Reading these Dark Horse collections of "Conan the Barbarian" comic books has some pluses over the original experience. Take this volume of nine issues originally published in 1977: No need to flip past sea monkey ads, no faded coloring on pulp stock, no month-long wait between issues.
The drawback is these issues were not made to be read at once. This hits home in Volume 10. Roy Thomas often focused his stories on effect, thrusting Conan into a different adventure from month-to-month in order to change up the cover image and entice regular buyers to something new on offer. "We like to keep switch-hitting" was the way he explained it to a letter-writer in issue #76. If Conan was fighting a guy riding a hawk one issue, he could be squaring off against a giant in the next. The result was great fun to look at, but an obstacle to a consistent running storyline.
What you get here instead of a consistent story are three different narrative arcs of three issues apiece. The story in the first three issues reprinted, #72-74, is by far the best. After a secret mission to the coastal kingdom of Shem, Conan and his pirate-queen mate, Bêlit, discover her royal father is still alive but imprisoned in the heart of evil, snake-worshipping Stygia. First they must deal with a mutiny aboard Bêlit's ship. Then it's on to the coast of Stygia to begin their quest.
This story arc includes a couple of prize villains in Bêlit's puppet-king uncle Nim-Karrak and the slippery corsair Kawaku. A monster frog makes a sensational surprise appearance it would be a shame to detail here. Everything clicks pretty brilliantly, especially some panels by artists John Buscema and Ernie Chan that feature Conan in a lengthy nightmare sequence.
The next three issues, #75-77, pulls us out of the search for Bêlit's father to sidetrack us with the city-state of Harakht, home of the hawk-riders, where Conan and Bêlit are captured. Harakht somehow remains independent of mighty and fearsome Stygia despite lying inside it, and grows these giant hawks from a meteor that fell out of the sky. The same meteor also produced a giant who threatens Conan. Much intrigue follows, if of a rather sluggish kind.
We get pulled to yet another side story in the last three issues, #79-81 (#78 was a reprint). Conan here is sent on a mission as an envoy to yet another independent city-state within Stygia, Attalan, awkwardly populated by the descendents of time-travelling ancient Greeks.
Taken from a short story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard not involving Conan, this is the weakest part of Vol. 10. Howard's story, "The Lost Valley of Iskander", works better with another Howard hero at its center. "I'm a strange one to have been picked for a task to preserve the peace," Conan notes. Worse, the story pulls Bêlit away entirely just as you begin to warm to her hot-tempered pursuit of her quest. Conan instead dallies with another woman in a go-go dancer bikini outfit. Buscema is temporarily replaced for these three stories by Howard Chaykin, whose pencils are sometimes jarringly lacking in proportionality and perspective. At one point, Conan fights a man who seems to go from six to eight feet tall between panels.
If these books were written the way graphic novels are today, there would be less plot-twisting and more narrative build. But Thomas had a core market of easily-diverted teenage boys to satisfy, including me back then. No doubt he saw a need to keep us happy by changing things up. It's just more apparent here than with other volumes how much of a drawback this could be.
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Bill Slocum (Bill_Slocum)
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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Treading the long and winding path toward his eventual monarchy, Conan becomes witness to the corruption and devastation of many a fantastic kingdom along the way. Not the least of which being the marvelous, and equally dangerous, lands of Harakht - home to the fearsome Hawk-Riders and their enormous avian beasts. Despite the overwhelming odds and the presence of a mysterious, earthbound space rock, it will take more than a flock of giant and savage birds to strike fear in the Barbarian's heart. With his lover Belit - the Queen of the Black Coast - at his side, no threats, terrestrial or otherwise, will prevent Conan from fulfilling his destiny.