I was always going to like this story because it arrived in my life on a Sunday and, as I've remarked elsewhere, I'm psychologically incapable of disliking any comic that does so.
I also remember reading it while listening to Pilot's January on the Radio 1 Top 20 show. At the age of eleven, a combination of Pilot and Conan was always going to be a heady brew.
But there's more to the thing's appeal than the coincidence of timing. Savage Sword of Conan #4 was the first comic I ever had that possessed an oil-painted cover, and that alone was enough to knock my socks off. But to then see the interior was to seal the deal as Alfredo Alcala laid down an extraordinary set of inks over John Buscema's pencils.
Finding the obligatory slave girl - Olivia - while roaming the marshes, Conan slays her pursuer and, together, he and she flee to an island in the middle of the Vilayet Sea. There they soon realise they're not alone, as an unseen assailant flings a huge block of stone at them.
They then stumble upon a temple filled with sinister iron statues that, according to a nightmare that afflicts Olivia, come to life when moonlight hits them.
As though that weren't enough, they're then joined by a bunch of pirates who capture Conan after he kills their leader in his attempt to become their new captain. Still, not to fear, Conan and Olivia escape the pirates (who find themselves attacked by the statues) but only to run into a giant man-ape.
According to an interview I once read, John Buscema was not a fan of Alfredo Alcala's inking. At first glance that seems perverse, bearing in mind how much it brings to his work but it seems Big John wasn't happy that Alcala was at heart obliterating all trace of his style, and it's at this part of the story that you can most see Buscema's beef hung up in the shop window. I've seen a fair few giant man-apes that were drawn by John Buscema, and the man-ape in this tale bears no resemblance to any of them. You do get the feeling Alcala may have simply ignored Buscema's pencils and drawn his own man-ape over them. You can see why this might annoy an artist.
Fortunately, we the readers don't have to worry about such things. Having put no effort at all into the production of the tale, we can take it purely as we find it, and the truth is that, whatever Buscema's reservations, the combination of his story-telling prowess with Alcala's evocative inks produces a masterclass in how to bring Robert E Howard to life.
This faithfulness to both the words and spirit of Howard produces a tale that manages to achieve a sense of eeriness and vaguely surreal dread that the strip didn't always achieve when it came to newly-written stories. Highlight of it has to be Olivia's nightmare in the temple when the events of thousands of years earlier are revealed to her. In it we really do get a sense of dark times before man walked the Earth, and our world was a thing unrecognisable, plaything to incomprehensible forces from other realms.
|But wouldn't that be... ...illegal?|