Friday, September 13, 2013

Big John's Barbarian: Conan 25

Conan the Barbarian #25 (April 1973)
"The Mirrors of Kharam-Akkad!"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Sal Buscema/John Severin (cover by Gil Kane)

Doug:  We've reviewed several issues of Conan the Barbarian here on the BAB, ably chronicling the brawler's adventures under the pencil of Barry Smith.  Amazingly, we've yet to showcase a story drawn by perhaps his most renowned artist (certainly if we speak in terms of longevity), John Buscema.  We'll take care of that today with Big John's very first Conan story.  So buckle in, and be sure to leave us some comments at the end in the Barry vs. John discussion.  Oh, and that's a pretty nifty cover by Gil Kane, huh?  Thanks in advance.  And away we go...

Doug:  It had been awhile since I'd read our last Conan review, "The Song of Red Sonja".  Consequently, I couldn't figure out why this story seemed to pick up right in the middle of an adventure.  Well, a little page flipping later and I recalled that ol' Kharam-Akkad had appeared in the two previous issues.  So yes, we are sort of dropped into the middle here -- but we'll get through it together!

Doug:  We open with Kharam-Akkad gazing into a crystal at Conan of Cimmeria, just at the conclusion of the previous issue's adventure with Red Sonja.  The wizard attests that he almost had the barbarian dead, but has failed.  He then references the mirror, the more-than-thrice-accursed mirror that taunts him.  As he strides toward a gigantic draped mirror, his nervous musing is interrupted by Chumballa Bey, the captain-of-guards.  Kharam-Akkad tells him of the presence of Conan, and bids him to capture the intruder.  As Bey leaves, the wizard seats himself and fidgets in his sulking.  He is suddenly joined by the Tarim Incarnate -- a god-man, a Hyrkanian deity.  Kharam-Akkad offers him to sit, and then relates for him a story of the mirrors of Tuzun Thune.

Doug:  Our creators then give us a two page illustrated text featuring King Kull.  I got caught wondering about where Kull fit into Marvel's licensing of Robert E. Howard's characters.  A quick database search showed me that Kull actually appeared in Conan the Barbarian #1 and went solo very shortly after.  So my initial reaction here that this story might be some sort of springboard for a Kull series was erroneous from the start.  Anyway, here's the gist of the mirrors tale:  Kull had become sullen, rejecting all adventure.  A maid of the court came to him and suggested he journey to seek out Tuzun Thune, a wizard who could speak to the dead.  Kull seemed oblivious to the girl's true intentions, and so rode off alone.  Arriving at the House of a Thousand Mirrors, he indeed had an audience with the old man.  The wizard recommended that to cure his spirit, Kull should gaze into all of his mirrors.  The king did so, and saw visions of the past and of the future.  As Kull gazed at himself, he began to feel enveloped by the mirror, as if he was somehow merging with it.  At that moment the glass shattered and there stood Kull's friend Brule the Spearslayer, the wizard Tuzun Thune dead at his feet.  King Kull had failed earlier to notice that the maid who spoke to him had evil intentions on her mind -- in collaboration with this now-dead wizard.  Brule had rescued his liege from the power of the mirrors...

Doug:  Kharam-Akkad continued to address the Tarim Incarnate, noting that after many civilizations had perished as foretold by the mirrors, those glass fortunetellers had passed into his own hands.  But he also confided as to his true fears -- ripping the green drape away, Kharam-Akkad unleashed the image of his fears.  There on the mirror was frozen an image of Conan, blood-soaked cutlass in hand and straddling the dead body of Kharam-Akkad.  Above Conan's head were iconic images of a lion, an eagle, and a serpent.  The wizard cried out for meaning, but got no immediate answer.  The wizard falls away in a pile, but rights himself to see a statue of a serpent coiled about a griffin.  He thinks that it must be that sculpture that somehow is perverted in the reflection of the mirror.  He turns, thinking he hears the workmen he's commissioned to remove the carving.  Sensing he's right, he encourages the living Tarim to leave the chambers.  I thought this whole thing with the fleshy god was weird...

Doug:  Cut now to Makkalet, where a weary Conan has returned "home" to sleep for the night.  However, he's ambushed by the agents of Kharam-Akkad, led by Chumballa Bey.  Conan is offered the opportunity to come peacefully, and surprisingly takes it.  As the party walks away, Conan mutters something about the size of this guard come to capture a simple horse thief.  Bey scoffs at him, telling him that it is the wizard who has requested Conan's arrest, and that they are on their way to the temple.  Conan suddenly goes crazy, swearing to never enter the temple again.  He bashes some skulls, appropriates a sword, and makes a quick getaway.  His route, though, leads him back toward the palace grounds.  As the sun has now risen, the king and queen are out on the grounds.  Conan crashes through the brush, knocking the king away and coming face-to-face with the queen.  Thinking of his options, there's no time to act as a large stone suddenly bounces off his Cimmerian cranium and drops him.

Doug:  We scene-shift to a hill outside the city of Makkalet, where the Prince of Turan, Yezdigerd, prepares for a raid on the city (groundwork for this portion of the plot had been laid over the two previous issues).  His vizier asks that he consult the mages to foretell their fortunes.  Yezdigerd puts no stock in their "mumbo jumbo" but nevertheless obliges.  He is told that "the griffin shall bite the serpent in twain -- when the horse spawns walking swords!"  What the...?!  The vizier explains that with this news -- of Turan as the griffin and Makkalet as the serpent -- the men will be ready as ever to take the city.  There is no time but now.  Yezdigerd rallies his men.

Doug:  Later, and now bound, Conan lay at the feet of Kharam-Akkad.  Waking, the barbarian is chided by Kharam-Akkad to tell the secret of the three animal heads above the image of Conan slaying the wizard.  Conan knows not of what he speaks, so Kharam-Akkad turns Conan toward another mirror -- one that shows a death image of the barbarian himself.  Conan feels terror, and even moreso as the images in the mirror begin to shift until a giant octopus begins to manifest itself, its tentacles actually reaching out to envelope the Cimmerian.  Conan bursts his bonds, but is further sucked into the psychic drama.  But without warning, Chumballa Bey lashes out with his voice and his sword, snapping Conan out of the trance.  Kharam-Akkad will not hear of this opportunity potentially lost, and so strikes down Bey.  As Bey falls, he pushes his sword toward Conan.  Conan takes it and begins to slice away at the tentacles that now seek to choke the life from his body.  All this time, Kharam-Akkad has moved toward two swords hanging on a nearby wall.  As Conan's monstrous nemesis falls dead, he turns to face the wizard.

Doug:  Kharam-Akkad is armed with sword and shield, and tells Conan there will be no prophecy fulfilled this evening.  Outside, the Turanian army has massed on the border of Makkalet; on the ramparts of the castle, the king and queen discuss their fate and that they will meet it together.  Back in the temple the clash continues.  Kharam-Akkad is able to knock Conan backward, but as he moves in he sees the hilt of the barbarian's sword -- with the head of an eagle as an adornment!  Staggering backwards, the wizard does everything he can to parry Conan's charge.  But the Cimmerian is strong, and as he strikes and strikes again, Kharam-Akkad's shield is battered to the point that the straps break -- straps made of a serpent's skin!  Kharam-Akkad is now thoroughly terrorized, and as a last gasp grabs one of his mirrors and attempts to draw on the power of the living Tarim.  Holding it aloft, he bids Conan to look deeply into it.  Conan rebukes his enemy, and with one hard thrust of his blade runs the wizard through.  Felled, Kharam-Akkad staggers over to the large mirror with green drape and pulls it away.  Conan now stands full in front of the vision that has plagued the high priest of Makkalet -- an image of himself over the dead man, a lion, an eagle, and a serpent.  And Roy Thomas leaves us with this foreshadowing:  one day, years in the future, Conan will sail the western seas and his men shall call him Amra... the lion.  To be continued.

Doug:  This issue was pretty dense plotwise, and as I said it was actually the third chapter in a much longer story.  I wonder if for readers who came to this at the newsstand there was a big lack of continuity.  In the first chapter, Barry Smith was embellished by Sal Buscema, Dan Adkins, and Chic Stone.  In the aforementioned "Song of Red Sonja", he stood alone on the art chores.  As you see above, John Buscema now took over with the services of two famed inkers.  And with the next issue Ernie Chan began his long collaboration with Big John.  So while Roy Thomas attempted to weave a seamless story, it had to be jarring visually.  But seriously... who would complain about all of these hall-of-famers jammed into such a short period?  Not this guy!

Doug:  I think in this issue we see Buscema somewhat grappling with his version of Conan.  Smith's rendition had become increasingly more muscled as his tenure wore on; of course here we see the Conan that most of us would recognize throughout the latter 1970's and beyond.  But there's just something here that's not quite fully John Buscema, and I can't put my finger on it.  Sure, we see certain poses that we immediately identify, and the dynamic panels, each bursting with motion and action are a JB hallmark.  I don't know -- maybe it's the updated computerized coloring.  I guess at times this just looks a little slicker than I'd like to see, especially immediately following Smith's ultra-detailed renderings.  But what sayest thou?


EXTRA:  You may have noticed on our reading list on the sidebar that I had the conclusion of this tale scheduled to run two weeks from now.  Yeah, well, I'm just not feeling it.  I read the next issue, and since my main point was to showcase Buscema's pencils under Ernie Chan's influence, I can do that here.  I was having a hard time finding the right mood for re-reading the conclusion and doing a write-up. So instead, I've decided to do something out of the Garcia-Lopez Superman book I purchased in August.  I don't think anyone will mind.  However, since I had the introductory paragraph already written, it was easy enough to scan a couple of pages from Conan #26 and attempt to make my point.

In case you were wondering about the resolution of the plot, the kingdom is invaded and laid waste by Yezdigerd, the king is killed and Conan considers making it with the queen, and the living Tarim is exposed as a madman not even capable of thought.  So in spite of some serious fighting and near-death experiences, all's well that ends well (I guess).

Give your thoughts on Chan's inks as compared to what you've seen above in today's review.  I'll add that the updated coloring is going to be an influence on any art discussion we have, in my opinion.  So, without further ado, here's a sampling of what you won't see in two weeks but will instead get to comment on now --

Conan the Barbarian #26 (May 1973)
"The Hour of the Griffin!"
Roy Thomas-John Buscema/Ernie Chan

Doug:  I'm going to say right from the top that the arrival of Ernie Chan, the inker perhaps most associated with John Buscema's run on the color Conan the Barbarian, is striking.  And I don't necessarily mean in a good way.  After last issue's tag-team of Sal Buscema and John Severin -- two veterans from the Silver Age -- embellished Big John's pencils, Ernie Chan buries them.  For my money, this is all-Ernie, all-the-time.  Now it's not an unfamiliar look -- we've all seen it.  But the 3-issue transition from Barry Smith inked by himself to Buscema/Buscema/Severin to Buscema/Chan is jarring.  Toss in Gil Kane's cover on issue #25, and Conan fans may have been wondering just what the heck was going on in their favorite sword-and-sorcery magazine!


Edo Bosnar said...

As usual, very thorough review. And don't worry about squeezing two issues into one, especially since you're substituting it with a Garcia Lopez feature - can't go wrong with him.
As to the art here, I like both, i.e, I think Sal's inks in particular always look good on John's pencils, but I don't mind Chan's inks, either. Maybe, however, that's because I got so used to seeing the Buscema/Chan team on Conan in the later '70s. Either way, I never thought Chan overpowered Buscema's pencils, rather I thought their styles meshed together pretty well. In fact, on that topic, I think Severin's inks (on those two Kull flashback pages if I'm not mistaken) are much more overpowering than Chan's.

What I can say - as I've said several times before - is that I just DO NOT LIKE that computerized recoloring. In my opinion, that's what you're probably finding "off" about Buscema's art here.

david_b said...

Very good review and agreeing totally with Edo, I'm SO not into that new coloring.. I'd prefer the originally printed look anyday.

I certainly feel the richness of the story/art/genre lends itself to smooth reimaging (much like we see in the original Trek series...), but give me the original printing process.

It's kinda like the masses here preferring scans the original scraped-up comic covers to brand new, perhaps touched-up NM cover scans. There's unspoken character and nobility when you see a well-read comic..

Garett said...

I like the page with Conan holding the barrel over his head. These 2 issues aren't my favorites. I think Buscema/Chan had a great run right after this from about issues 27-45, where Chan's inks really work well and Buscema finds his groove with Conan.

I agree that the computer coloring is bad in these Buscema reprints, especially when you had Glynis Wein originally coloring these stories. She was one of the very best colorists in the Bronze age, adding expression with color and not simply describing what color objects are.

Doug said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys.

It's my belief that the inking just generally comes out as very black with the recoloring process. I need to check out my Tales of Asgard trade and see how Vince Colletta's feathery style looks in that book. In both of the books I highlighted today I just felt like the blacks overpowered the art, sometimes to the detriment of the originally intended pencils.

Speaking of Vinnie, Karen and I are kicking around some ideas for Thor reviews in November. That's when the new Thor film debuts, so it seems appropriate.

Have a great weekend, everyone -- another chance to discuss Saturday cartoons is coming your way in the morning!


Fred W. Hill said...

While I rather prefer Smith's art on Conan, Buscema certainly did some excellent work on the mag as well. It's similar to when Romita took over Spider-Man from Ditko. Certainly for most of the 70s, I most associate Big John with Conan and Thor (I wonder how Roy Thomas resisted the temptation to team those two up!).

Anonymous said...

By the scales of Set!

Fred, I'm sure Roy thought about teaming up Marvel's two most popular barbarians at the time (yes, Thor can be considered a barbarian!) but for one reason or another it didn't pan out.

Doug, besides the computerized colouring, I think it's simply Big John's first effort at drawing Conan which makes you think something's off. Usually when an artist draws a character for the first time he experiments with different ways of representing the character, sometimes in very subtle ways like drawing a different shape to the ears or angle of the eyes, and while the reader doesn't notice that, he can sense something is off. Of course, Big John would be more consistent in his portrayal as the series went on.

I think Ernie Chan's inks complemented Big John's pencils well. Of course, Chan's style can be overpowering at times, but in general they meshed well. I always felt Chan's strong, rough lines were ideally suited to Buscema's pencils on a powerful character like Conan.

- Mike 'my mirror needs lots of Windex' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Rip Jagger said...

Barry Windsor-Smith gets and deserves high praise for his truly revolutionary Conan work, but despite that, it wasn't until Big John took the artistic reins of the Cimmerian that the series really began to hum on all cylinders.

The same masculine charisma which Robert E. Howard imbued Conan with also was possessed in massive quantities by John Buscema, a man's man for certain. That rugged confidence informed his work and gave Conan a sturdy storytelling which made him a mainstay of Marvel for years and years.

The Dark Horse reprints have just about gotten through Buscema's tenure on the character, an awesome collection of stories indeed.

Rip Off

Edo Bosnar said...

Conan and Thor did, in fact, meet in What IF? #39, albeit in a tale unfortunately neither written by Thomas nor drawn by Buscema. That may be why so few people remember it...

Doc Thompson said...

Problem with John Buscema's Conan,his look became to much of costume.Captain America boots,fur loin clothe,arm ring,gold cuffs.Barry Smith show have inked Buscema's pencil,adding Age Undreamed of look.John Buscema was at figures,especially women.The world ok,but BWS drew like REH wrote.

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