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.