In February, 1973, the 26th issue of Conan the Barbarian brought to a close the most ambitious and expansive story arc yet to appear in Marvel Comics’ flagship sword-and-sorcery title. Since its inauguration in Conan the Barbarian #19, that arc — the epic saga of the Hyrkanian War (or, if you prefer, the War of the Tarim) — had spanned eight months, seven chapters, three Robert E. Howard story adaptations, and one unscheduled reprint issue, while featuring the contributions of nine interior artists, five cover artists, two editors… and one single scripter: Roy Thomas.
For the saga’s concluding chapter, “The Hour of the Griffin!”, Thomas (now both writer and editor) was joined by two artists: John Buscema, who’d taken over the job of penciller from Barry Windsor-Smith with the previous issue; and a newcomer whose inking style would help define the look of Conan at Marvel for the next couple of decades. His name was Ernie Chan… or was it Ernie Chua, like it says on Conan #26’s opening splash page?
Depending on the account you read, the confusion over the inker’s surname originated with a mistake on his Filipino birth certificate, or, alternatively, in his immigration papers. Perhaps it was both. Whatever the case, the first seven or so years of his professional career in the United States saw him credited as “Ernie Chua”; upon his attaining U.S. citizenship in 1976, however, his last name legally became “Chan”, and he was so credited thereafter. And so, too, we’ll be calling him on this blog, regardless of what it says in the credit boxes.
Chan had arrived in the States in 1970, and had worked as an assistant to his fellow native Filipino, Tony DeZuñiga, prior to breaking into DC Comics under his own name in early 1972. Among the many artists associated with the “Filipino invasion” of American comics in the ’70s, Chan may have been the first to also find work at DC’s main rival, Marvel; but while DC had set Chan to doing both pencils and inks right away on stories for their “mystery” anthology titles like Ghosts and House of Mystery, the artist’s early assignments at Marvel — which began with Doc Savage #2, published in September, 1972 — were for inking only. Ernie Chan would eventually get to pencil for Marvel as well as ink, but not for almost five years; by that time, he’d have drawn dozens of stories for DC, including seven issues of his own co-creation Claw the Unconquered — a barbarian sword-and-sorcery feature very much in the vein of Marvel’s Conan.
in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, Roy Thomas writes of Chan’s Conan #26 debut (which, we should note, begins even before the splash page, as he also inked Buscema’s pencils for the cover):
Ernie… added the kind of detail that readers had come to expect in Conan from the later work of Barry Smith, especially as inked by himself. I believed that the Buscema/Chua look was one that would keep Conan looking different from Marvel’s superhero titles, even though Big John was of course one of our primary superhero artists. And it worked… All the way through the story, he [Chan] added inked texture which, to my eyes, made the story come alive and gave a gritty feel to John’s beautiful pencils (at the same time that, in another way, they undercut John’s precise intent with those pencils—a real paradox!).
From the perspective of fifty years later, I can compare Chan’s inks to those of Barry Windsor-Smith and sorta, kinda, see what Thomas is talking about. But I have to say that as a reader in 1973, I saw little similarity between the artwork of Windsor-Smith — whether inked by himself or by someone else — and that of the Buscema-Chan team. Just sayin’.
Following their “One moment ago” opening splash page (which was essentially a second take on the final panel of Conan #25), our storytellers move on to present a series of four different “tableaus”. These serve to help provide a sense of the grand scope of the storyline, where a lot of important things are going on that don’t directly involve Conan himself… though Conan does come in for a mention in the first tableau of the four, as we’re reminded that the supreme commander of one side in the Hyrkanian War, Prince Yezdigerd of Turan, has a personal grudge against our hero.
Is it just me, or does the shipboard soldiers’ discovery of the secret underground passage into the city render the treasonous temple laborer’s revelation of the same pretty much superfluous? (I realize that the narration tries to sell this as irony, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.)
“If any man can steal her safely thru Turanian lines… it is Kharam-Akkad!” Now there’s some irony for you — which Roy Thomas wisely realizes speaks for itself, without his needing to call our attention to it in a caption.
The fourth and final tableau brings the narrative back around to where this issue began; though, by shifting the “camera angle” to foreground the corpse of Conan’s just-vanquished foe, Thomas and Buscema subtly underscore our understanding that, yeah, Kharam-Akkad’s no longer in a position to help anybody, not even if she’s a queen…
That’s right, Conan — Captain Chumballa Bey, whom both you and we readers gave up for a goner after Kharan-Akkad stabbed him in the back in the final scene of Conan #25, isn’t quite dead. And since Capt. Bey received that near-fatal wound while attempting to come to Conan’s aid — and did aid him, indirectly, since the previously-unarmed barbarian mercenary was able to retrieve the Makkaletian officer’s sword for his own use — Conan figures he owes the fellow one…
Writing about this sequence in Barbarian Life, Thomas says:
My plot called for the Turanians to gain entrance to Makkalet by means of a “Trojan Horse,” in a manner of speaking — although in my case I settled for having them sneak in via an underground tunnel and then out of a statue of a winged horse. Admittedly, John drew the legs of the horse a bit too small for an eagle-eyed reader to accept that the Turanians would ever have been able to reach the horse icon’s belly and exit from there, but readers seemed not to notice.
Thomas, who elsewhere in his book cites the classical myths of the Trojan War as being among his primary inspirations for the Hyrkanian War storyline, seemingly couldn’t resist having a “Trojan Horse” analogue of some sort involved in the fall of Makkalet. In retrospect, perhaps he should have, as the tunnel-ending-in-a-hollow-horse-statue notion is highly improbable, to say the least. (It also seems rather unnecessary; after all, the underground tunnels connect to at least one other place inside the city [i.e., the temple], and there may be other exit points, too, for all we know.)
Having said all that, however, your humble blogger feels honor-bound to acknowledge that in February, 1973, my fifteen-year-old self was definitely in the camp of readers who “seemed not to notice” that, as drawn, the horse’s legs were too damn small for the Turanian soldiers to crawl through. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have even noticed it in February, 2023, if Barbarian Life hadn’t prompted me to look more closely. So maybe I should just let Mr. Thomas have his Trojan Horse. and we’ll move on…
Conan couldn’t care less about what happens to Queen Melissandra, whom he believes treacherously sent him to his death back in issue #21. But the Turanian soldiers are just as eager to take him as they are to flee with their royal captive, so there’s nothing for it but to fight. First, Conan topples over a great stone altar which sends his enemies scattering (and probably crushes at least a couple); and then…
I’m not sure what my younger self of 1973 was expecting to see when the “Living Tarim” — whose face had been kept shrouded by his hood in the few scenes he’d appeared in over the course of the saga, and who’d never spoken a word — was finally revealed. But I’m certain that a “loathsome living monument to centuries of in-breeding“* was definitely not it. This was an entirely stunning moment — and a disconcerting one, frankly, although I’d like to think that on some level, at least, I — like Conan — got the joke.
Conan doesn’t have long to enjoy feeling mirthful over the cosmic ironies of human existence, however, as he’s soon discovered again by his Turanian pursuers. The greatly-outnumbered Cimmerian prepares to go down fighting, defiantly taunting his foes: “…come ahead, and we’ll see how many of you it takes — to slay one man, born free in the wildling north!” But the soldiers’ commander has other ideas:
Outside the temple walls, however, things are going rather better for Yezdigerd’s forces, as the city’s dazed and confused defenders struggle to respond to the enemies now swarming their very streets…
Having finally gotten past the Turanian soldiers in the temple, Conan, Melissandra, and Chumballa Bey now descend into the underground passages beneath it, heading towards the seaside cave-exit, and, hopefully, safety. You’d be forgiven for thinking the worst was over… but you’d still be wrong…
Did we really need a giant saber-toothed mole to show up in the last quarter of “The Hour of the Griffin!” I’m inclined to think not, although the script tries to justify its inclusion by explaining that this is the very creature that Kharam Akkad had set issue #20‘s titular “Black Hound of Vengeance” to guard against. (I don’t recall ever puzzling over that mystery, myself, so I’d call this an answer in search of a question.) It’s as though Thomas and Buscema are afraid that we readers will notice that most of the important stuff that’s happening as our epic storyline barrels on to its conclusion doesn’t involve Conan, the presumed hero, and so they’ve decided to distract us by having him fight something every couple of pages, even if it has nothing to do with anything else that’s going on.
Anyway, I hope you all won’t mind if I skip ahead to the end of this particular fracas…
Yes, it’s another fight… although this one at least follows logically from the story’s premises, since it makes sense that the Turanians would leave some guards posted at the cave entrance. (On the other hand, the presence of the chariot, its two horses already harnessed and ready to go, is awfully convenient.)
The bittersweet parting of two people who could (and perhaps should) have been lovers, but who are instead left to wonder ever after about what might have been, isn’t exactly an original idea, I grant you. Still, I think that Thomas’ handling of it here is pretty deft.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering if Melissandra ever shows up again… the answer, as best as I can determine, is no. And if a “new Makkalet” ever arises, either on the same site “or to the East“, we never learn about it from Marvel’s Conan comics. Ah, well.
Earlier episodes of the Hyrkanian War saga — issues #20 and #23, to be specific — had made highly effective use of epilogues; and issue #26, whose epilogue serves as a coda not just for this one installment, but for the entire epic, matches (and perhaps even surpasses) them.
It’s an epilogue which lends itself to a number of reader interpretations (any and all of which are valid, in my view). Perhaps the most narrow view would take it as an indictment of organized religion as a whole, with the robed and hooded skeleton that’s been cynically set forth as “the one true Living Tarim” symbolizing the lifeless aridity that, for at least some unbelievers, is all that’s to be found at the core of religious dogma. Another interpretation, related but less restrictive, would acknowledge the same religious symbolism, but apply it only to the misuse of religious faith as a pretext for war. And yet another, even broader take would see the not-so-living Tarim as representing any false ideal used to mask the true reasons human beings wage war on their fellows. As Roy Thomas puts it in Barbarian Life, with phrasing that evokes his story’s great inspiration, the ancient war that was allegedly fought over Helen of Troy:
…when two cities or kingdoms or empires clash, whether the ostensible purpose is a beautiful woman or religion on whatever, the real motive is usually rapacious greed on the part of the attacker.
That’s pretty much how I understood the “message” of Conan #26’s final scene back in 1973; and fifty years later, it’s still the interpretation that resonates the most for me. And it’s that resonance, I suspect, that makes this scene stand out in my memory as indelibly as any other in Marvel’s Conan comics, despite the fact that Conan himself neither appears nor is even mentioned in it; and that also helps make the Hyrkanian War sequence one of my very favorite extended comic-book storylines of this era.
As I’ve written previously, I continued to buy and read Conan the Barbarian until Roy Thomas departed the title in 1980. And I enjoyed it — it was a consistently good comic book — even if it never again seemed quite as special as it had in its first couple of years.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t still exceptional Conan comic-book stories still to come, back in February, 1973 — just that the majority of them would be appearing in venues other than the monthly Conan color comic. Within a few months’ time, the Cimmerian adventurer would also be holding down a berth in Marvel’s resuscitated Savage Tales, to be succeeded a year later by The Savage Sword of Conan. Those black-and-white titles — as well as their color-comics brethren like Giant-Size Conan — would have the advantage of being able to feature adaptations of a number of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories which, due to the ongoing monthly’s commitment to aging the hero more-or-less in real time in accordance with his accepted fictional chronology, Marvel otherwise wouldn’t get to for another decade or more. (And yes, I know that I’ve previously cited that chronological commitment as one of the monthly Conan comic’s singular strengths; call it a paradox, if you will.) In addition, the new titles invited a variety of fresh visual interpretations of Conan and his Hyborian milieu, since the pure volume of comics pages that had to be filled exceeded what John Buscema and Ernie Chan could produce on their own, even if they’d wanted to.
All of which is my roundabout way of explaining how it is that, while you’ll be seeing conspicuously fewer posts about Conan the Barbarian from me in the months and years to come, Conan himself isn’t going anyplace — at least, not for very long. He’ll return in June, when the meandering path of this blog will once again intersect with the Road of Kings; I hope to see you then, as well.
*The term “Mongoloid”, now universally seen as inappropriate and derogatory to people with Down syndrome as well as to those of Asian ancestry, was still in common use in the 1970s.
A wonderful conclusion to one of the classic story arcs of the 70s. The battle with the rat/mole thing was indeed kind of shoehorned in there to give our hero something to do. However, I have always had a soft spot for that fight scene and now own the original art for that page.
The Conan the Barbarian book never again hit the dizzy heights of these early issues but remained one of the finest titles in comics all the way to the end of Roy’s tenure. Consistent excellence.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Conan’s body count in this issue alone is astonishing!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Melissandra made a one-panel reappearance in #61, in a double-page spread wherein Conan reflects on the women in his life thus far.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A magnificent wrap up to one of Marvel’s best ( if not THE best) stories ever. The artwork was simply superb and this from someone who will always think BWS was the best Conan artist. The detailed work, Buscema and Ernie Chan really outdid themselves. Thomas script was nothing short of amazing. That epilogue..best I’ve ever seen in comics. All in all an audacious ending and one I’ve treasured to have owned all these years.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Surely, this was one of the finest pieces of comic story-telling in it’s day, and probably for many other days to come. It’s a shame BWS didn’t get a chance to draw more of it than he did, but Thomas and every other person involved with this book has every right to be proud of what they accomplished here.
Looking back at the overall themes of the book, Thomas didn’t really say anything new here, but took ideas that had been put forth before and expressed them with an eloquence that goes far beyond the purple prose of most comic offerings. The Buscema/Chan artwork, while not reaching the heights of what Smith had acheived in his work on the title, was fluid and well-rendered with Chan’s inks enhancing Big John’s pencils with every stroke.
It’s a real shame Conan and Melissandre didn’t run into one another again down the road. There was a lot of unspoken stuff between her and Conan and the separation of a few years down the road might have put it into a new enough context that those two crazy kids might have found a way to be together. I will say that it’s unusual for Thomas to leave as potentially fruitful as storypoint as the yearning between Barbarian and Queen without coming back to it at some point. Thomas doesn’t usually let that stuff go to waste.
All in all, I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed this epic. Thanks for the analysis, Alan. Conan may indeed have continued and we may check in on him once in a while in future posts, but I think most of us will agree that you’ve aready hit on the highest point of his career in comics and whatever comes next is only gravy on top of a truly excellent meal.
LikeLiked by 1 person
One thing Buscema did better than Smith was draw monsters. Not that Smith was bad but Buscema had a flair for making them monstrous, particularly when he didn’t have much in REH’s descriptions to work with.