Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents: Conan the Barbarian #37


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents: Conan the Barbarian #37

Conan the Barbarian #37
By Matthew Sunrich

Neal Adams is a curious figure in the world of comics. He made a splash at both Marvel and DC during the Bronze Age and then disappeared. He didn't exactly drop off the face of the Earth; he just found other artistic endeavors to be more lucrative. It's perfectly reasonable that a man of his remarkable talents would "outgrow" the medium, although he maintains that when you take into account the similarities between drawing comics and composing storyboards, which he has often done in his advertising work, he never really left.

Best known for illustrating Batman, X-Men, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and Avengers, Adams was capable of producing staggering work in any genre, and his reputation allowed him to draw anything he wanted for any publisher.

It's a good thing for the sword & sorcery enthusiasts among us that he also chose to lend his capable hand to illustrating Conan, the poster boy of swashbuckling adventure, before he left for greener pastures. He drew or painted several covers but contributed to a mere handful of the Cimmerian's stories. It is perhaps this dearth of work, though, that makes those stories so special.

He provided inks for Conan the Barbarian #s 44, 45, and 116; pencils for a story in Savage Sword of Conan #14; and inks (over Gil Kane) for one in Savage Tales #4.

He did, however, provide full art for one glorious issue. 

I was completely unaware of its existence until I picked up a copy of Conan Saga #8, which also reprints Conan #24, "The Song of Red Sonja." After reading the Red Sonja story, the one I had been primarily interested in, I flipped through the magazine and discovered the cover of Conan #37 in all its black-and-white glory.

I felt like I had hit the jackpot, as the saying goes.

"The Curse of the Golden Skull," adapted by Roy Thomas from a story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard and also featuring Juma, a character envisioned by Howard proteges L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, is an exciting and dynamic tale that spans the ages.

When a curious traveler happens upon a temple, thrust up by the eons, he awakens a centuries-dead evil: the Lemurian wizard Rotath, who, as he lay dying, cursed his enemies, his king, and his own bones.

A few months later, Conan, serving as a member of the Turanian army, finds himself part of a detachment charged with protecting the king's granddaughter, Princess Yolinda. When the unit is ambushed by savage hill-men, only Conan, Juma (a Kushite), and the princess survive. Taken prisoner, they are marched across the frozen wastes to an ancient city with a silver tower.

Once inside the citadel, the princess is apprehended by a fierce ape-man, which lays her at the base of the stairs leading to the throne of the now-golden-skinned Rotath, alive again after untold years of reposing dead in a shrine dedicated to gods other than his own. When Conan threatens the ape-man, the wizard silences the barbarian and explains that he plans to usurp the throne of Turan by marrying the princess.

The Cimmerian is beset by the ape-man, which he easily dispatches, and a group of Rotath's best warriors. The onslaught only ceases when the wizard threatens to cut the princess' throat. Juma recognizes the move as a ruse and spears the "princess," which turns out to be the dead ape-man, made to appear as Conan's charge by the barbarian's ensorcelled eyes.

Infuriated, Rotath throws poison darts at Conan and Juma, rendering them unconscious. They awaken in the mines, where they are forced to dig gold. Days later, Juma observes that the guards have become complacent, so he and Conan steal deeper into the mine and discover that half of the riches is being wheeled away in a cart. Deciding to investigate, they discover a large cavern containing a dragon. Just when they think the beast has them dead to rights, a monstrous slug emerges from an underground stream and devours it.

Unsated, the slug pursues the barbarians as they flee from the cavern and straight down a passage leading to the base of the tower, where Rotath is in the process of marrying Yolinda. Conan realizes that the slug's preferred food is gold and uses a sack of it to prevent the wizard's escape. Having swallowed Rotath, the creature returns to its lair, and Conan, Juma, and Yolinda return to the Turanian capital.

I haven't read Howard's original story, but I have to say that there's quite a bit about this tale that doesn't quite add up. For example, when Rotath "curses" his own bones, why do they turn to gold? Is it some sort of twist on the Midas touch? The traveler at the beginning is drawn to the skeleton because he sees it as treasure, and Rotath steals his skin, which is, as these sorts of things go, reasonable enough.

But what's the deal with the giant slug? It just seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't seem to relate to anything else. Perhaps there's more to the story, and Thomas just couldn't squeeze it all into a nineteen-page comic.

In any event, the real value in this issue is obviously the artwork, which is just amazing. I can imagine that this wasn't an easy story to illustrate, but every panel, every image is perfect. This is a must-have for any fan of sword & sorcery or just of Adams in general.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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