In January, 1973, the cover of Conan the Barbarian #25 — a collaboration between Gil Kane and Ralph Reese — hardly gave any hint of the enormous artistic shift this issue represented for Marvel Comics’ award-winning series. After all, Kane had pencilled four Conan covers prior to this one, and while two of those had graced issues that also featured Kane art on the inside (the first of those, #17, also happened to have been inked by Reese), the other two — including the most recent one, for issue #23 — had fronted stories drawn by the title’s original and primary regular artist, Barry Windsor-Smith.
So, if you were a regular Conan reader who’d somehow managed to miss issue #24 (and if you were, you have my sympathies), you may well have been startled to open #25 to its first page to see that the story had been drawn by a penciller previously unseen in these pages (though his name and work were hardly unfamiliar to Marvel fans)… namely, John Buscema:
Buscema had been considered for the job of regular penciller on Conan when Marvel was first getting the title off the ground, but had been disqualified by virtue of his page rate being too high (thus opening the door for the younger and hungrier Windsor-Smith). Since the series’ 1970 launch, he’d drawn the barbarian hero on at least one prior occasion, having contributed a cover painting to the first (and to date, only) issue of Marvel’s black-and-white “mature readers” comic magazine, Savage Tales… but “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad” was his first Conan story. Little did he (or anyone else) know that this would be the beginning of a 14-year run during which his art would appear in 137 out of 166 issues of Conan the Barbarian; an epic stand that would ultimately serve as the cornerstone of a nearly three-decade long association between artist and character, involving multiple spin-off titles (both in color and in black-and-white) and lasting almost until Buscema’s death in 2002.
But all that lay in the future, of course. In January, 1973, John Buscema — while unquestionably a popular artist — was still the guy who had to follow Barry Windsor-Smith on the series that had made the latter a star. And it was a particularly awkward juncture at which to do so, seeing as how Conan #25 would be the penultimate chapter of the ambitious “Hyrkanian War” saga that Windsor-Smith had begun with writer Roy Thomas back in issue #19 — and the British artist’s contributions to the ongoing storyline remained significant enough for Thomas to give him a plotting credit for “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad”. In that sense, Barry Windsor-Smith wasn’t even completely gone yet.
Of course, John Buscema wasn’t the only individual responsible for the artwork in Conan the Barbarian #25. His younger brother Sal, who’d inked Windsor-Smith’s pencils in twelve previous issues (and who’d even pencilled a single page himself, uncredited, in #23) was on board to finish his sibling’s art; a choice that Thomas (also the book’s editor) may have made thinking that it would help provide visual continuity during the transition from one penciller to the other. In addition, John Severin worked on a couple of pages — and unlike in earlier instances, this time the bringing in of an additional inker on a Conan story was being done for creative rather than deadline reasons… but we’ll have more to say about that anon (at which time we’ll also explain just how this story is, as it says in the credits box, “inspired in part” by the Robert E. Howard short story “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”)…
Readers had first met Makkalet’s guard-captain Chumballa Bey (albeit briefly), in the previous issue, when — as his dialogue above attests — his horse was purloined by Conan and Red Sonja as part of their caper to steal a magical serpent-tiara from the palace. (Stolen again — this time, literally out from under Conan by the duplicitous Sonja — the animal is presumably halfway to Pah-Dishah by now.)
Robert E. Howard’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” — which was published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1929, and which can be read in its entirety online here, if you’re so inclined — isn’t one of the author’s original Conan prose stories (such as, for example, “Rogues in the House”, adapted by Thomas and Windsor-Smith in Conan #11). Nor is it a historical adventure yarn that’s been transmuted into a Conan tale (a la issue #23’s “The Shadow of the Vulture”). Rather, it’s a story of Howard’s second most famous barbarian sword-and-sorcery hero, King Kull — the titular star of Marvel’s Kull the Conqueror — who’s about to make a cameo-by-flashback in our present comic’s next two pages:
With their lack of conventionally defined panel and caption borders, and use of script-style lettering, these two pages recall the two interludes that Thomas and Windsor-Smith produced for Conan #24, as well as the epilogue in Conan #20 (the eschewing here of word balloons, a la Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” comic strip, is another point of commonality with the sequence in #20). But they’re set apart from those, not only by the obvious factor of John Buscema’s having taken over for Barry Windsor-Smith, but also by John Severin’s spelling of Sal Buscema on inks for just this sequence. As Severin was at this time regularly embellishing his sister’s Marie’s pencils on Kull the Conqueror, as well as serving as that title’s cover artist, the effect is to make the reader feel rather as though he’s wandered over from Conan’s book into Kull’s, if only for a couple of pages. It’s hard to imagine this working quite as well had Severin been working with Windsor-Smith’s pencils rather than the elder Buscema’s, as both Severins’ pencilling styles seem more similar to the latter’s than to the former’s, at least to the eye of your humble blogger.
Howard’s original story is relatively short; even so, Thomas and Buscema have to compress its content considerably to fit their telling into a mere couple of pages. Perhaps that’s the main reason why Thomas decided to present a more complete adaptation a few years later; his eleven-page version, drawn by Mike Ploog, would appear in the 34th issue (Oct., 1978) of Marvel’s black-and-white comics magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan (opening page shown at right).
And the mystery introduced in Interlude #1 in last issue’s “The Song of Red Sonja” — what does the mirror show Kharam Akkad? — has been answered, only to be replaced by a new one — what the heck does it mean? (Besides the obvious, that is.)
The preceding scene represents the longest span of time the Living Tarim has been on stage so far — indeed, it’s the only non-flashback occasion on which he’s been seen by us readers, save for Conan’s own brief almost-but-not-quite encounter in #20. Which is kind of interesting, when you think about it, seeing as how the whole “War of the Tarim” is supposedly being fought over the guy in the first place. He sure seems to be a docile, quiet fellow, though, doesn’t he?
At this point, our scene changes to Conan’s current lodgings. Our hero has finally made it home after his night’s misadventure with Red Sonja, only to find Chumballa Bey and six guardsmen there waiting for him. Assuming that they’ve come on account of Bey’s stolen horse, and averring, “One place to sleep is as good as another,” Conan goes with them willingly enough… at least, until he finds out on whose behalf he’s actually being arrested…
Writing in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, Roy Thomas acknowledges that, compared to how Barry Windsor-Smith had drawn him, Conan “seemed at least several years older when John drew him… and quite a few pounds heavier.” That’s accurate, and it would become even more pronounced and noticeable within a few months’ time. Simultaneously, Buscema would make other, non-age-related adjustments to Conan’s physiognomy, subtly flattening his nose and lowering his brow to give him a generally more brutish appearance. The end result of Buscema’s changes — at least for your humble blogger — was that his Conan seemed to be almost a completely different person from the barbarian that Windsor-Smith had drawn.
In his book, Thomas goes on to claim: “In some ways, John’s version was probably closer to how Robert E. Howard had envisioned Conan than was Barry’s.” Perhaps that’s true, as Howard did consistently describe his hero in terms of his impressive height, broad shoulders, massive chest, and so on. On the other hand, the Windsor-Smith version of Conan — especially in the latter issues of the color title, as well as in his and Thomas’ adaptation of “Red Nails” for Marvel’s black-and-white Savage Tales — isn’t exactly what you’d call a puny or weak-looking specimen, either — at least not in comparison to most human males who aren’t Buscema’s Conan. Just sayin’.
Anyway, to get back to our story… Conan manages to temporarily stop three of the guards by heaving a full wine barrel at them. But it’s only a delaying tactic…
Bey and his men haul the unconscious Conan away, just in time for a scene change…
Prince Yezdigerd seems to have pretty well moved on from his obsession with having Conan killed (which began, you’ll remember, when the Cimmerian slashed his face in the aforementioned epilogue of issue #20). Maybe his getting the head of the guy he’d assigned to assassinate Conan sent to him as a “gift” by Conan instead (per the epilogue of issue #23) has put a damper on that particular grievance. Or maybe it’s because the results of Conan’s own mission to seek military aid for Makkalet (see #21 as well as #23) have turned out to be a bust, as the whole Pah-Dishah expeditionary force seems to have been sent only as a cover for Red Sonja’s serpent tiara-stealing mission, and now that that mission has been accomplished, they’ve cleared out — a development which has provided the Prince of Turan with the opportunity to bring an end to his siege of Makkalet, once and for all. In other words, he’s got other things to think about.
But before he gives the order for a full-out assault, the prince’s adviser Sulimar says, he needs to consult the augurs as to whether this is indeed “the hour of the griffin” — since, after all, there are those among his soldiery who care more about bringing the one, true Tarim back home to Aghrapur than they do about looting Makkalet of its wealth. Fine, Yezdigerd grumbles as the two men walk to the augurs’ tent, just so long as those seers “cast favorable runes”. “They have been so advised, my prince,” Sulimar assures him as they enter…
And so the word goes out across the camp — the army of Turan will storm the walls of Makkalet that very night.
Meanwhile, Chumballa Bey has delivered Conan to Kharam Akkad — reluctantly, since, as he says, “I’ve rarely seen one who could be worth more to Makkalet alive — as a warrior!” Awakening to find himself a bound and (presumably) helpless prisoner, Conan behaves just as you’d expect — taunting the wizard for not being willing to fight him “man to man“…
Once he’s availed himself of both sword and shield, Kharam Akkad is confident that he can take Conan. “In leaner years, I learned the art of the blade from swordsmen who could have split you with closed eyes.” Um, if you say so, dude.
Meanwhile, as Yezdigerd’s army advances on Makkalet, the city’s defenders prepare to make their last stand…
And so ends “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad”, with a twist ending that calls forward to events that still lie several years in Conan’s future, thereby anchoring the current story more firmly within the hero’s established “biography”. This device — along with the earlier Kull sequence, which in its turn anchored Conan’s career within the much longer fantastical prehistory imagined by Robert E. Howard — was just the sort of thing that would keep me invested in the story content of Conan the Barbarian for a long time to come… even as I became less enamored of the book’s visual content.
I’ve wondered from time to time how I might feel differently about John Buscema’s work on Conan had he been the title’s regular artist from the start — in other words, if he had never had Barry Windsor-Smith’s act to follow. After all, I’d enjoyed and valued Buscema’s art from the very first time I’d been exposed to it, back in Avengers #53 (June, 1968). And it’s not as though I thought his take on Conan was bad, either in this issue or in those that followed. But, for better or worse, after two years of Barry Windsor-Smith’s vision of Howard’s Hyborian Age and its best-known denizen impressing itself upon my imagination, just about anyone who followed him was going to fall into a category not only of “after”, or even “other”… but of “lesser”.
I have a bit more to say about Conan the Barbarian‘s transition from the Windsor-Smith to the Buscema eras… but I think I’ll save it for next month, when we’ll be looking at the issue which arguably completed that transition, not only by presenting the final chapter of the “Hyrkanian War” storyline begun by Thomas with Windsor-Smith and finished with Buscema, but also by featuring the arrival of the inker whose embellishment of Buscema’s pencils would eventually become almost as much a part of Conan‘s visual identity as those pencils themselves. I hope you’ll join me then.