Our story today is Robert E. Howard’s arch 1934 Weird Tales masterpiece, “The People of the Black Circle” – not the story so much as its most stellar adaptation, beginning back in 1976, in issue #16 of that epic old Marvel Comics fantasy magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan. Marvel’s ordinary-sized four-color comic starring Conan, “Conan the Barbarian,” had become a critical darling and an early fan favorite, and for a while, the world seemed to smile on all things Conan (if only things had gone slightly differently, alas! If last summer’s Conan movie had caught on with audiences, we might be living in a Second Age of Conan even now – I certainly did my part in trying to bring about such a golden time – and the movie’s star, Jason Momoa, gave the thing his all – but theater audiences can be fickle creatures, and the lightning just didn’t strike. Sigh). Even some of those earliest fans of the comic book were skeptical about the magazine, butThe Savage Sword of Conan was superb fantasy fare from its very first issue and stayed superb for a good long time. A newcomer to comics or fantasy literature could pick up a copy of issue #16 (provided they could find one reasonably priced, not always the easiest thing) and easily find themselves spellbound.
Of course, that newcomer would have quite a bit of industry overkill to wade through first – in this case, courtesy of issue #16’s hilariously garish cover illustration by Earl Norem, which features just about every stock ‘sword and sorcery’ image that came to the artist’s mind, all plunked together willy-nilly like globs of fat in a bubbling gumbo. There’s Conan, of course, swinging away with his bloodied broad-axe (he’s not actually looking at where he’s swinging it, but he’s Conan – maybe he doesn’t need to). On some mysterious little rise of ground behind him is the requisite buxom blond in negligible bangles, looking more stoned than terrified (given her position, she’s lucky Conan – who I presume she knows – hasn’t accidentally decapitated her). In the background is the requisite wizard (you can tell because he’s got pretty cardboard stars sewn onto his bathrobe) casting some nefarious spell at our hero, to no obvious effect. Conan’s too busy for spells anyway, since he’s surrounded by foes – living foes, one (presumably non-union) dead foe, and even, for no discernible reason, a green foe. It’s a lot to process.
But oh! The sheer splendors that await the reader who can somehow manage to choke down the ridiculous overkill of that cover! The first instalment of “The People of the Black Circle” is written by the great Conan scripter Roy Thomas and drawn by his long-time stalwart collaborator, John Buscema, whose work here is elevated from very good to downright beautiful by the careful, gorgeous inks of Alfredo Alcala. Thomas lovingly adapts and expands on Howard’s story of a plotting secret society that employs cutthroats, harlots, and one or two genuine wizards (in one chilling sequence, one such wizard calmly tells a hapless guard “I no longer need you – kill yourself” – and Buscema provides a devastatingly calm horizontal sequence showing the guard doing just that).
And that’s just the issue’s first feature. The stunning thing about these oldSavage Sword issues is the sheer array of first-rate talent they could amass in a single issue. #16 is no exception: one of the back-up features is drawn with meticulous detail and gorgeous contrasts by Barry Windsor-Smith, and another is drawn by later “Thor” fan favorite Walt Simonson, in his best full-grandeur style.
There’s nothing even distantly like this being done today by either Marvel or DC, which makes these old Conan-celebrations all the more satisfying to revisit. Almost like a lost world, or something.