The Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 2 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Being somewhere along the "middle age" spectrum, I sometimes go back in my mind to try to ferret out what experiences might have been formative to me when I was growing up. The reason is entirely selfish - I want to recapture some of the feelings I had as a child, before the big bad world started beating me up, like it does all of us. Sometimes, when I go back, I am astounded at the age at which certain key events happened. Take, for example, my discovery of The Savage Sword of Conan, a "magazine" (really a comic book in which graphic violence and sultry imagery and subject matter were not strictly forbidden) that I first read when I was 8 years old. I remember the very night it happened: My father was enlisted in the Air Force for my entire childhood. We were living in Italy at the time and because the family housing on the base where we worked was being built, we lived in the town of Brindisi. Mom and Dad wanted to go see a movie (I originally remembered it as Superman, but that doesn't mesh with the timeline - this was before Superman was released), so they did what all good parents of Air Force dependents do in such situations, they dropped me off at the base's daycare (or in this case, night-care). Now, this may come as a surprise to some, but the military is not particularly good at understanding children's needs and is particularly bad at gauging what is age-appropriate material. So please don't be surprised when I tell you that I picked up my first issue of The Savage Sword of Conan, issue #20, at the daycare. I'm guessing now that, like most other reading material at the daycare, it was donated by some kind-hearted GI who thought that some of the older kids at the daycare might want to read a good comic book.
Not only did I get to read it there, the daycare person told me I could take the "comic" home with me, if I liked. My parents, hardly looking at it, let me take it.
Thus began the corruption of my youth.
Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'm perfectly fine with it. Obviously, I liked it enough to come back to it after many years away. I read and occasionally bought issues of SSoC at the Stars and Stripes Bookstore on base. There were other comics (Star Wars came out that year, for instance), but nothing quite like SSoC. Even the "regular" Conan the Barbarian comic just didn't do it for me. Savage Sword's artwork was so much higher quality and the storytelling was much more compelling and complex than the simple Conan comic. Given the choice between buying an issue of Savage Sword and an issue of the Conan comic, I always went Savage Sword.
Fast forward to 2008, when Dark Horse comics re-released all of the Savage Sword of Conan issues in omnibus format. I was a little slow in hearing about this, but I caught up eventually. I read volume one and was mildly tickled by it, but not super impressed. Then came volume 2, the volume containing the issues from my time, and I was whisked back to my childhood days. Of course, I understand the subtleties and innuendos much better than I did then. In fact, the more I read and reread the stories, the more I appreciate them. Most of the stories in this volume were either direct translations of Robert E. Howard's stories or were constructed using Howard's outline notes for incomplete stories. Say what you will about Howard as a person, his strange idiosyncrasies and is misogyny (and there was much) - Howard was, above all, a solid writer who knew how to plot an intriguing story and who created, in Conan and others, characters who were always consistent with themselves. Still, as with any collection of short stories, whether in words or graphic format, these tales vary in quality and enjoyability. Some of this is due to Howard's writing (or incompleteness of writing, in regards to stories that were never fully fleshed out before his suicide), some is due to artistic interpretations of the works.
This volume covers issues #11 - #24, published April 1976 - November 1977. Here are some highlight and lowlights:
"The Abode of the Damned" tracks Conan through a city inhabited entirely by thieves and bandits, of which he is one of the most notorious. This one left me a bit flat, as the reverse deus-ex-machina, composed of three un-named sorcerous strangers, were the hinge point of the plot. Howard's written better.
"The Haunters of Castle Crimson," like many of the stories in this volume, is a complex intrigue of political machinations and deception. Here, not everyone is who they seem to be, and the implications for the rulership and influence in the region in which the story takes place are of great consequence. As with many of the Conan stories, sorcery is afoot, this time in the form of a skeletal horde of warriors who were betrayed and who seek revenge on the traitor. Layer on top of this a friendship gone awry between Conan and his old comrade-in-arms, Malthom of Nemedia, and you've got the type of yarn Howard is famous for. A very satisfying read.
"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" was my least favorite story of the volume. The pencils, done by Gil Kane, were my least favorite. This is a little strange, because the drawings are similar to those done by Jeff Dee, of Dungeons and Dragons fame. And I love Dee's artwork. Kane's work is like a poor pastiche of Dee, though I'm not entirely sure whether either knew of the other and, if they did, which one drew first. Maybe Dee's art is an improvement on Kane's? In any case, Kane's art was not for me and the story was pretty vanilla. Kane was well-known for his superhero art, but Conan was far more gritty than any contemporary super-hero. The music doesn't match the groove here.
"Shadows in Zamboula" was one of my favorites in this volume. An enterprising innkeeper is feeding his guests to cannibals, but Conan isn't about to be a meal! He rescues a maiden (a Howard trope used ad nauseum), Zabibi, who leads him to retrieve The Star of Khorala, a magical ring. While at the temple of the idol-god Hanuman, Zabibi is stolen from Conan (another Howard trope), and he encounters the sorcerous and monstrously strong Baal-Pteor, one of the fabled Stranglers of Yota-Pong. But Conan bests the brutish champion at his own game. Meanwhile, the priest of Hanuman, has captured Zabibi in order to exact revenge for her theft, along with her lover, of the Star of Khorala. Conan rescues her, then disposes of the innkeeper who got him into this mess in the first place, in an appropriately . . . culinary manner.
"The People of the Black Circle," which spans issues #16-#19, inclusive, is an epic tale that takes the themes of political intrigue, romance, sorcery, influence among thieves, backstabbing, and betrayal to their heights. This is one of Howard's best stories. If you're going to read one segment of Savage Sword of Conan in an attempt to get the feel of the series, this is the one. I won't spoil the story - I'm certain others have outlined it in other reviews. Suffice it to say that if you haven't read this, you haven't read Conan.
"The Slithering Shadow" is my top story of the volume. This was the one I read as a kid in daycare and reread time and time again. It is one of the most "Lovecraftian" Conan stories that Howard ever wrote (Howard and Lovecraft were contemporaries, by the way, and had extensive correspondence between them). Here, Conan and the Brythunian ex-slave, Natala, are seen about to die in the desert. Conan is about to administer the mercy stroke to her, to spare her the suffering of death by dehydration, when they spy a city in the desert. They investigate and find the city inhabited by a strange race of sleepers who wake only for limited periods to engage in all sorts of ribald decadence before again drugging themselves to wander among the dreamlands. The dread god Thog shambles in the shadows, eating the sleepers on his own inscrutable dinner schedule. Conan and Natala encounter a Stygian woman named Thalis who had come into the city of Xuthal as a child. Thalis lusts after Conan and, so, steals away Natala (see a theme here?) to torture the Brythunian out of sheer jealousy. Then the Lovecraftian element, the dread god Thog, crawls out of the shadows and . . . well, I don't want to spoil things for you. One thing I love about this story is that, while Conan, as always, escapes with his life, he is in the worst shape you will ever see him. We see that Conan is no superman. He is human, mortal, and vulnerable, especially to things, and here I mean "things that crawl around in darkness in order to kill you in nasty, face-melting ways", from places far-removed from our reality. If you're a fan of the Cthulhu mythos and want a segue into the world of Conan, this is the story for you.
There are several other stories in this volume, as well. Had it only had the last three I mentioned above, it would be a five-star book, albeit a much shorter five-star book. A couple of duds don't drag the volume down too far, and if you're not familiar with the original Conan stories, you might not even think the lesser stories are duds at all. And even the most jaded Conan fan will find something to love in this volume. I did, and some of these tales have stuck in my head for forty years now. I can't say that about a lot of things. Maybe when senility finally kicks in I'll start wearing a bearskin loincloth and swinging a sword. You'll probably see me in the headlines, by Crom!!!
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