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: By the time Savage Sword Of Conan had reached double figures it had firmly established itself as one of the best comics of the Bronze Age. It was obvious that a lot of effort was being put into the magazine, but this of course raised the question: how long could it continue that way? The detail in Alcala’s inking alone suggested the poor man must have been manacled to a drawing board sixteen hours a day, with a Stygian Slave Master beating him if his ink pen hesitated for a moment. Virtually every issue had something special worth recommending. 'Iron Shadows In The Moon' was another Buscema/Alcala masterpiece in issue #4, while Neal Adams (at that point in time an artist who could do no wrong as far as comic fans were concerned) contributed first class art to #14’s adaptation of 'Shadows In Zamboula' (which begins with a wary Conan spending a night in a traveller’s lodge in a desert shanty town where the bedrooms are designed to offer up the sleeping guests to a tribe of cannibals with filed teeth who live in the ruins nearby. Decades later this sort of story would become a staple of modern horror, which again goes to show how ahead of his time Howard really was, writing this kind of tale in the early 1930s), but it was issues #16 to #19 that really set the high watermark in the title’s history. Readers were treated to not one but two of the greatest serials ever to feature in a swords and sorcery title. Buscema and Alcala collaborated together again on one of Howard’s greatest stories, 'People Of The Black Circle', a tale set in the Hyborian Age equivalent of Afghanistan during a time when Conan was a hill chieftain commanding a tribe of cutthroats. Featuring one of Howard’s more plucky heroines – the Devi Yasmina – 'People Of The Black Circle' treads the careful line between historical style realism and flights of imaginative fantasy that sets the author’s finest work head and shoulders above that of his subsequent imitators.
Meanwhile, picking up a handful of pages that Barry Smith had finished just before he walked out on Marvel, young up and coming artist, Tim Conrad, completed an adaptation of my all time favourite Robert E Howard story, 'Worms Of The Earth', and effectively cranked the art up to ‘11’, something avid readers of Savage Sword, already spoilt by the gorgeous full page spreads of Buscema/Alcala, didn’t think was possible. In it purest black and white form, the art on 'Worms' is somehow subtle and epic at the same time. The double page spread of a spear armed Bran mounted on his horse, gazing over a cold wet marshland as geese take flight in the distance almost carries the sound of the wind with it. Sadly, the recent Dark Horse reprint was a digitally coloured version which looks garish in comparison with the original. Set during the Roman occupation of Britain, 'Worms' is one of Howard’s finest Lovecraftian tales and it manages to evoke the same sense of cold dread, chilling atmosphere and bleak horror as ancient Dark Age tales such as 'Beowulf'. In setting himself up to combat the might of Rome, Pictish chieftain Bran Mak Morn makes a pact with an ancient race that fought his own thousands of years ago, before being driven into bowels of the earth to devolve into something much less than human. Those of you who have seen Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film, The Descent, will have some idea of the forces Bran carelessly seeks out in the dark caves beneath the wet, windswept moors, hoping to use them against his enemies, despite the warning: “there are weapons too foul to use, even against Rome.”
But by now the black and white range of titles was contracting. The horror titles in particular were suffering as Marvel cancelled Dracula Lives, Tales Of The Zombie, and Vampire Tales in quick succession. The popularity of Conan had prompted Marvel to release a second Howard inspired title, Kull And The Barbarians, but sales had not been kind and like the horror titles it faced the chop after just a few issues. Even Savage Tales, where the black and white ‘Codeless’ Conan experiment had first began, ran out of publishing steam soon after it hit double figures. Savage Sword however seemed immune to the ebbing tide. Conan remained popular, but with the black and white magazine line dying around it, some of the spark faded in time. It would be untrue to suggest that after, say, issue #20 Savage Sword lost its way, but there was a slow and noticeable decline setting in. No longer was it a case that every issue was a stand out purchase worthy of high praise. Good stories still lay on the horizon, but the very best were now in the past. Part of the problem lay in the exhaustion of the source material. Roy Thomas had burned his way through the very best Howard stories in a brief few years, gorging himself like a kid allowed to run free in a chocolate factory. More and more he had to now cannibalise non-Conan tales, or adapt Conan stories written by authors such as Andrew J Offutt, Karl Edward Wagner and L Sprague De Camp, none of whom really captured the savagery of Howard’s original prose. The problem was, in using up the original Howard tales, Savage Sword was no longer, well… savage. In addition, without the family line of other black and white titles around it, Savage Sword was no longer part of an imprint that warranted a separate editorial team and earmarked budget. Now it was just an odd size Marvel title that had to compete for resources with the code approved colour comics. Savage Sword would continue to present great stories for many years to come, but the intervals between them appearing grew longer as the decade drew to a close. Eventually Savage Sword would rack up an impressive run of 235 issues, only calling it a day and hanging up its broadsword in July 1995. But by then Roy Thomas, the driving force behind Marvel’s Conan, was a distant memory. He left after issue #60, and that point is considered by many the date at which Savage Sword was past its prime.
Dark Horse has since acquired the official Howard licence (though all of Howard’s stories published in his lifetime are now out of copyright in the public domain, at least so far as English law is concerned) and is pursuing a reprint policy for the material that first appeared in Savage Sword Of Conan. Unfortunately it is reprinting the material based on subject matter, so the Conan tales appear in one set of volumes, the Solomon Kane tales in another, and the Kull tales in yet another, while 'Worms Of The Earth' has been digitally coloured (for which read vandalized) in the pages of their recent anthology title, called Robert R. Howard's Savage Sword. As Dynamite own the rights to Red Sonja (since she’s not technically a Howard character, she’s not covered by the same licence) any Sonja tales that appeared in Savage Sword are unlikely to appear in any Dark Horse volume. Similarly, they seem to be leaving out the text articles.