Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents: Conan the Barbarian 92


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents: Conan the Barbarian 92

Conan the Barbarian #92
By Matthew Sunrich

"How can you kill a thing that is already dead?"

Both mythology and modern fiction have myriad lessons to impart, but one of the most prominent is that it's always a bad idea for the living to mess around with the dead.

Tales from all over the globe, dating back to humankind's earliest civilizations (The Epic of Gilgamesh, anyone?), chronicle horrifying encounters between hapless (or just stupid) humans, who think it's acceptable to disturb a tomb, and the resurrected or reanimated dead, who are none too happy about it. It's likely that these sorts of stories were devised to deter grave robbers, since people were frequently interred with the riches they had enjoyed in life, but outside of that there's just a natural inclination for the "quick" to fear the deceased (or, at the very least, be bemused by them).

There are two main reasons for this. One, they serve as a grim reminder of our own mortality. (That could be our mummified corpse inside the display case.) And two, our minds find it difficult to process the idea that a once-living body is no longer occupied by the life force (whatever that may be). I personally find the Western funerary ritual to be a bizarre thing indeed. Do we really need to see a dead body? Does that somehow provide proof that the person in question has actually, to quote Shakespeare, shuffled off this mortal coil? How many of you can honestly say that he or she has not attended a visitation and not expected the corpse to opens its eyes and sit up in the casket? After all, if the human life force has moved out, might not something else fill the vacancy?

In any event, if, as these stories teach us, the dead are the sworn enemies of the living, what is the source of this animosity? Are the dead merely jealous of the living, or is it something more complicated than that?

Zombie fiction is more popular than ever these days, and it's true that many people find the concept of a mindless, flesh-eating corpse, impelled by some inscrutable force, to be more terrifying that anything else in the realm of horror. Vampires will subdue you and drink your blood, but there's an intrinsic, albeit twisted, romantic element to that, Twilight notwithstanding.

But zombies?

Nothing romantic there, man. They'll just devour you (or your brains, depending on your interpretation) and then move on to their next victim. They're, quite simply, creepy as hell.

There's also the fact that they're virtually unstoppable.

Conan the Barbarian #92 addresses this very issue. Adapted from the 1967 short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, "The Thing in the Crypt" is a straightforward tale of a young Conan who inadvertently arouses the ire of a centuries-dead king.

Having escaped from Hyperborean captors, Conan finds himself pursued for two days by a pack of ravenous wolves across the frozen wastes of the north. Armed with only the chain that once bound his wrists, the Cimmerian dispatches one of the number, but the others are undeterred. He finally manages to take refuge in a cleft in the rocks, which leads into a cave. Fumbling through the gloom, he finds rotten furniture and an ancient chariot.

Using his survival instincts and scraps of the materials he has discovered, he manages to get a fire going. Sensing an evil presence, Conan turns around to behold a huge mummified corpse reposing on a throne of stone. He's initially unsettled, but when he notices the sword splayed across its lap, his fears take a back seat to his need for a weapon. He removes the blade and, finding it very suitable, bellows the war cry of his people.

Which awakens the corpse.

Utterly nonplussed, Conan backs away as the thing rises from its chair and shambles toward him. Swinging wildly with his purloined sword, he finds that his blows do nothing to stop the monster's approach. A fierce struggle ensues, and even though he takes off one of the thing's arms and cripples one of its legs, it keeps coming.

Conan has all but resigned himself to his fate when a lucky kick propels the thing into the fire, filling the chamber with the stench of ancient flesh. It is finished. The Cimmerian opts not to sleep in the crypt and, finding that the wolves have abandoned him, continues on his way.

It's a simple tale, but I think its simplicity is what makes it work so well. Unlike many of Conan's adventures, which involve intrigue and/or various warlords vying for control of some territory or other, the uncomplicated framework of "The Thing in the Crypt" allows the reader to be easily drawn into the story. Even though the illustrations provide a visual element that was absent in the original prose story, I could still feel myself groping my way through the dark tomb, the floor littered with shards of broken pottery, the air heavy with dust and iniquity.

Similarly, the straightforwardness of the story allowed de Camp and Carter to build a fully realized world around a very basic setting, something that Roy Thomas obviously recognized the value of and explored. Not being bogged down by details permits the story to spread its wings, even if they are the wings of some monstrous primeval bird.

When Conan takes the sword from the corpse's lap, he ponders whether it might have been used by some hero from a bygone era, say Atlantis' own Kull the Conqueror, to slay his foes. What, indeed, is the provenance of the weapon, and while we're at it, who was the "thing" in life? He appears to have been an unusually tall man, perhaps a giant, which is interesting because it brings to mind the giants of Norse myth, which are fixtures in the Hyborian world. Where, exactly, does this ancient king fit in?

Perhaps the most important question, though, is why Conan's war cry awakened him. What mechanism did his ululation activate within its desiccated mind? Food for thought.

John Buscema was taking a break when this issue came about, so his brother Sal stepped in to handle the pencils. Sal is a unique artist in the pages of Marvel because his illustrations are solidly executed yet unremarkable (this is not criticism, merely observation), which makes them a perfect foundation from which a good inker can work. In this case, Conan regular Ernie Chan's embellishments are very effective, making the issue unforgettable.

I think it's safe to say that "The Thing in the Crypt" is a classic in the Conan canon. The original issue isn't that expensive, but it's also reprinted, along with two other tales of Conan's youth, in Conan Saga #75.

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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