Review by Jamie McNeil
Due to his double work-load as writer and editor, Roy Thomas adapted work by Robert E. Howard and others into Conan tales to ease the pressure. They resulted in pretty good stories and were beautifully illustrated by a variety of artists including John Buscema.
‘The Hell-Spawn of Kara-Shehr’ freely adapts Howard story ‘The Fire of Asshurbanipal’, covering events immediately after ‘Flame Winds of Khitai’ (Volume 5). It’s a fairly formulaic Conan story featuring Bhourtai, jewels and lost cities, but nicely illustrated by Buscema and embellisher Ernie Chua. Full of atmosphere it blends a non-Conan story with inspiration from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.
‘Beware the Hyrkanians Bearing Gifts…’ returns Conan to Agraphur, a little spooked by the sorcery of his recent adventures. His dramatic entrance earns a promotion to King Yildiz’s bodyguard where he learns military skills he will later employ. Buscema’s impressive emotional detail adds to this story involving treachery and a terrifying idol. Years later Thomas would use this plot as a template when writing for TV series Xena: Warrior Princess.
‘The Curse of the Golden Skull!’ adapts Howard’s short story of the same name and introduces Juma, a character created by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter for their Conan material. Conan and Juma are bodyguards to the Princess Yolinda on an expedition to crush those rebellious hill tribes again. Rothath the All-Conquering, a cursed and now resurrected enemy of Kull the Conqueror is the antagonist here. Neal Adams provides beautiful illustration, playing on primordial fears by capturing fear and loathing superbly. The primary creature is an in-joke by Adams, too good to give away and best discovered for yourself in Thomas’s interesting afterword.
Another non-Conan Howard adaptation is ‘The Warrior and the Were-Woman!’. Conan is cursed and hounded by demons, uncharacteristically turning to a sorcerer for help. Buscema worked solo to produce a well crafted tale that gives us another look at Conan’s gray morality. Buscema also illustrated ‘The Dragon from the Inland Sea!’, a Thomas original inspired in part by Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. The action sequences are brilliant, cementing Thomas’s own opinion that Buscema should have taken over from Foster. Anyone familiar with Prince Valiant will quickly see why.
‘The Fiend from the Forgotten City’ adapts a plot by science-fiction author Michael Resnick. Conan is caught in a game between wizards and gods illustrated by Rich Buckler and Ernie Chua in a beautifully detailed style redolent of Barry Smith’s work on Conan. Buscema and Chua team up again for Thomas’s adaptation of C.L. Moore’s sci-fi story ‘Shambleau’, originally published in Weird Tales. ‘The Garden of Death and Life!’ is spooky, atmospheric and again illustrates how Conan’s honour code can be motivated by base emotions.
‘Night of the Gargoyle!’ adapts Howard’s ‘The Purple Heart of Erlik’, a more risqué offering originally appearing in the naughtier Spicy Adventures pulp magazine. Featuring a pretty woman, a dodgy noble, a priceless artefact and obviously a gargoyle, its opening page is an excellent example of Buscema’s attention to detail and would become a trademark.
While there are some annoying spelling errors (intentional or a product of poor printing?), all the artwork is of a high standard and helped by digital enhancing and restoration. Conan’s popularity was rising all the time, evidenced when the Hallmark Printing Company produced bronze medallions bearing the three most popular Marvel characters of the era: Hulk, Spider-Man and Conan himself.
The series continues in Volume 7: The Dweller in the Pool and Other Stories.