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.

portobello

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.

Cairnbrook

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

 

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