The first story - Death Dwarves of Stygia is an odd if decent story. Odd in that it features the Death Dwarves, one of the more unusual Conan menaces, and asks the reader to feel sympathy or pity for a slug monster. Val Mayerik is the artist and it's a shame he's inked by Vince Colletta because his art loses some subtly and nuance. You have only to look at Mayerick's cover to see how alluring the story could have been with just Mayerick. Colletta enervates Mayerick's pencils and even loses details on an amulet - during a close up of it no less - that's important to the plot. Fleisher's story begins in one direction and then takes a 90 degree turn, which becomes something of a trope during his run on the title.
Night of the Rat is a rollicking story of intrigue in Khitai, the Asian equivalent for the Hyborian Age. The Buscema-Chan team is in solid form and almost every page is a delight. They immerse the reader in the Khitain culture and even toss in a few slapstick moments. Conan's ordeal with the elephant is a great set piece in the story. Fleisher offers a story that plays a little better to Conan. His Snow Raven character - who returns a few more times in SSOC - is a fine addition to Conan's rogue gallery. She's sly and savvy and deadly. His story also has a moral to it - Conan should invest in a helmet. The poor Cimmerian gets clonked on the noggin three times and drugged once for good measure. Conan appears to have a weak spot somewhere between his ears and the crown of his head. Good thing his mother never dropped him.
The Ape-Bat of Marmet Tharn is almost two stories in one. Conan must contend with the mystery surrounding the Ape-Bat while, in a parallel story, the Devourer of Souls returns and plots against the Cimmerian. I loved this story as a kid; not so much as an adult. Buscema is paired with Rudy Nebres on inks. I don't particularly like Nebres' soft brushwork. I feel like he dilutes Buscema's pencils. But at least he can't undermine Buscema's powerful storytelling and pacing. In the end, the story is a bit of a mish-mash with zombies, demons, giant mantis, one-eye octopus and the man-bat. The final scene is particularly terrifying. Oh yeah...and Conan gets knocked out by a zombie. Conan....get a helmet, man.
The fourth story in the collection is The Leopard Men of Darfar by Fleisher and artist Pablo Marcos. Like the previous episode, this is almost two stories in one. Conan is hired to capture and return a spoiled rich girl. The first half of the story is a survival story where in Conan must overcome a series of challenges like slavers and the such. In the last half, he teams up with an aristocratic Darfarian to save his tribe from the Leopard Men. It's pretty much a straightforward adventure. Pablo Marcos' art holds up well although his characters always seem to have a gravity or pose that's strictly Marcos' stylistic affectation.
The Blood Ruby of Death features a plot by Big John with dialogue by Fleisher. Nebres is credited with the inks but someone else completes the last 1/4. This story is more fun and intriguing. Big John's plots all seem to keep a basic formula with a humanistic beginning that devolves into sorcery amok in the end. Big John clearly enjoys drawing the squalor and seediness of the Hyborian Age and it shows in the first half. The premise behind the Blood Ruby is engaging, almost worth it's own story, and the end twists your expectations.
The Lady Of The Tower! heralds the first published story featuring Gary Kwapisz on pencils and inks. He'd already done pencils for one or two other stories and pin-ups. Gwapisz will go on to become one of the featured artists in SSOC for the next few years. Like Val Mayerik, you can tell his style from the clothes, settings and character features and Like Buscema, his Conan is the usually the sole embodiment of physical perfection and health in any story. Kwapisz does a great job her and the story by Steve Skeates is pretty good. Although...i'm still trying to figure out why it was important for the demons to quard the tower if the Princes was....well...just read the story and then we'll talk.
Chapter Six features my second favorite story in this volume - The Informer. Conan loses his pirate crew, except for one, and becomes embroiled in a revolution against a sorceress monarch. Buscema and Chan set the mark again for how tell even an average Conan story. They add humor and drama and the Witch Queen is delightfully evil. My favorite part is the sequence when she screams Conan? Who in the Bloody @xx!!*xx#!x is Conan!. This story has several twists and turns but they maintain momentum for the main narrative; nothing branches off into a different story like early issues. This was a great story.
hen A God Lives is a story about enduring duty, a lost civilization and dumb luck. This story and the next one again Fleisher's habit of two stories in one but they achieve better synergy than some of his previous efforts. The story opens with Conan attempting to fleece a stolen idol. His situation becomes dire when the Arenjun guards attempt to arrest him. Conan flees and the first half of the story is Conan's effort to lose or kill the dedicated leader of the guard. But then, Conan falls into a jungle and runs afoul of a lost tribe who JUST HAPPEN to worship the demon god whom the stolen idol is based upon. They're so happy to get the idol back that they decide to hold a party and Conan's invited.....as a sacrifice. Fortunately the Cimmerian's swoon-inducing machismo has attracted the attention of the buxom blond-haired high priestess. The two plot to escape but not before the high priest returns with the Arenjun guards - MORE SACRIFICES! The idol brings the god alive, Conan and the guards escape (with help from the priestess) and chaos ensues. The high priest, the guards, the priestess and most of the tribe are killed by the demon god's violent thrashing and - by sheer dumb luck - the god destroys his own idol thereby severing his life link with the world. The story is not as bad as I make it sound. Fleisher spends some time developing the Guard Captain with glimmers of intelligence and cunning to back up his dedication. Buscema and Chan also draw wonderful sequences in the forest and in Arenjun and use subtle expressions on the characters to move the story.
The Siren by Fleisher, Buscema and Nebres is a story of vengeance that gets waylaid. It is a somber, perhaps even existential, tale marking it as a unique entry. Conan decides to visit an old comrade. He finds the castle under siege and decides to aid his friend against the brigands. Unfortunately, the raiders kill the son of Conan's friend and then hold his corpse hostage (they pretend the boy is still alive) for the castle gold. Conan and his friend pursue the pirates into the sea after the deception is solved. The reader seeks vengeance for this injustice almost as much as Conan and his friend. We'll never get it.
At this point, you either accept the story for what it is and marvel at it or you simply say - well, that kind of sucks. I've decided to marvel at it because I think it is more fascinating that way. Suffice to say, everyone dies and Conan barely survives. The nobility or sacred anger of a father avenging his son is rendered meaningless as are the greed of the pirates and Conan's sense of loyalty and devotion. Both crews encounter a threat that disregards them as anything other than food to be culled and consumed. Survival is the only thing that matters in the end. To analyze anymore would ruin my feelings toward the story. Occasionally stories don't need to give us closure or neat tidy endings. This is one of them.
The last story is my favorite of the bunch and one of my favorite SSOC stories in the entire run. As a fan of Conan comics for 30+ years, I've pondered REH's assertion that barbarism is humanity's natural state. Is it at all possible that other traits associated with civilization - deference, kindness, self-control - are part of humanity's natural state? The Iron Lions of Kharamun is a story that explores the relationship of barbarism and civilization within Conan. The story opens with Conan as chieftain of marauders who spend as much time bullying and stealing from their brethren as from the common folk. In fact, Conan becomes something of a folk hero as he frequently spares villagers from the worst deprivations of the roving marauders and their ilk. What a guy. This growing reputation and power quickly irks the other gangs who unite to curse our ersatz hero; henceforth he will be unable to wield a sword or defend himself and any who aid him will be murdered. In the end, Conan endures and after a series of trials is able to destroy the Iron Lions and regain his courage. End of story.
The reader is left with several loose-ends though. Some are minor, such as what ever happened to the Lion Goddess or does Conan exact revenge on the united rovers or even better was Conan effected by this adventure? Fleisher doesn't offer any definitive answers or a neat summation affirming the parable nature of the story. We only see the now virile Conan returning to his marauders so he can pummel his traitorous second-in-command, who had little to do with the actual curse. The marauders offer Conan his former leadership post and all it confers - power, the prize blond-haired concubine, money, etc. Perhaps even a chance to conquer the rival tribes who conspired against him. Instead, Fleisher has Conan ride silently off into the desert. These characters never return again so the reader is left to ponder the point. Like The Siren, you either read the story as a straight-forward adventure where the lack of answers weaken it or you begin to ponder the blanks. I'm not going to disparage anyone who doesn't take my approach. Pondering Fleisher's point may even be a sign of the story's weakness! But I find the story resonates more if you ask whether the marauding tribes were more threatened by Conan's barbarism or by his combination of barbarism and magnanimity? I suggest the later is a civilized trait. Are the tribes MORE civilized than Conan by virtue of their hierarchy and use of the Iron Lions to impose meekness and mildness? Does barbarism or civilization win in this story? I think Conan clearly he learns some lesson by dint of his abandoning his tribe and lover. In the end, I can't help but think that Conan is left doubting his own assertions of barbarism. He was born of barbarism and gladly lives it but perhaps he begins to see the value of kindness, meekness and generosity. And seeing how much he likes them, he is frightened for them because they have no place in this marauding life. I like to think he rides off to protect his own fleeting sense of emotional balance.
I thought this volume was pretty good, certainly better than the previous, and will offer enjoyable, if puzzling, stories to the reader.