Review by Jamie McNeil
Volume 5 is the first full collection of John Buscema’s pencils on Conan the Barbarian. The long-running Hyrkanian War concluded in Volume 4, Conan is now a fugitive hunted by Prince Yezdigerid’s men. ‘The Blood of Bel-Hissar’, adapting Howard’s ‘The Blood of Belshazzar’, is set in the ominously monikered bandit fortress of Bab-El-Shaitan with a woman Conan’s rescued, the man he rescued her from, and a cruel bandit king with an enchanted jewel. This is clunky compared to Buscema and Roy Thomas’ first two collaborations, as for some reason the story and illustration don’t quite mesh. ‘Moon of Zembabwei!’ is slightly better, introducing future nemesis Thutmekri. Buscema’s opening pages really help set the scene help, while Thomas produces moments of tension.
‘Two Against Turan!’ cleverly places Conan in the city of Aghraphur (Prince Yezdigerid’s home city) looking for work and wenches. He’s caught in a plot that further strengthens his distrust for sorcerers and wizardry. ‘The Hand of Nergal!’ involves more sorcery as Conan, working as a mercenary in the armies of King Yildiz, is asked to help overthrow a rebellious and corrupted satrap in this adaptation of a story by Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter. Buscema really captures the emotional tension and sense of terror that grips participants in this tale, Roy Thomas getting his stride back.
Title story ‘The Shadow in the Tomb!’ is a flashback to a time just after the events of the first story in Volume 1. Cornered with his squad by some rebellious hill-tribes they were sent to suppress, Conan wonders if his fortunes would be different if he had held on to an enchanted blade he had found back then. It’s a clever little story and partly the basis for a scene in John Millius’ Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Thomas/Buscema partnership was coming together all the time, but clearly hits its sweet spot in three part ‘Flame Winds of Lost Khitai!’ Interestingly, this isn’t a Howard story, but based on a novel titled Flame Winds by Norvell W. Page. Sent on a mission to scout out the Khitain city of Wan Tengri (the name of Page’s protagonist in the novel), this really becomes a nightmare situation for Conan. He discovers it is ruled by seven powerful wizards, holding captive a princess who is the real heir to the throne (‘Death and 7 Wizards!’ and ‘The Temptress in the Tower of Flame!’). The misshapen little thief named Bourtai becomes a comedy foil of sorts for the surly Conan, Thomas creating a humorous and believable partner. Generally Conan lacked humour, but adding it here matches Page’s writing style. Those familiar with the films Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer may realise the sidekicks bear a remarkable resemblance to Bourtai. It’s worthwhile reading Thomas’ musings at the end of the book as he shares his memories of writing Conan and working as advisor and writer on those films.
The series continues in The Curse of the Golden Skull and Other Stories.