Barbarians of Blackpool

This morning’s post focuses on the fourth of Marvel’s oversized Treasury Editions from the 1970s. I’ll deal with The Xmas Treasuries in about eight weeks time, when we all feel more festive.

In the last week of July 1980, my family had a second holiday in  Morecambe, the Lancashire seaside town. I had recently sat my Highers, the most important exams of one’s school career, and was gloomily awaiting the results. I felt isolated and unhappy at my new school, Hamilton Grammar and truanted regularly. (By the way, those results were mediocre at best, except for Geography) Cheeky, chirpy “Tom Hark” by the Piranhas on constant rotation on Radio One seemed quite inappropriate.

My reading habits were exclusively fantasy – Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight on the train down and on a bus trip to Blackpool, Lin Carter’s zany, interplanetary take on the Arabian Nights, The Wizard of Zao.

After visiting both the Doctor Who and the Gerry Anderson exhibitions- neither of which I can remember with enough clarity to evoke for you- I bought Conan the Barbarian from a seafront bookstall. I also saw the Avengers Treasury but didn’t buy it. In those days, it was remarkable to stumble upon a five-year-old rarity – much less two of them.

This was a happy accident: as a Sword and Sorcery nerd, I’d read all the Sphere paperbacks  by 1980, including the recently- published Conan the Liberator. On that holiday I also sampled one of the softcore Richard Blade paperbacks but realised they were ghastly. I still own that tardy Treasury, however, thirty-two years later.

The cover image is a cropped version of the back cover. Barry Smith echoes Frazetta as Conan fights on a mound of rain-lashed corpses, thrusting his crotch at us. A severed head is mounted on a pole in the background. It’s a provocative and grisly image for a Seventies comic book.

An Informal History of the Thomas/Smith Conan: Roy Thomas brings a scholarly tone to this two-page essay in the inside covers. He writes about the success of Marvel’s Conan in the early 70s and sounds justifiably proud of this collection.

Rogues in the House: Misspelled “Rouges” in the Table of Contents. Conan is hired by a nobleman to assassinate a blackmailing priest.  However, Nabonidus has been experimenting, Fu Manchu-style,  on a giant ape. Having boosted the ape’s intelligence, the Red Priest finds it is eager to take his place.

This is  one of the better, original Robert E. Howard stories. I had previously read it in the SSOC weekly comic where the betrayal by recurring character Jenna ( essentially a gold-digging prostitute) was quite a shock. Thomas injects some quirky humour with a domestic servant called Sivraj ( Jarvis spelled backwards). Smith’s Kirby influences are strong thanks to the superheroic inks of Sal Buscema but there are sinuous Art Nouveau flourishes.

The Road to Aquilonia: a giant colour two-page map of the Hyborian world. This version actually traces the route of Conan’s wanderings through the colour comic up to issue 22.

Red Nails: this was the very first original REH Conan story I ever read, around 77 or 78. I bought this paperback in John Menzies in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, having seen the Sphere editions on sale in bookshops  since about 1975.

The first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t narrated in Thomas’s faux-antique style. It was very direct and modern. It’s also an incredibly violent and grisly story: a lost city in the desert is home to two warring clans (with Meso-American names) who have exterminated each other by the story’s end. There are titillating elements of bondage and lesbianism, involving Valeria, the story’s pirate heroine.

Red Nails is a revamped version of Howard’s own Xuthal of the Dusk aka The Slithering Shadow. It was also the last of his  Conan stories. Thomas and Smith had adapted it for the legendary b/w magazine Savage Tales and this was its first colour reprint.

Smith is less of the superhero imitator here: his pencils are lush and ornate, especially the logos;  sometimes hallucinatory and grotesque (particularly the Xotalancas’ collection of severed heads under glass).

This epic-length adventure is very heady stuff for 50p. I imagine many solicitous parents today would be alarmed by the frank content. Just the climax alone is a headline-grabber: a human sacrifice with Sapphic imagery, Conan with his foot in a beartrap, a half-naked inferred cannibal wielding a  sceptre/laser…Nonetheless, it makes me wonder how Smith would have illustrated other lurid Howard tales like The Scarlet Citadel.

Conan Unconquered :  A one-page poster, dedicated to REH’s memory. Against a vivid red sky, Conan fends off a flaming arrow while his shield is a splintered circlet.

This is a classy collection of comic book wizardry but not for the squeamish and an example of what was getting under the radar in the glory days of Marvel UK. However, in the five years between 75 and 80, Glam had been superceded by Punk and then by the Hallowe’en imagery of Heavy Metal. Hammer House of Horror would begin in September 1980, so maybe the Conan Treasury chose the right moment to emerge from obscurity in the Vegas of the North.

Coming soon: You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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