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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Next time, we’ll look at the sequel to this comic: the 1977 Conan Annual.
All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners