By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 08/09/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: August 7, 2013 Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
So a few months ago, my editor assigned The Chronicles of Conan Vol. 24 for review and I was pleasantly surprised. The story arc was solid and my only real complaints were about editorial choices. When Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 14, reprinting issues #141–150 of the Marvel series, came up in the queue, I felt I had to review it as well. These sword and sorcery tales were originally published in the very same year (1987) as the Chronicles volume. So let’s take a peek. Gone is John Buscema, but present is competent work-man Gary Kwapisz, embellished by that tireless work horse and cross-hatching commando, Ernie Chan. It is a real pleasure to sit back and enjoy each and every black-and-white picture this man has inked—the mountains, the thousands of thatched roof hovels, the horses, the women, and the gross stuff. Because where would a Magazine-appropriate (more mature) Conan story be without gross stuff?
The first story, “The Crimson Citadel”, is a vampire story. Let’s face it, I am cursed. My daughter just spent the last two years with Edward and the gang—in print, on film, on DVD, and in merchandising—and now everywhere I turn, I run into a vampire story. In Conan! In a reprint from almost 25 years ago! What are the odds? And the story by Chuck Dixon is serviceable, but wholly forgettable. But hey, it’s Conan the Vampire Hunter!
The second story, “Blind Vengeance”, is very strange. A town seeks revenge on a different barbarian who blinded the entire town, and Conan is there to help the town take their vengeance. It is fast-paced and fairly exciting, but there is hardly any emotional payoff. Dixon could have used a little less Magnificent Seven and a bit more Little House on the Cimmeria.
“Blood and Honor” features a story by Don Kraar with art by Val Mayerick. The drawings reminded me of early period Walt Simonson—a loose, very thin line just bursting with energy. It adds a feeling of motion that is often missing in the ornately rendered Kwapisz/Chan pages. That movement added a sense of urgency to the story and I must admit, for a retread of the standard “Rio Bravo, protect-the-fortress” plot, I was consistently intrigued with Kraar’s story. That is, until the very idiotic last five pages. Conan the Negotiator? Yuck!!!
“The Waiting Doom” guest-stars Red Sonja, who is out to save some orphans along with her good name. Sounds like a plotline from Aquilonia: SVU. Conan’s quest had so much potential, and Kwapisz/Chan really rise to the challenges (Sonja is both gorgeous and believably blood-thirsty), but the payoff left me shrugging my shoulders. Who was the Tracker/Assassin in the mask? And I thought the Hyborean Age was set firmly in the past (Know O Prince before Atlantis sank…). Come on! This is a sci-fi grade-Z stinker—or perhaps I’ve just read too much Conan in one sitting. I’ll take a break.
Okay 24 hours have passed and I still disliked “The Waiting Doom”, but things are looking up with “Feast of the Stag”. This time, Kwapisz’s art is embellished by Geoff Isherwood, and what a combo they make. If you pick this book up, turn to page 229. The bottom panel, featuring Conan and a child, is quite stunning. And so is this story of a Cult of the Stag that is bloodily sweeping through the Southlands. The only problem I had with the story was the dog that Conan “adopts”. The dog is a gigantic, ferocious killer—so large he makes Scooby-Doo look like Fred Bassett’s best pal Jock and, as big and as scary as he is, he resembles an abominable Rufferto from Groo. If this was unintentional, I will publically eat a bug, but back in 1987, everyone was devouring Sergio Aragones’ masterpiece and I am bug-certain this was meant to be a playful nod.
The sixth story is “Blood Circus”. By the tenth page, when Conan gets shanghaied into the gladiator school along with a mute African, I was rolling my eyes wondering just how many times Chuck Dixon had watched Spartacus. However, by the thirtieth page, I was intrigued by the plot twists and the finale proved to be satisfying. Thumbs up!
Next, “Vulture’s Shadow” features Conan the Roman General, and the eighth story “Besieger of Cities” Conan the Conquering Roman General. This three-part, 150-page story arc is a dandy. In fact, it is so rich, with so many possibilities, that it could have been expanded into a mini-series. I could imagine another 25 to 50 pages alone of Conan the Drill Sergeant.
After that huge, satisfying story, we are headed for a letdown. The ninth story is “Slaves of the Circle”, and it’s Conan of the Apes meets the Leopard Men. This tale is a reminder that in Robert E. Howard’s world, one day you enter the Empiric Capital in glory, and a few days later you are in back in slave’s chains. The art by Tom Grindberg and Bob McLeod is slick and strongly resembles the pages of Neal Adams, but this Edgar Rice Borrows (see what I did there?) tale is rather slight and the revenge fantasy does not play out in a satisfying fashion.
The tenth and final story—reprinted from Savage Sword of Conan #150—is “Call the the Slain”, but it could also be called The Walking Conan—yep it’s a Hyborean zombie story. And it’s pretty damn good. And this time, the ending is quite satisfying. Kwapisz and Chan could have (should have) drawn more of the Marvel B&W horror comics. Between the vampires and the zombies, Savage Sword had become, for them, a perfect horror training ground. And I reiterate, these stories are a quarter of a century old. Seems like Dixon knew what he was doing.
I was always a fan of Chuck Dixon back in the day. When I saw Chuck Dixon’s name on a book—Strike, Winter World, Batman, and (especially) Airboy, I knew I was going to get a solid, entertaining super-book. Times change, years pass, I no longer read many superhero books, and I don’t agree much with Mr. Dixon’s political views, but I was pleasantly surprised by this score (minus one) of Dixon-penned Conan stories. All silliness aside, my attention rarely wavered throughout 500-plus pages.
I’m not sure I would buy another volume (it would depend on the creative teams) but this is exactly the kind of book I’d want to read on a long plane or train ride, and I enjoyed it a lot more than any Essential or Showcase Presents volumes from the same era.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.
Summary:GOOD: Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 14 features over 500 pages for only $19.95! If you’re a Conan fan is it worth buying? Yer damn skippy! And if you’re not, this may be a good point to dip your toes in the Hyborean waters and see if you like it!
Author:Chuck Dixon, Gary Kwapisz, Ernie Chan, et al.
Publisher:Dark Horse Comics
Published:August 7, 2013