.

Despite the unnatural quality of these events (to put it mildly!) Bêlit and Conan take her on board; and in the days that follow the crew of corsairs seem besotted by her.  Incredibly, against her naturally suspicious nature, Bêlit herself makes no attempt to understand where she has come from or to drop her at the nearest port.

Of course, she turns out to be a supernatural creature of the sea, which you wouldn’t exactly have had to be a genius to figure out – yet the mood of the piece is so subtle and the events so well played out that it becomes a lovely little standalone vignette.

My two main gripes are that the sea-woman is first sighted by the lookout Ajaga, who I had been under the impression left to travel north with Zula.  Maybe he changed his mind or perhaps Ajaga was a common name amongst the black corsairs; or maybe the writer’s head was too busy with the auld coortin’ in the kitchen ritual; so I’ll let that one go.

Much more damaging for me — and something that made me bleed copiously from various orifices — was that the appearance of the woman causes Conan to reference the events of The Demon Out of the Deeps in the infamous issue #69, which I am still trying to convince myself never actually happened.

I never ever want to hear of or think about that story again.


Conan and Bêlit Fight the Crabs

If Bêlit was alive today would she be diagnosed as bipolar?

Of course, like modern day ‘stars’ going into rehab if they get caught having a half-pint of shandy, calling yourself ‘bipolar’ seems to be one of those trendy conditions that Z-list celebrities throw out when they’re in need of some attention.  (Ms.  O’Connor excepted.)

I know, I know: I appreciate that there is such a condition but I wish they would change the record on it.  Anyway – let’s just forget the psychobabble and say that she is one hell of a moody bitch.  Yes, she was showing some improvement when they were on solid ground recently, but now she’s back once again in the Land of Permanent PMT.

As Devil-Crabs of the Black Cliffs (#99) opens – one of those unfortunate titles that makes my  juvenile sense of humour think that the pair should get themselves to a jungle doctor, pronto – the she-pirate’s corsairs are rightly pissed off with her.

Against all reasoning she insists on sailing farther and farther southwards. In fact they are more southerly than they have ever been, beyond even the Silver Isles of Bêlit’s upbringing.  This is despite the fact that recent battles have left the Tigress desperately short of men; and what men there are haven’t seen a woman in way too long.  Unless you count the Sea-Woman and the less said about that scary bint, the better.

Spying an Argossean ship at rest in an inlet, they venture aboard in search of loot, only to find that the men have been captured by what can only be described as ferociously intelligent (though also ferociously cruel) crab-men.

This would have been a solid issue.  The artwork is as good as it always was during this period.  Also, there was a nice little piece of information on Hyborian shipping and trade routes that I enjoyed:  the captain of the Argossean – Florannus – has been at sea with his men for three years now, trying to find a way around the Black Coast and on to Khitai and Vendhya which would eliminate the need for the often dangerous overland routes.

Call me weird and anal retentive (and God knows most people do) but I find that kind of thing almost insanely interesting.

What brings the story down is something that Thomas himself is conscious of and mentions in his notes:

“I was aware that Howard had written a modern-day story called ‘The People of the Black Coast’, in which stranded seafarers encounter giant, intelligent, humanoid crabs. ‘The Black Coast’ of that tale had no connection with the one in the Hyborian Age, but the name just begged for me to shoehorn it into the Conan saga.

“Perhaps I should have resisted that siren call, just as Conan had eventually resisted the call of the Sea-Woman.  It was a reasonably good story, but it’s easier to write about ‘giant, intelligent, humanoid crabs’ than it is to show them without their looking a bit farcical.  John Buscema could draw damn near anything and make it look good, but somehow the Devil-Crabs (devilled crabs?) eluded him…or else maybe he thought the whole notion so ridiculous he didn’t really try that hard.  I do know that, in retrospect, when I look at the first panel in which they appear, I’m reminded less of the Lovecraftian horror REH clearly meant to impart, than of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who’d come along a few years down the line.”

And that, folks, was the problem in a crab shell; but I did enjoy that mini-treatise on Hyborian trade routes.

“…clots of frozen blood.”

Thomas quite rightly felt that for the one hundredth issue of what had evolved from being a struggling comic-book (even cancelled at one point) into a multiple award-winning, fan- and critically-acclaimed title, he should be given double the space in which to tell his climactic Queen of the Black Coast story.  Thankfully, Stan Lee agreed with him – and so in a farewell to a major part of the Conan canon we got the beautifully rendered, thirty-three page tale that he entitled Death on the Black Coast.  Yes,  after nine years it was issue #100.

As far back as in the first couple of months of Conan’s voyages with the Shemite she-pirate (Riders of the River Dragons; issue #60) Bêlit had told him, whilst passing a grim-looking river-mouth:

“Yonder is the River Zarkheba, which is Death!  Its waters are poisonous; and not even crocodiles, but only venomous reptiles, can live in it.

“The black people shun it; and cry out to each other when they even see its gaping, lifeless mouth.”

Bêlit explains that she will tell him more of it, when the time is right.   And it seems that,  three years later, that time is now.  Although why she decides to infiltrate this gloomy region when she is still short of men is one of the mysteries of this woman’s driven life.

Dank and vine-riddled, this steaming morass is beautifully depicted in gorgeous, atmospheric colours.  The first panel of the second page alone is almost worth the price of this volume, as we look down from a high bird’s-eye view:

The Tigress – on which we as well as Conan have ‘spent’ much of the past three years – has turned into the mouth of the River Zarkheba, as it begins its penultimate journey.

Since even before she met the giant Cimmerian, Bêlit has believed that somewhere along this sluggish haunted river, there is an ancient city that is waiting to be sacked.  As always, Conan is happy to follow where she would lead.  And as they travel Thomas gives us, at least partially, some of one of the most celebrated dialogues from Howard’s original stories:


What of your Gods?  I’ve never heard you call on them for aid; only swear by them.


Their chief is Crom.  He dwells on a great mountain.  What use to call on him?  Little he cares if men live or die.  Better to be silent than to call his attention to you.  He will send you dooms, not fortune.  He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul.  What else shall men ask of the Gods?


And what of life after death, my lover?


I know not, nor do I care.  I know only this:  let me live deep while I live, while philosophers brood. 

I live; I burn with life… I love; I slay; and am content.


Yet, the Gods are real; and there is life after death, I l know.  I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria.  My love is stronger than any death.  My heart and soul are welded to yours.  Were I still in death, and you fighting for your life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you.

The manner in which Buscema depicts the corsair-queen here is rather poignant – and even suggests the woman she might have grown to be had her path through life been less harsh.

The broken towers and decayed, crumbling walls of the empty city are as beautifully envisioned as we have come to expect from Buscema.  And we can almost feel the danger in the air when the crew realise that they are not alone – that there is in fact a sinister, winged creature watching their arrival.

Here is for me one of the more unpleasant scenes from the original Robert E.  Howard stories and one of the reasons that I never took to Bêlit.  She shows a ruthlessness in uncovering the enormous treasure-trove that she has rightfully guessed would be there; and the action she takes makes her willfully responsible for the death of four of her faithful corsairs.

Thomas rightfully softens the scene just a little by suggesting that she is in the grip of some madness caused by her proximity to the city, a suggestion not in Howard’s original.  Yet it still shows that nasty, greedy side to her nature which puts gold and jewels before all other considerations.  In particular, she is taken by a stunning necklace of crimson stones that Conan notes look like ‘clots of frozen blood’.


The Passing of a Queen

Whilst Bêlit gathers together the golden horde, her mate sets off with a group of corsairs in search of water, the winged creature having staved in the casks on the Tigress, which they had inexplicably left unguarded. Whilst in the jungle Conan experiences a black lotus-induced vision that shows him just how vastly old is the city and the race that came from it.  The winged creature is the last decadent and devolved one of its kind.

Along with its giant hyena familiars it slaughters the entire crew of corsairs and when the lone survivor that is Conan runs in panic back to the ship it is to find what he fears – that the Queen of the Black Coast has been slain and hung from her own yardarm by the crimson necklace that she had admired so much.

Conan dons once more chain mail and horned helm.  And for a moment I thought that he had retrieved the one I was admiring earlier.  This one is different, though, obviously looted from some ship.  Although for a piece of armour like this I would imagine that unfortunate craft must have been carrying some Northern mercenary.

He engages in berserk combat with the familiars, killing them all before almost dying himself beneath the fangs of the winged one – only to be saved by the returned Bêlit, shining in death and fulfilling the pledge that she had made earlier.

“Then, those taloned hands knot spasmodically; stiffen; and the oldest race in the world is extinct.”

Having briefly returned to her lover’s side, Bêlit is now truly gone. Conan places her body on the deck of the ship that she had loved, ‘on a pyre of broken benches, spear shafts, and leopard skins…wrapped in his own scarlet cloak’.  Then he takes the Tigress on its final journey, before setting it ablaze.

And the second-last page is a wonderful full panel of the Cimmerian standing on the shoreline, watching the burning ship head out into the Western Sea.

It would have been a fine image to close on; but Thomas and Buscema allow themselves yet one more page.  Here Conan reflects on his changed attitude to the sea now that his lover is gone; and he thinks of the journey inland and north once more that he must make.  And then – and finally – there is one last image, a close up of his face.  It is as stoic as we expect; but is that just the hint of a tear?

That is for the reader to decide.    


Death on the Black Coast is a superb issue — a fitting presentation for the landmark ‘One Hundred’ and it is obvious that all involved put their hearts and souls into it.  Essentially the second part of REH’s ninth published Conan yarn, the first half was told in issue #58, Queen of the Black Coast.

That was also the title of the howard original and as mentioned before, I never much cared for it.  It’s too rushed, too much compressed into around thirty-three pages (it’s just occurred to me that is also the length of this issue) and has been given a significance in the Conan Mythos that is to my mind out of all proportion to its quality.

This appears to be because it is generally regarded as the Cimmerian’s introduction to the sea as well as to the great love of his life.  Well, I think I may just be arguing that when I start reviewing the original Conan stories for part of the series on Howard’s weird works in this blog – probably later this month.  Bet you can’t wait.

I do believe that without a doubt Howard intended to flesh out his story had he not succumbed to that black moment of despair.  It’s a moot point, now.

It’s rare that I ever agree – ever – with messing with Howard’s source texts; but in this case I think that any changes Thomas made were fine ones.  He is to be commended for an outstanding run.

I only wish that after sharing almost forty issues in her company, I had felt more loss for Bêlit; but that, I’m afraid, was reserved instead for the shaman N’Yaga and the sub-chief M’Gora.


Many will disagree.  And again – that is for the reader to decide.


Next:  Volume 13 – Whispering Shadows.




Author: Charley Brady

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  1. I’m doing a lets read of every dark horse issue of Conan the Barbarian Dark Horse edition

  2. As chance would have it, Ryan, I’m just sitting here in the Crom Cave at the moment with a copy of issue #1 from May 2004 by Kurt Busier on the desk. I’m assuming that this is the one you mean?

    I have to say it looks very good indeed. Obviously, since they weren’t working under the Comics Code by this stage it seems to be a hell of a lot more graphic. There’s also what looks to be the first part of an essay on Howard on the last two pages. All in all, a nice package. I can see why you’ve been enthusing about this series. However, it will probably make more sense — when I get around to it – to invest in the collected volumes.

    In the meantime though I should have Volume 13 (Parts 1 & 2) of the Marvel run up in the next week as well as the second part of the collected Howard Volume 4 which introduces Conan in December of 1932, Weird Tales.

    With two timelines running in my head now, I think that’s enough for the moment. I’ll also be winding up with the Roy Thomas run in vol. 14 as it seems like a logical place to end. I did read some of the later ones years back and didn’t care for them. Nor, to my knowledge, did Thomas as I THINK he ignored them when he returned to the title at a later date.

    Having said that, this Dark Horse Comics run looks very tempting! First though, I’ve been expanding on these overviews and hope to bring them out as an e-book in a few months.

    Thanks for your continued reading!

  3. Busiek is a complicated issue; his storytellings great but doesn’t necessarily fit in with Howard. The first arc in Hyperborea is fucking heartbreaking in many ways, and the Hanumar road has the proper mix of action and dark magic; however they differ from Howards vision in many ways. the King Conan series by Truman is great (check it out if you have time). Fuck Truman actually managed to make AKIVASHA sympathetic while still making her a monster (there’s an episode of justice league where in the process of conquering the world vandal savage wipes out all life. After reflecting he realizes how pointless absolute power is. The issue of Conan, sorrow of Akivasha, has her be a bloodthirsty monster but still have come to the bitter realization that without companionship immortality and eternal beauty ain’t worth shit.)

    Although the QOTBC is in name only Conan the Avenger (the new series) is sublime. Great story even if the art is eh and it has an interracial relationship that flows with the story rather than being I’M TOTES PRUGRESSIV GUIS

    Thomas did actually include elements of Owsley’s run (The Devourer of Souls returns); Owsley is from what I’ve heard more like Morcock but he also stands tall above Bruce Jones and Michael Fleisher.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting info, Ryan. As you’ll have gathered I’m coming back to comic books after a long period away from them — hence some rather enormous gaps in what I know.

    Michael Fleischer: now there’s a name from the past! I think I’m right in remembering him doing some great (as well as sadistic) issues of ‘The Spectre’ at some stage. And I seem to recall him getting into a humungous, not to mention hilarious, libel case with Harlan Ellison and ‘The Comics Journal’. Ancient history now, I guess.

    I’m inferring from what you say that you haven’t read Michael Moorcock? Definitely worth reading. He is so prolific and his work so varied that no one could like all of it; but if you’re looking for somewhere to start then his four-volume ‘History of the Runestaff’ is simply wonderful stuff.

    And as always, many thanks for writing!

  5. Kurt Busiek’s Conan is good storytelling but not necessarily good conan. His character of Janissa the Widowmaker had potential but was badly mangled. The most contentious thing is book of thoth, a very much love it or hate it story. I personally enjoyed it despite its flaws and found it heartbreaking, dark and haunting. Others consider it a bad revenge of the sith ripoff. The idea is that stygia had a brief period in history when ibis ruled rather than set….and thoth ran stygia into the crapper to bring set back. Thoth is portrayed as a dark mirror of conan (both come from humble origins both are driven, but whereas conan never abandoned his humanity thoth did.)

  6. Thoth as a dark mirror of Conan…clever. And fascinating.

    You may be interested in an untitled fragment from Howard. Since I’ve never seen it outside of the long-out-of-print ‘Howard Collector’ I’ll quote some of it. It’s only two pages and was the abortive beginning to a modern-day story where two archaeologists are discussing the pyramids.

    One of them shows incredulity at the other’s contention that they may go back to well before the Egyptians.

    “[Have you ever heard of] a book called ‘Nameless Cults,’ by a crazy German called Von Junzt — at least they said he was crazy. Among other things he wrote of an age which he swore he had discovered — a sort of historical blind spot. He called it the Hyborian Age. We have guessed what came before, and we know what came after, but that age itself has been a blank space — no legends, no chronicles, just a few scattered names that came to be applied in other senses.

    “It’s our lack of knowledge about this age that upsets our calculations and makes us put down Atlantis as a myth. This is what Von Junzt says; That when Atlantis, Lemuria and other nations of that age were destroyed by a violent cataclysm — except for scattered remnants here and there — the continent now known as Africa, was untouched, though connected with the other continent. A tribe of savages fled to the arctic circle to escape the volcanoes, and eventually evolved into a race known as Hyborians. These reached a high stage of civilization and dominated the western part of the world, all except this particular part. A pre-Cataclysmic race lived here, known as Stygians. It was from them that the Grecian legend of Stygia arose; the Nile was the Styx of the fables. The Hyborians were never able to invade Stygia, and at last they themselves were destroyed by waves of barbarians from the north — our own ancestors. In Stygia the ruling classes were pure-blooded, but the lower classes were mixed — Stygians, Semitic and Hyborian blood.

    “In the southward drift of the barbarians, a tribe of red-haired Nordics fought their way south and overthrew the ancient Stygian regime. They destroyed or threw out the pure-blooded Stygians, and set themselves up as a ruling caste, eventually being absorbed by their subjects; from these adventurers and the mixed mongrel lower classes came the Egyptians. It was the Stygians who built the pyramids and the Sphinx…”

    A sort of historical blind spot…I’ve been reading Howard now for the guts of forty-five years and can never get over the imagination that man had.

    In a pathos-filled letter written by his father to the writer E. Hoffman Price in 1944 -eight years after his son’s suicide — Dr. Howard said:

    “His imagination wove fantastic pictures of that drab section of the postoaks where he lived,yet he was very realistic. Nothing of the least moment in everyday life escaped him. The neighbourhood news and happenings of the narrow sphere in which he lived was of interest to him,just like it was to the slow plodding folks around Cross Plains. Robert read the newspapers. He was keenly interested in the pageant of both nation and state in which he lived. At election time I’ve known him to sit by his radio far into the night listening to election returns. He was a great lover of the ring and football. Have known him to start hitchhiking to Ft. Worth or Brownwood to see a fight before he owned a car…”

    I’ve probably gone off on a tangent somewhat; but I’ll never stop wondering what he might have gone on to do had he lived.

  7. There’s a scene at the end of book of Thoth when he’s told that his sister (whom he used to be close to) died in a plague he himself released (he remembers setting it)….and his response is “and you’re wasting my time with this….why?” He doesn’t even care.

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