|cover by Gil Kane|
The first Conan the Barbarian comic book I ever read was Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #39, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by the late, great John Buscema. It may have been the very first Conan story in any medium that I ever read. I (or perhaps my older brother) got hold of some of the Lancer paperbacks being printed at the time. The first of those I read was Conan the Conqueror, which was the title Lancer gave to Robert E. Howard's only novel-length Conan story, Hour of the Dragon. This would be one of the best stories to introduce one to the character, but if I read the Marvel Comic story first, that would have been fine. It's a pretty awesome tale in its own right.
During the 100+ initial issues of the comic, Roy Thomas did a wonderful job of telling Conan's adventures in a chronologically manner, starting from when he first came south to encounter Hyborian civilization. He created a lot of original stories, weaving them in with Howard's pulp-era tales, adapting some of Howard's other stories to Conan, and eventually using the de Camp/Carter pastiches as well. He was essentially giving us Conan's ongoing biography in comic book form.
The 39th issue--"The Dragon from the Inland Sea," is what Thomas later described as a "filler story--an on-the-road, getting from here to there story, with overtones of Andromeda being sacrificed to the sea serpent in myth..." (quoted from the afterward in The Chronicles of Conan volume 6). Conan had been serving in the Turanian army (Turan being one of several countries analogous to the ancient Middle East) but had recently deserted. He's on his way to the City of Thieves in Zamora, but soon encounters a quartet of bandits.
The last thing the bandits ever learn was that trying to rob Conan never ends well. But the Cimmerian's horse is killed in the fight. On foot in the desert, he nearly dies before being taken in by a kindly man.
This leads to a magnificient fight scene--Conan (with some help from the desperate villagers) versus a giant crocodile. Roy Thomas recalls that he visualized the dragon as a giant croc and sent John Buscema a 1937 Prince Valiant strip to give the artist an idea of what he had in mind. Starting with this, Buscema "choreographed a battle, raging through the narrow streets of the seaside village, that took up five pages..."
In the past, I have cited Carl Barks, Russ Heath and Jack Kirby as my favorite comic book artists, but John Buscema often nudges up to stand equal to them in my mind's eye. This fight scene is an example of why--and probably the main reason I began to include Conan in my meager comic book budget whenever I could. Buscema's realistic anatomy and sublime composition highlights his ability to choreograph an exciting and logical battle sequence. The fight isn't stunning just because it looks cool, but also because it flows along in a manner that we can understand. Conan frees the girl from the sacrificial rock--he wounds the dragon and swims ashore--the villagers try to stop it at the gates but it crashes through. They drop a big net on it--it rips free of this but a desperate charge distracts it long enough to Conan to find a makeshift weapon that just might stop it. Everything that happens makes sense and we always understand the tactical situation. Buscema understood that individually great-looking panels of art by themselves aren't enough. They all need to flow together into a coherent story.
I just can't remember if this was my very first introduction to Conan, but it if was, it's understandable that I quickly became a life-long fan of the big barbarian.