The Savage Sword of Conan

The Savage Sword of Conan

Wil Forbis
March 1, 2015


When I was a kid*, comic books were easy to come by. Comic book speciality shops thrived and even regular newsstands carried copies of Captain America, Spider-Man, Bat-Man and the like. You didn't have to look far to find a thriving world of superhero delights.

* In the 70s and 80s.

But comic magazines were a different matter. Comic magazines were a separate breed of illustrated fiction: larger sized, ornately illustrated and often written using words that were beyond that vocabulary of your average 12 year-old. In terms of theme and content comic magazines were deliciously adult. Indeed the reason they were rendered in the magazine format was to escape the regulation of the Comics Code Authority, a meddling industry watchdog that lorded over comics the way the Motion Picture Association rules movies. In the magazine format, comic stories could show severed heads, gurgling guts and of course, bouncy, beautiful breasts. European-made Heavy Metal was probably the best known comic mag, but there were also many titles produced by Warren publications: 1994, Eerie and Vampirella (another good candidate for motherfucking masterpiecehood.) Marvel Comics, the dominant publisher of comic books also put some magazines on the market: Epic, Tomb of Dracula and The Savage Sword of Conan.

The Savage Sword of Conan
The Savage Sword of Conan
The Savage Sword of Conan

I still remember the first Savage Sword mag I ever bought, somewhere around the age of 13 or so. It was issue 68. (I know this because I looked it up online though I do have the copy somewhere in my now much downsized collection of comics.) In the main story, the barbarian adventurer Conan fought a demon wizard, severed some limbs and vanquished many enemies. But the event I mainly remember took place early in the story. A voluptuous princess who is using Conan as a sword for hire, offers him her bed for the night. Conan eagerly takes up the offer and drapes his body atop the woman in a full page spread that artfully rendered Conan's chiseled musculature and the woman's scantily clad form. I gazed at the page and I, as Garth would say, started to feel like I was climbing a rope in gym class.

Violence AND sex were, of course, the whole point of comic magazines and Savage Sword didn't disappoint. It was a breed apart from Marvel's comic book version of the Conan stories, Conan the Barbarian, which offered violence but was sadly lacking in sex. (Having said all this, I don't recall much meaningful nudity in the Savage Sword mags; nipples usually painfully just out of the panel* or covered by some petite metallic pasty type thing. I do recall a bare ass in one issue, rendered magnificently by artist Dick Giordino.)

* Unlike the Vampirella magazine which starred a nubile female vampire who frequently walked around topless.

But perhaps we should pause here---some of you may be asking, "who is Conan?" The Conan character is probably most familiar to the common rabble by way of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but the barbarian adventurer actually got his start in the pulp fiction stories of the 1930s, appearing on magazine racks next to characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow. The Conan stories were penned by the Texan Robert E. Howard who created a rich and deep fantasy world for his protagonist to inhabit and conquer. Howard's Conan was a fearsome, seemingly unstopable warrior who lived in a pre-historical age and operated as a thief, sword-for-hire, pirate, and eventually, king.

Marvel's Savage Sword magazine took Howard's ideas and concepts and rendered them in illustrated format. And what illustrations! One of the most frequent Savage Sword artists was John Bucema, draftsman extraordinaire. Bucema drew plenty of standard comics (He was even the artist for Marvel's textbook on comic art How to Draw Comic the Marvel Way.) but you could tell he had a special place in his heart for Conan. Few comic artists commanded the depth of knowledge of the human form and musculature that Bucema used to render every rippling muscle of Conan's form, or every fleshy, titillating curve of the wenches who pleasured him. The man used cross-hatching* with a master's touch that conveyed both a rich, dimensional environment and the mood of the moment.

* The once popular technique of showing depth in comic art by using complex overlays of lines.

But there were other great artists at work in SSoC's pages. Alfredo Acala, an artist I was dismissive of in my youth, was also quite good at depicting the grit and grime of Conan's world. Walter Simonson, later to have a long run on the comic Thor, did several stories. So to did Jim Starlin, famous for writing and drawing a cosmic mythos featuring the hero/philosopher Adam Warlock. And the phenomenal line artist Barry Windsor Smith got his start illustrating both the Conan comic book and Savage Sword tales.

Let's not forget the covers. Each Savage Sword cover was painted, much in the style of the fantasy novels of the day. Bob Larkin, Earl Norem and Joe Jusko delivered quite appealing works of high art showing Conan facing off with demons and monsters, often while a barely clothed vixen screamed in peril nearby.

But artwork is only one half of the comic equation. Much of the early writing was done by capable Marvel wordsmith Roy Thomas who had penned such superhero titles as The X-Men and The Avengers. Thomas was often simply adapting Howard's original stories into comic stories, but he did a good job of keeping the language of the original tales. And it's in the stories that I think the real appeal of Conan, particularly as he is presented in Savage Sword, becomes apparent.

We must consider that, at first glance, Conan is a rather troubling character for a heroic adventure series. The barbarian is brutish, brusque, occasionally racist, and though possessing a certain honor system, fundamentally self serving. Often an armed attacker will approach Conan and detail how Conan had slewn his brothers and violated his sisters and Conan makes no attempt to deny the charges. In the world of comic book morality, Conan is what would be called a villain.

What the Savage Sword authors realized, like Robert E. Howard before them, is that there's a certain appeal to villains. Unlike heroes, villains are not constrained by the rules. They care not about the social contracts of society, or the jumbled addendums in the law and ethics textbooks. They care only about satisfying their own needs. And if we're going to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we all desire this freedom, this freedom to ignore the rules and be true to our animal DNA*. We want to revert to being children and simply looking after number one. And if we can't do this ourselves (and we can't) we want to live vicariously through a character who could.

* Some of the great moments of Conan stories are when some moralistic character exasperatedly explains the rules of society to Conan and Conan responds with only a disinterested grunt, as if such ideas are not even worth considering.

But I'm a bit unfair to Conan in my description above. He wasn't simply a brute---he was quite intelligent and brave and tremendously loyal to those who befriended him. This juxtaposition of opposite characteristics was part of what made him compelling. Additionaly, while Conan was a barbarian, uncivilized and ego driven, he was often a barbarian in defense of civilization. He was "our son of a bitch" so to speak. This is a theme that Savage Sword time and time again explored: the bargain civilization often needs to make with savagery in order for both to stay in existence. Conan recognized his role in the politics of his stories and always appeared self-assured. Why? because he realized the truth of the words out of a cohort's voice in the end of Savage Sword of Conan #27 (lifted from the original Howard story: Beyond the Black River).

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural; it is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph.

Long live Conan!

Wil Forbis
is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!


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