By Roy Thomas & John Buscema, with Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte, Armando Gil and Dave Simons (Marvel)
During the 1970′s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practices that had come about as a reaction to the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: A body created by the publishers to police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-inspired Witch-hunt during the 1950s. One of the first genres to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that came the pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian.
Simultaneously, Sword & Sorcery stories had undergone a global prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and the 1960s saw the resurgence of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary versions of man, monster and mage. Indisputably the grand master of the genre was Robert E. Howard.
Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with a little tale called ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (from the horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4) whose hero Starr the Slayer bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by young Englishman Barry Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was just breaking out of the company’s Kirby house-style.
Despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month, the comic-strip adventures of Robert E. Howard’s characters were as big a success as the prose yarns. Conan became a huge success: a mega-brand that saw new prose tales, movies, a TV series and cartoon show, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of success. And it all largely stemmed from the vast range of comics initiated by Thomas, Windsor-Smith (as he became) and the excellent succession of comics creators that followed.
Thomas was a huge fan of the prose material and took great pains to adapt the novels and short stories into the graphic canon. From the latter days when the barbarian was an established Marvel mainstay comes this utterly enchanting adaptation of the hero’s last recorded adventure, written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, first released in 1968.
The Cimmerian’s wanderings had eventually led him to the throne of a vast kingdom, the founding of a dynasty and after twenty years, terminal boredom. He had outlived his comrades and beloved wife Zenobia and chafed under the yoke of responsibility. When seven hundred citizens of Tarantia were terrifyingly consumed by blazing bloody lights King Conan was furious and bewildered until a ghostly vision bade him to hunt down and destroy these marauding Red Shadows.
Secretly abdicating in favour of his son Conn, the aging warrior vanished from Court, returning to the life of a pirate, and as “Amra the Lion” gathered a crew of valiant brigands to covertly hunt down the master of the crimson shades – who have subsequently spread their depredations throughout the known world.
Still formidable and burdened with fearsome responsibilities, Amra and old comrades Sigurd of Vanaheim and Yasunga the Black Corsair rove the scattered islands of the Western Ocean, seeking their hidden foe and battling monsters, rogues and maddening mechanical dooms.
Even though nearly seventy years old Conan drove himself hard and soon the ship of rogues found their hidden foe in the form of the priest-cult of Xotli and their uncanny Black Kraken warriors of lost Atlantis. When the pirates were all captured Conan alone infiltrated the hidden citadel to solve the mystery of the Red Shadows, rescue his crew and save the whole Hyperborean world…
Divided into three chapters, ‘Red Shadows and Black Kraken!’ (inked by Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte & Armando Gil), ‘Dragons from an Unknown Sea!’ and ‘Gods of Light and Darkness!’ (both inked by Dave Simons), I rather suspect this tale was originally intended for the comicbook spin-off King Conan before being bumped into this sleek and glossy oversized format
Once upon a time Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing creator-owned properties, licensed assets like Conan, Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant over-sized packages (a standard 285mm x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked like far more than an average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (a polite way of saying outside the average Marvel Zombie’s comfort zone) the contents might have been.
Fast-paced, action packed and stuffed with the red-handed wonderment beloved by his fans, Conan of the Isles is rip-roaring pulp fare, brimming with supernatural horrors, scantily-clad damsels in distress and spectacular derring-do, cannily recounted by veteran creators at the top of their form. Still readily available this is a classy tale that will delight any fan of the genre and could easily convert a few die-hards too.
© 1982, 1988 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.