Saturday, June 1, 2024

Conan - Savage Sword of Conan #01 (Curtis)

At one time, Curtis Magazines was Marvel Comics' distributor and an affiliated company. Under this imprint, Marvel launched a number of magazine formatted titles that weren't regulated by the Comics Code Authority. It was Marvel editor-in-chief Editor Stan Lee's vision to enter the black-and-white magazine market to compete with Warren Publishing, a company that had found success with more taboo themes (bare butts and breasts) in their Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella titles. 

The first of the Curtis books was Savage Tales, published in May 1971 – complete with a John Buscema cover of Conan holding a severed human head. Publisher Martin Goodman (founder of Timely/Marvel) didn't want to publish these types of books and insisted that Savage Tales cease publication after just one issue. Goodman left Marvel in 1972, setting the stage for Roy Thomas and the company to revamp their magazine line, launching more Savage Tales issues in October 1973 as well as a Marvel Monster Group brand with titles like Tales of the Zombie, Dracula Lives!, and Monsters Unleashed

This brings us to the focus of this review, Conan the Cimmerian, which was created by author Robert E. Howard. When Savage Tales began republication in October 1973, the title's second issue through the fifth (1973-1974) all featured Conan stories and the character on the front page. Due to the success of the character in these books, and the Conan the Barbarian color comic that launched in 1970, the company decided that Conan's market worth supported his own magazine. 

The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian was launched in August 1974 and ran consistently until July 1995. There were 235 issues and one annual during the book's impressive 21 year run. The series, especially the early issues, have all been collected in massive trade and omnibus editions from Marvel, Dark Horse, and even Titan. While I don't condone scanned copies, you can easily find the entire run scanned for digital devices for a few bucks if you don't want to bend and turn your purchased paper collections. Additionally, I see the used magazines in comic shops and book stores for $5-$20 each. I'm just saying they are around if you want to read them. 

The Savage Sword of Conan #01 has a Boris Vallejo cover and features seven sections:

“Curse of the Undead-Man” - Roy Thomas/John Buscema and Pablo Marcos
“A Hyperborean Oath” - Roy Thomas
“Red Sonja” - Roy Thomas/Esteban Maroto/Neal Adams/Ernie Chua
“Conan's Women Warriors” - Fred Blosser
“The Birth of Blackmark” - Gil Kane
“An Atlantean in Aquilonia” - Glenn Lord
“The Frost Giant's Daughter” - Roy Thomas/Barry Smith

In addition, three pages of artwork - Alfred Alcala/Esteban Maroto/Roy Krenkel.

In "Curse of the Undead-Man", Roy Thomas freely adapts Robert E. Howard's horror story "Mistress of Death" into a Conan offering. The Cimmerian hero is in Zamora waiting to join "some teetotaling general's army" and finds a trio of painted ladies looking to party. He is encouraged to look for gold in the city (read that as stealing) and is ambushed by three mysterious robed figures. A moment later he is attacked again by four ruffians and Red Sonja comes to his aid. 

Sonja explains that earlier that day the King of Zamora ordered a public execution of a sorcerer named Costrano. After the death, Costrano's apprentices schemed a way to resurrect the sorcerer. Conan stumbles on the sorcerer's severed jeweled-finger in the alley and throws it on the ground. The finger makes its way to Costrano's corpse and he is resurrected by the power of the ring. 

Later, Conan and Red Sonja team to fight Costrano and rescue a young woman he is attempting to sacrifice on an altar. The story ends with some playful joking between the two heroes.

This was an average Conan story with the typical ingredients - sorcerers, thieves, and swordplay. I'm not familiar with Howard's story, so I can't compare the two. For these pages, I specifically enjoyed the darker inks on page seven and the facial expressions on page ten. The gatefold pages on 18-19 of Conan leaping at the enraged Costrano is absolutely beautiful and worth the price of admission.

"A Hyperborean Oath" serves as an introduction to the magazine courtesy of Roy Thomas. He explains that the magazine will mostly consist of comic adaptations of REH stories.

"Red Sonja" begins with a recap of the events from Conan the Barbarian #24 (1972). In that story, "The Song of Red Sonja", Sonja tricked "a northern barbarian" named Conan into helping her gain the Serpent-Tiara. However, the jewelry was transformed into a giant dragon-thing that forced the two to team together to defend themselves. 

In this "Red Sonja" story, the narrative continues as the she-devil returns the Serpent-Tiara to the man who hired her to retrieve it, King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah. However, instead of paying Sonja for the job, he imprisons here to be part of his harem. Through the story, Sonja initially tries to fight for her freedom, but eventually conceives a plan to seduce Ghannif. After killing the King, she fights to the death with his loyal follower, a swordsman named Trolus.

This was an entertaining story that featured far better illustrations by Maroto, Adams, and Chua of Red Sonja than Barry Smith's version. She looks much younger here and more athletic. Plus, Smith's weird silver chain mail is replaced with more of a swimsuit attire. This would be the same look that artist Frank Thorne would use in 1978. The fight scene was great and I loved the dialogue between the two warriors. It was an early dive into Red Sonja's character and her efforts to avoid killing Trolus. She attempts to convince him to do the right thing and understand a better future. But, these things always end in death. 

In "Conan's Women Warriors", Conan devotee Fred Blosser provides a written commentary on the various women that have appeared in Conan literature and the Conan the Barbarian comics. The article contains paragraphs on Valeria, Belit, Yasmina, Salome, and of course, Red Sonja. 

Gil Kane's Blackmark was originally published by Bantam in 1971 (S5871) as a 119-page graphic novel paperback. It was scripted by Archie Goodwin and sold for .75 cents at the time. Some consider it to be the first American graphic novel, but I think Fawcett Gold Medal's 1950 paperback Mansion of Evil earns that award. The publisher had a limited number of copies they produced to test the waters for a graphic novel paperback. The book failed to make a splash and was shelved. Its contents was formatted to stretch to magazine-size pages (basically three paperback pages on one magazine page) and made it into the Savage Sword of Conan. The first part appears in this issue.

The author explains that Earth was devastated by nuclear weapons years ago. A new Earth has been formed from the ashes consisting of wastelands sprinkled with nomads, gangs, and small kingdoms housing castles and farms. The wealthy have a power source that allows travel by boat. The poor are left to travel on foot, often contending with harsh elements and even harsher humans. There are also mutants, monsters, and telepathic beings in this new Earth. 

The story begins with a couple, Marnie and Zeph, traveling by horse and wagon across the precarious landscape of Demon Waste. When they stop for the night, Zeph leaves to find supplies and Marnie is left to her thoughts of being infertile and the possibility of motherhood escaping her. 

Out of the darkness two men ride up on horseback, one of which is a wounded leader named King Amarix. They explain to Marnie that Amarix had been cast out by his own people due to believing old science can make Earth live again. As Amarix lay dying by the firelight he psychically uploads all of his knowledge and thoughts into Marnie. He tells her that she can take the knowledge, and his money, and spread into the community in hopes for a better future. He also magically makes Marnie fertile again. 

Later, Zeph and Marnie make it to a farming town and have a child. But, Zeph realizes that Marnie was "cursed" by Amarix, a man he feels is nothing but a demonic witch. Zeph calls the baby Blackmark and this portion of the book ends. Next issue it continues with "Death and Destiny..."

I really enjoyed this portion of the book and loved the smaller panels of artwork. Gil Kane is a legend in the comic book world and his art never ceases to amaze me. The story is ripe with Christianity tones. Marnie is a Virgin Mary, being blessed by God (Amarix) to birth a Messiah that will save the world. The idea that Amarix was shunned by his own people is reminiscent of Israel's failure to obey God, casting him out in favor of endless idols and pagan worship. I'm anxious to see where the story goes from here.

Glenn Lord's "An Atlantean in Aquilonia" is an essay on Robert E. Howard's Kull. This is a great history on the character with an emphasis on Kull's influence on Conan's conception. I actually used a lot of this article in my review of King Kull and also the podcast episode dedicated to the character. You can listen HERE

The final story here is a reprinting of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" from Savage Tales #1. You can read my review of Howard's story HERE. This may be the most popular adaptation of the story in comic format. Barry Smith's pencils are just superb and perfectly illustrate the savageness of the fight on the icy tundra. The fight with Hymdul in the opening pages and the first up-close look at the Frost Giants on page 70 are real highlights of the entire issue. This is an iconic piece of Conan literature and the adaptation is awesome. I do have to say I love Cary Nord's art in the Dark Horse version as well. Both are fantastic.

There you have it. The first issue of The Savage Sword of Conan. The two original stories here were enjoyable, but the reprinting of the Blackmark and "The Frost Giant's Daughter" were real highlights. From a Conan collector's standpoint, additional written commentary from Glenn Lord on Kull and the conception of "The Phoenix on the Sword" was a great addition as well.

Next up is issue two featuring "Black Colossus", a King Kull story, more Blackmark, and a history of sword-and-sorcery by Lin Carter. See you there! 

Get a copy of the giant omnibus collecting these early issues HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure MARTIN Goodman , not John , insisted they cease publication. IIRC it was so poorly distributed they didn't get the sales data to encourage them to decide to carry on with it.