Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Conan: Red Nails


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Conan: Red Nails

Conan: Red Nails
By Matthew Sunrich

Ever find yourself in a strange place where no one can be trusted? If your name happens to be Conan of Cimmeria, it's the sort of thing that happens all the time.

The last Conan story written by Robert E. Howard before his untimely death, the novella-length adventure "Red Nails" was serialized in the pages of Weird Tales in 1936. Considered one of the finest stories in Conan's canon, it features the formidable she-pirate Valeria, who in many ways resembles Red Sonja, a character who would enjoy success in the pages of Conan's various comics and magazines, as well as in her own, during the Bronze Age (see my earlier article "Red Sonja: The Marvel Years" for details).

The comic adaptation of Howard's story, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Smith, originally appeared in the black-and-white magazine Savage Tales #s 2 and 3 and was later compiled into the comic-sized Conan the Barbarian Special Edition #1 (1982) in full color. It was reprinted again in Conan Saga #9.

The story opens with Valeria (who at this point is a character unknown to us) riding her horse into a dense forest. Dismounting, she scales a rocky outcropping to see what lies beyond. She finds the bleached skeleton of a man at the summit, which puzzles her. Looking out over the thick canopy of leaves, she beholds a walled city in the surrounding desert. She wonders how such a place can sustain life, as there appear to be no crops or livestock around.

She descends the outcropping and finds Conan waiting for her. She is a bit perturbed by the notion that he has been following her, but he explains that he was compelled by her beauty and the skill with which she dispatched a rakish Stygian officer in the city of Sukhmet days before (along with the fact that he killed the officer's brother, who the barbarian knew had been pursuing her, seeking revenge). In typical fashion, he attempts to put the moves on her, but his advances are quelled first by the point of her blade and then by the sounds of screaming horses.

Investigating, they find their mounts have been devoured by a dragon (which looks more like a dinosaur, really). As they climb the rocks to escape the same fate, Valeria realizes that the skeleton she found earlier must have belonged to a man who had starved to death while trapped by the monster they now faced, or possibly one of its kin. Fashioning a spear from a tree limb and his sword's blade and tipping it with the poisonous juice of the Apples of Derketa, Queen of the Dead, which bloom nearby, Conan stabs the dragon in the mouth, which distracts it long enough for them to flee.

As they expected, the dragon chases them, and all they can do is try to outrun it. As it closes on them, Conan turns and engages it, but his sword does little to deter it. Enraged, the creature sends Conan sprawling and, unable to slow its charge, impales its head on a tree. Valeria expresses doubts that the thing is actually dead, but the barbarian convinces her that it is so, and they make their way out of the forest.

They reach the city after a night's rest in the sands and believe it to be deserted. When Conan forces the rusted gate open, the pair is amazed to find buildings constructed of jade within. Perhaps even stranger, the city is completely enclosed; there are no roads, only massive hallways, and the sky is shut out by a roof that completely covers the place. Conan wishes to look around, but Valeria prefers to rest while he goes on alone. She dozes off briefly but is awakened by a noise. Looking out over a balustrade to the floor below, she finds a man engaged in battle with a demonic, skeletal creature.

Her warrior instincts provoked, she leaps down and engages the thing, subduing and beheading it. The man, Techotl, thanks her and explains that the creature was sent by the Xotalanc, an opposing tribe. He offers to take her back to the stronghold of his people, the Tecuhltli. Recognizing the dark sorcery at work, Valeria agrees to accompany him, though she wishes she knew where Conan has gotten off to.

As it happens, Conan's wanderings lead him straight to Valeria and Techotl in the midst of a skirmish with Xotalancas. The Cimmerian uses his sword to great effect, and in short order the warriors are defeated. Fearing that others may be lurking about, Techotl leads the reunited adventurers down a dark passage, where they encounter "The Crawler," a mysterious monster controlled by their enemies. Conan injures it, and they bolt the door on the far side to prevent its following them.

Once inside the Tecuhltli settlement, Techotl explains to the leaders of his tribe, Prince Olmec and Princess Tascela, that Conan and Valeria are on their side and helped to dispatch several of their foes. Olmec welcomes them and commences to tell the bloody history of the rivalry between the two tribes and of how Tolkemec, a slave who betrayed the city to a rogue Stygian tribe and, after the city had fallen to the invaders, incited a war between the two original fraternal leaders, vanished into the catacombs. (A real piece of work, that.) His ghost is rumored to haunt the hallways of the city, which is called Xuchtol.

Olmec understands that his tribe is dying but wishes to kill as many of the Xotalancas as possible before that happens. He offers Conan and Valeria as much treasure as they can carry if they will fight for him, to which they agree. They are taken to their respective sleeping chambers, but their rest is soon interrupted by the sounds of battle. Rushing to the throne room, they find that the Xotalancas have somehow managed to penetrate the Tecuhltli stronghold and, with the advantage of surprise on their side, are slaughtering the tribe.

With Conan and Valeria's help, the Tecuhltli manage to defeat the marauders, but their numbers have been severely reduced. Olmec believes that the invasion force represented the last of the Xotalancas but asks Conan and two of the remaining warriors to visit their settlement to make sure that there are none left alive. Valeria, injured in the skirmish, elects to stay behind, a decision that turns out to be a mistake.

When Conan and the Tecuhltlis reach the settlement, Xotalanc magic drives the warriors insane, and the Cimmerian discovers that Olmec had instructed them to kill him so he could take Valeria as his lover. His Tecuhltli "escorts" dead, Conan returns to the stronghold to find that Tascela has thwarted Olmec's plans to seduce the she-pirate, wishing instead to use her in a ritual to prolong her life, and has strapped her to an altar. Tascela, despite her youthful appearance, is actually a sorceress who has lived for untold ages (she remarks that she doesn't even remember her childhood) by sacrificing beautiful young women. She is, in fact, the selfsame element that turned Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, the leaders of the original tribe, against each other.

Conan attempts to rescue Valeria but activates a trap in the floor that holds him fast. Tascela is about to drive her knife into Valeria's chest to consummate the ritual when the curtains in the throne room part, revealing the spectral figure of what was once Tolkemec, the slave who, some fifty years prior, betrayed his city and sowed the seeds of dissension. He has returned from the catacombs with a powerful magical rod, which he commences to use against everyone in sight.

Several bystanders are slain by the rod's fiery rays before Tolkemec turns his attention on Conan. The Cimmerian manages to throw a dagger, which lodges itself in the ghoul's chest, and the wand clatters to the floor. Taking advantage of the situation, Tascela retrieves the weapon, but before she can use it, Valeria runs her through. The evil of Xuchtol vanquished, Conan and Valeria literally ride off into the sunset together.

The most appealing thing about this story, to me, is the idea of an encapsulated city. With the sky completely blocked from view, it's impossible to tell day from night, which can be immensely disorienting. It brings to mind the ubiquitous dungeons found in fantasy roleplaying games, especially when you consider the implausibility of such things. Who built the city, and why? What were the original denizens like? How did they amass such riches? Did the absence of the sun's heat and light impact the people in remarkable ways?

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect is the title. What does "red nails" refer to? Before reading the story I assumed it had something to do with fingernail polish, but it actually refers to the Tecuhltli practice of driving red nails into the black pillar in their stronghold to represent the Xotalanc they have slain in battle, just as warriors have been known to carve notches in the handles of their weapons. As far as the comic adaptation is concerned, it doesn't seem to come into play in any significant way, making it a strange choice for a title. The nails can be interpreted as a primitive form of statistics, really, but when the tribes are long gone, it's likely that explorers will ponder their meaning and reach the wrong conclusions.

If there is anything wrong with this story, it is that Valeria, despite her prowess in battle, is ultimately reduced to a damsel in distress. This sort of thing is pervasive in sword & sorcery, and its inclusion here weakens the story to some degree. Conan is frequently paired with a beautiful woman in his tales, though they typically serve little more purpose than arm candy. We can tell from early on that Valeria is not Conan's equal, but I think she deserved better than this.

The illustration is fantastic, although I must admit that I don't always like the way Smith draws women's faces. Sometimes they look fine, but other times the eyes are kind of weird. This is frequently the case with his men, as well. By this point, Smith had shaken off Kirby's influence and had become his own artist, developing a style that remains distinctive to this day. (Smith, along with all of Marvel's Silver-Age artists, had been instructed by Stan Lee to ape Kirby's art as closely as possible.) He would soon move on to other things, leaving Conan in the capable hands of John Buscema.

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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