Conan the Barbarian, Issue 115
This is where it begins for me. Okay, it really began with Star Wars, but a geek born in the early '70s telling you they love Star Wars is like saying the sky is blue. My love of Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is best expressed by my Steampunk Scholar blog. And while there are a few "cooler-than-thou" fantasy fans who get their rocks off deriding Tolkien, nearly all high-fantasy aficionados cut their teeth on The Hobbit. Nothing new there. Besides, I'm not sure I'd read The Hobbit when I set out for a bike ride with my cousin in the summer of 1980.
I spent much of my childhood and all my teen years in Medicine Hat, a city by Alberta's standards, with a population of 70,000. Medicine Hat is classed as a desert climate, complete with cacti, rattlesnakes, poisonous insects, and intolerably hot summer days. It was on one such torrid afternoon that my cousin and I set out on our three-speed bikes for the nearest Mac's convenience store, to acquire slushes, aka slurpees, freezees, the child's equivalent to the Daquiri or Margarita: crushed ice and syrup. We made daily pilgrimages to the Mac's to procure this heat squelching drink, whose only ill side effect is the dreaded brain freeze. In addition to my slush, I would often peruse the comics rack: some of you remember the comic rack. I rarely see comic racks now, but in my childhood, their presence in convenience stories was ubiquitous. They were the library of my youth--that summer, my cousin, who had been trailing in literacy, would join me in pre-slumber reading from my considerable stack of comics, inadvertently catching up to his peers in reading ability.
On that fateful summer's day, as my fingers flipped through the racks of comics, they sensed an issue that was considerably thicker than the others. I stopped, and pulled out issue 115 of Marvel Comic's Conan the Barbarian. I have no memory of why I decided to buy it, other than that it seemed to afford a better bargain than any other comic on the stand that day. 75 cents was only a quarter more than the going price of comics in 1980, but it was clear there was a hell of lot more going on inside that John Buscema/Ernie Chan cover than the latest edition of Action Comics or Spider-man.
I couldn't tell you what my initial reaction to the story was: as an adult, I tracked down a copy (I got rid of a lot of comics in one tragic evening of utter stupidity I'll tell you about some day). I re-read it for this post, and was entertained by how many Conan cliches abound between its cover pages.
"A War of Wizards" was written by Roy Thomas, the man responsible for bringing Conan to Marvel comics, and drawn by John Buscema and Ernie Chan, who rendered the arguably most recognizable comic-book incarnation of Conan with the bearskin loincloth, leather boots, matching gold wrist bands, and slim bicep-encircling gold band. How the hell Conan ever got those wrist bands on, and how that upper arm band stayed on were a mystery as powerful as Red Sonja's chainmail bikini, which we will get to shortly.
The plot seemed labyrinthine to my young mind, and even as an adult, I have to give it credit for being more than Conan-wanders-into-town/tomb/jungle and engages in combat with locals/undead/monsters either after or before having sex with tavern girl/nobleman's concubine/frost-giant's-daughter. On the road to the city of Akkharia (I think one of the attractions to Conan was its resonance with the place names from my Old Testament Sunday school lessons), Conan is confronted by a vision of the spirit of Zukala, a powerful sorcerer, who seeks to procure the warrior's services. Conan hates magic users of all kinds, and flatly refuses. Arriving at his destination, he is reunited with old sword-mate, Red Sonja. If Conan is who every adolescent boy wishes he was, Sonja is the girl every adolescent boy wishes he was dating. Carrie Fisher might have been the queen of the metal bikini, but Red Sonja did it first. Ladies, if you wish to net yourself a fanboy, simply tell him you have a bedroom fantasy involving Conan and Red Sonja.
While I was unclear about the logistics any bedroom antics would entail, I had, since seeing Caroline Munro in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, formed an idea of an ideal female. Red Sonja fit the bill. So imagine my surprise when, goaded by comments about his deceased beloved, Bêlit, Conan physically lashes out at Sonja, knocking her to the floor, and then engaging her in a sword fight. I do not recommend this as good courtship behavior, but it works for Conan when he disarms Sonja, defeating her in single combat. Sonja surrenders herself to Conan, but the barbarian remains mournfully committed to Bêlit. He storms away from Sonja, riding on a new town and a drunken depression. Standing in a deluge of rain, Conan cries to the heavens and is answered by Zukala, who offers "the life of Bêlit" in return for Conan's services. All the Cimmerian has to do is kidnap Karanthes, high priest of Ibis, and bring him to Zukala's lair. In abducting Karanthes, Conan faces Sonja again, who refuses to let him kidnap the priest. In the ensuing struggle, Karanthes inadvertently renders Sonja unconscious with a potion meant for Conan. Karanthes is bound, and with the sleeping she-devil over his shoulder, Conan is off for Zukala's lair. When he arrives, Zukala reveals he needs to trade Sonja's female soul for Bêlit's, which caused me as an adult to wonder on Conan's behalf, "what the hell were you going to do if I didn't show up with an unconscious warrior woman in a chain-mail bikini?" It's the only hiccup in this plot, so I let it slide, especially since the resulting clash of conscience requires Conan to kick some demon ass before beheading Zukala.
I read this issue countless times as a kid, but wouldn't buy my next Conan comic until the following summer, when I picked up issue #127. By this time, I was fully immersed in Middle-earth, somewhere on the way to destroy the Ring. I was making regular pilgrimages to the local toy store to stare at Dungeons and Dragons books and wonder what they were. As a teen, I was put off by Gil Kane's artwork, but kept getting Conan monthly all the same. The comics would lead to the Lancer/Ace collection of Robert E. Howard's stories, edited by L. Sprague deCamp. Those books lead to the Bantam series of new Conan stories by SFF heavyweights like Poul Anderson and Karl Edward Wagner. All this in the space of a year. When Schwarzenegger appeared onscreen as Conan in '82, I was primed.
As an adult, I like the Gil Kane run of issues better, since that's the Conan I imagine in REH's stories - lean and muscular - powerful, but not in a steroid way. I like Barry Windsor Smith's Conan even better. Nevertheless, it's the Buscema/Chan Conan who first caught my attention, and kept it through many issues of both Conan the Barbarian and the comic-code-free Savage Sword of Conan. Arguably, it's where my love of fantasy began. This is the first step on the path toward Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, and Dungeons and Dragons. Thank God for hot afternoons, slurpees, and parents who encourage the purchase of comic books.