With the school holidays dwindling to an end, I’m reminded of my teenage years and my voracious appetite for heroic fantasy paperbacks. I think the late 70s and early 80s, with their Heavy Metal boom, were the origin point for both the role-playing game hobby and the Goth fashion trend.
It’s July 1978. You’re the One That I Want is of course Number One. Elsewhere, Don’t Fear the Reaper and the Who’s CSI theme have charted. My first exposure to Bob Dylan is his New Wave-y single, Baby Stop Crying.
I am desperate to get my hands on the UK reprint of 1977’s Savage Sword of Conan adaptation of The Slithering Shadow. I take the train to Central Station to scour the wooden newsstand but to no avail.
1960s Central Station hardly looked any different in ’79.
I finally read the story later that year in Conan the Adventurer, having joined Strathaven Library and haunting Grant’s bookshop in Glasgow and the flagship John Menzies in Buchanan Street. I then read the Marvel adaptation some thirty (!) years later in the second volume of the Dark Horse b/w Conan collection. Last month, I decided I wanted to own the original (US) SSOC printing.
Originally titled, romantically, Xuthal of the Dusk, the story depicts Conan and a prostitute called Natala surviving a desert slaughter of their mercenary band and discovering a glassy, green city of Oriental lotus eaters. These somnabulent scientists are prey to an alien creature. An imperious Stygian female named Thalis sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the destruction of the populace.
This is rather an excessive story of bondage and addiction with a titanic struggle between Conan and the monster, which the barbarian only survives through a draught of miraculous liqour. It’s very bloody and the spicy scenes are a bit more sensationalist than the monthly colour Conan. Thalis is one of Buscema’s statuesque villainesses; much of her pantherish menace and the decadent, langourous atmosphere is down to the inking of Alfredo Alcala. But the penciller renders the creature as a cross between a toad and a triceratops, however and the effect is faintly comic. As is often the case with Howard (and Thomas!) Conan sounds quite contemporary: ” Did I tell the Stygian to fall in love with me? After all, she was only human!”
The other features are Solomon Kane’s Homecoming, a Howard poem, prettily illustated by Virgilio Redondo and Rudy Nebres and a photo-feature, Sing a Song of Sonjas, in which Michale Walters of San Diego cosplays a charming Red Sonja.
Now…it’s August 1979. Cliff Richard is Number One and his new lyricist, droll teacher BA Robertson has a career boost in tandem. There are two songs in the charts called Anegl Eyes. Chuck E is in Love, and the Chic Organisation has revived disco. My family go on holiday in Lamlash on Arran and it rains in torrents. I am reading ERB’s tedious Lost on Venus (having devoured the Conan Sphere paperbacks) and Starburst magazine which previews Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings.
Although it’s rained on all but one of my five return visits to the island, I gave Arran another chance last weekend and aside from one quick downpour, the weather was unusally sunny. I had been to a cremation in Glasgow and retreated to Brodick for a day or two. This time, I had a copy of Savage Tales 2, purchased in Glasgow’s City Centre Comics.
I had first seen the cover reproduced in b/w in the second Foom magazine, as a 9-year-old, and it had a brutal, illicit fascination.
Barry Smith’s first installment of Red Nails looks stunning in black and white, Interestingly, this REH story is Slithering Shadow revisited, with trappings of Mesoamerican instead of Asian culture. Valeria the pirate heroine is more robust than Natala but the story is hugely violent and sensational, with its imagery of torture and lesbianism.
Lone Star Fictioneer is a biog of REH illustrated by Frank Brunner. Dark Tomorrow by Conway and Gray Morrow is a rather cliche Ruritanian adventure set in a dystopian future. It’s a bit dull but the heroine’s costume may have inspired that of Starfire, DC’s heroine who occupied a similar milieu.
Cimmeria is a stunning, moody BWS asaptation of a Howard poem. It’s followed by The Crusader, a Fifties reprint of Saracens vs. Mongols by Joe Maneely. He was the creator of the Yellow Claw and the Black Knight , a favourite artist of Stan Lee, but one who died tragically young. Someone confused Saracens and Crusaders though.
A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career is reprinted from a1938 fanzine. It’s a chronology of the REH stories with vintage illustrations from Weird Tales. Finally The Skull of Silence is a reprint of Marvel’s first Kull story. This moody but extremely caption-heavy story was reprinted from Creatures on the Loose– the former Gothic horror comic, Tower of Shadows. It reminds me of DC’s genteel sword and sorcery efforts of the late 60s.
Despite an ad for Satana in a ludicrous Tina Turner bat-outfit, I feel the absence of Ka-Zar or Man-Thing since this is essentially a trial run for Savage Sword of Conan. These comic magazines are sweetly tame compared to the gruesome imagery of modern Batman in WH Smith. Crucially, they confirmed my preference for the Marvel Conan -especially by Barry Smith or Gil Kane-to the pulp original.
There is an hallucinatory, sci-fi quality to early stories like Tower of the Elephant or Queen of the Black Coast. I would, however, recommend the Pictish (read: Native American) adventures Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger as the best-written, most exciting and well-characterised in the canon.
Coming soon: The Wolverine
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