Thursday, May 29, 2008

The glory that was The Savage Sword of Conan

As a kid I used to take weekly walks to a local comic shop to blow my allowance. It was there in this dusty, creaky old store on the edge of the town common that I first discovered The Savage Sword of Conan.

At that time I was a fan of a handful of Marvel superhero titles, including Captain America and The Avengers, primarily, with a smattering of Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Thor thrown in. But one day I stumbled across a rare find: An unmarked cardboard box on the floor of the store, with two rows of a strange magazine standing unbagged and upright therein. I lifted out an issue and looked at the cover, which depicted a muscular hero swinging a bloodied axe, battling a horde of ghouls, skeletons, pirates, and a wizard, while a scantily-clad, voluptuous blonde woman looked on in amazement and desire.

It was SSOC 16, the cover of which I've included here. I knew the name of Conan from the movies and from references in popular culture, but this was something different: A magazine both dangerous and adult, with unfathomable alien articles and lots of text to go with stunning black and white artwork by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. I bought it right then and there, paying the princely sum of $2, and put in the bag with the other handful of titles I purchased that day.

When I got home I was treated to the first part of The People of the Black Circle, described in the magazine as follows: In the vast, mysterious subcontinent that is Vendhya, Conan the Cimmerian battles to save an ancient throne from the most fearsome wizards of the Hyborian Age. Next to the splash art was an evocative page with which I'd soon become intimately familiar, and one that still evokes a feeling of excitement and adventure: the famous excerpt from The Nemedian Chronicles ("Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of..."), along with a map of the Hyborian Age of Conan, circa 10,000 B.C.

Also in the issue were:
  • A Probable Outline of Conan's Career (by popular demand!), a reprint of a classic Robert E. Howard essay from Weird Tales detailing Conan's timeline;
  • A Portfolio of Robert E. Howard, illustrations of Conan, Kull, and Red Sonja by seven artists;
  • Fire and Slaughter, the fifth chapter of Howard's saga of prehistoric civilization (circa 9,500 B.C.);
  • Worms of the Earth (at last!), a story of Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts, who battles against the invading Romans with the hordes of Hell on his side!; and
  • Swords and Scrolls, the letters page, featuring a lengthy letter from Yasmina, flower of the dawn and thief in the night, a belly dancer (accompanied with a semi-revealing photo) who attended a comic book convention dressed as Conan's love-interest Yasmina.

Needless to say I was hooked, drawn into a world in which all the men were mighty of limb; the women full of hip and breast; where magic was wild and unpredictable and to be feared, the province of madmen; where ancient, vine-choked cities lay in the heart of foreboding forests, to be plundered only by those foolish or brave enough and trained in the art of the sword. Conan was my guide in this wondrous Age of Hyboria and I lived vicariously through his adventures. Over the coming months I would return to the store again and again, buying a couple of SSOC titles each time for $1 or $2 apiece. I read the remainder of The People of the Black Circle (issues 17-19) one-by-one like a highly anticipated serial, then moved on to buy #5, 6, 13, 21, 23-27, 29-31, 33-38, 40-50, 55-59, 61, 63-64, 67, 69, 75-76, 78, 80, 81-82, 84, 92, 94, 95, 97, and 100. I know the exact numbers because I still have them all and cannot bear to part with them, and probably never will. I have too many memories wrapped up in these magazines, and owe them a debt for the hundreds of hours of enjoyment they delivered. Later on I would go on to buy many more SSOC titles in the mid-upper 100's.

In addition, I also purchased a huge run of Conan Saga out of the same box. Conan Saga was great because it was cheap and contained classic reprints of SSOC as well as Conan the Barbarian and Savage Tales. For as little as 75 cents each I scored issues 1-13, plus 16-30, 32-42, 46-52, and 54. The value of these magazines had no meaning for me at the time, only the stories they contained.

The now-defunct SSOC was--and remains--a terrific swords-and-sorcery magazine. I prefer the term magazine when referring to SSOC (1974-1995) because it can't rightly be called a comic book, which to me implies a safe, bubblegum adventure story for kids. I don't know how many comic books contain actual articles (reprints of Robert E. Howard articles from Weird Tales), detailed and scholarly book reviews (of Howard collections), or eye-popping photograph spreads (of bikini-clad Red Sonja lookalikes). Savage Sword had all these and more.

Soon SSOC and Conan Saga became an obsession. I liked them because they contained self-contained adventures (a few had stories that spanned more than issue). You didn't have to invest a ton of time and money following a long story arc like you did with traditional comics. Each magazine was its own entity, with a great swashbuckling adventure that started and concluded right there.

The scantily-clad women and decapitations were great, too, but most of all SSOC stood out for its great cover and interior art, and also for having terrific writing and amazing stories. I'm sure the X-men and Batman had some good writers working for them in those days, but SSOC had Robert E. Howard (until his tales ran out). Advantage? SSOC.

Sadly, both the comic book store and SSOC are long gone, but the memories (and my back issues) remain. And I have SSOC to thank for awakening me to Howard's actual stories themselves, which will likely be the subject of another post. In fact, this might in the end be its greatest legacy: I firmly believe that, in addition to the Lancer/Ace Conan paperbacks of the 1960s/1970s, SSOC and its brethren introduced a new generation of fans to Howard that might not otherwise have ever read of the mighty-thewed barbarian.

6 comments:

Jesse Willis said...

I'm a SSOC addict too and for similar reasons - the stories, art and continuity found in SSOC was awesome. I'm just about to finish up Dark Horse's volume 1 reprinting of SSOC volume 1. I miss the extras found in the back pages of every issue.

JimLotFP said...

I grew up on SSOC. Those Dark Horse reprints are great, although I too wish they included everything and not just the main feature stories.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jesse and Jim, thanks for stopping by.

What are your takes on the Dark Horse reprints in general? It's too bad all the great extras aren't in there, but are they worth purchasing for the main stories, and is the reproduction quality good? I've been debating buying these for a few months now to fill in some gaps in my collection.

By the way Jim, I've become a regular visitor to your blog--nice job!

Badelaire said...

I've got a small mountain of SSOC sitting in a box somewhere. If I remember right those were the oversized comics, and some of the stories and art were mind-blowing. For at least 17 years or so, Conan and Punisher comics are the only two that I've consistently kept collecting. Hrm...what does that say about me?

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Badelaire, yes, Savage Sword was oversized, like a magazine instead of a comic book. I pulled out and read a couple issues before writing this post, and not surprisingly they hold up very well.

Jesse said...

I've never read any other Darkhorse reprints. There are a few flaws in SSOC vol 1, and that pisses me off.

But, I already bought volume 2.

I don't buy very many new comics anymore, but Garth Ennis' Punisher is one of them.