The Chronicles of Conan
Shadow of the Beast
And Other Stories
This final piece is an overview rather than a review and therefore contains spoilers galore.
The Moon-Eaters of Darfur (issue #108 of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian) opens on a miserable, rain driven and stormy landscape as the Cimmerian heads north of the Kushite capital of Meroê, leaving behind a city in the throes of full-blown upheaval.
With him is the lovely Diana, whom he has rescued from her slavery. And as she finally has the chance to tell him her story we discover that it is a harsh one indeed, even taking into account that this is the grim and unforgiving Hyborian Age. It is a litany of gang-rape, depravation and captivity that has the power to touch even as tough a heart as that of Conan.
He decides that the best route for her is to head eastwards across the Black Kingdoms country of Darfur and make for the Stygian border town of Sukhmet, from where he had been able to send Livia of Ophir to freedom some months previously. As it happens, he discovers that Diana’s horrific experiences have brought out an unexpected pragmatism in the lady, as well as having honed her survival skills; and leads her to a decision that may prove unwise for her. Still, it is her choice and, having heard her story, we can only wish her well.
In the course of events, Conan finds himself in the clutches of Darfari cannibals; encounters an old foe, the Stygian slaver, Thutmekri (from way back in Moon of Zembabwei, #28); and forms a friendship with a budding magician, Erfu.
If you find yourself thinking that Erfu bears more than a passing resemblance to the character of Bourtai from the Flame Winds trio of issues, there’s a reason for that which soon becomes apparent.
This is yet another fine piece of the kind that Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Ernie Chan were now turning out with an almost frighteningly nonchalant ease: great artwork, as usual; satisfying storytelling that continues to move the barbarian’s career forward; good fight scenes; ever-developing characters; and, best of all for me, it gives the sorcery a bit of a rest for a change. However…
Norvell Page Strikes Again!
Still intent on ending his long stay in the Black Kingdoms and returning to Hyborian lands, Conan heads northwards and at the opening of Sons of the Bear God (#109) we find him still in the company of the ‘little wizard’, Erfu, and in the land of Shem. It is here that we find the odd couple stranded in the Sea of Buryat:
“… a deep ocean of plumed and waving grass, so high and rank that a man on horseback amid it seems but half a man, adrift in an unseen boat.”
I don’t know about you, but that immediately made me think of the startling images of the Dothraki Sea from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, although the first part of that epic wasn’t due to appear for another 15 years. It is just as vast and seemingly endless, too. So much so that it manages to contain a lost city which takes the name of Buryat and which is peopled by vicious dwarf-men.
Where to start with this?
Well, my heart immediately sank when I realised that it was the first part of a four-issue adaptation of Norvell W. Page’s short 1939 novel of the same name, Sons of the Bear God.
Remember good old Norvell? Yes, it was he who was responsible for that other masterpiece of hokum, Flame Winds back in issues #32 – #34. And after that escapade in sorcery-overdose, seasoned with a total lack of any kind of logic, I truly don’t know what Thomas’s fascination with this guy was. These two novels were the kind of disposable hack-job, sword-and-sorcery crap that was just churned out in order to fill the gap that Howard had left with his untimely exit from our dimension – and it was a gap that seriously could have done with being left unfilled-in. There was no way to best the best.
So with that in mind, it came as something of a surprise that not only did I get a weird kind of enjoyment out of this issue but also from the next two: Beware the Bear of Heaven (#110) and Cimmerian – Against a City (#111). Helped by the fact that Buscema appears to be having fun in trying to figure out what the hell to do with malicious, evil dwarves and strangely unreal-looking bears – or perhaps because he didn’t know what was really going on, no more than the reader – it has all the mad forward momentum of an Indiana Jones movie. And when you turn over to page 9 of Beware the Bear (heh!) and see that top panel showing a dwarf with giant strap-on golden ears, a dwarf with a snake-head mask and a dwarf in a bear costume, then what can I say? It is as surreal and a WTF? moment as any in the entire run of Conan the Barbarian.
And as if there isn’t enough going on, Thomas decides to revive the character of Niord of the Aesir, who we met briefly in The Frost Giant’s Daughter (Savage Tales #1 or CtB #16; take your pick). I’m trying to avoid the fact that Conan indicates that he fought with the Aesir band five years ago when my own chronology would make more than ten, but I can only get away with those shenanigans until I really have to address it at the end of this piece. In any case, it refers back to when the Cimmerian fought alongside Niord and his merry band against the Aesir.
And if you’re wondering how a group of Aesir wound up in Shem and addicted to a drug that keeps them the docile slaves of a group of evil dwarves who call themselves the Grandsons of Heaven (I’m not making this up), then the answer is obvious. Ah, come on; you can figure this one out for yourselves.
Their king, see, a particularly murderous little bastard called Aosoka, told them to trek all that way northwards to Aesgaard; use magic to put Niord & Co. to sleep; and then haul them all the way back to Shem again!
Well, it made sense to Norvell W. Page and who am I to argue? What in God’s name was Thomas thinking, though?
This isn’t really like a Conan story at all. It’s like an acid-flashback fever-dream of something which has a character who looks a bit like Conan but who doesn’t really talk or act like him. And in a world where we often, by the very nature of the thing, have to do a fair bit of suspending of belief, it also has the most unbelievable fight scene imaginable, between Conan and a bear. Unless Roy had called the bear Yogi and given it a sidekick called Boo-Boo, I don’t really know how it could have been more ridiculous.
Nor is it particularly edifying to see Conan (or the guy that I maintain is imitating him) hacking away at a bunch of fellas who are about three-foot-nothing.
Yet somehow it entertains (even though you are likely to read it with a dropped jaw) right up until the concluding issue, Buryat Besieged (#112) — at which point the tortured, groaning wheels come well and truly off the whole shaky cart.
And if you thought that Conan vs. the Grandsons of Heaven was undignified, wait until you get a load of him in a bear costume. I doubt it could have been worse if he had suddenly yelled out: “Trick or Treat? I’m smarter than the average bear!”
And on that note, I do believe that we should move swiftly along…
From the Ridiculous to the Sublime…
I would probably have to go back as far as issue #45 and The Last Ballad of Laza-lanti to find myself as moved by a Conan story than I was with A Devil in the Family (#113). And indeed, the theme is so similar that the two are almost companion pieces.
It kicks off with another outstanding Buscema title page, with Conan and Erfu riding through deep forest on the way to offer themselves as mercenaries to King Sumuabi in the Shemitish city of Akkharia.
And having the ‘little wizard’ still in the company of the Cimmerian was OK with me as I had grown to like the little guy. Thomas had skillfully imbued him with real character; and in addition Buscema made him a genuine individual by little more than giving him a rather solemn expression and oddly spaced teeth. And it’s obvious that he has grown on Conan as well. As to the similarity to the late Bourtai, Thomas explained in the endnotes:
“In Bear Gods, Prester John [the Conan character] is accompanied by Bourtai, the little thief-cum-‘magician’ who’d become his ally in Flame Winds. But ‘our’ Bourtai had been killed off in CtB #35, the issue after that adaptation ended!
“But, not to worry. In issue #108, I introduced Erfu – a short Stygian slave and former wizard’s apprentice who was actually Bourtai in everything but name – and had him still in Conan’s company at story’s end, so that he’d already be in place at the start of #109’s Bear Gods cycle.”
And so now we come to his sixth and last outing, and what a lovely farewell it is.
The two are attacked by marauders in the woods, which lets Conan deliver the amusing lines:
“I’ve heard the minstrels sing songs in praise of such robbers of the wood. Mitra help me, I’ll not write any!”
Erfu is left badly wounded and on the verge of death. Conan, though, manages to enlist the aid of a hauntingly beautiful, silver-haired ‘Sister of the Forest’ named Moraga – a healer who lives in solitude with her equally silver-haired (but also horned!) little boy, Naj.
The scenes where she tends the sick Erfu, who has never known the touch of a woman and who sees here as an angel, are extremely effective and moving. And as she watches over the feverish Stygian, she tells Conan of her background.
She was hunted from her village by her superstitious neighbours because of her use of healing herbs and whilst in the deep woods was forcibly impregnated by a devil. Naj is that offspring and the demon has come to claim his son.
This time around, Conan would not have survived the near-obligatory battle-with-a-demon and would have died in that forest and been lost to history, had it not been for the actions of the recovered Erfu.
The ‘little wizard’ elects to stay with Moraga, who recognizes him as a decent man who will be a good father to Naj.
It’s hard to get across from this simple outline the texture and sense of pathos that Thomas brings to the story (which was from an outline by Christy Marx); but for me this is a small masterpiece and the last great issue of Roy Thomas’s run.
And it ends ambiguously with Conan watching the trio fade into the woods:
“One day, Conan knows, the half-human Naj must choose between a life as a man on earth and descent into princedom of some demoniac hell. Conan hopes that day will be long in coming. But, with a human father as well as a mother to guide his feet in the days and years between, perhaps Naj will make the wisest choice.”
…And Back to the Ridiculous Again
Volume 14’s titular story, The Shadow of the Beast (#114) is based on a forgettable Howard yarn set in the modern day. It never saw the light of print until long after his death and there just may have been a reason for that. If nothing else, it is a prime example of an instance where one could wish that Roy would just resist for once the temptation to adapt anything by REH that wasn’t nailed down.
It starts off well enough, although it states that Conan is now in Akkharia when the following issue makes it clear that he is not. It’s likely a suburb of or small town close to it. In any case, he is happily ensconced in a tavern, where he is looking right at home.
The down side is that if he had ridden in wearing a shirt he would have lost it by now since he’s not having much luck at the gaming-tables.
The up side is that he has a very fanciable bar-wench named Tamris hanging out of him and intent on leading him astray, gold coins or not.
The down side is that she has also taken the fancy of a big Kothian goon who brains Conan with a barstool before legging it with the very reluctant Tamris.
And from there it is all down side.
Conan being Conan, he trails the Kothian to an apparently abandoned single-towered manse in order to put a sword thorough the Kothian and rescue the girl. However, the tower is still inhabited – kind of – by a wizard whose spirit is trapped in the body of a very large pet mastiff. And if that’s not bad enough, the mastiff insists not only on talking but in walking around on two legs.
It’s not quite as ludicrous as the Ninja Turtles of issue #99’s Devil-Crabs of the Dark Cliffs; but it’s close. It is pretty damned close.
And don’t take my word for it. Here’s Roy himself:
“…It relied for its major effect on the vision of a great hound, walking on two legs like a man. That was apparently easier for REH to pull off in prose than it was for Buscema and Chan in art. Perhaps a dedicated horror artist who also possessed a formidable talent could have made it work – at least for the few panels required. Still, I’m not 100 percent sure. If John B. Had trouble with it, maybe it was just too difficult a task.”
As the Cimmerian walks off into the sunset (yet another down side is that his horse has done a runner) with the nubile Tamris in his arms, we gratefully draw a curtain over this whole unhappy episode.
The Last Temptation of Conan
And so we come to the final issue of Roy Thomas’s stint on Conan the Barbarian. It was during the writing of A War of Wizards (#115) that he found himself with problems concerning his contract with Marvel and he moved to DC Comics, ending what was by any standards an extraordinary and endlessly creative ten years, taking us through the career of the Cimmerian from around the ages of 16/17 to perhaps 26/27.
By a happy coincidence this issue was cover dated October of 1980, the very first issue of the series having been October of 1970; and to celebrate a brilliant ten-year run it was double sized.
I’d like to say it was an absolute belter to go out on. As a matter of fact, I truly want to say that, since these one hundred and fifteen issues have given me so many hours of pleasure. Sadly, it proved to be a bit of a damp squib for me, although I believe that it remains a very popular one with many fans.
First, though, that chronology that I occasionally have trouble with.
Zukala, the wizard that we last saw humbled and broken in #14’s A Sword Called Stormbringer and #15’s The Green Empress of Melniboné is brought back for this last outing, in conflict with the priest of Ibis, Karanthes, who we first met as long ago as #7’s The Lurker Within. Hence the War of Wizards.
I have never liked it when the supernatural elements in Conan swamp the human interaction that makes the best of these stories so good; and with Zukala in particular back in action, that is exactly what happens. As I said before, this kind of thing is best suited to an Elric of Melniboné tale. And also at the risk of repeating myself, Zukala just reminds me too much of early Dr. Strange comics – which I like, but in their place and that’s not here. To make it even worse, his pet demon Jaggta-Noga is also back; and that is one of the more ludicrous entities that the Cimmerian has encountered.
Zukala refers to the eight years that it has been since he last saw the barbarian; and Conan himself broods on the fact that it has now been over a year since the death of his great love, Bêlit of the Black Coast. And I can live with both of those. Unfortunately for my previously mentioned anal-retentiveness it means that I’ve got no option now but to go with the events of The Frost Giant’s Daughter (#16) having taken place only five years ago, rather than the more reasonable ten years.
For me, it makes no sense whatsoever for Conan to have traipsed northwards (given the distances involved) only to appear back again on the Vilayet Sea in time for the events of The Gods of Bal-Sagoth (#17). And I am utterly convinced that if it had been a few years later and Thomas was less slavishly following the chronology of the Lancer paperback Conan editions, he would not have done it.
Still, in a writing stint that has been so consistently good, it’s a small gripe.
Also showing up in this issue is Red Sonja, the Hyrkanian beauty who has crossed the Cimmerian’s path several times now. And in an unexpectedly shocking panel (although perfectly in character), Conan hits her a vicious backhander.
The scenes with Red Sonja once again draw my admiration for how much Thomas was able to get past the Comics Code – particularly as he seeks to finally resolve the sexual tension that has always existed between them. I don’t think that it is particularly successful but it is a fine and brave attempt, all the same.
Incidentally, although John Buscema didn’t seem to particularly enjoy drawing warrior-women, he does a superb job here.
The crux of the story (in a very noticeable and admitted homage to the classic horror tale, The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs) is Conan being given the chance to bring Bêlit back to life, but only by the death of Sonja. And here the barbarian acts completely out of character. I may not have always liked the way that Conan behaves, but I don’t believe that even for one second he would have entertained such a notion. And entertain it he does, for a hell of a lot longer than one second, into the bargain. Sorry, not buying that at all.
I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he is perhaps under some sort of spell cast by Zukala; but it still doesn’t work for me in the slightest.
Well, everything is sorted out and Conan and Sonja once more go their separate ways. This final Roy Thomas outing is at an end. And I’ll reluctantly confess that I would have been left feeling sorely flat but for one remarkable sequence. In fact, so powerful did I find it that it alone makes this issue of Conan worthwhile.
Now, over the years there have been some half-assed, very strained attempts to read some kind of Christ references into Robert E. Howard’s brilliant story, A Witch Shall Be Born – but let’s be honest, it’s going to take a bit more than a crucifixion scene and a villainess called Salome to shake some Bible moves out of a Conan story.
Yet here in this concluding issue, it is hard not to think of the Devil tempting the Christ when Zukala shows the Cimmerian the life he might have had if Bêlit had lived.
We see them continuing their adventuring ways, having a son and ascending to King and Queen-ship together. It is moving in the extreme and it is a tribute to Thomas’s writing of this character over a ten-year period that this reader at least was actually left rather shaken by it.
A Farewell to Conan
I read one further volume after this, but it didn’t appeal to me. The strength had gone out of the series with Thomas’s leavetaking. But in comic books that appeared over an entire decade there were so many great issues that it would be pointless to list them all. There were probably even about a dozen masterpieces of the form.
And yes, there were a few duds.
I sometimes cheated by almost imagining that these stories never took place at all (such as The Demon from Out of the Deeps); and in this I felt a little vindicated by Thomas’s end notes, for in fact he was to return to the title another ten years later:
“When I picked up the writing reins again, I looked at what had been done during my absence – some of it good, some of it bad, just like my own work, and by some very talented people, both writers and artists – but I noted that, once I left Conan the Barbarian, there was no longer any recognizable flow of time (I’d covered one year of Conan’s life for every year of the comic)…or any events that seemed to flow from Robert E. Howard’s outline of the Cimmerian’s life.
“So I took a deep breath – and decided that all those interim stories either took place over just a couple of months of time, tops – or maybe that some of them hadn’t happened at all.”
If I were ever to take up the later volumes of Thomas’s work, that’s exactly how I would have to look at it also.
For now, I can only say that it has been enormously enjoyable for me to have re-read and commented on these fourteen magnificent volumes. And to regular readers, thanks for taking the time and having the patience with my often contrary views.
I’m in the process of expanding these pieces (in particular the early reviews, which were done before I became quite so immersed!) and hope to shortly produce them as an eBook.
For now, it’s farewell to Conan and thanks to Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Ernie Chan and the many others who have contributed to some great reading.
But most importantly of all, to the great Robert Ervin Howard (1906 – 1936) who shared his dreams before leaving us far too soon. Thomas ended his run with putting in his final full page spread the way it all began, with The Nemedian Chronicles:
“Know, oh Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand…a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth… to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
Shadow of the Beast
And Other Stories
By Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Published by Dark Horse Books