Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Black Stranger”

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

The Conquering Sword of Conan-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward are wrapping up their re-read of The Conquering Sword of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the third and final omnibus volume collecting the complete tales of Conan, with what Howard calls “my most pleasant surprise so far during the re-read,” the story “The Black Stranger.” It was never published during Robert E. Howard’s lifetime, appearing for the first time in Karl Edward Wagner’s anthology Echoes of Valor in 1987. Here’s Bill:

Like “Beyond the Black River” which precedes it, “The Black Stranger” is a tale set in the Pictish wilderness of Hyboria that sees a vulnerable outpost of civilization overrun by the wild men of the wood. But this time around the threat of the Picts — still an Amerindian analog — serve as more of a backdrop to the infighting and machinations of pirate captains, an exiled nobleman, and a cagey Conan. Again REH draws on the American frontier for inspiration, but it isn’t the dominant theme of the piece, which also manages to end on a far more up tempo note despite the carnage. Wild battles, double-crossing, pirate treasure, and a mysterious demonic stranger are all skillfully woven together into a complex but nonetheless fast-paced adventure that stands solidly alongside the better Conan stories.

Read the complete exchange here.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Beyond the Black River”

Saturday, January 9th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

Beyond the Black River Robert E Howard-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward continue their re-read of The Conquering Sword of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the third omnibus volume collecting the complete tales of Conan, with “one of the most famous Conan stories of all,” and one of the last, “Beyond the Black River.” It was originally published in in the May-June 1935 issue of Weird Tales.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still starring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph.”

Bill: So concludes “Beyond the Black River,” a story that might almost be REH’s thesis on his philosophy of civilization. It is a story that introduces new elements to Conan’s world, demonstrating again how flexible and expandable REH’s Hyborian blueprint was even after sixteen complete short (and not so short) stories and a novel. But it also maintains a continuity with what has come before, giving us perilous adventure with supernatural antagonists and, of course, Conan being Conan.

Howard: I think it builds nicely on what we’ve seen before. As it happens, though, it’s not exactly a great introduction to Conan himself, or even the Hyborian Age… It’s very different from the preceding Conan stories, feeling very much like a tale of Indian warfare, and Conan himself, while busy doing incredible things, is almost a secondary character.

Read the complete exchange here.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read The Hour of the Dragon

Thursday, December 24th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Hour of the Dragon Berkley fold out-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward continue their re-read of The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the second of three omnibus volumes collecting the complete tales of Conan, with the full-fledged novel The Hour of the Dragon. It was originally published in five parts in Weird Tales, from December 1935 to April 1936.

Howard: Robert E. Howard was at the top of his game when he wrote it. For decades there was nothing with which to compare this novel on an apple to apple basis because it was so far ahead of what anyone else had done…

Bill: The novel… was the result of a solicitation from a British publisher for a full-length pulp adventure from REH… After an abortive stab at the planetary romance novel Almuric, left unfinished by REH and possibly later completed by his agent, Otis Aldebert Kline, REH turned again to the Cimmerian and his Hyborian landscapes. And it is to King Conan, whom we have not seen since “The Scarlet Citadel,” that REH returns to for his epic… King Conan is betrayed and captured by conspirators aided by a powerful wizard, and his throne usurped by an Aquilonian nobleman… the quick set-up of Conan’s betrayal and capture on the battlefield in “Citadel” becomes the far more memorable and exciting chapter in Dragon that sees Conan, about to lead his forces in battle, paralyzed by sorcery and his place on the field taken by another…

Next up, Bill and Howard dive into the third Rel Rey Conan collection, The Conquering Sword of Conan. Stay tuned.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol 3

Sunday, December 13th, 2015 | Posted by John R. Fultz

This series explores the Savage Sword of Conan collections from Dark Horse reprinting Marvel Comics’ premiere black-and-white fantasy mag from the 1970s. Click to read previous installments: Volume 1 / Volume 2

Vol3The third collected volume of Savage Sword of Conan includes issues #25 – 36 but begins with a short Barry Windsor-Smith piece that first ran in Savage Tales #2 a few years earlier. BWS adapts a Robert E. Howard poem called “Cimmeria” in a gorgeous 5-page feature. His black-and-white work is every bit as lush as his color work on the Conan the Barbarian comic (for which he is most well-known). The artists who did the black-and-white comic magazines of the 60s and 70s knew that drawing for a colorless publication demanded more from both pencilers and inkers. Especially inkers.

Savage Sword #25 was the last issue of 1977, hitting the stands while the original Star Wars movie mania was reaching its peak, and spiking sales of the Marvel Comics Star Wars title brought the company a new influx of capital. Roy Thomas had built an excellent Sword and Sorcery magazine during the turblent mid-70s, when publishers had to cut the number of pages in their comics and constantly raise their prices. This issue is another super job by Thomas, who faithfully adapts Howard’s “The Jewels of Gwahlur.” DC legend Dick Giordano steps in to illustrate this issue — seemingly from out of nowhere — and it’s obvious that Giordano is reaching for a Neal Adams-style Conan tale.

Adams had drawn a couple of landmark Conan tales by this time (in Savage Tales #4 and Savage Sword #14), and he left his unique imprint behind as usual — setting standards for other artists to follow. Giordano does a solid job on SS#25, but unless you’re an old-school fan of his work it comes off as Neal-Adams-Lite: a stiffer, less consistent version of the Neal Adams Conan from “Shadows in Zamboula.” Maybe if Giordano had stuck around he would have time to find his mojo on this book, but this feels like a filler issue. It has moments of greatness — certain panels and effects — but the consistency that marks John Buscema’s ongoing Savage Sword work is noticeably absent. The next issue solved this problem and started a new era of Conan greatness, thanks to the arrival of inker extraordinaire Tony DeZuniga.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The People of the Black Circle”

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

people-of-the-black-circleHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward kick off their re-read of The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the second of three omnibus volumes collecting the complete tales of Conan, with perhaps my favorite Conan tale, the 80-page novella “The People of the Black Circle.” It was originally published in three parts in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales.

Bill: It’s easy to see why “The People of the Black Circle” is a Conan fan-favorite: plot-twists and action galore, great supporting characters, an exotic but plausibly constructed setting, and fabulous villains using a host of inventive magic. Conan is the adventurer and rogue we’ve come to know over the last dozen or so stories, this time commanding a tribe of Afghuli raiders on the borders of Vedhya, the Hyborian Age equivalent of India. There are a few elements in the story that may recall others in the Conan saga, but this time around there is nothing that feels recycled or borrowed, indeed the whole story feels fresh and something of a departure from what has come before.

Howard: It was a grand adventure and a very different feel from the last little parcel of tales. I’m glad REH decided to vary his theme, and I’m scratching my head wondering why this story didn’t serve more often as a sword-and-sorcery template. Probably because its unique character made it far more difficult to imitate.

Next up, Bill and Howard dive into the first Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Stay tuned.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Devil in Iron”

Monday, November 30th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales August 1934-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward wrap up their re-read of The Coming of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the first of the three Del Rey volumes, with “The Devil in Iron,” the last story in the collection, first published in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Here’s Bill:

After an opening in which the supernatural juggernaut of the title is teased, we are treated to an outline of the plot to catch Conan on the very same island where we’ve just seen an ancient evil reborn. “The Devil in Iron” is heavily reminiscent of “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” but most especially the former… The story is a fitting capstone to this collection of the first Conan tales, being one more of the ‘formula’ stories, but also one of the best of those…

Overall “The Devil In Iron” feels in some ways like the remix of a favorite song, it’s old familiar territory that’s well worth traipsing through again, and a welcome return to form after last week’s “The Vale of Lost Women.” From this point on the stories get much longer, the plots more involved, and REH’s inspirations shift in new directions. It’s a fitting place to end the first of Del Rey’s Conan collections, The Coming of Conan.

Next up, Bill and Howard dive into the second Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection, The Bloody Crown of Conan, starting with the classic “The People of the Black Circle.” Stay tuned.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol. 2

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 | Posted by John R. Fultz

In the first installment, I explored Volume 1 of the Savage Sword of Conan Dark Horse reprints of the classic Marvel Comics black-and-white magazine.

2577548-savage_sword_of_conan_015_01Volume 2 begins with Savage Sword of Conan #11 from 1976. A terrific issue written by Roy Thomas — who wrote most of the stories in the magazine its first few years — with art from John Buscema and Yong Montano. Buscema/Montano paring is an interesting one, and the results are every bit as lush and detailed as Alfredo Alcala’s inks in Volume One.

It’s too bad Montano only did this one issue of SS because he brought Buscema’s superb pencils to life as well as Alcala, yet with a decidedly different style that was no less immersive. This adaptation of Howard’s “The Abode of the Damned” isn’t your typical tale of the Cimmerian, as Conan is either off-screen or in disguise as “Shirkuh” for half the issue. It’s a brutal excursion into the violent lives of desert tribesmen, as seen through the eyes of the intrepid maiden Mellani. Seeking vengeance for her slain brother leads her right into captivity where Cimmerian-in-disguise is her only hope of surviving. Yong Montano didn’t turn into a regular Buscema inker like Alcala and later DeZuniga and Chan did, but on SS #11 he did a bang-up job creating that Buscema/Alcala level of artistic detail, while offering a fresh texture in his mastery of light and shadow.

In Savage Sword #12, reigning artistic champions John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala return to help Roy Thomas adapt Howard’s “The Slave Princess” into a Conan tale called “The Haunters of Castle Crimson.” The lush black ink work is the high standard of the magazine’s early years. Alcala’s hyper-detailed panels took Buscema’s masterful pencils to a whole new level of artistic integrity. Following their bravura performances in SS #2, 4, and 7, Buscema/Alcala bring more lighting-in-bottle greatness to these pages — and it’s their high-end work that highlights this entire second volume, beginning with SS #12.

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Robert E. Howard, Exile of Cross Plains

Monday, November 16th, 2015 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

NOTE: The following article was first published on March 21, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.

subterranean-kull-slipcasesubterranean-kull-limitedThe transformation of literary genres in the early twentieth century was marked by a series of intriguing parallels and recurrences. When Raymond Chandler, displaced as much in England as California, started down the mean streets of writing pulp fiction, he used an Erle Stanley Gardner story as his template. Chandler prepared a detailed synopsis of Gardner’s story and then re-wrote the story himself, comparing the results to the original.

Chandler’s first published pulp story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933) introduced the prototype for the hardboiled private eye who emerged six years later in Chandler’s landmark first novel, The Big Sleep in the form of Philip Marlowe. Likewise Chandler’s literary heir, Ross Macdonald, displaced as much in Canada as California, would use The Big Sleep as the template for his own first novel, The Moving Target (1949) and, in the process, introduced Marlowe’s successor, Lew Archer who would arguably represent the hardboiled detective realized to its full potential.

When Robert E. Howard, an outcast in his native Cross Plains, started down the path that would eventually give the world the genre now known as Sword & Sorcery, he used Paul L. Anderson’s story, “En-ro of the Ta-an” as the template for his various “Am-ra of the Ta-an” story drafts. Anderson would likely be a completely forgotten literary figure but for the efforts of Howard scholar, Rusty Burke. Even without Anderson as a reference point, Howard’s first attempts at creating a noble savage are instantly familiar to the modern reader as being works that are highly derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar, and Caspak novels. Just as the seminal Black Mask writers took the western and successfully brought it to an urban setting creating modern detective fiction in the process, so Burroughs and those he influenced took Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales and laid the foundation for modern myth-making by cross-breeding jungle adventures with the lost worlds tales of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol. 1

Saturday, November 14th, 2015 | Posted by John R. Fultz

SSvol1

The Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 1. Cover art by Boris Vallejo.

The Savage Sword of Conan is arguably the single greatest publication the Sword and Sorcery genre has ever seen. Spawned by the massive popularity of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian color comic which launched in 1970, Savage Sword was a black-and-white Marvel Magazine whose first issue appeared in 1974.

The new format freed creators from the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, which constrained Conan’s full-color adventures to all-ages entertainment. The violence, gore, and lurid themes of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan tales would no longer be censored by enforced comic-book morality. Now readers of the Cimmerian’s adventures would get to know the real Conan and the real Hyborian Age — in all their blood-spattered, head-lopping, breast-heaving glory.

I was 8 years old when I bought my first issue.

It was early 1978 and my family had just moved from Fort Knox to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Moving to that neighborhood changed my life for many reasons, but one of the most significant was the presence of the Blue Bird Foodmart at the bottom of the hill. For the first 7 years of my life I was a small-town kid who only got exposed to comics when my parents/grandparents took me to a store somewhere. Now I could walk down the hill to a store that sold comics, magazines, and novels. The problem was that as an 8-year-old comics fan I had barely any money to spend on all those great books.

On that day in ’78, I could have chosen the latest issue of Creepy, Eerie, Heavy Metal, or any number of Marvel or DC comics. But it was Savage Sword of Conan #28 that caught my eye. Comics went for 35 cents apiece in those days, but here was an extra-thick “comic” with an amazing Earl Norem painted cover. For one whole dollar, it offered four times as many pages and featured the most realistic sword-fights and battles I had ever seen, complete with beheadings, guttings, and stabs in the back. The interior art was by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala, a legendary penciller-inker team, and I had never seen anything like it.

Needless to say, it blew my little mind and left me hungry for more tales of Conan…

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Rogues in the House”

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Conan Rogues in the House-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward have been reading their way through the Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan, the first of the three Del Rey volumes, perhaps the definitive collection of Conan tales. They recently discussed “Rogues in the House,” first published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

Here’s Howard:

On re-reading it I was surprised that I haven’t visited this one more often. It gallops along. A lot happens in a short time because it’s told with such economy. And it’s very different from what has come before. I’ve been reading a lot of Conan pastiche in my downtime via The Savage Sword of Conan reprints recently, and so many of those writers model a Conan story off of the formula we saw in the last stories — monster, half-naked damsel, evil wizard/trap, escape. “Rogues in the House” breaks the formula and for this reason is even more of a pleasure.

Stepping back you can see how it’s a strange beast inspired from multiple sources — weird death traps out of Fu Manchu stories, a system of mirrors set to emulate a modern mastermind’s hidden cameras, and an ape servant who’s rebelled against his master. If someone had come and babbled the various story elements to me I would have rolled my eyes. Yet it works very well, in part because once it starts rolling it just never lets up.

You could say that about stories that catch you up and then realize upon re-examination that some of the elements didn’t make sense. That, however, can’t be said about “Rogues.” In retrospect it’s one fine scene after another, although my favorite moment may well be the conclusion.

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