The Chronicles of Conan
And Other Stories
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore.
It’s just as well that anyone who shelled out money for a thirteenth volume of The Chronicles of Conan must by this time have been a hardcore fan; because if they had simply taken a chance on the book, then when they read this first turkey of a story they would have been screaming not only for a refund but for compensation against having their intelligence insulted and their time wasted.
The Thing in the Crypt (issue #92 of the 1970s Marvel Comics run of Conan the Barbarian) should have been reprinted in the previous volume; but, as it was out of continuity and would have interfered with that volume ending neatly with the death of Bêlit, it was decided to hold it over and instead to have it open this collection.
For the sake of trying to present as complete a history of writer Roy Thomas’s brilliant run as possible, I understand why it is included; but I certainly wouldn’t have had any complaints if it hadn’t been.
Beneath the now familiar quote from ‘The Nemedian Chronicles’ there appears in place of the normal title logo, the credit: ‘A Tale of Young Conan’. And – horrifyingly — it is yet another story that has been crudely hammered in with a blunt instrument in order to make it fit in some kind of believable way between issues #2 and #3. In other words, that now-congested place in the Cimmerian’s history between his escape from the city of the Beast-Men and after his escape from the Hyperboreans.
Fleeing from starving wolves, he kills one of them with the hunk of chain that he has carried from the slave pens, before losing grip of it and crashing weaponless into a cavernous tomb. Here, he takes a sword from the corpse of an ancient warrior-king, an action which revives the skeletal remains; and a battle ensues in which the living cadaver is destroyed by fire. It is almost identical to The Shadow in the Tomb from issue #31 and which is in fact very unwisely referenced here.
But wait a minute. If he has gotten rid of his chains how come he was back to wearing them again at the beginning of issue #3’s Twilight of the Grim Grey God; and why didn’t he still have the stolen sword when he entered Brythunia?
In possibly the laziest writing of his entire career, Thomas actually adds this — I’m not kidding you — after the so-called story is completed:
“Nemedian Chroniclers’ Note: We know, of course, that young Conan lost his strange if unmagical sword ere long, when he was captured by a second group of warlike Hyperboreans, not far from the borders of Brythunia. And perhaps, in his way, the Cimmerian was lucky, at that – for can any good thing come out of a crypt?”
Downright embarrassing. Artist John Buscema was on holiday and his little brother Sal took over for this one issue, which was OK; but as to everything else about this travesty?
Bitching about de Camp & Carter
Well, at least they didn’t mention that other piece of shit, #69’s The Demon out of the Deep – which supposedly took place during the same time period – leaving me still free (just about) to dismiss that flashback story as a tall tale that the barbarian was telling Bêlit. I’m grateful for small mercies because all that these stories seemed to indicate was that as a young man Conan couldn’t take five steps before getting himself captured and sent into a time warp where events that should have taken years instead took weeks.
And the really annoying thing about this is that there was no need for it. I don’t really get why Roy Thomas was so keen to adopt the time scale and stories of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, such as The Thing in the Crypt. His comic book version of Conan was already enormously successful in its own right, well able to stand by itself and his additions to the canon were far, far superior to those two writers.
I guess that I tend to forget that the Conan paperbacks would still have been selling quite well during this period.
And it’s important, in the interests of fairness, to say here that de Camp in particular was responsible for introducing readers of a certain age to the work of Robert E. Howard – and I would be one of them. His editing of the aforementioned Lancer editions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was our way in. For that we must be grateful. It was only later that we realized how heavily he had interfered with the original texts – and often simply so that he and Lin Carter could have a say in the copyright. De Camp even managed to fall out with the great Glenn Lord, a man who truly was responsible for keeping REH’s memory alive.
Whatever about the various arguments – and however good some of de Camp and Carter’s other, individual work could be – their Conan stuff sucked. Even young readers could tell the vast difference between pure Howard and their awful pastiches.
When writing about Volume 12 I included some quotes from Thomas on de Camp and Carter; but far more telling for me is this, from his endnotes for Volume 5:
I’ve gone on a bit here [a bit?!] because the whole de Camp business has always made me grind my teeth slightly. Yes, I fully agree that he was instrumental in introducing Conan in particular and Howard in general to a mass audience; but he was hardly doing it for the good of his health. And not only were his own Conan stories dreadful but he went on to do the most speculative, unpleasant biography of Howard that you could not wish to read – as indeed he also did with H. P. Lovecraft.
Anyway, I’m glad that I’ve gotten that off my chest. So back to the post-issue #100 continuity, onwards with the good stuff and the rest of the Roy Thomas/ John Buscema collaborations.
The next several issues exist because of a Conan story that wouldn’t be published for more than thirty years after Robert E. Howard’s death. It was part of a treasure trove of incredibly precious fragments, poems, synopses and even complete stories that Glenn Lord stumbled across in a forgotten cache of the late writer’s belongings.
For a Howard fan of that era, this would have far surpassed coming across the Holy Grail in their attic. It may even have surpassed finding Raquel Welch in their bed. Or maybe not. Howard enthusiasts are peculiar, not insane.
Until The Vale of Lost Women appeared in 1968 no one knew that Conan had at one time been the war chief of a Kushite tribe called the Bamulas. In issue #101’s The Devil Has Many Legs Thomas sets out to tell us how this came to be.
And incidentally I believe that he is right in having this occur so closely after the death of Bêlit.
I’m a great admirer of the Dark Storm Conan Timeline of Dale Rippke (mainly because it’s so close to my own) but I cannot for the life of me understand why Rippke places The Vale … so much later in the barbarian’s career. I just don’t see it.
Anyway, following the burning of Bêlit’s funeral pyre Conan is obviously heading northwards through Kush and back to the Hyborian lands.
We start with one of Buscema’s characteristically excellent title pages – it’s an atmospheric nighttime scene in which Conan sits roasting an antelope joint over a small fire. We can almost hear the fire crackling in competition with the small jungle noises around him. On a tree limb he has placed his horned helmet and he is moodily thinking of his slain woman.
Which leads to this amusing memory from Thomas:
Heh. I’d love to have met the person who wrote that letter; that’s just my sense of humour.
Following a short but savage battle in which he slays their war-chief, Conan is taken prisoner by the Bamulas. This is a more powerful tribe than most in the region. And their God is Ekku – ‘the grim deity of blind chance’.
Whilst a prisoner Conan keeps his knowledge of their language to himself, soaking up what he can find out about them until such time as he can use what he has learned. This comes about in single battle with Yoruba, who he kills to become the new war-chief.
Thomas himself calls this a ‘potboiler’; but if it is then it’s a damned good one: solid, interesting storytelling that appears to be setting up some future intrigue and absolutely first-class art from Buscema and Ernie Chan. Sure, it’s got that hoary (not to mention hairy) old sword-and-sorcery staple, a giant spider; but they make it slightly different here, and it works.
This arachnid aberration, in case you’re wondering, is bigger than that in The Tower of the Elephant (#4) but nowhere near the size of Omm of Yezud – which will hardly surprise any long-time readers who recall that monstrosity, will it? (Web of the Spider-God; #13.)
Maybe I’m just enjoying a stroll through the jungle after so long on board the Tigress – but whatever the reason, I loved this issue.
Notwithstanding the fact that The Men Who Drink Blood (#102) and Bride of the Vampire (#103) actually comprise a two-part tale, I really would consider these to be one big potboiler, despite the standalone nature of the previous outing.
Problems in Black & White
Conan has now probably been the Bamula war-chief for about a month or two and is already busily expanding what he seems to cautiously believe could come to be a black empire, with himself at the head of it. Despite the fact that he doubtless knows that such a ‘kingdom’ could never ultimately satisfy his growing ambitions, I suspect that the reason he is not pushing on back into the Hyborian lands to the North is that he is still reconciling himself and coming to terms with the death of his mate of three years, Bêlit.
Of course, this is pure conjecture on my part; but I believe there to be a sound basis for it.
Conan appears to have been more or less happy to serve ‘under’ the Queen of the Black Coast whilst he was in reality her partner in all ways; yet I think that his leadership of the army of Princess Yasmela in Black Colossus would have fueled and augmented his natural leadership qualities. It’s just that they’ve been lying partially dormant these past few years.
That tale was retold in The Savage Sword of Conan #2 and came – at least as far as my own chronology is concerned — after The Last Ballad of Laza-lanti in Conan the Barbarian #45.
This vampire story itself resembles too much the concepts of Tower of Blood (#43) and Of Flame and the Fiend (#44).
The Bamulas come into conflict with a race of men who behave in the manner of vampires, although the only true supernatural blood-leech is their chief. He wishes for Conan to join him in his undead state and you can well imagine how that suggestion goes down with such a man.
Where this yarn is important however, is that it addresses to a certain extent the obvious problems that would exist if a white man were to gain the chieftainship of a black tribe.
Of course, it certainly helps that Conan’s natural leadership qualities are instrumental in the Bamulas quickly growing in strength as they consolidate other tribes into them. Yet there is no doubt that such a feat would never just be plain sailing. It is quite a tightrope that the Cimmerian has chosen to balance on.
The threat from the very fact of his skin-colour is represented here by Basuto. However, using his wits and what he has learned of human nature, Conan even wins over this tough individual – and in the process makes him sub-chief.
Once again the artwork is exceptional and it is a solid enough piece that one can tell Thomas had fun with; but I was already looking forward to the next issue — and what many Robert E. Howard fans bafflingly believe to be one of his worst stories.
Next: Vales of Lost Women; Snouts in the Dark.