29 Mar 2012

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

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: John Buscema had gone on to replace Barry Smith in the colour series, Conan The Barbarian, beginning with issue #25. A workhorse of a penciller, Buscema had been the first choice for the title but since Stan considered the character something of a gamble, he had vetoed Buscema on the grounds that his page rate was too high to warrant wasting on an untried property. As it happened, Buscema had never been particularly comfortable drawing superheroes. Despite leaving his mark on titles like the Avengers and Thor in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with some of the finest art of his career, he had never enjoyed working on those books. He was however keen on characters like Conan. Like Kirby before him, Buscema was able to draw both well and quickly. Stories in Savage Sword would have the luxury of a larger page count, but coming on top of the monthly colour book (plus whatever other titles Buscema was committed to) it would be a heavy workload. Furthermore, there was an expectation that art for the black and white magazine titles would be more detailed, especially when it came to backgrounds. One answer was to find a suitable inker who could embellish the rough pencils with the level of detail that Buscema himself wouldn’t have time for.

In recent years Marvel had been casting its net further afield for new artists in response to a number of high profile departures from the bullpen. Stan Lee and Roy Thomas had noticed Warren comics had been recruiting some impressive talent from the Spanish art studio, Selecciones Illustrada, and this prompted them to turn their attention to an emerging group of artists from the Philippines, chief amongst them Alex Niño, Rudy Nebres and, most importantly for the purpose of this article, Alfredo Alcala. Not only were they turning out top quality art, but they were comparatively cheap to employ, something that Stan Lee appreciated in his role as businessman. Alcala was taken on as Buscema’s principle inker on Savage Sword Of Conan. As the cliché goes, it was a match made in heaven. There is a scene in the film Chasing Amy where a comic book fan has a go at Jason Lee’s inker character, calling him a ‘Tracer’. Lee tries and fails to defend the noble task of inking as other fans berate him for simply tracing over a proper artist’s work. Had he thought about it, his character could have shut the critics up by simply pointing to sample pages of Alcala’s breathtaking work in the pages of Savage Sword Of Conan #2, because no Marvel fan had ever seen art like it before. Looking at Buscema’s pencil layouts (or even his finished work with other inkers in the colour comics) and comparing it to the pages of 'Black Colossus', inked by Alfredo Alcala, is like comparing the Bob Dylan original of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with the Hendrix cover version. Where Vince Colletta was infamous for erasing ‘excessive’ pencil lines that he would otherwise have had to ink, Alfredo Alcala seemed to consider empty white space on a page something of a challenge. His Conan pages took on the fashion of an elaborate wood cut design with incredibly detailed cross hatching and lines of ink that varied from feather light touches to the semblance of thick black treacle. There was no mistaking the fact that with Alcala inking, Buscema’s art had reached new heights of magnificence that would never again be equalled. My initial reaction to seeing the art in issue #2 was something along the lines of, “this deserves to be hung in an art gallery.”

Savage Sword swiftly became the first choice place to adapt Howard’s original stories. Some of the shorter pieces, such as 'Tower Of The Elephant' and 'Rogues In The House', had appeared in the colour comic, but now that Savage Sword was top dog, Thomas could go to town with the extra length page count. Highlights included ‘A Witch Shall be Born’ in #5, which featured the iconic scene of Conan nailed to a cross to die in the desert, biting the neck of a vulture that descended to feast on him. Up and coming Frazetta-wannabe paperback illustrator, Boris Vallejo, contributed one of several striking covers that he would paint for Marvel over the years. Alex Niño illustrated a superb non-Conan Robert E Howard story, 'People Of The Dark', that Roy Thomas converted into a Conan one for #6. Thomas was very aware that the source of original Hyborian tales was extremely limited and so from day one he pursued a policy of rewriting many of Howard’s other tales (even ones set during the early 20th century in an Indiana Jones style) into full-blooded Conan stories in a way that annoyed some prominent Howard purists.

Each issue of Savage Sword would offer a range of material. There would always be a lead Conan story, usually with art by Buscema. Other Howard characters such as King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and Red Sonja appeared in back-up strips, alongside text based articles and pages of commissioned ‘pin-up’ art. It’s worth mentioning at this point though that Red Sonja, of chainmail bikini fame, is not officially a Howard character, as Howard never included a Red Sonja in any of his Hyborian Age stories. He had however written a Russian character called Red Sonya in a swashbuckling adventure story set during the 16th century, entitled 'Shadow Of The Vulture', which Roy Thomas and Barry Smith had converted into a Conan tale, thereby creating the Hyborian Sonja.

To be concluded tomorrow in Part III...

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