A Can of Worms

Last night, on one of those obscure Sky Channels ( Information TV ), I stumbled across White Zombie, a 30s Lugosi shocker which I probably last saw in 1978. It surprised me to think Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard might well have seen it, or Karloff’s Mummy; they seem right up his street. It’s easy to think of Howard as an antiquated figure, with his bloody pulp tales of lost cities and weird magic. Yet he lived through the Jazz Age with its Art Deco and automobiles.

So, in honour of the fact that I bought the first Marvel Conan Treasury in Blackpool, 35 years ago this week, here is a post on REH’s Conan and his Pictish hero. Bran Mak Morn.

I’ve just read two library editions of Conan from Orion Books. They feature stories which would be adapted in the Giant Size Conan and Savage Sword series: the tales of kingship and betrayal, mostly, but also some of the more extreme and sadistic stories, like The Slithering Shadow and Pool of the Black One.

I only read four issues of the US SSOC until moving on to the UK reprints in the very late Seventies. My second experience of the magazine was issue 17, which we’ll come to below.

The People of the Black Circle is a three-part serial set in REH’s versions of India. ( I think). It’s inspired by Talbot Mundy’s colonial, mystical adventures and the adaptation by Thomas, Buscema and Alcala is exactly how I always picture the Savage Sword version of Conan.

A secret order of magicians enchant the king of Vendhya and his sister, the Devi Yasmina, seeks revenge with the aid of Conan, who has joined the hillmen of what appears to be Afghanistan. The subplaot features the revolt of the seers’ acolyte Khemsa and his lover, Yasmina’s maid.

SSOC 16 also reprints the article, A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career, with new (old) illustrations from Weird Tales, last seen in Marvel’s Savage Tales. There is a portfolio of drawings of Conan, Belit, Red Sonja and Kull and oddly, a random page of postures and poses by a Planet of the Apes chimp- actor!

The second strip is the fifth chapter of Walt Simonson’s dense, stlylised adaptation of REH’s Hyborian Age essay, which is a chronicle of bloodshed and ruin.

The third strip is Worms of the Earth part one, by Thomas, Barry Smith and Tim Conrad. A violent, gloomy and doom-laden revenge story of the Roman occupation of  in Britain, it opens with a crucifixion scene. Marvel was very big on crucifixions in the mid-70s. Something to do with Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps.

burghead

The story has a real historical setting: Eboracum, or York as we know it and the hero is Bran Mak Morn ( or Brian McMorrow, as I like to think of him). In the Conan stories, the Picts are essentially Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans, murderous slayers of frontiersmen. Here, they resemble the people who fortified the Moray Coast. The art for this story is gorgeous and moody but people tend to be brutish or ugly- very off-model for Marvel.

SSOC 17, from February 1977, was my second issue and even in those days of Weetabix Dr Who promotions  and Super Spider-Man and the Titans, I was aware of the sexuality shimmering through its pages. There are several images of female and male torsos and hindquarters in both magazines, which made them feel tremendously racy.

In the second chapter of the Conan story, we see more instances of the “oriental” powers of hypnotism and Yasmina is kidnapped by the Black Seers of Yimsha. ( Of course, in the final installment, Conan rescues her after some nasty reincarnation experiences)

The final chapter of Simonson’s stylish Hyborian Age is printed and a review of Howard’s Spanish Main piracy stories. Fred Blosser probably inspires Thomas here to adapt Black Vulmea’s Vengance for the colour Conan Super Special of 1977.

Black Stone

The second part of the Pictish tale opens with a stunning double page fenland shot. A horrible saga of tyranny and revenge climaxes as the Pictish king makes a dreadful bargain with the subhuman inhabitants of Dagon’s Barrow. It’s an unsettling horror story, which was reprinted in colour in 2000 and its subhumans also resemble the People of the Dark from the 1975 Conan story by Alex Nino.

The Lovecraftian elements and those from Arthur Machen are, unfortunately, linked to 30s notions of degeneracy and miscegenation. Nonetheless, there is an eerie atmosphere at Burghead and its ceremonial well- REH evokes that mood very well.

240px-Burghead_well_approach

As I said, I followed the UK version of SSOC intermittently up until February 1981, when my obsession with sword and sorcery sputtered out, eventually. Every summer recently, however, it has flared back into life temporarily. For future posts, I’m thinking of revsiting Gil Kane’s Blackmark and Lin Carter’s Kylix stories. I also plan to look at the O’Neil/Kirby adventures of another 30s hero, the Avenger.

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

 

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