All Roads Lead to Zamora

This first week back at work has been cruelly hot and sunny after about three weeks of showery, humid, cloud-covered days.


Today is the thirty-ninth anniversary of getting the 1977 Conan Treasury in Stranraer after a week in a caravan at Cairnbrook farm Galloway’s Portobello.



I’ve blogged often of that week, when Elvis died, here and on our sister blog, Some Fantastic Place, where I’ve also been posting about Roy Thomas’s Conan stories for Marvel in the Nineties.

1977 was probably the peak of my Conan comic-reading. I would buy my third ( and second-last) US Savage Sword  when school term recommenced in the late summer of ’77.


I was a devoted follower of the Belit Saga all through 1976 and into ’77. But by 1978, I had stopped. Maybe it wasn’t on sale any more? I don’t know now. I had moved on to the Sphere paperbacks by then so I wasn’t reading the comic when Thomas departed from the title- and from Marvel- in 1980.

I did follow his DC work quite avidly through the next decade: my beloved LSH, Wonder Woman, All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc.- both of which I followed pretty keenly for the first couple of years of publication.

When Thomas returned to Marvel in the 90s, on Avengers West Coast and Fantastic Four Unlimited, I was deflated by his writing. His scripts in the late 60s and early 70s are some of the best writing the House of Ideas ever saw. Young turks of the Bronze Age may have had other strengths: Gerber’s perspective was always more adult; Moench drew upon cinema as Claremont did upon television; McGregor’s poetic bent beat O’Neill’s novelist posturings into a cocked hat. But not only were Thomas’s comics melodramatic, hip and respectful of other creators; he was adept in any genre from super-heroes to pulp horror.

So, aside from four of the issues of CTB in 1991, why didn’t I follow his sword and sorcery comics any further? Probably because I was so heavily invested in the theatre and cinema by then; barbarian heroes and undead horrors in cyclopean ruins seemed awfully gauche. I was working in the Census office in Hillington and rehearsing the first of two productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

In my last couple of posts, however, I’ve blogged about catching up with the b/w SSOC sagas of 1991 and 92. Today, it’s the turn of the colour Conan comics, as reprinted in volume 31 of Dark Horse’s Conan collection: Empire of the Undead.


The first three stories –All Roads lead to Zamora/They Came to Castle Zukala/Dawn and Death-Gods– form an arc entitled The She-Devil and The Sorceror.  This saga revisits my personal second Conan story from the legendary 1972 Fleetway Marvel Annual.

marvel annual

The wizard Zukala attempts to reincarnate himself through the offspring of Red Sonja and his own son. This is surely the plot of the infamous Avengers 200/Ms.Marvel/Immortus story! Sonja loses her potency here as well as her signature “iron bikini”. However, there’s a droll joke about the fairytale troll under the bridge and a number of flashbacks to issues 4,5, 14 and 115.


Fiends of the Flaming Mountain/Empire of the Undead:  Conan and Sonja are captured by the Afterlings: human-bat hybrids they met back in the rather kinky Conan #44, back in 1974. Zula, the wizard’s apprentice, and a shipmate in the Belit Saga, is also a captive. The bat-people themselves have been enslaved by Marvel’s primordial vampire ( at least since 1982) Varnae. Named after Varney the Vampire from the Victorian penny dreadfuls, Varnae seems to be set up as a world-beating threat but is easily overcome by Zula’s magical knowledge. I don’t know as yet if this plot thread was resolved later.


The highlight of the collection is the final arc:  Chaos in Khoraja/The Sword That Conquers All/The Peril and the Prophecy/Red Wind. This retells Black Colossus ( reprinted in its Buscema/Alcala glory in that aforementioned treasury) from the perspective of Zula and Red Sonja. It also sees the return of Ernie Chan as inker and the previously indifferent 90s art starts to resemble the Conan books of 77-78.

Black Colossus is a story of desert warfare as a pocket kingdom is besieged by the forces of a living mummy, Thugra Khotan aka “Natokh”. I was so infatuated with  SSOC I can remember writing Tolkien pastiches in S1 and S2 ; Natokh was the name of my Sauron.


Sonja gets some characterisation as she is forced to kill a child soldier and Zula is revenged on his old master. We also witness the spectacular fall of Kuthchemes thousands of years previously, the sinister entombing of Thugra Khotan, and his final destruction at Conan’s sword’s-point. Howard would recycle the villain’s gimmicks with the eponymous Devil in Iron, Khosatral Khel and Xaltotun in The Hour of the Dragon.

On balance, I enjoyed Thomas’s deft use of his own continuity and REH’s and the super-star covers by McFarlane, Jim Lee and Arthur Adams. This next phase of Conan’s career is The Freebooter: Iron Shadows of the Moon and A Witch Shall Be Born . As for the comics, I wouldn’t buy another 90s Conan until I picked up #250 in a charity shop in Renfield Street in the Noughties.

I think at present that I might make my way back to Portobello next summer and then we’ll probably continue with volume 32! In the meantime, look out for upcoming posts on both blogs on Teen Titans, Supergirl, Vigilante and in the autumn, the fortieth anniversary of Captain Britain.

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Isle of Pirates’ Doom

As you may have noticed by now, during the summer, I re-acquaint myself with Marvel’s sword-swinging Cimmerian, Conan the Barbarian. It’s a tradition established long ago in the late 70s, when. on holiday in Galloway, I read both the 1977 Conan Treasury Edition and some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories  in volume 3 of Skull-Face Omnibus.

Skull -Face

For the next three years, I hunted down all the Sphere Conan paperbacks and branched out into Lin Carter’s Thongor- a Marvel stablemate- and the vivid psychedelia of Michael Moorcock.

Marvel UK, at that time, was reprinting the US b/w Savage Sword of Conan and I followed that title, in an increasingly desultory way ( never quite succeeding in getting reprints of the US issues I’d missed and longed to read) until December 1980. Around the time I was leaving school, I fell out of love with Conan- although I would still be interested in the first of Carter’s Green Star series of paperbacks in the summer of ’81.

The American SSOC title has been collected and reprinted in weighty, telephone-directory style volumes by Dark Horse over the last eight years. There are posts coming up on my Some Fantastic Place blog about Roy Thomas returning to Conan in the 90s; this post, reviewing vol. 4,  functions as a trailer for them.  Here are the contents:

Sons of The White Wolf from Feb 1979 is a story about a prophet launching a holy war. There’s some minor nudity in an oasis occupied by a giant crustacean but otherwise it’s as dull as it was when I first read the UK reprint at the end of July ’79.

The Road of the Eagles concerns the rescue mission of an exiled prince and a tribe of vampires. More eventful and more violent than the previous story, I read the original in Sphere’s Conan the Freebooter in ’78.

Legions of the Dead is a grisly zombie story, explaining Conan’s capture by the Hyperboreans as a youth. I first read this in Conan The Swordsman, which I got in Glasgow in the summer of 1979.


A Dream of Blood is the first part of a four-part adaptation of Conan the Buccaneer. This was the second DeCamp/Carter pastiche novel I borrowed from Strathaven Library and it was a favourite of mine. This chapter introduces the plot to steal the throne of Zingara (Spain); is a sequel of sorts to CTB#73 with its toad-demon; and introduces the younger version of Sigurd, an ersatz Viking who also stars in Conan of the Isles. He has a “humorous” verbal tic of swearing on various gods which is actually quite tiresome.

The Quest for the Cobra Crown, like part one, features a lot of nudity for its princess heroine; Juma from Conan# 37 is a guest star.

The Devil-Trees of Gamburu sees the heroes imprisoned by Amazons and fed to  man-eating trees very like the Mungoda of Thongor’s Lemuria. Conan is reminded of a similar monster from#41. We will meet his (probable) daughter by the Amazon Queen in King Conan in 1980. There’s a depressingly salacious four-page S&M scene too.

King Thoth-Amon (Aug ’79) is the climax of the novel. The Cobra Crown will be revealed in August 1980 to be the Serpent Crown from Sub-Mariner, Captain America and Avengers. Thoth-Amon will die at the end of the same year. Conan turns down the offer to be consort to the princess of Zingara.

The Star of Khorala is a boring origin story for Countess Albiona who turns up early in Conan the Conqueror. Like the next two stories, it comes from Conan the Swordsman.

The Gem in the Tower is very like CTB#9,  with a winged demon in, er, a tower and some pirates. It was the only story I liked in the paperback and it’s also a lot like Carter’s 1976 Thongor story, Black Moonlight.

Moon of Blood is an inferior sequel to the Last of the Mohicans pastiche,  Beyond the Black River, one of REH’s best. It sets Conan up as a revolutionary figurehead.


The Treasure of Tranicos is an adaptation of another of Howard’s better Conan stories. What’s particularly exciting is the vibrant artwork of Gil Kane for 3/4 of this episode. Kane was the first Conan artist I encountered as a kid and he brings vitality and energy to the story. It’s a three-way pirate standoff in the fortress of a nobleman in exile.

A Wind Blows from Stygia. The exiled aristo’s betrayal of Thoth-amon reaps a bloody climax and a gruesome Pictish assault on the fortress sees the two pirate chiefs die. There’s a very lengthy epilogue that sets up Conan the Liberator, a dull and constrained military epic.

On balance, I enjoyed about half of this book. I wasn’t keen at all on the art- DeZuniga embellishing Buscema doesn’t appeal to me and the Kane pages were a welcome relief. The stories tended be rehashes of other Conan adventures, either by Howard or Roy Thomas. Conan the Buccaneer is much slower and less exciting than I remember and its excesses now seem tacky. However, I like the Marvel-style continuity references throughout. There’s a genuine sense of a saga.

The stories are probably no more violent than the average modern Batman but they are more explicitly so. Tranicos suffers from the mixture of art styles but is more dramatic and engaging than many of the other episodes.

See upcoming posts on Some Fantastic Place for more adventures with Conan on the seven seas.

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Mystery Fiction

Well, yesterday, I enjoyed posting about the proposed -but-never-published 1970-71 Marvel comic shared by Iceman and Doctor Strange. In musing about that, I suddenly had strong visual impressions of other titles that could have been on sale on spinner racks in Scotland in the early years of comics’ Bronze Age.

(What halcyon days! Especially now that I have to travel about sixty miles to get them. But I digress…)


The images I had most clearly of these “imaginary stories” were of the Falcon, who received shared billing with Cap and guest starred with the Avengers in the spring of ’71. It might have been time to try him in a solo strip, perhaps contrasted -and in conflict- with the angry, young Prowler from Spider-Man. A very young Gerry Conway scripting for Gene Colan seemed to fit the bill as a creative team.


I’m sure the House of Ideas would want to discuss race issues and the protest movement at this point in history. However, Black Panther in this period was another “ghetto” hero like Falcon, in his guise as school teacher Luke Charles. But he also had the option of sci-fi and jungle milieus and a sleek, mysterious visual, so I think T’Challa would have been a better fit for a regular series. Here, the creators might be Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema, with Modok and AIM as the baddies.

Black panther

Given that I had thought of a revived Journey Into Mystery as the comic’s title, I thought the “journey” part might come from space opera adventures with the Sensational Captain Marvel. The Kree hero was reduced to guest-star roles at that time but I could see him in combat with the reptilian Baneful Brotherhood of the Badoon,  in a Roy Thomas/Sal Buscema series.

Captain Mar-vell

However, would we then ever have had the Kree-Skrull War, probably the mainstream titles’ finest hour in the segue between the Silver and Bronze Ages? Would we have had the introspective and complex Panther’s Rage serial in Jungle Action?

Astonishing Tales served up jungle adventure and anti-hero intrigue with Ka-Zar and Doc Doom, where the early issues of Amazing Adventure sci-fi team action and glamorous noir, er, adventure with the Inhumans and the Black Widow. Which pop culture trends could Marvel have exploited in the early 70s?

Well, one such trend which Marvel explored to rapid critical acclaim was  heroic fantasy or “Sword and Sorcery”. Marvel’s proto-Cimmerians Arkon; Val-Larr in Iron Man; Starr the Slayer and to an extent, even the Sub-mariner had been (pardon the pun) testing the waters.

Wood Tower Shadows

What if Roy Thomas returned to his own revived, medieval Avenger, the Black Knight? And what if Wally Wood, who had drawn some S&S shorts printed in Tower of Shadows ( a Marvel version of the Orlando “mystery” books at DC), was the penciller?

Black Knight

Perhaps transported by his old ally Doc Strange, Dane Whitman could have had some adventures with Wood’s wizards and gargoyles although I could see Sal Buscema taking over from Wood in short order.

For a contrasting second feature, I  returned to 1969’s Marvel Super Heroes, the Showcase-style title where BK, Dr. Doom and Ka-Zar all made their solo debut. Submitted for your approval: Starhawk!


A dystopian futuristic tale by Dan Adkins, who had worked for Wally Wood and RT, Starhawk never saw print outside Marvelmania magazine.


 Looking like a futuristic Phantom Eagle, Starhawk’s premiere was cancelled because, according to Roy Thomas, publisher Martin Goodman felt “rockets, robots and rayguns… never sold comics”. Hmm. Star Wars by Thomas and Chaykin, in 1977, put paid to that idea. I imagine Marv Wolfman and Herb Trimpe, who collaborated a couple of years later on Killraven, might have worked on a Starhawk strip. (The Black Knight might have to don his ancestor’s armour to differentiate the two leads, however!)

I tried applying the same formula to DC but wasn’t very convinced by the results. In the “52 BIG pages- don’t take less!” era of 1971-72, most comics had back-ups, some new, some Golden Age. Most of the characters who seemed like fan-favourites- Black Canary and Metamorpho, for example- got their own back-up series in Adventure and Action. The Hawkman/Atom team-up was cancelled and the Winged Wonder was pretty much moribund until ’75.

Metal Men 48


The Metal Men and Eclipso were Sixties stars who were quirky enough to be supporting features but if any new/old series were to be launched in ’70-71, I think they might have featured E-2’s Wildcat or Dr. Fate, probably by O’Neill, Dillin, Wein and Aparo. It didn’t seem like DC was very interested in the Marvel-style super-hero at that point- I doubt even a “Go-go” title with Black Canary and the Enchantress would have sold.

Again, any comments on split-books or team-ups that might have been are welcome.

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Strange Days

Back in the days when WH Smith stores were John Menzies outlets, I bought toys. comics and books from them religiously ( as I said back in

I was browsing in Elgin’s almost-deserted WH Smith store yesterday afternoon and found a copy of Dr. Strange: Way of the Weird.

Way weird

Aaron and Bachalo were responsible for one of my favourite mutant books of recent years, Wolverine and the X-Men, so I knew I would enjoy their eclectic, psychedelic take on Strange and their assault on magic itself. My only reservation is that  the narrators of most modern Marvel series have the same snarky, Brian Bendis voice and it is a little repetitive. However, Aaron takes the concept of the price of magick, really putting Strange through the wringer and Bachalo’s art is creepily quirky.

I wonder if this take will inform the new Cumberbatch movie? Isn’t it amazing that another character whose sales flagged and led to cancellation in the Sixties will be a box-office smash this autumn?  Yet The Master of the Mystic Arts had vanished beyond the Purple Veil in 1969.

Dr Strange Undying Ones

I loved this unearthly version of Strange as a kid ( even though he’s really like the Golden Age Vision…and the Silver Age Vision, come to that.) But Roy Thomas, Gene Colan and Lovecraft wasn’t selling. The saga of Dr. Strange was wrapped up, seemingly for good, in Sub-Mariner (Feb 1970) and Incredible Hulk (April 1970) ; the latter saw him retire from magic in the new identity of physician Stephen Sanders.


Apparently, the 5th issue of Marvelmania magazine announced plans for a “split-book” for Dr. Strange and Iceman, of all people. Marvel had launched two similar titles in 1970 and I had loved them both as a kid.


AA 4

I was mad about the Inhumans and this pre-Fourth World Kirby story ( bought in Glasgow, that Babylon of the Moderns) was just what I wanted in a comic then.

I was too young, however, to connect Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures with older split-books in the collections of other village kids, which I had read when they’d visited . Nor did I realise how they had been springboards for solo series.




This is one of my favourite 60s Marvel comics!

Like Doc Strange, the X-Men fell out of favour in the 60s. The title stopped telling original stories in March of 1970, actually going on hiatus until becoming a reprint title in December of that year.


Iceman, however, was the guest-star in the January 1970 issue of Spidey’s own Marvel-lous mag and I suspect this comic was intended to test the waters for a split-book. Clearly Stan et al saw Bobby Drake as the breakout character from the original mutant band- but we know, with hindsight, that it turned out to be the bludgeoning Beast!

Unlike Iceman, Doc Strange’s first strip for the proposed split book appeared in print in Marvel Feature 1, the debut of the Defenders, in December 1971. It’s a Thomas/Heck story which returns Strange to his pre-1969 regalia.

But what might that never-published “split-book” be like? Which creative teams would steer it?

Firstly, I think Strange Tales was the obvious title to revive for the book; it was the original home of the Master of the Mystic Arts. But since the “super-hero” version of Doc Strange had been undone, perhaps Stan would look again at DC’s “mystery” line of 1969: The Witching Hour and the Phantom Stranger:


We’re daydreaming, remember, about the days before the Comics Code change of 72. I think a Dark Shadows vibe of ghosts and witches might have been the route taken. Initially, I’m picturing a Roy Thomas/Neal Adams strip but maybe Mike Friedrich and Ross Andru two or three months later?

Similarly, Stan might look to the “Relevance” trend at DC and the protest movement, reflected in youth-oriented titles:


An Iceman strip dealing with peace rallies and disaffected youth  by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane would have felt contemporary but Don Heck, whose collaboration with Tom Palmer in the X-Men/Sunfire story was so striking, is another probability. Strking out from Westchester, I think Iceman would be a very hard sell, without a guest-star of his own. For his debut, I’d revisit the first encounter of the Human Torch and Iceman in the original Strange Tales:


In addition to the boys’ first opponent, the Barracuda, I imagine old X-men villains like Blob, Unus, Mastermind and the Vanisher would make a return appearance- maybe we’d even see the Lorna Dane/Alex Summers relationship blossom ( as we finally would, retroactively,  in John Byrne’s Hidden Years series).

But I rather suspect that Iceman would vanish from a revived Strange Tales, and it would become a solo book for Doc Strange, as Astonishing Tales did for Ka-Zar.  The youngest of the original X-Men always seemed to work better paired with the Angel and has only really become interesting in his own right, coming out as gay in the Bendis X-Men.

However, I still wonder what would have made the split books more successful in the very-early Seventies and which characters might have been paired up to sell them? Feel free to share your thoughts on such pairings: Captain Mar-Vell and the Silver Surfer? Black Panther and the Prowler? Falcon and SHIELD?

Coming up: Savage Sword of Conan in the 90s

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