The Chronicles of Conan
Brothers of the Blade
And Other Stories
It was with great relief that I gave a cry of ‘Get thee behind me, Great God Set’ to the previous volume of writer Roy Thomas’s Conan adventures, which almost signaled the end of my love affair with this series.
With this volume we are back on track.
Issue #52, The Altar and the Scorpion, is a minor classic. As a drifting mercenary Conan has come south to Belverus, the capital of Nemedia, which is the second most powerful country of the Hyborian kingdoms after Aquilonia. The artwork throughout is just gorgeous (with John Buscema being assisted here most pleasingly by Tom Palmer); and nowhere more so than on one of Buscema’s excellent title pages, where there is a wealth of detail to drink in.
Thomas credits the issue to a Robert E. Howard King Kull story; but in fact, apart from the title, this and almost all of the following five issues are pretty much down to him. And he should be proud of that. Roy seemed to consider these issues as ‘treading water’ whilst waiting for the arrival of a certain she-pirate; but it’s not the first occasion where I thought that he sometimes didn’t realise how damned good he was. *
South for Horizons West
In Belverus the Cimmerian meets up once more with Murilo, who we had last seen in #11’s superb Rogues in the House. The maverick Corinthian aristocrat is now the Captain of a band of mercenary soldiers known as the Crimson Company. Along with a 17-year old female acrobat, Conan enlists with the group, who have been hired to retrieve the Ring of the Black Shadow – and with a name like that it shouldn’t just be Conan who thinks that this is a lousy idea.
Tara, the acrobatic ‘bull dancer’ and fighter, is a lovely creation: she is a feisty, freckle-faced young beauty (at least when she scrubs up), who takes no shit from anyone and who Conan habitually refers to as ‘Imp’ after she becomes his unlikely squire. In the course of these adventures she also begins a romance with Yusuf, a handsome young member of the group.
Thomas takes the opportunity here to deck the barbarian out in the costume that he wore in three of Robert E. Howard’s source texts: a mailed shirt, a horned helmet and a magnificent red cloak. There is also a real feeling of time passing and of miles travelled as they journey on southwards to neighboring Ophir.
Unfortunately Brothers of the Blade (#53) is a small step back, first in art but much more damagingly in continuing the story. There’s a lot of Hyborian politics (which contains even more skullduggery and treachery than the Irish kind), but essentially it’s not much more than Conan coming up against three warriors who are escorting a princess to a wedding that she doesn’t even know she’s about to attend. Her own.
These are the Brothers of the Blade, who years before had made a deal with a sorcerer who gave them permanent weapons on different parts of their body. And I can only imagine that they were dead drunk when they agreed because it was one hell of a useless pact. We’ve got The Slicer (I’ll say nothing), who has an axe instead of a hand. Then there’s Steel-Skull, who’s wandering around with a – I’m not making this up – steel skull. Worst of all, though, just has to be Clawfoot (!), who has this bloody great big metal FOOT instead of, you know, a foot – and out of which this poncey little knife springs. A fat lot of use it is, especially when it gets stuck in a tree. As gimmicks go they’re frigging awful.
I found myself recalling with some wistfulness a terrific enemy of Marvel’s Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, many years ago. This was a mountain of a man, with bulging muscles on his muscles and yet who could still move like Bruce Lee and went by the name of…Razorfist! The thing was, however, that his arms ended at the elbow and he was fitted with these terrifying giant machete holders instead. Now that was a living weapon, although I did always wonder how he wiped his arse. In fact, it’s just dawned on me that maybe he just slipped his real arms into the holders. Doh!
Oh well, back to issue #54 and The Oracle of Ophir. The Black Shadow, now released from the Ring and growing ever larger as it devours more and more flesh, is making its merry way across the country. Meanwhile Conan, Tara and Yusuf consult an Oracle who gives the Cimmerian a cryptic piece of doggerel in the annoying manner that Oracles do. You could wish sometimes that they would just speak plain Hyborian instead of spouting some incomprehensible rhyme that no one can make head or tail of.
Fortunately, the Cimmerian figures it out in A Shadow on the Land (#55); a bloody great Scorpion God comes charging out of hibernation to tackle the Black Shadow; and all is well that ends well.
For all their faults, this was an enjoyable romp across four decent issues and, as I’ve intimated, far better than Roy Thomas gave himself credit for. And at the end of the tale, Conan turns down Captain Murilo’s suggestion that he stay with the Crimson Company and heads off, accompanied by Tara and Yusef, for Argos and the Western Sea. Which is where in fact he had been originally headed, when he first bid farewell to the Corinthian, more than forty issues ago.
First of all, though, they have to bypass The Strange High Tower in the Mist (#56) which really is filler. I suspect that Roy couldn’t conceive of Conan making it all the way from Ophir to Messantia, the capital of Argos without at least something supernatural happening to him. And of course he may have been right.
It is pure pot-boiler all the way; but having said that, it is also very atmospheric and as oddly lethargic and languidly presented as the story requires.
The Wildest She-Devil Unhanged!
Now, issue #57… whoa, hoss; this one is another of those small gems that were thrown out on a regular enough basis to keep Conan the Barbarian an interesting and sometimes surprising read, even after five or six years. Mike Ploog is the guest artist and does enough of a bang-up job to make me wish that we could have seen more of him on this title. (Although I kept having to compare this one with some of his other pieces, which often have a heavily ‘cartoonish’ feel to them.)
Incident in Argos is a delight throughout, starting with a splash page that Buscema himself couldn’t have bettered: it is a view over the approach to the entrance of the harbour at Messantia, which a caption informs the reader is Argos’s leading sea-port and capital, with a wildly cosmopolitan population of 40,000.
Conan is in the foreground as the companions ride down a slope, looking dramatic in his mail, helm and cape; and Yusef is kicking up a cloud of dust as he spurs his horse towards a delighted-seeming Tara. The girl sits high in her saddle, arms held aloft at sight of the sea, the city shimmering in the distance. Beautiful.
Unfortunately, when they ride into Messantia itself and the Cimmerian discovers that there are no wars to hire himself out to, he behaves like the arrogant, bullying pig he can often be.
Several incidents occur here, some of which I must confess went over my head until I read Thomas’s end notes (about five minutes ago, when I finished writing this); but one thing I really like about this episode is that it is relatively sorcery-free. There is only one moment – and it’s an interesting and beautifully illustrated one – where Conan has visions of his future: as master of a ship; being crowned a king; and a quick glimpse of him nailed on a cross. As to the latter, the ‘crucified Conan’ is possibly the most powerful image in the entire canon and had recently been shown in the adaptation A Witch Shall Be Born in The Savage Sword of Conan #5.
And here is where Roy Thomas gets really clever: the sequence in which Conan is arrested and hews his way free from a court-room is an incident that is related by the Cimmerian at the beginning of Robert E. Howard’s famous short story, Queen of the Black Coast. And the way in which Thomas handles it here shows that this is probably what he had Tara and Yusuf set up for all those issues ago. This is also where we bid farewell to the young lovers as they flee from the city.
And just one more thing: the panel in which Conan splits both the Judge’s head and his chair is a masterclass in getting around the Comics Code Authority– although I suspect that it was only barely.
And now, after this volume-long build-up we come to issue #58 and it is…Queen of the Black Coast.
On the morning that Conan fled the Argosean guardsmen he boarded a merchant ship that plied its way southwards along the coastlines of various countries. Buscema’s short break seems to have rejuvenated him (or perhaps he liked this storyline) because in company with his embellisher Steve Gan we have some lovely panels depicting the ship’s travels down past Shem and serpent-haunted Stygia to Kush and points south, which is roughly the Equatorial Africa of the Hyborian Age.
Here, however, all but Conan are slain by the black corsairs of the Tigress, led by a beautiful but ferocious Shemite she-devil named Bêlit – the eponymous Queen of the Black Coast – who is believed by the blacks to be a Goddess and who decides that the mighty barbarian is the perfect warrior to become her lover and partner. Ever pragmatic and led not only by his other savage sword but with his first growing feelings of love, Conan settles in as co-commander of the Tigress.
This is the opening of Howard’s story. We won’t actually see the conclusion until the centennial issue. The reason for this is that Thomas had the staggeringly ambitious idea of having Conan as a corsair for all of three years, which is what most enthusiasts reckon his time on the Black Coast to have been. In Howard’s story that period was passed over in a couple of paragraphs, although no doubt he would have fleshed this out in other tales, had he lived. Since we are dealing with Conan of the Comics, however, I will mainly concentrate on that incarnation, save where some of Thomas’s genius makes a comment necessary. I’ll also remark that I’ve never particularly cared for Howard’s original. In fact, the dodgy dialogue and the ludicrous mating dance that Thomas is lumbered with can be pretty much blamed directly on Howard.
What the hell; anyone can have an off-day. And just while I’m in the mood for bitching: I’ve mentioned before that the quality and care that Dark Horse Books have put into these collections have been exemplary. I’ve only really had two gripes and those were always with the lack of cover reproductions and a decent map. I’d like to add one more complaint and it’s just about the last: I don’t get the choice of titles. To me, they hardly ever sum up what the volume is about; but this time around it is particularly bad. Not only do they namecheck the poorest issue, but what the Hell is wrong with Queen of the Black Coast? It’s a good, dramatic title; it’s one of Howard’s originals; and the meeting with Bêlit is what the whole volume was leading up to anyway!
It doesn’t matter, in the end; because this was a good, solid collection that wiped away the taste of the previous one. And to wind it up, Thomas gave us some badly-needed back story to the pirate queen in The Ballad of Bêlit (#59). As narrated by her oldest friend, the shaman N’yaga, we learn of her upbringing; how the blacks of the southern isles came to regard her as the savage supernatural daughter of the death-goddess Derketa; why she has such an all-encompassing hatred of the Stygians; and how her ultimate goal is to take vengeance on her uncle, who was behind the regicide of her father, Atrahasis, king of the Shemitish city-state of Asgalun.
We’ll leave Conan for the moment as he walks past the Queen’s cabin, where Bêlit waits to indulge in the Dance of the Beast with Two Backs. Instead, he leans against the rail, moodily ruminating on where his strange, wandering life has brought him:
“Night has fallen now on the open sea, and the wind is blowing down from the yawning mouth of the River Styx and from the sleeping Hyborian lands.
“But one day soon, he knows, the winds of wrath will blow northward one last, lusty time; and Conan the Cimmerian will ride those raging winds at the side of a woman who just may be a death-goddess, after all.”
* Last week I did a review here for the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s worth noting that Roy Thomas was the creator of both Ultron and The Vision, who makes his debut there. Director Joss Whedon gives a nice little tip of the hat to the originator during Captain America’s hallucination of a ‘forties dance where the featured band is… The Roy Thomas Players.