Tuesday 4 January 2011

Savage Sword of Conan #4: Iron Shadows in the Moon.

Savage Sword of Conan #4, Iron Shadows in the Moon, Robert E Howard, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala
Tarim's blood, has there ever been a more lusciously illustrated picture-story than The Savage Sword of Conan #4's adaptation of Robert E Howard's Iron Shadows in the Moon?

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.

Savage Sword of Conan #4, Iron Shadows in the Moon, Robert E Howard, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala

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.

Savage Sword of Conan #4, Iron Shadows in the Moon, Robert E Howard, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala
For me, Iron Shadows in the Moon has, along with Red Nails, always been Howard's finest Conan outing and it's as it should be that both Buscema and scripter Roy Thomas stick so closely to the original. There's none of that Hollywood, "This'd be so much better if we changed this, that and the other," about it. They have the sense to give us the tale as Howard intended it.

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.

Savage Sword of Conan #4, Iron Shadows in the Moon, Robert E Howard, John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala
But wouldn't that be... ...illegal?


Simon B said...

I LOVE Alcala's inks over Buscema's pencils! Although, I can see why Big John didn't - Alcala's style is overpowering. The sheer amount of detail in the inking is staggering! Another great example of their work together on Conan is the "Black Colossus" story, another of my faves.

The Dark Horse Conan comic has just been adapting "Iron Shadows..." which has been pretty good, but not a patch on this version.

Kid said...

This was the story and cover of the first British issue of the monthly SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN. Artists are funny, aren't they? ALCALA's inks improved BUSCEMA's already astounding pencils no end. The look might not have worked on THOR or THE AVENGERS, but for CONAN it was perfect. MARK EVANIER one told me in an email that WALLY WOOD wasn't too keen on the finished look his inks gave JACK KIRBY's pencils, but I think he was probably the best inker JK ever had. Buscema/Alcala - Kirby/Wood - results better than the sum of their parts, in my humble estimation.

Sam Agro said...

This is one of my favorite stories too, and a perfect mix of Thomas Buscema and Alcala.

I can see Big John's argument for disliking these inks, but ultimately you can still readily see his posing and storytelling shining even through the most detailed inking style.

I, for one, don't think the Hyborian age has ever been realized better in comics continuity than by this combination of talents. (Barring Frazetta's amazing paintings, which are, of course, not comics.)

Michael Phillips said...

My favourite SSOC issue, simply awesome story, art and cover, I even have a t shirt with the Boris cover on it! Alcala turned in his best ever Buscema inking job on this one, you can see both artists clearly imho, and the story and characterisation of Conan is just perfect in this tale, simply a comic magazine masterpiece, and I still have the issue I bought way back then! While I sold all my X-Men comics, when it comes to my SSOC mags then I just can't part with them!