At last, an issue of Savage Tales that came out at the expected date, with no report of imminent cancellation! And one that sported a rare team-up of sort between Conan and Ka-Zar on the cover, drawn and painted by no less than Neal Adams! (Adams draws a mean Conan. Each instance of an Adams-drawn Cimmerian is a cause for joy).
However!!! This would also be the last Savage Tales issue featuring Conan, who was ready to segue into a new black-and-white mag, Savage Sword of Conan. All these changes would be explained in a two-page editorial; Conan had proven so successful with the adaptation of Red Nails that it was felt he could hold his own in a dedicated mag, and for the remainder of its run, Savage Tales would focus on Ka-Zar. The editorial was accompanied by an illo by the great Roy G. Krenkel.
Just before the main story starts, we have the usual excerpt from the Nemedian Chronicles (well, it's not really an excerpt since that's all the Nemedian Chronicles material that was ever written), "Know, o prince (...)", with, instead of a map of the Hyborian world, a still taken from some exotic adventure movie. We'd frequently see such photos in the 70s; they'd be from adventure flicks, swords and sandals movies, and assorted historical epics. I quite liked them, and this particular one looks both cheesy and amusing. What could it be? "Curse of the Aztecs"? "The Jade Terror"? I've no idea, but I understand why it would be used here, as it looks like something Margaret Brundage might have come up with for a Weird Tales cover. (Well... the lady would need to be more skimpily dressed, I suppose).
The Conan story that opens the book is, for once, not what I'd consider a classic. It's good enough, but also pretty generic in the "wandering barbarian kills a magician and a mean baron" kind of way. The plot is from John Jakes, who had previously provided the same service for an issue of Conan the barbarian (#13 to be precise). Jakes is a famous author, albeit in the historical fiction field more than for his S&S efforts, and his character Brak the barbarian is one of the well-known names from the sword-swinging 70s, alongside the likes of Thongor, Kothar or Imaro. Still, I've never cared overmuch about Brak (who'll appear later in this very issue), and the plot here is enjoyable but little more. What makes this story stand out is that it's a very rare instance of Jim Starlin drawing a Conan story. "Rare" as in "the only one I can really think of". It looks exactly like what a Conan story drawn by Starlin in the 70s would be expected to look like: dynamic scenes, shiny metal ornaments, beautiful mosaics on castle walls. (I was a big fan of Starlin's Warlock, so I liked this take on Conan, although it seemed a little too "polished", so to speak, to be the real Hyborian world). Starlin also had Conan do something I hadn't seen him do before: fight with two swords at a time!
Another unusual aspect here is that for once the "magician" is actually an alchemist. He and his employer try to find the secret the philosophical stone (or in any case they're trying to make gold), and the runoff from the alchemical lab is slowly poisoning the villagers who live downstream from the bad guy's castle: they're turning into leprous beings or, in the case of two particular brothers, mean-looking giants. Conan is hired by the village's mayor to dispose of the polluters, which he'll do after a few pages of derring-do.
The story was reprinted in color in Conan the barbarian #64, with two thirds of a page removed: it featured a scene that the comics code would have frowned upon, and one with which Starlin seemed to have had a little fun (he mentioned it in a later interview). That particular reprint seemed to have been a last-minute decision, as its cover didn't fit with the story; a blurb stated that inker Steve Gan had missed the deadline. The tale was not in its proper chronological place (which could have been pretty much anytime but during Conan's stay with the Black Corsairs!), but nobody complained! It was always good to see B&W stories in a colored version, if only for comparison purposes.
After this opening salvo, we have something of a first: a house ad for Marvel B&W mags, where we might just see the first time Alfredo Alcala drew the Cimmerian for the House of Ideas! (Don'T forget that the famous Buscema-Alcala team, which would delight the readers of Savage sword of Conan for a few years, still had to publish "Black colossus".
Last issue had started an article about the Gnome Press editions of the adventures of Conan; it concludes here, with reproductions of the covers to Tales of Conan, King Conan and The return of Conan, the latter with art by none other than Wally Wood!
(Not Wood's most inspired piece, maybe, but there's no abundance of Wally Wood Conan images so we'll welcome all that we can)!
Returning to comics, the following story is titled "Spell of the dragon" and features Jakes' Brak the barbarian. He's something of a standard barbarian hero, with a long blond braid to emphasize that he's not really a Conan imitation! Script by John Jakes himself, artwork by Val Mayerik, Joe Sinnott and Dan Adkins.
The issue finishes with its future star in residence, Ka-Zar, lord of the hidden jungle! The legend of the lizard men is written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Buscema. (The grey wash is a bit unfortunate, as I think John's inking doesn't need any. But the art still looks pretty good.
Savage Tales would last for a few more issues, but Savage sword of Conan would see more than 200 issues! Marvel's tentative first steps into the B&W magazine field would have proven to be a pretty good idea.
It's kind of sad to admit, but it's pleasant to read about something that was fairly unusual for its time and for the readers who would have been exposed to it finding an audience and being such a success that it convinced the company to take a chance and branch out into a new field.
I had no idea it was a reprint, but I remember being first pleased that it turned out it was the only one of those first Conan comics I picked up that was a "done-in-one". No back story or to be continued to get in the way of me digging this one.
Next, (like berk) I was pretty happy to find Starlin drew the book. I knew Starlin from Captain marvel and Warlock, and here I could see he drew a pretty awesome Conan, complete with all those cool full page borderless panel fight sequences that had become his trademark. I also remember really being transported by those starry night scenes; they just bespoke of so much exotic adventure and mystery in ancient lands. Barry Smith was also always very good at that sort of thing.
All of this still commends "Secret of Skull River" to special place in my personal journey of Conan discovery.