Later Savage Sword of Conan Volumes
I’m a late comer to The Savage Sword of Conan. You’d probably have figured that, much as I like sword-and-sorcery, I’d have a huge stack of old sword-and-sorcery comics, but I don’t. I missed out on Savage Sword when it was a mag, and I almost missed out on the Dark Horse reprints. There are 22 of the things, which is a heck of an investment. If, like me, you came upon them with little clue but were curious, you’d probably wonder where to start.
I think anyone who’s heard of these has likewise heard that only the first few compilations are good, because those were the ones with Roy Thomas and John Buscema, and only in the first three or four are they adapting actual Robert E. Howard stories. Their work actually continues on into Volume 6, although by that point they’re mostly adapting pastiche tales, and lesser writers are contributing to some comics in the collection. I have to say that sometimes there’s nothing Thomas could do to make the pastiche better, but sometimes he and Buscema really make it more Howardian than the pastichers ever managed, and occasionally they do even better than that.
After that last collection with Thomas (6), it looks like a long desert until he returns at the very end of Volume 18. But there are wonderful stories in between, if you know where to look. Once volume 13 hits, it’s more than an occasional oasis, because Chuck Dixon is on the scene, usually teamed with artist and sometimes collaborator, the talented Gary Kwapisz.
Dixon’s taken some grief because his Hyborian age doesn’t quite sync up with Howard’s geographically, and he adds things to Conan’s speech pattern, including a cool catch phrase, more frequent references to Crom, and other asides. But, by gum, in his hands Conan acts like Conan, the plots get complex and interesting, the secondary characters have personalities, and there’s both occasional poignancy and appropriately Howardian humor. I was regularly pleased, thrilled, and surprised by these stories. They were grand fun.
To my mind Dixon’s consistently at his best in the first three volumes (13-15), when he’s often telling connected epics, but he has fine tales in later volumes (16-18) as well, and Volumes 16 and 17 have additional surprises. In volume 16, writer Gerry Conway steps in and drafts a four part epic of an older Conan adventuring in distant lands, and they feel an awful lot like Thomas penning his best Conan adventures. I wish he’d have written more!
In volume 17 there are a few good Chuck Dixon penned tales, including an excellent one he co-plotted with Kwapisz, and two great Conan adventures written by Doug Moench. The Moench tales are so on the money I wish to God he’d have taken up the mag for a while, and I’m now looking forward to his brief run on King Conan. Maybe he only asked to write for Savage Sword when he had a great idea, because boy did he bring his A game, drafting like Thomas or Dixon at their very best. The conclusion of “The Tomb of Lost Visions” is so damned good it reads like something Robert E. Howard himself would have come up with.
All of these have been collected in Dark Horse reprints at this time. Go forth, sword-and-sorcery lovers, and read them! I’ve recently parted with volumes 7-12, but I’m keeping 1-6 and 13-22 for the long haul, for there are wondrous treasures therein.