For me at least, the most enjoyable parts of this collection of Savage Sword Of Conan issues are the interstitial bits of art running between the main stories, single frames that fill entire pages and suggest stories in Conan's past just beyond our collective ken.
Conan trapped behind a pillar between a hooded figure and a giant Gila monster...Conan knee-deep in water awash in the tentacles of a sea monster he has just turned into calamari...Conan slashing away at Neanderthals in a snow drift...Conan protecting a woman as he lifts an attacker to throw him off a cliff...
What you don't get in "Savage Sword Of Conan Vol. 4" is the same high class of stories you got in the first three volumes. A significant letdown was bound to happen; the people behind the series ran out of stories by Conan's creator Robert E. Howard and had to rely on the iffier talents of L. Sprague de Camp. Yet the art is consistently good, not only from lead penciller John Buscema but Tony De Zuniga, Sal Buscema, and others. They give these stories a cinematic range and hard-edged feeling to keep you flipping pages.
While never subject to the Comics Code, it took a few years for "Savage Sword Of Conan" to ease itself from its strait jacket of relative probity regarding such things as nudity and decapitation and embrace the possibilities of an adult comic. By 1979, when these issues were published, "Savage Sword" was a-poppin' in naked female breasts and flying heads. Splash pages now feature disrobed women screaming in their beds, while blood splatters many a Conan foe.
Did scripter Roy Thomas get a bit lazy and formulaic in the process? I don't think these issues present him or Conan at their best. One story features his underwater frolicking a la "Blue Lagoon" with a nubile widow. Another has him attacking a horde of Amazons armed with a giant stalk of celery.
Some of the fault is de Camp's, whose Conan stories here are often underbaked and imitative of Howard's best. "Moon Of Blood," for example, is a lame retread of the classic Howard tale "Beyond The Black River," justified as a kind of sequel, but one in which Conan must again be surprised by the same kinds of threats. "Legions Of The Dead" twists the naturalistic world of Conan as created by Howard by pitting Conan against a nation of zombie manipulators.
The two big stories here, covering half of the total book, are an adaptation of the de Camp/Lin Carter novel "Conan The Buccaneer" and of a Howard story, "The Treasure Of Tranicos." Both feature Thoth-Amon, a mighty wizard who Howard himself only used sparingly in one story because Conan can't realistically be expected to fight a superintelligent, supernatural being unless he's as prone to distraction as Thoth-Amon is in these two adaptations.
While both stories are convoluted, they are held together by often-fantastic art, including, for the first half of "Tranicos," a team-up of John Buscema and Gil Kane that brings out the best in both legendary artists even though they represent quite different graphic styles. The good stories here benefit, too: John's brother Sal delivers great facial details in "The Star Of Khorala," a solid sequel to Howard's "Shadows In Zamboula," while the best story here, "The Gem In The Tower," has both lush jungle scenery and the title edifice from which Conan goes mano-a-mano in mid-air against a Nosferatu-like wight.
Even "Gem" isn't that much of a gem storywise; it's just shorter and less formulaic with Conan showing his brainier side. But the art is such a joy, you don't care. In both Howard's and Thomas's hands, Conan has read much better than he does here, but he has seldom looked as fantastic.