The Chronicles of Conan
Riders of the River-Dragons
And Other Stories
No complaints about the title of this volume: exciting, evocative, beautifully pulpish and just rolls off the tongue.
At the end of our last outing, we saw our favourite wandering Cimmerian settle down for a life of piracy aboard the Tigress as it sailed off the shores of the Black Coast, with Bêlit at his side — the beautiful and savage Shemite who leads a group of black corsairs who believe her to be the daughter of Derketa, the Death Goddess.
As it happens, though, for his first extended story sequence, writer Roy Thomas chose to take the loved-up pair far inland and through steaming jungle terrain over the space of four issues:
Riders of the River-Dragons (#60)
On the Track of the She-Pirate (#61)
Lord of the Lions (#62)
Death in the Ruins (#63)
Now in his 23rd year, this is Conan in love for the first (and only?) time; and he couldn’t have picked a more ruthless mate. We have already seen how, with the scheming of her friend and shaman, N’yaga, she has convinced her followers that she is not mere flesh and blood. Now we learn how pitilessly she takes tribute from the people of the Black Coast, casting herself as its self-proclaimed Queen. It actually appears that it will be left to Conan, of all people, to keep her at least partially under control:
“Crom knows I’m not squeamish about using force, woman; but don’t you think that you might trade, instead, some of the lesser things we’ve looted from the white lands; and get even more ivory?”
I find this woman utterly detestable and don’t particularly relish spending the next thirty –odd issues in her company. However, if they can remain of the standard of these four I’ll happily take back that sentiment.
A Hyborian Tarzan
Even this early on, it’s also clear that Bêlit is one of those bunny-boilers who suffers from pathological jealousy, as we see on two occasions almost immediately – once when the barbarian casually mentions that he wouldn’t have at all complained if he had been presented with the opportunity of introducing Red Sonja to the purple-headed passion python (OK, maybe he should have kept that to himself); and the other when he enters into a frenetic dance with a chief’s daughter. If this guy had any sense he would be overboard and swimming back to the mainland; instead, he finds himself setting out to rescue the she-pirate when she is taken captive as the proposed ‘bride’ of Amra, Lord of the Lions.
Amra is a huge, handsome white man in a loin cloth who was washed ashore as an infant and raised by a tribe of lions. These unusual creatures hunt not only on the veldt but in the jungle; and as an adult Amra discovers a lost city that is a literal treasure-house.
And if all this sounds familiar, you’ve probably guessed that this is basically a red-haired Tarzan of the Apes that we’re talking about here; and yes, he even has his very own lost city of Opar. After the initial shock of hearing the name Amra describing someone other than Conan (because of course we know that this is what he will be known as along the Black Coast), this works really well. It also ties in rather nicely with a Roy Thomas theme of history repeating itself throughout different ages.
The big alteration here is that there is nothing of the noble savage about this guy. He is a stone-cold murderer, rapist and owner of slaves. I wasn’t sorry when Conan stuck a knife threw him after one of the closest battles of his career, inheriting the mantle of Amra, First Among Lions!
One thing that I liked about this four-issue tale is that the supernatural side of things is kept to a pure minimum. I know that this is a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, but I find a magical element every single month to be a bit hard to take.
An Inker in Love
The artwork from John Buscema is top-notch, especially as he’s working in conjunction with embellisher Steve Gan. Unfortunately, Gan’s admiration for Buscema’s work was about to take a bizarre twist and one that meant the end of the collaboration. Take it away, Roy:
‘The pages of John’s pencils, all written and lettered, were mailed to the Philippines, as in the several preceding months. Only, this time, they didn’t seem to be coming back. When we inquired somewhat frantically by phone or telegram what the hell had happened, we were told that somehow inker Steve Gan had “fallen in love” with Buscema’s pencils for the “Feathered Serpent” story (they were more than usually spectacular, I recall) and had found himself unwilling either to ink it, or to turn it back over to the DeZuniga studio. At last, we were informed, someone went and retrieved the pages from Steve – there was a hint of the threat of force in the enterprise – and the story wound up being inked by “The Tribe”, which basically meant the talented Tony DeZuniga himself and whatever other inkers he could corral to help him at short notice. They did a good job…but I still hope that, one day before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I learn precisely what occurred halfway around the world. Not nearly all the good comic-book stories are inside the covers.’
Blimey. Wouldn’t you like to know the full story behind that odd little episode?
In any case, as a result of all these shenanigans issue #64 was a reprint (The Secret of Skull River, colourised from the black & white magazine Savage Tales #5); and Fiends of the Feathered Serpent was moved up to issue #65.
This one starts off really well, with Conan (who is rapidly being habitually referred to as Amra) and Bêlit on the deck of the Tigress as it sails north once more for Messantia in order for them to sell the booty they’ve gathered. During a nice little interlude on the swaying deck we learn a little about the Shemite’s dangerous trading methods.
Finding themselves outnumbered by Stygian galleys they head westwards into open ocean and the very moodily atmospheric first panel of page five finds them arriving at a mysterious island.
Unfortunately, after this solid opening we don’t really go anywhere: Conan seems ‘chosen’ in some way to receive the giant axe of a long-dead corsair called Ahmann the Merciless; we learn that the island’s pygmy race is lorded over by a man from the far west called Tezcatlipoca; that he is apparently immortal and that he has a set on Bêlit.
That alone tells you that he is obviously another guy who likes to live dangerously.
The ‘Living Feathered Serpent’ is a bit of a damp squib. In fact, it is a material creature and Conan has it headless and out of the game in less than a page; not one of his more epic battles, it has to be said.
For the first time in a while, Thomas bases this on a Howard tale, albeit a non-Conan one, this being one of REH’s several reincarnation pieces and called The Thunder Rider. I’m not familiar with it.
Absent Highs and Present Lows
Now, there was a rather major blip with the next three issues – major in that because of copyright troubles they couldn’t be reprinted here. I’m going to guess that the problem didn’t lie with Dark Horse Books since they have shown themselves to be more than willing to go that extra mile to make these volumes so memorable. On at least one occasion that I’m aware of they have even printed extra pages at their own expense rather than break up a storyline. No, it’s just that at this point in the publication history Red Sonja was being published by someone other than Marvel.
It’s a pity that this couldn’t have been resolved, since the issues in question were rather mouth-watering: Daggers and Death Gods (#66), Talons of the Man-Tiger (#67) and Of Once and Future Kings (#68).
I’ll just give a brief outline, for the sake of completeness: Arriving at the city-port of Messantia, Conan and Bêlit undertake a job to steal a page from the sinister Hyborian Age tome, the Book of Skelos. Also in on the would-be theft as a competitor is none other than Red Sonja, two years after her last encounter with the Cimmerian. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no sorcery will be required to call up a certain green-eyed demon when Bêlit cops an eyeful of the metal bikini-clad beauty. (And in the course of their encounter we find out that Sonja is handier with the sword, Bêlit with the dagger.)
Bloody Hell, imagine these two fighting over you — or even as part of a tag-team. I’d never live to tell the tale, that’s for sure; but what a way to go!
Whilst in Argos, the barbarian runs into his old squire, Tara of Hanumar, now pregnant with Yusuf’s child; and it was rather nice to find out what became of the likeable young bull-dancer.
Also putting in an appearance from across the mists of Time in this trilogy is none other than…King Kull of Valusia! This must have been damned interesting. Even though Howard never specifically said it, information in his outstanding essay The Hyborian Age leads me to suspect that he saw Conan as a reincarnation of Kull – as indeed I do.
Manipulating from behind the scenes here is one of the biggest names in the Conan canon: Thoth-Amon. Although the Cimmerian has been aware of this most dangerous of Stygian wizards since The Lurker Within (#7) it will be many years before the two meet decisively.
And just to make it even more intriguing, some of the same action was also being shown over at Marvel Feature, where Red was appearing in some introductory issues before debuting in her own title, Red Sonja — She-Devil with a Sword (January, 1977).
Well, that is what we missed. What we get instead is one of the all-time low points in the Thomas-Conan saga, an utterly pointless fill-in story.
The Demon Out of the Deeps (#69) is based on a contemporary-setting Howard short called…Out of the Deeps. I’ll be as brief as I can because it just pains me to think about it, since it makes no sense on any level.
As they sail out of Messantia for points south once more, Conan tells Bêlit a tale of the first time he saw the Western Sea. He specifically places the events as taking place between Lair of the Beast-Men (#2) and The Twilight of the Grim Grey God (#3) whilst recounting his youthful capture by a Vanir war-party. They take him back to their village on the western coast where he fights and defeats – yep, you’ve guessed it – a demon from out of the deeps.
The story is filled with lunacies and if I tell you that his offering to join the Vanir is actually quite sane in the context of the…oh, story for want of a better word, then you will get some idea of how bad it is — not to mention downright careless.
Never mind the mysterious Case of the Vanishing Vanir Moustache; how about the Problem of the Lost War Helm?
During his capture, that oddly-horned helmet that he wore in the first six issues is knocked from his head. So I guess that after escaping, on his trek back to – wait for it, Hyperborea – he made a stop off at exactly where the Vanir ambushed him, in order to retrieve it.
Let me get this straight in the old fizoog: he states that he was on his way back to Cimmeria when the Vanir took him. Fleeing, instead of just pointing himself due south he heads literally hundreds of miles east to Hyperborea. Why, for heaven’s sake? I mean, leave aside the very unfortunate fact that this would add months to the chronology, Conan (despite his then-young years) knew his way around this part of the world — certainly east to Aesgaard and as far south as Gunderland.
I said I’d be brief but this story wrecks my bloody head so badly that I keep finding new things to hate about it. So instead of just picking it apart I’m going to imagine that Conan, still affected by being in love for the first time, is simply telling his warrior lady a tall tale to impress her.
Yeah, I know that the guy who just killed Tarzan having anything to prove makes about as much sense as this awful story does, but it’s all I have.
That final panel I don’t even want to think about. It seems to hint that Thomas may come back to these events at some time in the future; and I sincerely hope that ain’t so.
So in other words, the only part of the episode that I accept as having actually taken place is the bit of storytelling on the deck. Oh, yes; and I really like the fact that he is practicing his archery here. Thomas has regularly injected throughout this remarkable series the theme of Conan honing his existing skills and working on new ones. I like that; it makes him seem more real. That, though, is about this issue’s only saving grace.
Val Mayerik is the guest artist. According to Thomas, John Buscema needed a break as he was also doing The Savage Sword of Conan during this period. Well, Thomas was writing that at the same time and I think he needed a break himself.
Just off the top of my head he had been involved in scripting, co-scripting or overseeing Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror/Kull the Destroyer, Savage Tales, The Savage Sword of Conan, Giant Size Conan, Kull and the Barbarians, Marvel Feature and now Red Sonja. And I haven’t even looked into the superhero titles he was covering.
The wonder isn’t that he did the occasional dud issue; it is that he gave us so many outstanding ones.
Secrets and Storms
And by heavens, didn’t he just bounce right back to top form with the next two issues, letting him wind up this volume in style.
The City in the Storm (#70) and The Secret of Ashtoreth (#71) are based on one of Robert E. Howard’s longer tales. It was in fact the first in the James Allison reincarnation series and had the mighty, satisfying title of Marchers of Valhalla.*
Far out in the Western Sea the Tigress is in the middle of a raging storm, giving Big John a chance to do yet another of his awesome title pages. We can almost hear the roar of the waves and feel the shudder of impact as the ship goes down into a trough, with Bêlit yelling orders whilst Conan and the corsairs work to keep the ship afloat.
“Conan! Keep a tight rein on that line, blast you…What’s on your mind down there? Red Sonja?”
All right, I admit that’s kinda funny; but it also gives you an idea of what a single-mindedly stone-mad bint this one is.
This goes on for three pages and the reader is with the crew for every roll and judder, right up until the hull tears apart on the rocks that front a – that’s quite correct, how did you guess? It’s another time-lost island.
We can forgive the little bit of sameness this time though, because our first sight of a city so far off the sea-lanes is as eerie as it is impressive.
Curiously, the men of that city are brutish whilst the women are beautiful and desirable. For the second time in this volume we are reminded of Tarzan’s Atlantean outpost, the lost city of Opar. This one was obviously raised by an earlier, more civilized race, whilst the women have undoubtedly been taken from ships that have run ashore, much as the Tigress has done.
Now: I’m going to put in an aside here, because it’s been bothering me for a while; and it really comes to a head when Bêlit forbids the men to go into the city because of the women.
Sure, I get that she’s a mad, jealous cow when it comes to Conan; but if there are carnal delights to be mutually enjoyed –and the ladies do seem to be up for it – then where is the harm in a little shore leave for the black corsairs? After all, they seem to be stuck on board ship for weeks at a time with nothing except a scantily-clad but otherwise taken Bêlit to look at. I seem to remember thinking the same when I first read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a kid: how did Nemo stop these guys from rebelling? Or were they all gay?
Maybe I’m overthinking it.
The pirates are greeted by a gorgeous blonde woman who tells them that she is Aluna, handmaiden to the Goddess Ashtoreth, who resides in one of the city’s towers. I need hardly tell you that a mere glance at that blonde hair has nobody’s favourite female corsair going off on one that you wouldn’t have had to be a fortune-teller to predict. What a total face-ache this woman is!
We learn that the city is called Kelka; and then, sleazing onto the scene comes Akkheba, High Priest of Ashtoreth. And just believe Old Uncle Charley when he tells you that this fat tub of lard has got ‘Don’t Trust Me’ written all over his pudgy face.
He’s also got a proposal for the corsairs, to kill some time whilst their ship is being repaired, like: take on a huge blonde sea-dog called Captain Auro, who – with his pirates of the Barachan Isles – has been stripping Kelka of a crippling yearly tribute. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s that time of the year again.
‘Ashtoreth’ turns out to be woman from across the Western Sea. As the Princess Astarta she had been the bride of a sea god and granted immortality many thousands of years ago; with the sinking of Atlantis, however, she found herself ashore on Kelka where she has been imprisoned and tortured since.
Frankly, I found Astarta’s story quite distressing. I find sexual violence against women extremely upsetting and although it is only suggested in one panel it is clear that this woman has suffered several lifetimes of misery. She also carries on her body the torture marks of the whip. Don’t get me wrong: it is not gratuitous in the context of the story and Thomas handles it with some delicacy. This is just a personal thing.
Taken together, these two issues offer a terrific adventure full of excitement and headlong action, with everything culminating in a stalemate with Auro and of course the watery destruction of Kelka.
Buscema is on absolutely top form, especially in the sublime second part where he is joined once more – and thankfully back for a while – by inker Ernie Chan, who works so damned well with him.
Volume 9 of the Conan Chronicles is a great read and everything ends up very satisfactorily with everybody back on the Tigress and Conan carrying Bêlit off to their cabin.
Which should keep her quiet.
But probably only for a very short while.
*A word on the James Allison stories. These really are close to demented fever dreams of violence. In fact, one of them contains one of my favourite Howard lines:
“Our women fought, when brought to bay, like tigresses; and I have seen a babe, not yet old enough to stammer articulate words, twist its head and sink its tiny teeth in the foot that stamped out its life.”
Again, that’s my Robert. Paranoid to the end, he probably wouldn’t turn his back on a nine-month old just in case the little bastard had murderous intentions.