Barry Windsor-Smith ensured an enormous amount of detail and finesse in his art, something fans had come to love. However, the sheer amount of effort he put into his work affected deadlines and added pressure, so he decided to leave Conan the Barbarian behind for the second time to pursue other projects. John Buscema, Roy Thomas and Stan Lee’s first choice, would finally come on board. Volume 4 collects the first two stories of Buscema’s run, but also the last and arguably the best work Smith  produced on Conan.

‘The Shadow of the Vulture!’ is something of a landmark in comics’ history. It introduces Red Sonja, adapted from a Howard story to fit Conan’s world. Sonja is all flame hair and flashing swords, positively overdressed compared to later incarnations, but Smith presents a mesmerising character. ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ continues to follow the fortunes of doomed Makkalet under siege by Prince Yezdigerid and his army. Betrayals abound and passions rise, Sonja proving to be Conan’s equal on the path to her future iconic status. The tale won the Shazam Award for Best Individual Story in 1973. ‘Red Nails’ (see below) was also nominated for a Shazam.

John Buscema arrives for the finale of what Thomas later called the Hyrkanian War saga. Right away he stamps his distinctive mark on Conan with ‘The Mirrors of Haram Akkad’ and ‘The Hour of the Griffin!’ in a style that would be synonymous with Conan for years to come. Cities fall, arrogant men meet their downfall, hearts are broken and honour is won and lost. Buscema pencils a big bold start to deliver a brawnier, broodier and more battle-scarred Conan that would be imitated by other creators, games studios and film/television production crews for the next forty years. Smith’s work is classic but at times the features lacked emotion, something Gil Kane introduced superbly during his short run, while Buscema’s style is a combination of the two. Compared to Smith’s work the styles are chalk and cheese, but by no means inferior or superior to the other. Yes, Thomas did bring Ernie Chua on as inker to help add that extra detail fans had become accustomed to, but sales rose with Buscema’s tenure. It’s a style that Thomas admits definitely sold without garnering as many awards as Smith’s did.

We are extremely fortunate that the bigwigs at Dark Horse decided to include Thomas and Smith’s splendid ‘Red Nails’ here. It follows standard Conan formula (wenches, monsters, sorcery and betrayals), but is so stunningly rendered it would be reprinted twice more over the next seven years. Led more by Smith’s pencils than by Thomas’s writing, it has a number of wordless sequences that craft a tense and foreboding atmosphere, helped greatly by excellent layout and the modern wonders of digital restoration. Introducing Valeria (also the love interest in that Conan film with the big Austrian dude) who would become a recurring character, this is another landmark story for the Conan mythos. It’s originally from Savage Tales so this is gorier with implied nudity and scenes considered racy even by modern standards, adding to the story, but making it mature reading.

The series continues in The Shadow in the Tomb and Other Stories. Apart from ‘Red Nails’ and ‘The Hour of the Griffin’ these stories are collected in Essential Conan while Smith’s work (apart from ‘Red Nails’) is in The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan Archives.