Swords of Sorcery

Today’s post concerns a Marvel Treasury Edition that I actually did buy in the summer of 1977: Conan The Barbarian ( no.15) ” The Cimmerian’s Greatest Adventures co-starring Red Sonja” aka “The penultimate Conan collection” featuring “virtually” all the the major Marvel illustrators of the Conan comic.

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So ,the cover rather misleadingly suggests that the quasi-Russian hellcat gets equal billing – and given that Sonja was effectively Marvel’s biggest female star in ’76-77, this would be a wise marketing decision. However, the frontispiece indicates that this is more of an art lover’s book.

The Conan colour monthly had been an award winner in the early Seventies and at the mid-point of the decade, Savage Sword of Conan had revived the b/w magazine market (that had initially flourished with Dracula Lives and Tales of the Zombie). I had already read two thrillingly illicit SSOC issues in Secondary school. In August 1977, I was fourteen and on holiday with my mum, brother and our three dogs in a caravan at Portobello Bay, near Leswalt in the remote Rhins of Galloway.

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At the beginning of the week, Elvis Presley died. The Horror Double Bill on the night I got this book was “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man” and “The Raven”.

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I must have bought this comic in Stranraer: I recollect reading it in my dad’s car in the rain, on the level crossing at Dunragit. Last summer, I revisited Portobello Bay. After negotiating barbed wire, I found the path very overgrown. The jagged rocks were haunted by gulls and barnet moths and the tiny shingle beach littered with plastic refuse from the Sea of Moyle.

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How does the comic hold up, thirty-six years on?

The Song of Red Sonja: I had read the original introduction of the She-Devil with a Sword in Barry Smith’s farewell issue. It was an exotic and naughty story to a nine-year-old: here, a staggeringly rude word  has been changed to “wonk”. I’m struck now by both the gorgeous art and the subtlety of the storytelling. The interludes- in which the wizard Kharam-Akkad foresees his own death and the poetic scene between king and unfaithful queen -are sophsiticated. Roy Thomas also deftly foreshadows the truth about the man-god Tarim as Sonja notes treasures “strewn about like the worthless toys of a madman”.

Thomas also refers to Kull and the Serpent-men lending a mythic quality to the story. Here, Sonja is a hoyden not the cheesecake pin-up of the cover

Night of the Dark God: This is a grim revenge tragedy in which Conan avenges the kidnapping and suicide of his childhood sweetheart. The supernatural element comes from a cursed idol of Brule, Kull’s Pictish ally. As in Howard’s tales, the Picts are depicted almost like native Americans.

 Gil Kane and Neal Adams deliver a moody, violent tale with a pin-up tableau drawn from Smith-Era stories. I can admire it but I don’t like it that much.

Sonja Three: a pin-up section with images by Esteban Maroto, who designed  the Vampire Tales incarnation of  Satana; Dick Giordano and Frank Thorne whose carousing Sonja was the version in the colour comic. The college-boy sexism of the 70s is marked here:” If that doesn’t make you want to rush out and subscribe, lads, we’ll ask the mortician to stop by your digs on the morrow”

Black Colossus: this is an adaptation of an REH Conan original- perhaps the fourth Conan adventure- originally published in SSOC 2(1974). It is an Orientalist story of political intrigue, warfare and black magic- imagine The Mummy by Cecil B. deMille. Howard would rework some elements of this rather thin story for other Conan sales: the resurrection of the sorceror from the lost city features in both The Devil in Iron and Conan the Conqueror.

This adventure with the living corpse Thugra Khotan ( who also manifests as an incubus, the Black Colossus of the title) was my favourite in the collection. It spurred me on to buy more Buscema/Alcala collaborations in 1977-78. I have to wonder why Thomas didn’t go with Curse of the Undead Man, which was a Sonja/Conan team-up from SSOC 1 Or its sequel,  the lurid Tower of Blood two-parter from 1974?

The comic closes with Rick Hoberg’s classy version of the Hyborian age Map. It can’t quite match the ornate, Art Nouveau style double-page version by Tim Conrad in SSOC 9, however.

I scoured bookstalls and shops for SSOC issues over the following autumn and, on joining the library in the spring of 1978, I devoured the Sphere books. In fact, I now suspect that on the same journey back from the Rhins, I bought my first Conan book (possibly in Glenluce; more likely Newton Stewart) beginning a Sword and Sorcery reading habit that would last another five years or so.

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Next time, we’ll look at the sequel to this comic: the 1977 Conan Annual.

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Forewarned is Four-Armed

The Sensational Spider-Man, the 14th Marvel Treasury Edition, was added to my collection last year. In essence, this arc is a 70s  hipster tribute by Stan, Roy and Gil to the Universal monster movie cycle.

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The Spider or the Man? : this is the 100th anniversary story of Spidey. It begins as a kinetic, gritty urban thriller before, in trying to rid himself of his powers, Peter Parker hallucinates five of his old enemies. Gil Kane depicts Parker as a perspiring  neurotic, not unlike young Anthony Perkins.

A Monster called Morbius: having now gained four extra arms (!), the anguished Parker retreats to Doc Connors’ Long Island home. The grotesque and faintly comic costumed vampire Morbius is introduced in a shipboard sequence lifted from the Lugosi Dracula. Not only is this issue ground-breaking for its bloodthirsty villain, the tone is surprisingly adult, with its references to obscene phone calls, Betty Friedan and “I Am Curious (Yellow)”. Kane also sneaks an ad for his Blackmark series on to a billboard.

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Vampire at Large: bitten by Morbius, Doc Connors as the Lizard alternates from a humanoid dinosaur to a scaled human and declaims in the trademark Kane style. This issue marks a brief transition to a  larger format (for a higher price) and the distinctive “framed” covers.

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The Way it Began: Morbius has a flashback to his transformation in a Kirby-esque “sequestered laboratory”. He also transgresses the code of the tormented Marvel monster by killing a Bowery bum . Thomas and Kane create effective four-colour suspense. This chapter , with the pages slightly rearranged, was reprinted in the b/w magazine Vampire Tales.

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The Curse and the Cure: Gwen Stacy agonizes gorgeously in a soap operatic cutaway while, in an accidental moment of eerie foreshadowing, Morbius vanishes after colliding with a bridge while connected to Spidey’s web. Parker is cured, as is Doc Connors but the adventure does seem to have a sense of anticlimax.

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Morbius would go on to three further rematches with Spidey under the auspices of Conway and Kane. Then he would star in a sci-fi flavoured solo strip in Adventure into Fear with art from Paul Gulacy and Frank Robbins.

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With This Ring, I Thee Web: a Gary Friedrich/Marie Severin parody in the style of Mad Magazine from Not Brand Ecch #6. The Ageing Spidey-Man encounters the Gizzard and the Green Globule as he announces his engagement to the wonderful Wisp. This largely unfunny but densely detailed cartoon does at least display a likeable irreverance which is hard to imagine in the self-regarding event-driven comics of today.

Pusblished some three years after the horror boom, this treasury sees Marvel on the cusp of a sci-fi revival, instigated by Star Wars, which essentially saved the House of Ideas from financial implosion.  Next time, we’ll look at the zenith of another major trend of the Bronze Age.

Coming soon: The Lord of the Rhins

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Get Down, America!

That Howard the Duck received his own Treasury Edition while Daredevil or box office smash Iron Man did not, tells us what an impact this New Breed of Hero had on Marvelites in 1976.

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I didn’t buy this comic in Strathaven although I had the opportunity. I was still smarting from the derision issue 5 had generated from a ginger kid in the playground. Now, of course, no cosseted 12-year-old colossus would sneer at a trip to Disneyland Paris but, in some ways, we were more worldly in those days.

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ImageMy first tentative steps into drama, particularly of audio, were facilitated by schoolboy recordings of the Beaver and Dr. Bong stories from HTD. (blissfully unaware of any risque connotations- or copyright! I did say wordlly in some ways!) I had already explored the possibilities of a Goons scripts hardback and a reel-to-reel recorder; the satirical tone of Gerber’s and Colan’s  comics struck a chord with me but seemed to baffle my S3 classmates.

It was only last year however that I bought this treasury on ebay. and I have never seen the infamous movie. How does Marvel’s four-colour foray into Underground Comix hold up today?

The Duck and the Defenders:I followed Gerber and Sal Buscema’s Defenders through most of the Headmen/Bozo storyline of 1975/76. Originally a loose alliance of Marvel’s supremely powerful anti-heroes, The Defenders had mutated into a pop psychology version of a Team Book, prefiguring Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol by over a decade.

Here, master of mundane magick Dr. Angst creates a villainous Band of the Bland: Tillie the Hun, The Spanker, The Black Hole and Sitting Bullseye, who might be a satirical swipe at Simon and Kirby’s Western hero of the 50s. The story also reminds me of the 1967 Negative Crisis on Earth-2 from JLA 55, in that the villains are empowered by “Promethium mettle spheres”. The laboured gag of “having spheres” -or growing a pair, as we say nowadays- is revisited throughout the story.

This tale wouldn’t seem out of place in the regular Defenders series and Howard’s remark about Peter Parker ( “That baby-faced masher”) is quite witty, in a fanzine vein.

The Way it All Began:  this is a fragment of the Man-Thing feature in Adventure into Fear from the end of 1973. Dakimh the Enchanter, his acolyte Jennifer, the barbarian Korrek and the anthropomorphic Howard set out on a quest to right the Cosmic Axis. This is a rather limp attempt at the Headshop Kozmic bettered by Englehart’s Avengers. It also leads into…

Frog Death: the first reprint from the legendary and ribald Giant-Size Man-Thing, this appears to be a parody of the monster strips that predated the Fantastic Four -and perhaps of the less-than-stellar villains of the Seventies, like Damon Dran, the Indestructible Man; Man-Bull; Drom the Backwards Man, etc.

I first read this story as a mini-comic in  a UK weekly but I can’t track down which one at present. Howard finds himself trapped on “our” Earth, like a web-footed Norrin Radd.

Hellcow: “The stranger was thirsty…and not for milk.” a parody of Wolfman’s Tomb of Dracula series, this is the only mildly amusing joke in the collection. Howard frees a heifer from the curse of vampirism and there is a cameo for Cleveland cop, Commisoner Gordonski. Holy Nosferatu, Batman.

 Howard the Barbarian: “Web-foot meets Web-head!” The much sought-after premiere issue of the series is reprinted here. A moody collaboration with Frank Brunner and Tom Palmer, the story pokes fun at the tropes of Roy Thomas’s Conan series-one of Marvel’s best sellers of the period and breaking ground in the b/w magazine market. The sword-wielding mallard rescues the nubile Bev from Pro-Rata the Chief Accountant of the Universe. There is also a bathetic guest-appearance from company mascot Peter Parker.

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Foom Magazine 15 from ’77 is a companion piece to the Treasury, continuing the political satire. While bizarre, this collection is not particularly funny but it pokes fun at some of the iconic fads of the Seventies.

coming soon: The LIving Vampire

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The Return of the King

After a bit of a hiatus, today’s post returns to the Treasury Editions of comics’ Bronze Age This was a purchase from Craig’s newsagent in Strathaven in the late Autumn of 1976. Despite having read all the stories before, the return of Kirby to my favourite Marvel comic of my pre-school years was too great an attraction to resist.

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The Fabulous Fantastic Four (in battle with their most fearsome foes!) features a cover that really pops with the contrasting green and red. The bizarrely foreshortened Doctor Doom looms over blocky simple figures of the FF, echoing a trope of Kirby’s 60s covers.

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The back cover features a portrait of the FF with husky versions of Reed and Johnny and a matronly Sue. Doom looks suitably disgusted; Namor is sardonic; the Wizard, Trapster and Sandman are ugly and grotesque, while Medusa appears implacable. As always, I have to say the reformed Medusa was a huge loss to the ranks of Marvel’s female villains.

The Master Plan of Doctor Doom: A light-heated romp from 1964, I first read it in the 1969 Fantastic Four hardback annual ( one which referred to the tv series that was only shown in Grampian i.e. Moray and Aberdeenshire, in the early 70s).

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While the FF squabble over leadership, Doom recruits his Terrible Trio: Bull Brogi, Handsome Harry Phillips and Yogi Dakor,  three hoodlums who will face off against the Torch and the Thing in Strange Tales two more times. Doom himself is accidentally swept off into space after dispatching his henchmen to another dimension, much as Darkseid was later wont to do.

The Coming of the Sub-Mariner:This is an epic from the primeval era of the comic- May 1962- and one I first read in Mighty World of Marvel ten years later.The Torch has, er, stormed out of the team and finds the Sub-Mariner in the Bowery (where, coincidentally, I would enjoy some potent Martinis, some thirty years later!)

 Finding his undersea realm destroyed by atomic tests, Namor unleashes the behemoth Giganto. Sue is offered the opportunity to become co-ruler of the Earth as Princess Namora. There’s also an amusing cameo by Marlon Brando’s Wild One.

The Return of the Frightful Four: I first saw this 1970 story in the second b/w FF album, circa 1971.

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Baby Franklin is finally named after two years in publication time. Kirby anticipates the horror or “weird” cycle in Seventies comics with the introduction of Agnes Moorhead-er, Agatha Harkness. He will return to this milieu with The Demon for DC.

The FF are trapped in a haunted house with a group of murderous enemies and it is the nanny’s witchcraft that saves the day ( despite a manly Reed in his “wife-beater”).This was MY era of the FF- six months of one-and-dones forming the very end of the King’s tenure on the title.

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This Man, This Monster: I first read this 1966 story in the colour FF album, bought for me in Stonehouse sometime in 1969. It’s a postscript to the Galactus Trilogy.

An unnamed scientist contrives to swap bodies with the Thing. In a terrifying turn of events, he chooses to sacrifice himself to save Reed from the anti-matter universe of Sub-Space. Stan would return to this dramatic sci-fi idea three more times ( twice with Jack). This tragedy is one of their finest although  I wasn’t especially impressed it at the time. But now I can appreciate all the humour, warmth, excitement and scope of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

Next: A New Breed of Hero

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