This issue of CONAN also came to me inside of a plastic 3-Bag purchased at a department store or toy store. As we’ve covered before, I wasn’t at all interested in sword and sorcery comics–they felt too much like history class to me–and so I typically would have traded this book to somebody for something else. But my brother Ken had a short flirtation with barbarian comics, and so it wound up with him for a time. Even today, while I can appreciate these books, they don’t occupy a space in my heart in the same manner that the super hero fare of the period does.
This was a moment when the CONAN series was in a bit of scheduling trouble. The issue before this had been one of those emergency reprints that Marvel often sprang upon readers whenever a title was behind schedule and something, anything, needed to be sent off to the printer. And as writer/editor Roy Thomas details on the letters page, this issue and the next two are comprised of material originally intended for SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, the black and white magazine. This also explains why the artist on this entry isn’t the reliable John Buscema, but rather Howard Chaykin. Inker Ernie Chan keeps the look of the series intact while also illustrating an occasional drop-in page that helps to put this story (based on a non-Conan Robert E. Howard story initially) into the current continuity.
I think part of why I never clicked with Conan is that I didn’t relate to the premise at all. I understood that Conan was strong and capable, but he was also a killer for hire often, and a thief on other occasions, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how such a character could be considered a hero–I had a very black-and-white view of the world at that young age. Additionally, I never understood the geography of the Hyborian Age of Howard, so all of the assorted places and factions and tribes were just gobblety-gook to me. Atop of which, most Conan stories seemed like the same thing again and again to me. (And, sure, the same fault could be laid at the feet of the super hero comics as well, but those I liked.) Also, as Roy tended to try to incorporate as much of Howard’s original prose s possible, the stories tended to be a bit verbose and flowery. I found them to be work to get through, which again wasn’t what I was looking for in my escapist literature.
That all said, I can certainly understand why the character and the series had proven to be so popular throughout the 1970s, especially to a more casual audience. For readers getting to an age where it was perhaps a bit embarrassing to be seen reading comic books by your peers, CONAN was just slightly more acceptable, with its action and quasi-gore and suggested sexuality, and with nary a skin-tight costume in sight. Young reprobates who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAn in their hands (much as they might have wanted to look at one) felt on a bit more of a secure footing reading CONAN–and especially SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, the black and white magazine which had the veneer of being more sophisticated, given its magazine format. (For a time, SAVAGE SWORD even permitted partial nudity among the ladies, which helped in this regard–even though that situation didn’t last for very long. But for a while, it was the Cinemax of comic books.)
In this particular issue, after a brief preamble when Conan is attacked in his sleep by a warrior bearing a mysterious eye-gem, his minds casts back to a day not long in the past. In order to secure safe passage for himself and his company through Stygia, Conan had taken on the task of conveying a similar eye-gem to the village of Attalus to exchange for another–a ritual that kept the peace between the two lands whenever a new monarch had been crowned. Back in the present, Conan is set upon by additional warriors, and is forced to leap into a ravine to escape their arrows. he clonks his head in the attempt, rendering himself momentarily unconscious. Reviving, he uses his strength and skill to set up a massive avalanche which crashes down upon the pursuing assassins, annihilating them.
Making his way out of the ravine, Conan comes across Bardylis, a woman who was caught in the same avalanche and now lies trapped underneath a massive boulder. Putting his back into it, and so as not to crush the girl as he attempts to free her, Conan struggles and lifts the colossal weight straight up, allowing her to pull free to safety. But there are still assassins left standing, and Conan and the woman are forced to retreat further. They make for her village, which lies at the bottom of the ravine. This is, of course, Attalus, Conan’s objective. As the pair climbs down the side of the cliff face, using handholds carved there by the men ot Attalus for just such a purpose, Bardylis tells Conan the history of her city–and it is a whopper! Turns out, the place was founded by Alexander the Great, who had somehow passed through some time-travel mist along with a company of his men. Yeah, pretty bananas and arbitrary–I assume that it makes more sense in the original Howard story, but maybe not.
Arriving at the city, Bardylis takes Conan to the royal palace, where he hopes to be able to complete his quest. However, Attalus is ruled by Ptolemy, a blond giant who takes an instant (and unconvincing) dislike to Conan at first sight, and so as to create a compelling cliffhanger for this issue where one hadn’t existed in the story when it was all intended for a single issue of SAVAGE SWORD, Ptolemy declares that, should Conan prove to be an enemy to him and his people, he will die horribly. To Be Continued! The artwork all looked good, and the story constantly moved with action, but it was also weighted down with a ton of heavy captions evoking Howard’s text as well as Roy’s simulations of same, and so I really wasn’t all that engaged by it all. No great surprise there.