Wednesday, February 28, 2024

50 years of Savage Sword of Conan, and beyond

Ahh, no. 29, I love you. Love them all...
Savage Sword of Conan debuted August 1974. 

I was just one year old. Probably a little young to be reading this great old magazine. But looking back, I love the thought that when I was born, it existed. Imagine a not yet two-year -old me toddling over and placing a chubby hand on Conan nailed to the tree of death, a grinning skull leering in the distance. Boris Vallejo’s stunning artwork gracing the cover of issue #5, which I proudly own.

SSOC changed me. It was my gateway to Robert E. Howard, and to sword-and-sorcery. It introduced me to a darker, more brutal, savage, and sexy brand of fantasy than I was used to from the Chronicles of Prydain and The Hobbit, books I was first encountering around that same time. 

I might not be here blogging were it not for SSOC.

I’ve recounted this story a few times now. Here on the blog, in the foreword to Flame and Crimson, possibly on a podcast or two. But I still remember that initial shock upon finding a horde of back issues of the magazine circa 1984-85. Some of the fondest memories I have in my life are buying a couple at a time as I could afford them, bringing them home, leaning back in my second-hand split leather desk chair, putting my feet up on my desk. Sipping a cold Pepsi and eating a candy bar bought at a local drugstore. And getting utterly lost in the Hyborian Age. I was gripped in the potent spell of a necromancer.

As I write this essay an overflowing comic box sits to my left. The same ones I bought back in the mid-80s, with a couple issues added here and there over the years. One day I will probably finish my collection.

SSOC had it all. Great art of course, which goes without saying. Considerable diversity in its artists, but with some powerhouses to anchor the title, big names with which I’d become familiar—Adams, Vallejo, Norem, Buscema, Alcala, Chan. And others.

After the art, the terrific map of the Hyborian Age topped by an excerpt from the Nemedian Chronicles. Opening SSOC and seeing this splash page made it feel as though I was being guided into a lost world--perhaps due to the way it presented a lost text disclosing an even deeper layer of history (a layering technique J.R.R. Tolkien used in his works, to great effect). It felt real, lived in, once upon a time, impossibly dim and remote, but possibly our own, historical earth before the time when the oceans drank Atlantis.

Beyond that, SSOC featured stories about other Howardian characters, like Red Sonja or Solomon Kane (whom I did not know at all at the time). Beautiful art portfolios. Letters columns. Prose articles. I even loved the ads, pointing to treasures that I hoped I might one day acquire.

I just pulled out no. 29 at random (see above). And it’s just as awesome as I remember. 

Issue 29 TOC.

That map made me a child of sorcery...

Conan's Ladies... easy on the eye.

Holy balls that's some good artwork... Almuric at left (Tim Conrad)

I desperately wanted to participate.

Would they still honor these prices?

RIP John Verpoorten. I'd read every article, regardless of subject matter.

Swords and Scrolls... first letter by one Andrew J. Offutt. With praise for issue #24 and "Tower of the Elephant."

Listening to an interview with Jim Zub on The Rogues in the House podcast got me interested in subscribing to the new incarnation of the magazine, published by Titan. Which is a bit surprising, I suppose, as I’m no longer a comic book guy (or even an illustrated magazine guy). I’m not opposed to them by any means, but they’re just not in my wheelhouse anymore. 

But with the new SSOC the urge is deeper. It’s tapping into my nostalgia, sure, and that’s a potent vein. But it’s also akin to paying my respects. And seeing what new hands and minds might bring to this beloved old character.

OK, I did it. I ordered issue no. 1. It’s been so long since I bought a comic that I’ve never bought one online. I’m nearly certain the last SSOC I bought was issue 184 (April 1991), featuring “An All New Epic Adventure! Disciple!” I hadn’t yet graduated high school. There was no internet.

I thought I might be prompted to subscribe, but instead I purchased the issue as a standalone.

Here we go again.

Here’s to 50 years of this wonderful old magazine, and for what the future may yet bring.

Monday, February 12, 2024

A few updates and a space Viking

My friend Tom Barber bought a machine that transfers 35mm slides onto his computer, allowing him to convert his artwork to a digital format.
“Kind of like going up in the attic on a rainy day and rummaging through old memories,” he described the project. Tom sent me a really cool pic of a Viking in space done when he was first trying to break into the field in the 70s. This is the first time I’ve seen this one. Here’s what he had to say about it:

I don’t remember where I got the idea for the space-Viking, but after I ran away to Arizona, my agent (without telling me) got it on a cover. And for some reason, they decided to reproduce it in black & white. Lost its punch. Ah well…

I will not be going to Karl Edward Wagner Day. It’s for the best of reasons, attending a Parents Weekend at my daughter’s college which happens to fall on the same day. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m really bummed about this. I mean, it’s KEW fans hanging out in a beer garden. I had hoped to participate on a Kane panel. 

The heavy metal memoir continues apace. I believe I have come to a natural stopping point of the first draft, and feel good about what I’ve written. We’ll see what happens when I read it in the clear light of day. Next will come a heavy revision, making sure it tells a coherent story.

Finally here’s one more Tom sent me, I have seen this one but here’s a full, uncropped version.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Ruminations on subversive and restorative impulses, and conservative and liberal modes of fantasy fiction

Two towers, old and new.
Liberalism seeks to make anew. Conservatism desires to preserve the time-tested. 

The former represents the creative forces of chaos. The latter the ordered forces of law.

It’s a very yin-yang, or Moorcockian, way of looking at things. 

The older I get I see the need for both. For tradition, and for change. Both in life, and in art. Perhaps you’ll find this a milquetoast viewpoint, and want more sturm un drang. But not today. I’m feeling reflective.

Defenders of the old see what the masters have done and want that to stand, immobile and fixed, like some mountain. It was great, it still is, why change it?

Proponents of the new see old art and admire some aspects of it, but believe that it no longer reflects present realities. And wish to carve new stone out of the existing material, or make something else alongside it.

I see a lot of angst over this divide, but believe these seemingly opposing forces can be reconciled. Because we need both.

I believe our present culture is entirely too much focused on the new and shiny. And not enough on learning from the brilliant minds who have come before us and did some things better than we do. There is so much to be gleaned from history. Much of what we think of as new has been done before. So don’t confuse looking backwards with a backwards mindset. 

But I also recognize change as inevitable, and often results in forward progress. Doing the same thing over and over again results in staleness and conformity. S&S grew moribund in the latter 70s and collapsed in the 80s. The New Wave of SF and its dangerous visions broke away from the hard SF that was itself popular and groundbreaking in the early 20th century, but had become fixed and rigid. And the 60s and 70s saw amazing new works created.

Change is inevitable. It’s always been with us. If you don’t believe so, you might look at H.P. Lovecraft, who broke from the old gothics and ghost stories with his radical new extradimensional horror, or Steven King, who added a blue-collar pop sensibility and more humanity to Lovecraft.

Of course, merely because something is new or subversive doesn’t make it good. Nor does critique of your subversive project mean a bunch of old farts “just can’t handle it.” It just might mean the art was poorly executed. There was a lot of bad old art in the past that was once new, but has been forgotten and discarded. No one remembers most of the authors working in Weird Tales. But those that have lasted have much to teach us.

It’s cool to make new stuff by recombining old things.

It’s OK to love old school stuff, even to repeat or pastiche its forms. 

We can have it all. No one is getting hurt by the conservative impulse to preserve, or the liberal urge to subvert. 

Where do I fall, preferentially, on this spectrum?

To no one’s surprise I’m a small c conservative when it comes to art. I enjoy some subversive art, and admire the creators who challenge the status quo with potent new visions. Though I find myself preferring subversive material that is old enough to have passed into acceptable territory again. See Elric, or bits of The Once and Future King. 

But my deepest sympathies lie with old fiction. Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien remain two of my literary lodestars, and always will. I don’t see them as old. I still see them as innovators who broke new ground from old sources, who had their influences but took them and made something wholly original. Powerful enough to spawn imitators, and genres. 

In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien chided the literary critics who sought to study Beowulf by reducing it to its component parts, and in so doing, broke it. Pulled down the old tower turning over stones, not realizing from the top you could see the sea.

But if Tolkien had only looked at and admired the past we wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings. He also made something new from old legends, and broke new ground, though his own powerful creative impulse.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

The Shadow of Vengeance by Scott Oden, a review

Some would say there is no good Conan pastiche*, that the only stories of the Cimmerian worth reading are the 21 originals by Robert E. Howard. If that’s you, I get it. 

Me? I have no problem with pastiche, because I can differentiate new takes on the character from canon. They are something apart. That’s why I am able to enjoy the 1982 film, and Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian the comic, even (gasp) the Lancer paperbacks with the L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter additions.

If you’re in the latter camp it does beg the question: What makes good Conan pastiche? Is it getting the character right? The setting, a convincing Hyborian Age verisimilitude? Or is it the style in which the story is told? Should it/must it “feel” Howard-esque?

“The Shadow of Vengeance” by Scott Oden checks all these boxes, but above all else nails Howard’s style.

This is I believe the fifth prose release from Titan, which began with "Conan: Lord of the Mount" by Stephen Graham Jones and includes one Solomon Kane story and the rest Conan. It’s a novella, some 18K words, about 60 pages, and like the rest of the line it is available as an e-book only. 

I, being a transported relic from 1984, don’t possess an e-reader, but Scott was generous enough to send me a word doc.

It’s also apparently the second time the story has been published, the first in Savage Sword of Conan volume 2, in monthly installments across issues #1 – 12. But not having read the Dark Horse or Marvel Comics relaunch of SSOC it was a first read for me.

This is not the next great Conan story … but that’s an impossible standard. As Karl Edward Wagner said, there was only one Robert E. Howard, and we’ve had him. But, it’s terrific pastiche, and can stand alongside much of what Roy Thomas and others were doing during the classic run of Savage Sword I so loved, after Howard’s adapted originals were exhausted.

If it lacks the great pathos of “The Tower of the Elephant,” or the unsettling insights into barbarism vs. civilization like we see in “Beyond the Black River,” that’s OK. Howard’s Conan stories themselves did not all rise to that highest of his own high standards, but instead were what we have here: A very fine adventure story, soaked in blood and the weird.

“The Shadow of Vengeance” follows on the heels of the events of “The Devil in Iron,” which if not accorded one of Howard’s best is still a good, entertaining Conan story. It’s a tale of vengeance, with the vengeance directed at Conan himself by Ghaznavi, regent of Khawarizm.

Big mistake, Ghaznavi. 

Howard fans will recognize these names from “The Devil in Iron” and why the events of that tale would lead to Ghaznavi seeking vengeance for his dead lord, Jehungir Agha.

What makes this story different from the likes of Robert Jordan, John Maddox Roberts and Steve Perry (not the one that sang “Open Arms”) et. al is Oden’s mimicry of Howard’s prose—check that, his near mastery of Howard’s style.

I read Blood of the Serpent last year and while I liked it well enough, it was not Howard-esque, though it was recognizably Conan’s character. Oden’s style is ridiculously like Howard, ripped from the pages of Weird Tales in the mid-1930s. Its uncanny. 

Here are some Howard-esque passages I really enjoyed:
Karash Khan left but a single watcher to mind the Cimmerian.  This thankless task fell to the youngest of the nine Sicari, a quick-eyed Turanian not much older than twenty.  No one knew his given name, but his brothers called him Badish Khan.  Bred in the alleys of Sultanapur, when the Master found him he was already a hired knife at fourteen with more kills than throat-slitters thrice his age.  He was like an ingot of iron, crude and without form; while Karash Khan was the hammer, it was dark Erlik who provided the flame.
And this, too.
Even so, the Sicari could not withstand the Cimmerian’s berserk fury.  Death might have been their master, but neither god nor man could master this wolf of the North.  His god was Crom, grim and savage, who gave a man the power to strive and slay and little else.  And when he called upon Crom, it was not in prayer or benediction . . . it was so the dark lord of the mound might bear witness.
It all seemed like I was reading something Howard would have written in 1934. Awesome stuff… “dark lord of the mound” induces chills. 

Oden does insert the word “fey” at least twice in the novella, a very old Northern term which I don’t know if Howard ever used in a Conan story, though he may have in “The Grey God Passes” or elsewhere (“It was Dragutin, fey and terrible as he rose up from behind the wagon, who reminded them.  He jabbed an accusing finger at the Cimmerian and yelled: “Kill them!”). It doesn’t matter anyway; I love the term and it works, and is placed here deliberately by Oden, author of The Grimnir Saga, who like me is also possessed of “the Northern Thing.”

Oden also builds the gloomy Cimmerian culture with a few choice passages, as here:
Among southern nations, Conan had seen madness dismissed: a disease physicians sought to cure, a weakness learned philosophers debated in shaded courts.  Madmen were broken men, they said, who could hope for no better than a quick and quiet death.  Among the barbarians of the north, however, madness was something else – a thinning of the veil between worlds, a harbinger of doom, or the curse-gift of that fey and feral goddess, Morrigan.  The Cimmerians held madmen apart from others, their ramblings fraught with the truths of a perilous world.
That’s some fine Hyborian Age goodness there.

There is a great final fight, a terrific desperate melee, and a cool monster too. If that’s what you’re after, you get it here.

If I had any critique, the story perhaps takes a bit too long to get going, with a bit too much up front info. But once it properly starts it doesn’t let up until its savage ending.

If you can’t get enough Conan, start with Scott Oden and “The Shadow of Vengeance.”

*I am aware that pastiche has varied meanings; some say pastiche is a deliberate homage to an author’s style, not a new story of an existing character as I’m using it here.