Conan The Barbarian #5 (May 1971)
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Barry Smith
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Karen: Right off the bat here, I have to say that the art in this issue is a letdown from the previous issue, and I believe it is entirely due to Frank Giacoia's inking. The man was a veteran and certainly turned in many a solid job at Marvel, but he and Barry Smith simply do not mesh. The art here has a very crude look to it and honestly I found it made for a difficult read.
Doug: I can't really put my finger on what's wrong here, but something is certainly amiss. I tried to do some comparisons of facial angles, poses, action sequences, etc. between the previous issue and the following issue -- both of which were inked by Sal Buscema. Giacoia's line seems to be very heavy at times (particularly on faces), and I feel that to some degree he stiffens the art. Buscema's inks had really given the previous book a dynamic, fluid look. I'm feeling that this issue is almost a return to the Kirby-like density of the first two issues in the series. But hey -- it is Barry Smith and while I don't think he necessarily makes any leaps forward as we've previously commented, you could certainly do worse.
Karen: This story was inspired by a Robert E. Howard poem, "Zukala's Hour." Having never read the poem, I can't say how it compares to the story, which I think was fairly standard sword and sorcery fare. Conan is on his way to the city of Shadizar when he comes upon a small village at sunset. He briefly talks with a merchant, but suddenly the sky grows unnaturally dark, and the townspeople begin to panic and hide. Conan grabs a man by the collar and demands to know what's going on. It seems that the people owe a tax of 40 gold pieces, but they haven't paid. "The Master" is now coming to collect. The barbarian sees a strange cat's head forming out of the mist. The merchant cries that it is "she" and bolts. With a flash a huge tiger appears and begins demolishing the town. When it threatens a woman, Conan jumps in, and grabs the beast, but the tigress quickly overpowers the overconfident youth. However, even as she glowers over him, she appears to have a change of heart and lets him go.
Doug: You gotta love ol' Conan -- half the reason he engaged the tigress was because she was about to pounce on a "pretty one". Generally speaking, the crowd scenes in the previous issue were more inspired. I think I'll add -- and maybe this is what's giving us that "off" feeling about the art -- that the coloring in this particular issue is really heavy and dark. In looking through it again, I believe this is where I'm getting the slow, plodding feeling about the art. I wonder what it looked like in the standard four-color of the day?
Karen: We follow the mysterious tigress up a hill and she transforms into a raven-haired beauty. In the village below, the townspeople tell Conan that she is Zephra, daughter of Zukala - "the master". The villagers contend that both father and daughter are ageless and immortal. But they seem to think a strong sword could change that. They make Conan an offer - the 40 pieces of gold they owe Zukala will go to him, along with a fine sword, if he kills the man. It suits the barbarian and off he goes. However, the villagers figure they will never have to pay that price -once Conan has taken care of Zukala, they plan to arrange "an accident" to befall him.
Doug: I didn't feel that this story (I, too, have not previously read the poem on which Roy Thomas based his script -- but I did think that the few panels in which he inserted direct lines from said poem was a nice touch) held much suspense. It was really quite easy to see what would occur in advance of the actual events playing out. So, coupled with the art/coloring issues I'm left a little cold. Given our excitement over the first two issues we've reviewed in this series, I'm afraid we're ending on a bit of a dud.
Karen: At Zukala's castle, Zephra returns, telling her father the villagers did not pay, and then the girl passes out. Conan sneaks into the castle and finds the masked wizard crouched before a huge blazing brazier, summoning a demon. Zukala orders the creature to either bring him the tribute from the villagers, or kill them all. The demon goes flying out the window (in a very super-hero like pose).
Doug: That mask made me think of him as "The Man in the Iron Mask"... or Ferro Lad. In regard to a "super-hero like pose", I felt the same way when Conan leapt from a tree to the castle wall. Barry Smith's Conan is much more athletic than would be John Buscema's Conan -- wouldn't you say that Buscema's Conan was about 40 pounds of muscle heavier than Smith's depiction?
Karen: Oh definitely! I'm glad we're talking about these two versions, because they are so different. I can rationalize and say that Buscema's Conan is older and more filled out. But I do have a hard time imagining the hulking Conan of the later years performing some of the acrobatic stunts of Smith's lithe barbarian.
Karen: Zephra discovers Conan hiding but he quickly overpowers her and asks her if what the villagers told him was true-can she see the future, and turn herself into a wild beast? She surprises him by planting a passionate kiss on him and telling him that when she fought him in her tigress form, she knew he was the man she would love. Wow! This is one strange chick. She also tells him she has foreseen him standing over her body, an axe in his hands. Conan is completely flummoxed but is never one to turn away an attractive woman.
Doug: When Zephra planted that big smooch on our Cimmerian, I couldn't help but think of the scene in the first Schwarzenegger film when Conan is getting it on with the maiden in her Hansel & Gretel hut and she turns into some demon/sorceress. Arnold chucks her into the fireplace and it's over. But he doesn't do that here with Zephra. I love this Conan character -- whereas Tarzan is fully noble and driven, Conan is driven... but his path can certainly veer off in any direction: wine, women, song, chance to make a buck or two, a good scrap -- you name it!
Karen: While Conan and Zephra are locked in an (PG-rated) embrace, the wizard Zukala suddenly appears -I love Conan's line here: "Crom's Devils! Do doors mean nothing in this place?" - and cuts loose with a powerful energy blast. But the agile Cimmerian evades it and hacks at the wizard's head. Shockingly, this does not kill him, but his metal mask has been damaged. He runs off, head in hands. Conan pursues him ,with Zephra in tow, while the girl explains that the mask is the source of her father's power. She tells Conan he has no chance against him and should flee. But the barbarian is not convinced and is determined to end Zukala's life.
Doug: Conan makes Superman look like a real pansy. Powers don't work against magic? Pfah.
Karen: Even with half of his magical mask, Zukala is still a threat. He turns Conan's sword into a snake, and then fires more energy blasts at him. The young warrior grabs a battle axe and attacks. But when he has the wizard at his mercy, he tells him that for the sake of the girl, if Zukala matches the offer the villagers made him, he'll let him live.
Doug: This is the second perfectly good broadsword that has been ruined in this story, and all by magic. The first one was shattered against Zephra in her tigress form; here Conan just chucks the serpent-that-was-a-sword into a fire and that's that.
Karen: Zephra pleads with her father to accept. But the sorcerer is too proud. He commands his daughter to take on her beast form once more and kill Conan. She transforms reluctantly, before Conan's astonished eyes. But she finds she cannot obey her father. However, at this point the demon returns with the gold, and Zukala orders him to kill the barbarian. But the tigress Zephra leaps at the creature's throat. Zukala commands the demon to slay her. Conan confronts the wizard, telling him to call off the demon but he refuses, so jumps into the fray himself. But it is too late -the demon tosses Zephra aside like a rag doll, smashing her against a wall where she transforms back to her human form, and lies still.
Doug: I suppose Roy crafted the demon to be in line with Conan's powers, but in the whole hellspawn category ol' Jaggta-noga wasn't much. Thor would have bloodied and bested him easily, and sent him scurrying back to the netherworlds.
Karen: Seeing his daughter lying so still, Zukala dismisses the demon and rushes to her side. Zephra is still alive, awake but weakened. She cries out to Conan and it angers her father. He threatens the barbarian and then casts a spell that transports he and his daughter away. Ever the practical man, Conan wastes no time thinking about the two of them. He scoops up the gold and gets back on the trail for Shadizar.
Doug: Sometimes you get the impression that Conan is a "bear of very little brain", but that's really not the case. As stated above, he's pretty driven; easily distracted, yes, but pretty goal-oriented. In this case, that goal was to apparently get over to Shadizar and rob some of the wealthy nobles. So why tarry? Although Roy did tell us that Conan counted the 50 pieces of gold.
Karen: This isn't a bad story; after all it has a demon and a wizard! But again, the art really took me out of it. It's almost as if you can see Smith's art struggling to burst free of the inks put upon it. But not only is the inking poor, the panel layouts in this issue are also much more conventional than before, with Smith primarily sticking to 6 or 4 panel pages. Looking at the next issue though, I see Sal Buscema is back and the art looks fabulous. I have to wonder if this issue was a rush job.