A few weeks ago, I started reading Savage Sword of Conan Volume One (Dark Horse) and began composing a blog post about it and all things Conan through the lens — as always — of my own personal experience.
And then halfway through, Frank Frazetta died, so I was kind of at a loss for words.
The very, very first comic I remember buying with my own money was King Conan #17 which I bought at the Fredericton Farmers Market in late 1986 or early 1987 — there’s that year again! It was the fall of 1986 that I became a comics collector / obsessor, and at the time there was no comic shop in Fredericton. But a guy by the name of Steve Wilkie had a stall set up at the farmers market where he sold several long boxes worth of back issues, so that’s where my parents took me to get my comics. Not much later Wilkie went on to found Fredericton’s first comic shop — A Collector’s Dream — in February of 1987. But, as I learned decades later though, during his farmers market days, apparently Wilkie’s expertise was cards not comics, so he had a guy working the comics for him — one Calum Johnson, who later went on in 1992 to found Strange Adventures, one of the greatest comics shops in the world — first in Fredericton, then in Halifax.
Anyway, the main reason I bought a King Conan comic was to impress my older brother, which is why I did most things in those days. Having a Conan comic would mean my brother — six-and-a-half years older than me — would want to see something that I owned. My older brother had been a huge fan of the first Schwarzenegger movie for years and had forced my mom to take him to see it when it came out in theaters. As a result, I myself saw it on video when I was waaayyy too young to have been allowed. But our parents let us watch lots of R-Rated movies in those days. As you can imagine, it definitely left a lasting impression, because the movie is one of my top ten all-time favorites to this day.
But for years I think I kind of misinterpreted the film. The reason I loved it for the longest time was the amorality of Conan. I mean, he wasn’t seeking to avenge his father’s death because it impassioned him or because it was the “moral” course to take. He did it because it was almost like a motor response. Father dies, so seek revenge. Cut your finger, so scream in pain. Raining outside, so ground gets wet. Conan is like an animal in this movie, not in the sense of viciousness, but in terms of unthinkingness. Not seeing things as moral or immoral, but simply being.
Watching the movie again when it came out on DVD in the early Naughts, I was struck that my earlier interpretation was false. Some people may facetiously joke that Arnold was ideal for the part because of his wooden acting, but this is bullshit. Conan is wildly emotional in this movie, sometimes reserved, sometimes tender, sometimes cunning and sly, sometimes an ogre. (And this is all before the notorious restored blueberry scene.) And we get every aspect of Conan’s personality through Schwarzenegger’s performance. He was a young guy in his first “real” lead in a major movie — he had to prove himself and director John Milius got the performance out of him.
Milius himself wrote Apocalypse Now, has directed not much else in his career, and has written a lot. In the 70s Hollywood expose Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author Peter Biskind has Milius running in the same circles as Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, Cimino, and Bogdanovich. Oliver Stone, who co-wrote Conan went on to bigger things himself. It feels like Milius never matched the success of his contemporaries, but then even those stars have faded from time to time.
Conan was the role Arnold was born to play. Anyone who says Terminator is talking out of their ass. Why would Skynet program all the T-800 units with Austrian accents?! Is that supposed to make them less detectable?! No — in Conan, Arnold works because of the exotic accent and the physique. Anyone who doubts Arnold’s range as an actor in this movie needs only look at the 1997 Conan TV series starring Ralf Moeller to see real cardboard acting. And at least Ralf had the size and an accent — I am gravely concerned about the newest movie version coming out, though it’s one which I will surely never see.
Arnold was helped of course by the phenomenal score by Basil Poledouris (1945-2006). Conan was followed by a flood of schmaltzy, low budget, strangely American imitators none of which had the Arnold or the music to elevate them beyond the VHS bins.
So, Savage Sword of Conan Volume One. It reprints several issues of Savage Tales and eleven issues of The Savage Sword of Conan. These were originally published by Marvel in the 70s in a large black & white magazine-sized format — a format which I sorely miss. Here they are reprinted at a more standard comic-book size and on cheaper paper (I think). The reproduction is fine though and the paper will stay in good shape if you take care of it. (In fact, all the following scans are from CBRs, not my copy, because I didn’t want to break the spine on my scanner — the actual book has clear, white pages.)
I’m only guessing at the editorial mandate behind the magazine, but I’m guessing they were aiming for a more adult, classier counterpart to the regular monthly color comic. They certainly succeeded at that and SSoC is way more violent than the regular series, though it sadly still lacks naked boobies. Every story in here is written by Roy Thomas (who was also writing the regular Conan series at the time), and most of the stores are penciled are by John Buscema, though there are two by Gil Kane, one or two by Barry Windsor Smith, one by Alex Nino, and a few random others. For the most part John Buscema is inked by Alfredo Alcala, thought sometimes he is inked by “The Tribe” which I must assume means the Marvel Bullpen.
I’m not very familiar with John Buscema’s work. Before this, I knew him from that issue of King Conan which he also drew, so I always identified him with Conan — even from that single issue — which is what everyone else associates him with anyway. But I better knew him for the second Superman / Spider-Man crossover (which I owned in digest form) and a run on the Punisher. In the case of the Punisher, the thing I remembered most about his work was that he cheated the hell out of the backgrounds. There were a lot of panels where you’d have a couple of people talking or fighting and nothing in the background but a random color like purple or yellow. In fact, in the Superman / Spider-Man book the backgrounds were done by a different artist entirely. (The only other artist I noticed to be quite this criminal was John Byrne, usually when he was writing, penciling, and inking all on his own — particularly during his Fantastic Four days.) His other major flaw is that his women are sometimes indistinguishable.
The interesting thing here is Buscema’s inkers. Alcala is the best of the lot — a real master who shades using “lines.” I don’t know if there is a name for this technique but it is a style that I most closely associate with Albrecht Durer, Punch magazine, Gary Gianni (who should be a superstar), and John Totleben’s inking work on the Alan Moore Swamp Thing run. Boy, those Image guys who were obsessed with lots-of-little-lines-for-shading could have learned a lesson from Alcala. (Years later, Alcala himself would go on to work on Swamp Thing, but by then his style would evolve into something completely different.) And Buscema as inked by “The Tribe” is a lot less interesting — it lacks the quality of immersive depth that Alcala brought to it. I don’t know if Alcala forced Buscema to lift his game, or Alcala was filling in the backgrounds himself, or if it was editorial mandate, but the Buscema background handicap is almost never an issue here. Environments are lush, textured, and tactile in almost every panel. Alan Grant wrote a while back about how the Filipino artists left him cold because of their stiffness and their “overrendered and overinked” pencils (some of them also had a habit of not pulling “the camera” back from the action far enough or often enough). But I think somehow Buscema’s dynamism and layouts and Alcala’s texture complimented each other perfectly here. I do prefer the facial expressions of Buscema’s characters when he inks himself (see Conan the Rogue), but the art here is often breathtaking.
(Below: Conan The Rogue art — Buscema inking himself)
But the stories… well, the stories are here and there. As mentioned above, they are all written by Roy Thomas, who you’d think would have been Conan-ed out after writing so many hundred Conan stories. He even served as a consultant on the movie. I will say that the stories here are much better than the ones in the regular Conan title, and I loved “The Citadel at the center of Time” which is a perfect Conan adventure. The advantage may be that Thomas was adapting Robert E Howard stories for many of the tales here, whereas he was often working from scratch on the regular series (although “Citadel” is a Thomas original, and admittedly REH‘s later Conan stories were less engaging than the very earliest ones). There is generally less magic and magical beings in these stories, which I personally prefer. And Thomas relies less on narrative captions here than in the regular series. Thomas’s prose, which I don’t want to call “purple” but is certainly overwritten at times, needs the guiding hand of editorial vigilance and I think he got more of it here than in the regular Conan series, but still not enough sometimes. Often you can ignore the captions and “read” the pictures — especially with the Buscema / Alcala team — and come away with a panel or sequence that is still as rich. In his adaptation of “Hour of the Dragon,” I couldn’t help but feel how much better it would have been if some scenes were done silently in, say, a Mike Mignola style rather than having to be told how creepy the hallways were. (In fact, check out the recent Mignola-written issues of Conan to see just what I mean.) Thomas may have had the best of intentions, but the uncomfortable impression one gets is that he did not trust his artists. I don’t know if Thomas was still working on the Conan books after he consulted on the movie, but if he did, I hope he learned a lesson from the lack of narration in the movie to incorporate into his own work. I did love the visual of the gray captions boxes, though, setting them off from the art, and adding another texture to the pages.
Another weird thing is that I feel like I’ve read the REH adaptations — like “Black Colossus” — multiple times before in different adaptations, and some of them really recently: the original REH stories, the current Dark Horse versions, maybe also even in Marvel’s regular Conan series as well. What’s interesting about the current Dark Horse series though is that they are really filling in all the gaps. For example, in one story here, Conan mentions being the last of the living “Free Companions” and surviving in the marshes for days. It’s about two or three sentences of dialog, but just a few months back, the DH series spent THREE ISSUES on this storyline! Everyone will have their preference, but I kind of preferred the DH approach.
I’m not sure what to think of DH’s recent announcement that Roy Thomas would be coming back to the character for a 12-issue arc. It strikes me as more like Chris Claremont returning to the X-Men than Larry Hama returning to G.I. Joe, but I have to assume he has “modernized” his writing and Philip Simon — my own current editor at DH — will be editing him so I am still looking forward to it. (And, yes, there is a conflict of interest in this review — but I only review DH books that I like and stay silent about the ones I don’t. I’m not one to bite the hand that feeds me.)
Now, I can’t sign off without finally mentioning the covers. Most of the covers are by Boris Vallejo, which is kind of a shock considering how good they are. Vallejo’s art in the 70s was — apparently — fairly vibrant, bristling with energy and violence and sweat. The cover to this volume is awesome. I even kind of like Vallejo’s stuff from the 80s like this:
… But I mostly know him for his glossy, posed, lifeless stage — the 90s, when he might as well have been painting unicorns in moonlight and his barbarian warriors seem to be fighting dragons projected on a green screen. Vallejo in the 70s was more like Joe Jusko now. Both men who probably deserve to be called better than Frazetta — R.I.P — wannabes but they probably never will be even though there’s nothing really wrong with them. If they came home with report cards, Vallejo would have an 83 and Jusko would have an 87. I mean, you’d be proud that your sons were doing so well in school, you know? Frazetta would have a 392.