The Chronicles of Conan
The Beast King of Abombi
And Other Stories
It’s always a little surprising to me that so many fans of writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema’s 70s Marvel Comics run of Conan the Barbarian would seem to have preferred it if these stories had been reprinted on that original, more fragile paper that was used back then.
Of course, it’s only a question of taste, which I respect — and I have a big weakness for nostalgia myself — but I don’t really understand why anyone wouldn’t rather enjoy the superb job that Dark Horse Books have done with these digitally re-mastered collections. They’re just so damned beautiful.
Take the opening of Savage Doings in Shem (#91): that splash page is delightfully crisp and clean, with our three heroes – Conan of Cimmeria; Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; and Zula, last of the Zamballahs – relaxing with various degrees of patience on a beach south of the Stygian port of Khemi whilst waiting for an overdue reunion with the she-pirate’s black corsairs.
I am crazy about this issue. Instead of the somewhat frenetic action of the last year, we get some nice little details on the quieter moments in their lives.
Politics – Hyborian Style
The shaman N’Yaga is hale and hearty once more and we see the corsairs enjoying the first chance they’ve had in a while to let their guard down in revelry. It is also obvious that Conan and Bêlit are – three years into their relationship – as deeply in love as they will ever be. And incidentally, this probably puts the Cimmerian at around the 25/26 years-of-age mark.
And with sub-chief M’Gora returning from a daring scouting mission to Asgalun we get a mind-numbing look at Hyborian political shenanigans:
“Though he’s a Shemite [King Nim-Karrak], his guards were all Stygians… A few days later, a troop of riders – Hyrkanians, we learned – arrived from the East; called, it seems, by Nim-Karrak in secret. From that hour, only Hyrkanians appeared with the king or guarded his palace. I wondered why.
“From a drunken Stygian, I learned of rumours that Stygia may be about to claim the city outright; even though that would doubtless cause civil war among the Shemite population. That is most likely why Imbalayo [commander of a group of Kushite cavalry] and his men were added to the Stygian garrison.
“Meanwhile, the only man in the city besides Nim-Karrak who claims noble blood is Uriaz: a fat, bearded oaf who seems content to loll in his pleasure garden… I learned also of Akhîrom, who was reared in the court of Anakia, another Shemite city. Asgalun prefers him to Stygia – or even Uriaz – but he’s thought to be quite mad. Still, it’s said he’s taken lately an interest in the troops of King Sumuabi of Anakia, and even now leads an army somewhere in Shem…”
Now, that is quite a welter of information to get across in a comic-book whilst still keeping the attention of the reader. So I was feeling a lot of admiration for the work that Thomas was putting in at this point.
However, I was a bit put out to read this in his endnotes:
“I felt constrained, on the letters page, to explain why the issue was heavier on plot and lighter on sorcerous action than usual. Up till now, Marvel had not contracted the rights to adapt or utilize the portion of the Conan canon written by Robert E. Howard’s ‘posthumous collaborator’ L. Sprague de Camp…including non-Conan stories by REH which de Camp had rewritten and edited into tales of the Cimmerian. Now we had that right – but it meant that suddenly the Asgalun of the Howard/de Camp story ‘Hawks over Shem’ was considerably different in cast and history from what we had postulated in CtB. Hence the lengthy flashback, intended to bring the two versions of Shem’s capital in line. I apologised for the fact that ‘Savage Doings in Shem!’ was perhaps ‘a bit top-heavy on cloak-and-dagger intrigue and political bedfellows in Asgalun’…and pledged to get back to straight-ahead action ASAP.”
That irritates me just a little bit. To my mind there was no need for an apology. I wanted a break from the incessant wizardry and clashing of swords; and in any case I’m always up for a bit of political Hyborian Age intrigue. I find it fascinating.
And at least there’s the incentive that you’re more likely to see a couple of deserving creeps bleeding on the ground somewhere along the line than you are in the average Irish Banking Inquiry. [That part was written a week before three white collar crooks went to jail in Ireland, in what I can only imagine was a terrible mistake.]
Nor do I quite understand this slavish attention to what L. Sprague de Camp did in the Lancer Conan paperback editions. However, that’s something that I want to come back to in Volume 13.
Told out of chronological order, The Thing in the Crypt of issue #92 was a tale of the young Conan. It will also be discussed in Volume 13, where it is reprinted.
Instead, we’ll move onto Of Rage and Revenge (#93) which concluded the long saga of Bêlit’s lust for vengeance for the murder of her father; and where finally we saw her retaking the throne of Asgalun.
Some things – not all — are tied up here to pretty much everyone’s satisfaction, even if revenge is seen to be an empty act.
Or so we’re told, anyway. Myself, I’ve a feeling that concept (which Conan rightly disagrees with in a later conversation) was just put in to make our old pals at the Comics Code Authority feel easier about such wholesale slaughter.
Zula kills Ptor-Nubis, who turned out to be the minor sorcerer who sold him into slavery all those years ago; and Bêlit witnesses the death of King Nim-Karrak, although she is cheated of cutting him down herself.
As it turns out, if she accepts the crown and the role of Queen of Asgalun there is a stipulation that it has to be for life. Abdication means death; and as she prefers to be the Queen of the Black Coast in any case, she hands it over instead to the weakling, Uriaz.
And I must confess to feeling a little sympathy for poor old Uriaz. In truth, he never bothered anyone and really only wanted to be left in peace with his harem and his pleasure gardens; and with Akhîrom marching back to the city, you get the feeling that the head that’s wearing that crown is resting awful loosely on its shoulders.
So here ends the long story-cycle that could be seen to have begun as far back as issue #57, with Incident in Argos.
Will we hear more of Neftha, now King Ctesphon III?
Or learn what was meant by that cryptic caption in the last panel of When Giants Walk the Earth (#77)?
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
The Return of ‘Tarzan’
I adore The Beast King of Abombi (#94). There’s no other way to put it. My knees go weak and I just turn into the Nerd Supreme when I look at any given panel of this beautiful piece of work. Artist Buscema and embellisher Chan just seem to refuse to become stale, despite in particular Buscema’s heavy work load.
As for writer Roy Thomas, he appears to have become re-energized by concluding the Bêlit/Asgalun saga and moving happily on to another story cycle. This one is a four-parter and he admits that it is one of his favourites.
This introductory issue also has one of those things that I love and which makes the entire life of Conan the Barbarian ‘real’ to me: we get to see the day to day activity of the men on board the ship.
Conan continues to instruct them in the considerable fighting skills that he has worked on and refined over the years, including such ideas as leverage and teamwork when facing a stronger foe; and we’ll find out later that he has also spent hours in training their weaker sea-legs in the ways of Cimmerian rock-climbing.
And – incredibly – I warmed to Bêlit for the first time. So it only took me three years. What a charmer she is.
Quite obviously I’ve always been able to admire her undoubted courage. Nor could anyone be anything other than hugely impressed by any woman who could carve out such a powerful role for herself in a world and time that was definitely more geared towards the alpha male.
For all that, I have just constantly found her a very unappealing, cold fish. Well, I guess when you’re playing the daughter of a Death Goddess you just can’t afford to let your hair down too much.
Yet when Zula tells her that several of her corsairs have decided to leave the Tigress and follow him northwards, her reaction is admirable. Indeed, in one lovely panel on page 2 she places her hands on their shoulders, telling them that it is her prayer to her mother Derketa that they be granted long lives.
And not for the first time do we wonder if she has almost come to believe N’Yaga’s fiction concerning herself.
This scene is extremely interesting for another reason; because the corsairs who follow Zula will indeed live long lives – at least, for that violent Hyborian Age. Several of them will meet Conan once again, more than two decades hence, when they are no longer young men and their one-time leader Amra is trying to reclaim his stolen crown of Aquilonia.
This is typical of the marvelous way in which Roy Thomas constantly looked ahead, tying up in advance loose ends that would otherwise be left dangling.
The reunion I just mentioned will take place in Robert E. Howard’s novel and masterpiece: The Hour of the Dragon. Yet the entire crew of the Tigress was be wiped out to a man at the conclusion of his short story, Queen of the Black Coast. Therefore it was necessary for Thomas to invent a parting to take place with at least some of the warriors involved in the leavetaking.
Down the years there have been several interesting essays dealing with this seeming anomaly on Howard’s part; but Roy Thomas’s simple – yet ingenious – solution is as good as any of them.
Nor is he content to rest on his laurels there. For he is about to invoke the name of Jhebbal Sag, who — once again — the Cimmerian will encounter in years to come; this time, when he is a frontier scout along the Pictish wilderness in what I regard as the greatest of all Conan stories — Beyond the Black River.
(In fact, Thomas had adapted Howard’s epic tale only a short time before in The Savage Sword of Conan, issues #26 & 27.)
Back in the Chain Mail Again
As the corsairs sail far south of Kush, they encounter village after village that has been either destroyed or abandoned. And when they reach the ravaged village of the Watambi Tribe, whom we had met in Riders of the River Dragons (#60), we learn from the Chief Ombassa that a genuine terror has fallen over this part of the Black Coast.
A renegade warrior called Ajaga has attempted to claim the deserted coastal fortress-city of Abombi. In doing so he has become possessed of the spirit of Jhebbal Sag, who in unimaginably ancient times was worshiped ‘by all men and all beasts’. Now Ajaga himself commands the beasts of the jungle and rules it with an iron hand.
Acting as his sub-chiefs are two brothers – Krato and Beeya.
He has also taken the daughters of the chiefs of the subdued villages as his bride-hostages, including Ombassa’s own daughter, Nyami.
It is obvious that if Bêlit and Conan are to regain mastery of the Black Coast, they will have to take Abombi and slay Ajaga.
This brilliant issue ends with an unsuccessful attempt on the city which sees the corsairs routed by a vicious group of Ajaga’s giant baboons, Bêlit captured and Conan left in the deep jungle.
It’s nice to see the now-seafaring barbarian back in his chain mail vest and horned helm, which he has obviously kept in storage since Argos three years previously. However, the helm is soon lost during his struggles.
Pity. I always did like that helm.
The Return of Amra (#95) is noticeable once again for its artwork, with some wonderfully moody nighttime scenes.
An unconscious Conan is saved from hyenas by the reappearance of Sholo, the giant black lion who follows him because he took the mantle of Amra from the previous jungle lord. Soon, they take up their roles as a deadly team of two; and there is a magnificent top panel on page 9 with the giant Cimmerian and the enormous black lion striding side by side beneath a jungle moon.
This gorgeous image is used as the front cover of this volume, although sadly whoever is in charge of such things has made a complete balls-up of Conan’s colouring.
The use of the semi-intelligent baboons cannot but call to mind (for fans, anyway) the magnificent and moving fourth Greystoke novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Son of Tarzan. And here the issue’s title is probably also a nod to the second Tarzan novel; whilst obviously Sholo stands in for Tarzan’s gorgeous beast, Jad-bal-Ja, the Golden Lion.
Naturally, I loved the Lord Greystoke references (including another sly dig at Burroughs’s penchant for placing veldt-dwellers in the jungle); but there was another, albeit unintentional, pop-culture reference to come.
As the covers aren’t reproduced I googled issue #95 before reading it; and found myself wondering where I had previously seen that mini tyrannosaurus that is attacking Conan. It was only when I saw the scene in the actual story where the same creature jumps like a six-foot turkey that it hit me: the velociraptors from Jurassic Park!
And sure enough, as Thomas explains in the endnotes, he had been fascinated at the time by the recent discovery of the very same man-sized dinosaur – more than a decade in advance of its appearance in Spielberg’s classic 1993 film.
The Death of Sholo
The rest of the Beast King storyline is played out masterfully in The Long Night of Fang and Talon: Part One (#96) and The Long Night of Fang and Talon: Part Two (#97).
It has probably become redundant at this stage for me to continually rave about the extraordinary work that illustrators Buscema and Chan were producing during this period. They truly must have been one of the best creative teams of their type in comic-book history.
And although it has little to do with these Dark Horse volumes, I must mention that I couldn’t help but notice that the covers (which were usually also by Buscema) more often than not depicted a scene that –wait for it – actually took place somewhere on the inside pages!
Regular readers of the 70s will know exactly why I put that in astonished italics…
Ajaga, acting as the self-proclaimed heir of Jhebbal Sag, has gathered together all the jungle creatures who still remember the old language of beasts and men, which gives Buscema a chance to really let loose with an enormous mix of creatures turning first on Ajaga himself and then on each other in a mad orgy of destruction. And I can’t help noticing (not for the first time) that he seems to take a great delight in drawing bloody great big ‘crocodilians’.
Lovers of comic book action scenes will not be disappointed with these two issues; but there is also some interesting character development here – once again, especially from Bêlit.
She learns, for example, that the deception that N’Yaga has sown on her behalf can have its drawbacks when her ‘subjects’ believe too much in her Goddess-like powers. (Which rather answers a question I asked earlier.)
In addition, she’s not quite as cantankerous, unforgiving and all-round pure wagon as she normally is. When she returns to free Nyami and the rest of the chieftain’s daughters who had earlier refused to help her, it is to note ruefully, but understandingly:
“Some are born to fight – others not.”
Thomas also indulges in one of his clever filling in of gaps. During the fighting sub-Chief Krato is slain whilst his brother legs it, swearing that he will meet the Cimmerian again, one day.
In Howard’s second published Conan story, The Scarlet Citadel, King Conan – at this point in his mid-to-late forties — is taunted:
“I know you of old. Do you remember the sack of Abombi, when your seawolves swarmed in? Before the palace of King Ajaga you slew a chief and a chief fled from you. It was my brother who died; it was I who fled. I demand of you a blood-price, Amra!”
I give Thomas huge respect for the tireless manner in which he looked for these incidents plucked from the original sacred texts and which could only add depth and resonance to his own work. And of course, I like to think that, had he lived, Robert E. Howard himself would have filled in these plot points. So… a huge thanks and well done, Roy.
The magnificent black lion Sholo –who, for whatever mystical reasons had served two Amras – was killed off during the siege of Abombi. Thomas writes:
“The one sad note was one I found almost inevitable. I felt that, dramatically, the black lion Sholo should perish fighting for his new master’s life. I felt a genuine sadness when I wrote those panels, even though Sholo was never more than lines drawn by pencil and ink on a piece of paper.”
It’s funny how that works, isn’t it? I know just what he means. I remember back in the 80s being more upset over the death of The Flash in issue #8 of Crisis on Infinite Earths than I was about a couple of people I knew from the same time who had died in ‘real life’. I had never cared for them, but still — it probably shows somewhat of a lack of character on my part.
Mind you, back in those more innocent times, comic book heroes weren’t killed off and then allowed to come back every five minutes just to sell a few more copies for greedy bloody corporations to readers with more money than brains. Don’t get me started.
Anyway, as Walter Sobchak would say, it’s all water under the bridge now.
The battle over, Conan mourns for Sholo whilst Beeya does likewise for Krato. And Thomas notes, with some truth:
“Each of us mourns the deaths only of those we know; and we resign to eternal oblivion all other deaths, as if they never happened at all. Only thus, doubtless, can we survive our lifetimes without going mad.”
As Bêlit, Amra and the corsairs of the Tigress sail off into the Western Sea, not only has the she-pirate regained her title as the Queen of the Black Coast, but her ‘right’ to demand tribute has in fact been strengthened as the rescued daughters of the chiefs will no doubt spread tales of and exaggerate her invulnerability.
I finished the Beast King sequence with some kind of liking for the Shemite sea-queen for the first time; but I want to end these musings on a speculation as to something curious that Conan says before they set sail:
“[Sholo] served two Amras well.
“It’s not within my power to know why, precisely; but any time our ship passes the cliffs of Abombi, from this day forward I’ll shoot an arrow into the sky, to salute an animal nobler by far than most men I’ve known.”
I’m going to hazard a guess that this was a final tip of the quill from Thomas to Howard’s Beyond the Black River. At the end of that magnificent story, Conan hears of the fate of young Balthus and the dog Slasher, who die in the bloody Pictish massacre that pushes back the Aquilonian border.
“’He was a man’, said Conan. ‘I drink to his shade, and to the shade of the dog, who knew no fear.’ He quaffed part of the wine, then emptied the rest upon the floor in a curious heathen gesture, and smashed the goblet. ‘The heads of ten Picts shall pay for his, and seven for the dog, who was a better warrior than many a man.’
“And the forester, staring into the moody, smoldering blue eyes, knew the barbaric oath would be kept.”
Next: The Death of Bêlit