3 Conan The Barbarian Comics from Marvel You Should Read!

GhostAndy

100_0255Howdy Everyone! On today’s daily article here at Gotstratosphere, you are getting two Andys for the price of one!

Yes, after last week’s podcast that saw the Host with the Most, Andy Larson join forces once again with his long standing partner in pop culture crime, JA Scott, the dynamic duo has decided to reunite one more time for all our fans. In particular, given we both shared our love of all things Conan the Barbarian on that fantasy related comic book episode, we thought it was our duty to school the youngins out there on some of the best single issues out from the original Conan run that Marvel had starting in the mid 70s.

Sure, part of the reason we are doing this article is because JA was still bitter that we didn’t cover any Barry Winsor Smith Conan as the read pile on that episode, so we had to give him a chance to gush a bit more how terrific that run was. But it is a fair point that the original Conan run at Marvel was somewhat of the epitome of the single issue model, in that for the most part, the series was an anthology starring Conan in which the wandering sword swinging hero would meet up with a different set of characters and places every month with very little connecting subplots or reoccurring allies.

As such, for those of us in the modern age of comics where every story is serialized to the point that at least you could put out a trade of the first 5 or 6 issues, this hodge podge approach can feel a little haphazard, without a continuous story to follow issue after issue. As such some readers might be turned off by classic Conan and prefer some of the newer stuff with a more of an emphasis on that all important “Story Arc” that has become so important nowadays.

So we’re here on today’s article to point out at least 3 really terrific single issue stories that you can pick up today if you want to enjoy some classic sandal wearing high adventures in the Hyborian Age from a simpler comic book time.

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Conan the Barbarian #4

“Tower of the Elephant”

Adapted by: Roy Thomas

Art by: Barry Winsor Smith (with Sal Buscema on Inks)

 

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10 Cent Synopsis:

After a brief skirmish in a local tavern, Conan decides to brave the unknown traps of the legendary gleaming Tower of the Elephant in search of a massive jewel that’s supposed to lie within. After teaming up with Taurus the thief, Conan overcomes man eating lions, giant spiders, and a perilous climb up the tower’s sheer glowing edifice, to eventually discover the true secret that lies within.

Years ago, the evil wizard, Yara, imprisoned an elephant looking alien being within the tower named Yag-Kosha, blinding and torturing the peaceful traveler from the stars in hopes of discovering the secrets of his gigantic gem “The Heart of the Elephant”. Yag pleads with Conan to kill him out of mercy to stop the torment, with the barbarian does.

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However, in his seeming death, Yag-Kosha has enacted his ultimate plan for justice against Yara and the destruction of the crystal like tower in which he was enslaved.

Why it’s so good:

I’m sure there are going to be some classic Conan fans out there ready to sacrifice me to Crom for not including “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” as my number one selection on this list. I won’t lie that it was tempting given it was in some ways the “peak” of the Barry Winsor Smith Conan run in terms of art, with the swirling dramatic blizzard silhouetting a very savage yet poetic love story between Conan and the unattainable ideal woman.

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However instead I picked the Tower of the Elephant because I feel it so much more important from a historical perspective. In essence, I feel strongly if it had not been for this particular issue especially early on in the original Conan run, the entire series might not have ran for the decades that it did. I say this because the first 3 issues of the original series are incredibly uneven and lack any real focus.

It’s often be said that Roy Thomas originally didn’t want to write a Conan series but instead a Lin Carter’s Thongor series, a cross between Conan and the more fantastic John Carter books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As such, those first 3 issues of Conan are a weird cross between high fantasy and almost magical science fiction, with races of animal men and even brief scenes of time travel and space flight.

But with Tower of the Elephant, things settle down a bit. Yes, there is the notion that the Elephant like creature comes from the stars, but the way it’s portrayed its more mystical in nature, with a somber realism that would be a hallmark of the Conan stories despite their more fantastic subject matter.

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Plus, it’s a classic dungeon crawl as Conan teams up with the master thief Taurus to brave the perils of the tower in search of untold riches. It’s a plot device that would serve Conan stories well for years to come…as well as a slew of D&D modules.

Fun Fact:

This book was so well thought of that recently it was re-released to comic book stores in single issue format by Marvel as part of their “True Believers” set of reprints. These books are part of a series aimed at younger or newer comic book audiences providing important single issue stories involving popular Marvel characters which would hopefully serve as a spring board to get them to buy more of that series.

Besides the fact that is a comic book philosophy that the GotS gang can get behind with the whole “bringing more people into the comic book tent”, those comics are also often a couple bucks cheaper than the traditional monthly books, making them more appealing to consumers.   Yeah, I may complain about some of the stuff Marvel does, but those “True Believers” books, those are a step in the right direction!

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Savage Sword of Conan #2:

“Black Colossus”

Adapted by: Roy Thomas

Art by: John Buscema & Alfredo Alcala

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JA10 Cent Synopsis:

Conan faces off against a dark, faceless enemy that is haunting the dreams of Princess Yasmela. Picked by the princess to lead the armies of Khoraja against hordes massing to the south, Conan find himself as a general of an army and playing bodyguard to the princess.

He must not only battle the likes of Katguman – the giant rebel prince from Stygia – and prevent his army from being overrun, but save the princess and unlock the mystery of the demon who is looking to feast on her soul.

 

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Why it’s so good:

The “Black Colossus” tale from Savage Sword of Conan is considered one of the best Roy Thomas/John Buscema Conan stories of all time. Adapted from the original Weird Tales story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, “Black Colossus” has most of what you need in a great swords and sorcery tale – palace intrigue, large set battle pieces, thieves and scoundrels, incompetent commanders, sorcery, and of course sword play. The art, by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala, is rich and engaging, drawing the eye across the page with great use of panel arrangement.

The story length, 36 pages told across three chapters, lends itself well to the genre, allowing for a fairly in-depth back story to be told before we even see Conan. The long set-up pays off in the second and third chapters as the reader has become invested in the mystery of the demon bewitching the princess, and the dread that rides with the horde army carrying more significance and weight.

Does this Conan tale from 1974 stand the test of time? By Crom it does!

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The black and white art is luminescent and the writing tight and controlled. Set early in his life, Conan, who has only led small bands of men, is given the chance to command a vast army – knights gleaming in fine-wrought armor, 500 Khoraja spearmen, 1000 mounted mercenaries, and 2000 mercenary spearmen –  and the story hints are what is to come for him one day as he moves towards becoming a King. The epic battle that concludes “Black Colossus” is wonderfully satisfying, with both large army and individual battles being highlighted.

Plus, this comic was reprinted in full color in the large sized Marvel Treasury Edition #15 in 1977, so track that down if you love those giant sized full page spreads!

Stand-out Moment

Fearing a trap, Conan refuses to advance from a position of height against what appears to be a scatted and disorganized horde army. This does not sit well with Count Thespides, who tells Conan the only knightly thing to do is to ride out and meet the foe, as Conan would know if he “had noble blood” in him. Conan responds that “such blood as I have, I’d rather keep in my veins.”

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Conan watches Thespides and the cavalry charge regardless, and be destroyed by a trap. “In that instant, horses and armor-clad riders alike wither like insect in an open blaze”

 

Fun Fact:

For those of you that that have paid attention to any of Andy’s blogs or discussions on Masters of the Universe, you’ll be familiar with the name Alfredo Alcala, who is one half of a “dream team” of fantasy related artists on this particular story. In some ways one of the most influential forces on the visual look of the MOTU franchise, Alfredo was the artist who drew some of the very first mini comics that ever came with figures.

His massive muscle bound interpretation of He-man and the dangerous monster filled world of Eternia, established in our a young imaginations the type of high fantasy that sparked an epic sense of adventure. More than the somewhat campy Filmation cartoon that would come later, Alfredo’s MOTU was a vicious place filled with mystery and excitement.


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What If? #13:

“Conan The Barbarian Walked The Earth Today?”

Written by: Roy Thomas

Art by: John Buscema

 

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10 Cent Synopsis:

After getting slipped a mickey at a local tavern, Conan ends up becoming the prisoner of an evil wizard named Shamash. This magical miscreant has been dumping poor folks down his Time Well in order to harness it’s temporal energies and Conan is his latest victim.

Of course instead of ending up in the dinosaur filled past as intended, Conan takes a trip into his future ending up on the streets of New York City in 1977.

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His fur loin-clothed look creates quite a disturbance as he hacks and slashes his way through taxi cabs and police officers before being saved by a ginger haired lady named Danette. She takes him back to her apartment for some passionately savage lovemaking just as the Great NYC Blackout of 1977 hits.

In the ensuing chaos, Conan decides to sneak into the after mistaking it for a magical ziggurat in some picture. There he and Danette fight off a bunch of gangsters who are trying to rob the place, before Conan is struck by lightning on the roof and whisked back to his own time.

Why it’s so good:

It’s just silly, that’s why. But silly in a good way. Like there’s something so metafictional about the notion of Conan the Barbarian swinging from fire escapes, cutting down two bit thugs with his massive blade, and bedding pretty young taxi drivers in Disco era New York City that you can’t help but smile about all of this.

Plus it’s all the little jokes and Easter eggs Roy Thomas throws into this story that just push it over the top. Like Peter Parker and MJ show up for a brief panel during Conan’s initial rampage and old Petey comments about how he might have to pop back as Spider-man and settle Conan’s hash. Another panel shows a looter grab Conan’s sword during a fight and yell that he’s Darth Vader before getting popped solidly in the mouth by our dark haired Cimmerian.

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Heck, there’s even a reference to the fact that Conan looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, which given this comic was published in 1978, a full four years before he would assume that iconic role in the 1982 movie adaptation, is beyond impressive. Roy Thomas should have demanded a finder’s fee or something for even suggesting that actor/character match up in the first place!

So, yeah, the story is a bit goofy and hackneyed compared to the other entries on this list, but we included it because it’s just so much dag-gone fun! It’s no wonder that in recent years since getting Conan back, Marvel has indeed brought him into the future in such titles as “Avengers: No Road Home” and “Savage Avengers”. It’s just a really great What If scenario hat writers are itching to play around with it.

Of course though, the premise is nowhere near as charming as it is in this original single issue tale. I mean, he gets blasted back through time thanks to a lightning bolt! That’s Hill Valley Clock Tower stuff! 1.21 Gigawatts of pure electricity!

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Fun Fact:

Like some of the best What If…? stories from the original run, this issue actually has a sequel which I was half tempted to include on this list because it is some ways more bad ass than the story I just reviewed. Appearing in What If #43 written by Peter Gillis with art by Bob Hall, it sports one of the most insanely awesome Conan covers ever with the Barbarian packing heat like he just stepped out of the movie “The Warriors”.

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In fact, this story of what would happen if Conan wasn’t sent back to his time by the magic super lightning bolt Marty McFly style is so epic, that I’m not going to waste reviewing it here as a simple side note. No, no! It deserves it’s own write up! So stay tuned in the upcoming weeks as I have a terrific read pile planned covering this and a couple other insanely great What If stories that have become some of my personal favorites over the years.

Trust me, it’s going to be SAVAGE!

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