28 Mar 2012

Four Colour Yesteryears: By Crom! The Glory Years Of The Savage Sword Of Conan, Part I

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

Rob N: One of the most innovative aspects of Marvel in the early years of the Bronze Age was their foray into publishing a range of black and white magazine format titles under the Curtis imprint. Stan Lee had noticed the success of the Warren range of comics such as Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella. Not only did they sell well, but they were exempt from the Comics Code Authority on account of the fact that newsstands racked them with magazines instead of in the kids’ comic section. Marvel at the time was keen to expand in new directions. The superhero boom of the 1960s had run its course as far as new titles were concerned. While the likes of the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man were still big sellers, Marvel (and indeed DC) was struggling to launch new costumed crimefighter brands that caught the imagination of the public in the same way their flagship creations had. Diversity was suddenly the order of the day, and during the early ‘70s Marvel launched an ambitious range of horror, SF, adventure and swords & sorcery titles aimed at an older ‘university student’ market.

Conan of course was already a moderately successful Marvel property, having been licensed from the Howard estate in 1970 when (ironically) their first choice, a run of the mill Conan/John Carter of Mars hybrid called Thongor the Barbarian by Lin Carter, turned out to be too expensive since Carter wanted in excess of $150 an issue for Marvel to use his creation. In theory, had Carter accepted the fee originally offered (he later did, after Conan became successful and he realised, perhaps a little too late, that a successful comic book would translate into extra sales for his novels) then the publishing history of Conan in the comics medium might have looked very different indeed. Marvel did have one problem though. Robert E Howard’s brutal barbarian was anything but politically correct - relatively speaking that is. Compared to John Norman’s Gor novels for example, the Conan stories were practically fluffy Narnia tales, but that aside, with his habit of hewing skulls and thieving and drinking and chasing semi-naked ‘wenches’, he was hardly the clean cut hero that the Code expected. To carry the stamp of approval, the original blood thirsty and ‘spicy’ prose had to be toned down in the colour comics where the Comics Code Authority frowned upon ambiguous sexual innuendo, let alone an exposed nipple or two. Here, Roy Thomas and Barry Smith often found themselves having to reluctantly make changes after consulting with the censors in charge of the Code. It seemed then that a black and white magazine exempt from such draconian rules would be the perfect vehicle for a more adult version of the colour series.

Conan’s first foray in this new format was in the pages of Savage Tales where Barry Smith pencilled and inked his magnum opus, 'Red Nails', spread between issues #2 and #3. One of the greatest swords and sorcery tales ever written by any fantasy author, and (in my opinion) the finest adaptation into the comics medium of any prose work, 'Red Nails' would be Barry’s swan song for many years as by the end of it he was feeling burnt out and disillusioned with Marvel and comics in general. While drawing the marathon long adaptation he underwent some bizarre transcendental and cosmic revelation (painstakingly detailed in his rather tedious to read, but beautiful to look at, hardcover book, Opus) of the kind that usually only ever happens to people like Grant Morrison after he’s downed a potent cocktail of absinthe and magic mushrooms. But if you’re going to burn out and fade away, you may as well do it on a high point, and 'Red Nails' was most definitely that. Set during the mid point of Conan’s life, we find him chasing Valeria of the Red Brotherhood across a southern wilderness because, frankly, he intends to have sex with her and won’t take no for an answer. By the time Conan catches up with Valeria, they encounter a fabulous lost city called Xuchotl that is totally enclosed under a roof. The torch-lit city inside is a labyrinth of four-tiered chambers and sweeping galleries in which the last survivors of the opposing tribes of the city prowl through the gloom, hunting one another in the twilight years of a pointless civil war that dates back decades. Like Clint Eastwood’s amoral Man With No Name, Conan (along with Valeria) is drawn into the age old conflict with tragic results. It’s arguably Howard’s best Conan story (though 'People Of The Black Circle' comes a close second) and it showcases Roy Thomas and Barry Smith at the height of their narrative powers.

Such was the critical success of 'Red Nails' that Stan Lee gave Thomas the nod to launch a Conan specific title, The Savage Sword Of Conan, leaving its parent, Savage Tales, to showcase the adventures of Tarzan wannabe, Ka-Zar instead.

Continued tomorrow in Part II...

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