Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Marvel Super Special #9


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Marvel Super Special #9

By Matthew Sunrich

By the 1970s, Marvel, once a fledgling publisher of forgettable "monster of the month" comics, had become a force to be reckoned with. Having achieved massive success with superheroes such as Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, the company had taken the industry by storm and proven that comics unwilling to take risks, rendered in a bland house style (it's tough to argue that DC's Silver-Age look was particularly engaging), were yesterday's news.

Even though the Comics Code Authority had revised its standards after the publication of a defiant story arc in The Amazing Spider-Man that featured a subplot concerning drug abuse, there were still things that were simply not allowed. When Marvel began publishing Conan the Barbarian, for example, it was impossible for the creators to explore the character completely because the violent and sexually-charged aspects of Robert E. Howard's original stories were considered too extreme for the comic page. This was, in some ways, unfair to older readers.

In order to get around this, Marvel followed the example of Warren (publisher of Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella) and introduced a series of black-and-white magazines, the first of which was Savage Tales. Magazines were safely off the Code's radar, so they could show things like blood, severed heads, and the occasional pair of breasts. Savage Tales, an anthology, spotlighted various characters, including Conan, and featured the debut of the sensational swamp-dwelling Man-Thing. Several other magazines, published under the Curtis imprint, were soon introduced, most of which didn't last long. The most enduring was The Savage Sword of Conan, which endured until 1995.

In 1977, Marvel decided to give full-colors magazines a shot and introduced Marvel Comics Super Special (Comics was soon dropped from the title). The first issue featured the rock band Kiss (yes, their blood really was mixed in with the ink), and through the rest of the series' respectable run a wide variety of things were showcased, including adaptations of television shows and movies, such as the infamous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which was, mercifully, never published in the United States), Jaws 2, Krull, Battlestar Galactica, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Dragonslayer, The Muppets Take Manhattan (?), and the second and third Star Wars films.

Of the forty-one issues, only six were non-media tie-ins. One of these, #9, featured The Savage Sword of Conan (rather than simply Conan the Barbarian, probably as an indicator that the material could not be classified as the relatively kid-friendly fare of the regular comic, not that a lot of parents would've known the difference). Beneath a beautifully painted cover by the inimitable John Buscema, two stories unfold, one featuring Conan and the other Red Sonja (who had only recently been awarded her own comic). As opposed to what the cover would lead you to believe, they do not team up here, which is a good thing because things frequently get more than a little tedious when they hang out (as seen in my article "Red Sonja: The Marvel Years").

"The Trail of the Bloodstained God" is adapted from a story by Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, and L. Sprague de Camp, a prominent writer of science fiction and fantasy who edited Howard's manuscripts, completed unfinished stories, and wrote new ones, thus being an instrumental figure in the revival of sword & sorcery during the late 1960s. Like many of the Cimmerian's adventures, it's a tale involving the consequences of greed.

Conan comes to Arenjun, city of thieves, seeking men who stole a treasure map from him. Hearing screams in the night, he investigates to find a Kezankian man being tortured by a group of Zamorans. Deciding that he could use an ally, he bursts in and engages the Zamorans, slaying several and urging the prisoner to flee. Conan follows the man out of the building but loses him in the darkness. As he scales a wall, he is struck unconscious by a blow to the head (resulting from a thrown stool, as it turns out).

When he comes to, he is greeted by a man calling himself Sassan, who knows about the map and the treasure it leads to: a golden idol encrusted with red gems known as The Bloodstained God, which is, of course, rumored to be cursed. It just so happens that the Zamorans Conan fought earlier were the same men who had stolen the map from him (he had never actually seen the thieves) and that they were interrogating the Kezankian because his tribe resides near the temple where the idol is housed and forbids all outsiders from venturing into the area. Conan agrees to join Sassan, who knows the location of the temple, in following the Zamorans and taking the treasure away from them. They secure a brace of horses and head out into the harsh terrain.

After a series of bloody skirmishes with both the Kezankians (led by the vile Keraspa) and Zamorans, Conan and Sassan form a truce with Zyras, the leader of the Zamorans, agreeing to split the treasure three ways. When they reach the temple, Sassan, overcome by avarice, rushes up to the huge doors and is crushed to death by them. Conan wedges a spear in the frame to prevent the doors from closing again, and the two remaining men enter the temple.

The splendor of the golden statue is, indeed, overwhelming, and it comes as little surprise when Zyras draws his blade and attacks Conan, having decided that he doesn't want to share the riches. The Cimmerian proves stronger than his assailant, however, and Zyras soon perishes, falling limp before the prize he coveted. As Conan studies the idol, Keraspa, whom he thought had fled during the fighting, enters the temple with Rustum, the man whose life the barbarian had saved back in Ajenjun, arrows trained on him. Rustum asks Keraspa to spare Conan's life in return, but he refuses, remarking that had he known why the area was forbidden he would've claimed the treasure long ago. Angered, Rustum renounces his loyalty to the chieftain, and is immediately slain by Keraspa's arrow.
As Keraspa prepares to do the same to Conan, the idol springs to life, seizes the Kenzankian fiend, and hurls him into a chasm. It then turns on Conan, who grabs a brazier and knocks the thing's head off. Even headless the golden horror is inexorable, however. A fierce struggle ensues, but Conan ultimately manages to push it into the chasm.

Leaving the temple and climbing on a horse, he muses that there are other treasures to be had, ones without curses attached to them.

This is classic Conan, masterfully adapted by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Tony DeZuniga. The story is undeniably straightforward, presenting the reader with little in the way of twists. None of the characters act in unexpected ways, and the resolution is predictable yet satisfying. We all know that Conan doesn't get his big reward until he becomes king of Aquilonia, so we don't expect any of his exploits before then to pay off particularly well.

"Day of the Red Judgment," written by Roy Thomas and Christy Marx and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, finds Red Sonja, for reasons that are not clear to her, drawn to a cave in the mountains of Hyrkania, her homeland. Once inside, she traverses the tunnels to discover a hidden city. The denizens, like her, have fiery red hair, but their skin is colored bronze. Upon seeing her, Tamil, the high priestess, demands that she be seized and thrown into the dungeon.

She is visited in her cell a young woman named Zora who tells her that she is the pale-skinned destroyer whose coming was foretold. According to the prophecy, they must kill her before she kills them. The She-devil is bemused by this seemingly absurd revelation, but when she is brought before Tamil, she is shocked to find a huge statue of the "Vision," i.e. the goddess that visited her years before and imbued her with her fighting prowess. She is understandably unsettled by this, and her mind is filled with questions about her origins.

Just before Tamil can sacrifice her to the goddess, Zora steps forward and offers herself in Sonja's place. Tamil decides that they should both die, and the citizens, weapons in hand, surround them, but the fight is interrupted by the sudden news that the Drommach, flesh-eating man-beasts that also live in the mountain, are attacking. Zora implores Sonja to fight the creatures by her side, but Sonja decides to talk to the goddess first.

She learns that she had an ulterior motive in giving Sonja her powers, that it was always her intention to bring the warrior woman back "home" as a weapon in the war between the Drommach and her people. Infuriated by having been used as a pawn by the deity, she shatters the statue and the surrounding wall and finds that at the back of it stands another statue with ape-like features. Sonja realizes that the goddess has two sides and that she has been playing the two races against each other. It is at this point that the seeming contradiction of Sonja as destroyer and Sonja as savior becomes clear.

By the time she joins the battle, impelling her remaining people to fight for everything they're worth, it is essentially over. The casualties on both sides are immense, and soon none remain save Sonja and a badly wounded Zora. The She-devil carries her "sister" out of the cave, and moments after they emerge into the light, the side of the mountain collapses, concealing the entrance to the caverns forever. As she rides away, she considers many things but is most interested in acquiring a tankard of ale.

This is an important story in Sonja's overarching saga, and it's kind of surprising that it would appear in this magazine rather than in her regular monthly series. Don't get me wrong; I think it looks excellent in this format, and it's always nice to find hidden gems (this story, as far as I know, has only been reprinted once, in Conan Saga #91, which is obscure in its own right), but I've always wondered why the best Sonja stories appear in places other than the books that bore her name during the Bronze Age.

This is a must-have for Conan and Red Sonja fans.

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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