The Chronicles of Conan
The Curse of the Golden Skull
And Other Stories
The sixth volume of Dark Horse Books’ masterful collections of the ’seventies Marvel Conan comics opens with one of artist John Buscema’s finest and most attention-grabbing title pages.
The Cimmerian and his mismatched companion, the Khitain thief Bourtai are in the scorching deserts to the West of that country. Heat is baking off the sands and Conan is mounted on a camel in headgear that makes him resemble some muscle-bound Lawrence of Arabia. It is breathtaking and also, unfortunately since it is page one, the high point of writer Roy Thomas’s issue #35, The Hell-Spawn of Kara- Shehr.
It is ‘freely adapted’ from Robert E. Howard’s short story, set in the Afghanistan of his day and entitled The Fires of Asshurbanipal; and if you’ve read my review of Volume 5 on this blog then you’ll know how loudly I groaned when I saw that once again a sorcerous gem was involved. Buscema got a two- page spread to show us the lost city of Kara Shehr, but it isn’t particularly inspired and I got the feeling that it is padding as much as anything else.
At the tales’ end, Bourtai gets killed off. I rather liked the little fellow but Thomas made the right call in deciding that Conan didn’t need a sidekick. The man is a pure loner.
At this point I was just beginning to think that, whilst Buscema’s artwork was undoubtedly vibrant and exciting, Thomas had settled into something of a rut. And in fairness, I’ve always taken into account the parameters in which he was working and the company that he was working for: a Conan yarn had to have headlong action and contain elements of sorcery. As to the latter, I didn’t agree. I felt that the Hyborian Age presented a large enough canvas and Conan was such a larger-than-life character that at least an occasional issue would work just fine without any.
The Importance of a Leg-Over in the Life of Conan
Whatever doubts I was beginning to entertain were blown out of the water with issue #36: Beware the Hyrkanians Bearing Gifts.
The opening scene shows Conan’s bloody-minded tenacity in completing the job that he had been given months before, as he arrives back in Aghrapur, worn-out and exhausted from the many hundreds of miles that he has ridden in order to give his report to King Yildiz. And in a nice aside it also shows that he is still haunted by dreams of his time as a prisoner of the Hyperboreans. It’s a human side to him that is too rarely seen; and this is augmented when we see a very basic part of his nature as he begins an affair with Lady Amytis, seemingly content to share her with his military superior, the unsuspecting Narim-Bey. In full honesty, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with her beyond his need to get laid pretty regularly. And of course this is also an opportunity to show Buscema’s skill in illustrating really beautiful women.
As he recovers in the days that follow we get a very pleasing two-page spread where we see Conan perfect several war skills: his marksmanship as a bowman; the spear-toss; fighting from horseback; the hurling of axes; and, interestingly, “…the use of the bolo, a weapon recently imported from mystery-shrouded lands north of fabled Khitai.”
I was intrigued by this last one. I know that Thomas was adept at taking a single forgotten line from an original Howard work and running with it, yet I can’t recall this from any of the source material. Whether or not I’m wrong is irrelevant as it works well.
The climax of the tale concerns a Hyrkanian attempt on the life of King Yildiz that may just have been organised by his son Prince Yezdigerd, still off fighting in the East.
In fact, it is at first deceptive just how much Thomas—writing an original script – gets in to 19 pages. It gives a fuller understanding of the Cimmerian and allows some real character development. A stand-out issue.
Narim-Bey, however, suspects that Conan has been milking the lizard with the lovely Amytis on a fairly regular basis behind his back, so off he packs him northwards once more to deal with stiffening in the rebellion of the hill tribes, in issue # 37’s The Curse of the Golden Skull. Fan favourite Neal Adams gives Buscema a breather here and the result is enjoyable if cluttered. It is based on a fragment from Howard that has King Kull of the even earlier Valusian period of pre-history appearing off stage. It also introduces a likeable black warrior called Juma, who was the creation of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter; unfortunately this leads to some comment on how sad it is that skin-colour differences exist, which I found a bit out of place. Still, it’s a decent, very action-packed romp with Conan and Juma riding back to Aghrapur in triumph, having rescued Yildiz’s daughter, the child-princess Yolinda.
Another original Thomas script is issue #38, The Warrior and the Were-Woman. Again, we get a deepening understanding of what Conan is willing to do in order to save his skin, which in this case is – let’s call it what it is – torturing his lover, Amytis. It’s not pleasant but I don’t think that it strays at all from the character of the source texts, no matter what illusions the ‘code of honour’ crowd holds.
The supernatural elements are handled a little differently this time around and at story’s end, as the barbarian seems to recognize that he has grown both stale and is in a dead end (as well as in a spot of bother when Yezdigerd returns) after two years in Turan and points East, he shrugs off with admirable nonchalance the little he has to go back for, riding away to take up the life of the wanderer once more.
As The Dragon from the Inland Sea (issue #39) opens, he is heading for Zamora once again—most likely the first place that he has thought of. I like the caption that opens here:
“A region northwest of Aghrapur, capital of Turan – a desolate landscape where rocks jab outward like obscene gestures toward the uncaring sun.”
No? Maybe it’s just me.
He finds himself waylaid by desert brigands, which gives me a chance to mention something I’ve meant to bring up before – namely, how good Buscema is at drawing gap-toothed degenerates. In fact, some of his stuff in these kinds of scenes always makes me think of those great sweating close-ups of western director Sergio Leone.
After almost dying in the desert wastes, Conan is rescued and hired by a Turanian nobleman whose village on the shores of the inland Vilayet Sea is being doubly harassed; on the one hand it is in the grip of a demented priest of Erlik and on the other by a gigantic crocodile-like creature that is referred to as a dragon and which seems to be susceptible to the priest’s call.
I love this issue. It is a good solid story, with great artwork and a really exciting climax as the villagers battle the crocodilian; and just for a nice change it is relatively sorcery-free. I mean, the Cimmerian must have gotten damned tired of battling demons from the outer spheres by now; a giant mutant crocodile probably made a nice change for him.
It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that as a personal preference I enjoy Buscema’s artwork even more when it is inked by Ernie Chua, who was missing from these last two issues. He returns with issue #40, though, and this time he is with guest artist Rich Buckler and The Fiend from the Forgotten City.
Ah, yes; another day, another sorcerous gem and another forgotten city. I’m reminded of the wise crack about those dodgy characters who find Jesus. Like him, I don’t think that these cities are hiding hard enough, considering the relative ease with which Conan seems to stumble across them. Here he is drawn as a staring-eyed, misshapen hulk. He lopes about like a mutant ape, looking completely unlikely to possess the tiger-like speed for which he is renowned: not so much Conan the Barbarian as Conan the Neanderthal. I do like Buckler’s full-page depiction of Our Hero entering the city, however – negated almost immediately by the dopiest-looking demon that you ever did see.
Just to finish off this mercifully short (15-pages) mess there’s some nonsense about a scrumptious silver-haired wench called Alonia being in reality the Goddess Ishtar. None of it makes any sense. Oh and by the way, it is based on another book that I’ve no intention of getting familiar with: Goddess of Ganymede by Michael Resnick.
Really, the less said about this travesty, the better. One thing: I would imagine that at this point Conan is about 22 years of age. In an earlier scene, though, he reminisces about being a poor starveling in Zamora just three years previously. I’ve never been comfortable with Roy Thomas’s decision to start the Cimmerian’s career later than Howard did. He could easily have made him 16/17 with the first issue; and – given the vast distances that we knew he was destined to travel – it would have eased the already compressed chronology.
Always Falling for the Wrong Women…
It’s just another irritation among the many that made up this fortieth issue. Better is #41 and The Garden of Life and Death, which sees Buscema and Chua back as a team. It also sees the Mighty Horn of Conan landing him in trouble…yet again.
It finds the Cimmerian a week’s ride from Zamora’s fabled City of Thieves when he decides to rescue a beautiful young woman who is being chased by some really pissed-off villagers who appear to have immolation and dismemberment on their minds. Conan, of course, rescues her.
Now at this point in his wandering life, the Cimmerian had attracted some pretty serious bunny-boilers; but at least they were human. You really emphatically can’t say that this time. Although not credited, Roy Thomas confirms in his always-excellent end notes that the story is based on Shambleau by C.L. Moore, a science-fiction short that I’m unfamiliar with. More recognizable is its nod to a very famous science fiction film of the fifties. I’ll give you a couple of clues: it features pods and has a very young Sam Peckinpah playing a postman.
Despite some minor annoyances (such as Conan stopping for a nice refreshing swim at an oasis during the height of a chase/battle) this is quite a creepy little tale; and helps considerably to wipe away the taste of the previous outing.
Night of the Gargoyle (issue #42) opens with Conan seated comfortably on a ledge in a crowded street in the City of Thieves. He looks remarkably at home here, gnawing on a meat bone and guzzling wine, whilst watching the market scene around him, exquisitely rendered by Buscema in one of his many memorable splash pages.
Underneath, though, it is nice to learn that he is still haunted by memories of the non-woman to whom he was attracted just a short time back. We also learn that he is just passing through, on his way to the capital of Shadizar the Wicked, where he was once laid flat (that’s right; not in a good way) by the duplicitous Jenna.
This is a good point at which to bemoan once again the lack of an inclusion in these volumes of a decent map of the Hyborian Age. It really adds immeasurably to the enjoyment and I would recommend you print one off the internet. Given the care that Dark Horse have gone to with these collections, I’m damned if I can understand the oversight.
In any case, …Gargoyle is another of those issues that is deceptively good; in fact I think that it’s bloody good. In a way, Conan has almost come full circle. After trekking east and south from Cimmeria in the first three issues, Zamora was the first real outpost of civilization that he came to – although this being the Hyborian Age, the c-word should probably be in quotes. It’s based on a non-Conan REH tale called The Purple Heart of Erlik and is more intricate (given that it’s only an eighteen-page yarn) than most issues.
I also like the fact that Thomas leaves in some local politics. It’s often overlooked that Robert Howard was quite adept at interjecting subtle political asides in his work. In particular I was intrigued by the reference that Khitai is now embroiled in a civil war. I wonder did Conan’s recent visit have anything to do with that.
And the supernatural element is a little different, once again. Also, is this the first time that Vendhya (the Hyborian equivalent of India) was mentioned in the comics? Without checking back I’m not sure; but I think that it might be.
All in all, a good solid issue, ending a collection with more positive points than negative – and certainly giving me a reason to continue on to volume 7.