Monday, April 4, 2016

All That's Left is a Band of Gold - Savage Sword of Conan 14

Savage Sword of Conan #14 (September 1976)(cover by Earl Norem)
"Shadows in Zamboula"
Roy Thomas-Neal Adams/"the Tribe" (although databases credit Tony DeZuniga on the inks)

Doug: A little over a month ago I mentioned in a comments section that today's review would be coming your way. I said then that I'd originally intended to do a Thor issue from the first few post-Kirby offerings. Noticing that Neal Adams was the first artist on the post-Jack scene, I was drawn to that 2-parter. However, upon leafing through those two books and seeing the odd combination of Adams with Joe Sinnott's inks I was pushed away. Eyeballing the shelves in my comics room, I was reminded that it has been years since we ran a Savage Sword of Conan review (we've only done two in our long history here), so I zeroed in on the spines of the four collected volumes I own. I decided just to grab the second compilation and see what lurked within. Of all the stories inside, only two were not penciled by John Buscema. Since he's sort of the Conan go-to artist, I wondered about finding something different so I checked out first the Gil Kane story and then the Neal Adams tale. If you ever ask me to pick between those two artists I'm going to choose Adams 100% of the time -- no question. So here we are.

Doug: I've said it before, but some of the things I'd snatch up had I a time machine and a fair amount of cash are Marvel's various Bronze Age B&W magazines. The art is so spectacular -- from the limited amount of material I've seen, there weren't many misses in terms of quality. The inks are lush, and the use of wash, zipatone, etc. really give some great textures that the coloring of the day simply could not provide. If you've never laid eyes on these "essential" Savage Sword books (I lower-cased that, as these are published by Dark Horse, not Marvel), I'd encourage you to seek them out. They are thick, and a sight to behold.

Doug: So let's get this moving with a 100-Word Review of the plot, as I'm guessing few among our throngs of readers have read this particular tale.

Conan finds himself in Zamboula, warned against staying at the tavern of Aram Baksh. Allegedly men who sleep there disappear, their goods sold at the bazaar. Conan’s investigation soon leads him into conflict with cannibals from Darfar, and a bare-breasted damsel in distress. Further, a drugged Turanian soldier and an idol for human sacrifice add to the suspense. Conan is tested against a Black giant, reality-warping drugs, and the peddler of flesh, Totrasmek. A magical ring is the center of attention, for it enslaves the hearts of the opposite sex. Lies, peril, swordplay, and thievery dominate this fast-paced tale.

The Good: I sometimes feel like I need to take a deep breath when I'm reading these Savage Sword stories. It's pretty well known that John Buscema felt most at home with Conan the Barbarian. I think we could make that same argument of Roy Thomas. Sure, we all know of Thomas's affinity for the WWII-era heroes and the opportunity to retcon their histories. But he seemed to really put out with the Cimmerian. You could also add to the argument by stating how easy it must have been to work with the likes of Buscema, Kane, Adams, and the wonderful lot of Filipino artists that dot the Marvel B&W titles, as compared to lesser (and that's not really a dig) talents that might have been his partners in the four-color books. I just think there's a true comfort in the pacing, dialogue, and eventual payoff in a Roy Thomas Conan story. That being said, I know he has his detractors in the regular Conan mag, and it's been stated on this blog that post-#50 the drop-off in quality is marked. So what do I know?

Neal Adams's art is Neal Adams's art. It's beautiful. I read somewhere (maybe it was even Sean that suggested it in earlier comments here on the BAB) that Tony DeZuniga had tremendous influence on this issue. I suppose I see it in some places, but I mainly see Adams. The faces, angles of the body when walking, the motion of a turn -- some of those are specific traits that I see in Adams's pencils whether here or in a Batman or X-Men story. I also liked the attention to detail on Conan's hair. I know, sounds sort of metrosexual for a barbarian yarn. But if you've read some of the Robert E. Howard stories, Conan's hair is jet black and trimmed straight across his forehead. Adams honors that in nearly every panel. Small detail, but it adds authenticity to the portrayal of the character.

The plot, as I mentioned, was solid. It was extremely well-paced, slowing only when the tension of an action scene was required. There are some movements in the story, but I never felt that getting from here to there required me to suspend my disbelief (beyond "normal" in a sword/sorcery story) or accept any deus ex machina developments. Adams's panel layouts stayed mostly to the grid, but he just often enough mixed in a no-panel layout to keep me enthralled. There are three splash pages in the story, all appropriately placed and effective. Often the figures and/or accessories spill outside the panel's constraints, and I find that effective as well. The end panel is suitably "Conan", and left me with an "of course" smile.

An element of Conan stories is a sort of continuity-without-continuity. For example, on the first page Thomas pens that Conan is accosted in the bazaar by "one of his former Zuagir comrades". I don't necessarily need to know of that episode, but it places the thought into my mind that this Conan fellow is well traveled and well-adventured. Also, the use of city and national names gives Conan stories a "universe" feel. A Tarzan story, to draw on another major mythical adventurer, doesn't give me the same sense of geographic wonder; perhaps that's because Edgar Rice Burroughs anchored his ape-man in our own world.

My favorite part of this story was the 8-page mano-a-mano battle to the death between Conan and the Darfarian giant Baal-Pteor. The creators crafted a vignette with a great deal of tension and an outcome of which I assumed but could not be fully convinced.

The Bad: There's really not much to say here, other than I wondered about this rough-and-tumble world where barbarians stride through town shirtless and later meet and have an adventure with a beautiful woman, also shirtless. Makes me wonder why I'm sitting here wearing clothes... (no, not really). Cover up! Sheesh.

The Ugly: The only ugly thing about this story, or any Conan story for that matter, are the baddies. Whether here with Adams or in a Big John-penciled tale (or shoot -- in my imagination as I read a Howard short story), the denizens of these mythical cities never disappoint in terms of menace. But as to any story element? I got nuthin'.

As I said at the top, do yourself a favor and check out some of these stories. You know, we often bat around "what's so great about the Bronze Age?", and we always tend to focus on Treasury Editions, Megos, the Giant-Size and Dollar Comics, etc. But these magazines are a vital component of 1970s comics history and should not be neglected as part of the larger experience.


Anonymous said...

Hi Doug (and everyone),

Frank, from England here.
The issue you review today was the cause of a 'spat' between Roy and Neal, the injuries from which took a while to heal.

I'll quote directly from that issues letters' page:

"...Savage Sword #13 was largely a reprint, to our everlasting regret, because we relied upon Neal to come thru with the 39 pages of 'Shadows in Zamboula.' When the deadline time for that magazine came, Neal didn't - so we figured, what the heck, we'd just be in better shape for next issue. It even freed writer/editor Roy for some other projects, so at least the whole thing wasn't a total loss - except that we'd worked hard for twelve issues in a row to avoid any reprint features we didn't want to use, and we hated to see that record broken. (Truth to tell, Roy feels a bit like Charlie Brown sometimes, forever striving to kick Lucy's flirtacious football - only to have it yanked out of the way in the last second and to find himself hurtling pell-mell thru the air!)
At any rate, with only a couple of weeks left before deadline time for this issue, Neal had delivered only four or five complete pages (out of 39), plus a smattering of half-inked pages. As a responsible editor who felt he'd be violating the readers' trust if he took a chance that SSOC #14, as well, would have to be a reprint - and make no mistake about it, that's what we believe would have happened! - we took the art assignment away from Neal and asked Tony de-Zuniga and friends to bail us out.
In other words, it proved easier to get a 39-page story finished on time by mailing it to the far-off Philippines than on sending it crosstown in Manhattan..."

There's a little more before and after but I think this gives you most of the information. Obviously Tony (and friends) finished the story in the style of Adams and in the past I used to love leafing through the pages and trying to pin-point the real Adams art...I'm pretty sure I know the complete 5 pages!

Doug said...

Frank --

That is very enlightening! Thanks for taking the time to share that story.

So... let's here it: which five pages do you think were solely Adams? I'd guess the first five.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Ah, the old Adams bait and switch - Marvel did that more than once in the mid-70s. In my memory, the art was inconsistent and disappointing - after the Neal Adams billing thee was too much Tony DeZuniga in a hurry - but its been a while, and it might seem different now. Those scans don't look too bad...

Other than that, yeah, what can you say about the story? Conan is as Conan does. As clichés go (warning, political correctness ahead!)you have to expect the half naked comely wench, but in this one I'm a lot more dubious about the cannibal with the pointy teeth. Roy Thomas was just too much of a purist to avoid that kind of thing when adapting a Howard original.


Doug said...

I have always enjoyed the subtle name changes for real geographic spaces. A "Darferian" cannibal... not to be confused with any cannibals who may have hailed from Darfur all those fantastic centuries ago!


Edo Bosnar said...

In anticipation of this review, I pulled this one out last night as bedtime reading. Even before I knew about the deadline problem that Frank pointed out, it was pretty obvious to me that most of the entire last half of the story was not done by Adams. Before that, though, it's hard to say - in some cases, it seems like a different artist from one panel to the next in quite a few places.
Even so, that doesn't detract from the flow of the story, since the art still has a pretty uniform look.

Good review, Doug. I agree with most of your points: the art is fine, the story is fast-paced and generally enjoyable, with a nice ending in which we see Conan ride off with a laugh. One place I would slightly disagree, or perhaps just add something, is in your "ugly" category: like Sean, I was really put off by the 'Darfarian' cannibal slaves. Both times I read this it just struck me as evoking the stereotypical/racist portrayals of cannibals from "deepest, darkest Africa." I would have been perfectly fine with Thomas taking liberties with Howard's material in this instance.

Otherwise, I have to second your recommendation of the Dark Horse phone books in which these are reprinted. I have the first 2 volumes, which I bought on the cheap a few years ago, and they are indeed wonderful packages - a few hundred pages of stories with nothing but fantastic art. Wouldn't mind getting a few more of these; my only complaint about them - which applies to pretty much all reprint books but is really underscored by Frank's comment above - is the lack of letters pages.

Anonymous said...
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Garett said...

I remembered this opening splash page when I saw today's review:

I was more of a Barry Smith or Buscema fan when it came to Conan, but it's a treat to see Adams on Conan as well. There was an issue he drew in the regular comic, that I believe was originally meant to be in Savage Sword, but was then cut down to be in the regular comic. He talks about it (Conan #37) in this interview (scroll most of the way down):

Also Adams talks about this Savage Sword issue.

Arlen: What happened with Savage Sword of Conan #14, "Shadows of Zamboula"? Though credited as "Art by Neal Adams and the Tribe," the pages begin with what looks like your tight pencils inked by you first, then the Tribe, but by the end, only your basic layouts are detectable.

Neal: After I had done the first Conan story, I told Roy I need to be able to have the time to do this. We agreed it wasn't going to be put on the schedule until I finished the whole job (for the first time in my career). I laid out a book completely, so that I would be satisfied with the whole project. These layouts were done so tight that you could almost ink them.

How this unscheduled book got put on the schedule, and what happened subsequently to that book, is something that I don't really know or understand and consider a real tragedy in my professional life. Roy suddenly sent copies of my layouts to the Philippines, where they were finished up by Filipino artists who obviously didn't understand them.

To make matters worse, I had been drawn voluntarily into a battle to find some justice for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman), and it absorbed much of my time. While I was out of the studio, someone from Marvel came to the studio and asked for the pages and in a spirit of cooperation they were handed over. When I returned to the studio, I was dumb-founded, but I was too involved with "The Boys" to respond to this unfortunate event. The rest is... as they say....

There are a certain number of pages here that I carried through exactly the way I wanted to see them done. In the panels that I inked, you can clearly see the sincerity of what I was doing. To have this thing treated this way was just so very, very disheartening. To have layouts taken away and done by other people is not something that should be done to anybody, for any reason. I really wanted to finish this story; I felt this would be my definitive Conan story. The thumbnails alone show the potential of that story. You can see the devotion I gave to these.

That was pretty much the last positive project I did for Marvel at that time.

Doug said...

And thanks to you, too, Garett. I am loving this history lesson!


Doug said...

Can I also add, as blog co-owner and as one of the moderators, that days like today -- and really almost every day here -- make up for those exceptions when a troll lands in our midst. Thanks, Frank and Garett, for not skewering me for lack of research, etc. I have appreciated the manner in which you've added information to today's post without calling anyone out, denigrating opinions, etc. The normal sense of camaraderie in our daily discussions is a haven from the tumult that exists in other corners of the Internet. I appreciate it!


Garett said...

I agree Doug. You and Karen have set a great tone for the discussions here. It's an energizing and inspiring place to come visit each day.

I like your comments about Roy Thomas's writing and the variety of artists on Savage Sword. The magazine felt like a full meal--tasty and satisfying. And spicy!

I generally liked the Filipino inkers like DeZuniga and Alcala. They added a richness that looked exotic and artistic in black and white. I'm not as big a fan of their inking in the color comics, especially Alcala as it tends to be too much. Pablo Marcos had a few inking jobs in Savage Sword that I thought were very nice. With John Buscema's rock solid pencils, they could really go to town on the inking. Penciling, none of them had the same muscular power as Buscema, although they were ok for pinups. I wasn't so much a fan of Sonny Trinidad, and Ernie Chan was good inking the regular comic, but for me not so great on Savage Sword. Perhaps you could say Chan was better at superheroes, while Alcala and DeZuniga had that lush illustrative quality.

It would've been interesting to see Giordano or Palmer ink this Conan story, just for comparison.

Doc Thompson said...

the Conan Black Guy choke stuff still blows after these years.It almost gay.And isn't the story claimed got lost the mail ?

Anonymous said...

Sooo... having had a closer look -
My money's on he second scan here (the one that starts with the cannibal coming through the door) as all-Neal.
Also, our man does his own ink in the last panel of the first scan, and second panel (Conan flipping the ring) of the last.
The rest is Filipino inks, varying amounts of haste.

Anyone care to wager?


Redartz said...

Thanks for the Conan review, Doug. Always like a visit with everyone's favorite Cimmerian. I think the artwork in this story looks great, regardless of the inker. By the way, thanks for the links, Garrett. Interesting interview...

BobC said...

I never saw this art before--thank you! Neal Adams was such a badass!

Doug said...

While on the subject of half-naked tough guys, I wanted to tell everyone that I asked Tom Brevoort yesterday (via Twitter) if there were any plans to get Marvel's Tarzan back in print. Unfortunately, he said he didn't think that was anywhere on the horizon.

Bearer of bad news,


Anonymous said...

Gotta love classic SSOC!

Yeah, intriguing behind the scenes stuff here. Sometimes we the readers/fans don't get the whole story as to what really goes on in the making of our favourite comics. Frank from England and Garrett, thanks so much for your enlightening contributions.

I generally liked Neal Adams's artwork, although of course my personal favourite has always been Big John, closely followed by Ernie Chan and Tony DeZuniga. Note to self - dig up all those copies of SSOC I bought a couple years ago and read them again!

- Mike 'barbarian at the dinner table' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, thanks for taking the effort to ask about that, but Man, it is indeed dispiriting news. I was hoping against hope that the movie would really make some kind of omnibus happen...

spencer said...

Great review and interesting comments. I am a big Conan fan, and bought everything that marvel did. I always liked SS because it could be a bit more "adult" than the regular conan. Smith will always be my fav conan artist, but Adams did some great stuff, especially covers.

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