Just as Conan the Barbarian as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger crashed movie theaters and became a household name, his old comic book title came upon strange days indeed. Collecting issues #127-134 of the Marvel comic title, published originally in 1981-82, Vol. 17 makes what should have been a victory lap feel more like a death spiral.
Vol. 17 is the issue where Conan visits floating cities, is turned into a zombie-fighting giant, and smashes a crystal mountain to save a princess. He also dispenses various Ron Burgundy-isms like "Crom's bones!" and "Ishtar's blood!" Gone is any sense of the Hyborian world designed by Conan's long-dead creator, Robert E. Howard, which past Marvel comics issues at least nodded in the direction of.
Three different writers penned stories in this collection: J. M. DeMatteis, Bruce Jones, and Roy Thomas. Each in his own way pushes Conan further from its swords-and-sorcery origins and in the direction of high fantasy, with lots of magic and godlike beings on offer.
DeMatteis, who had been writing Marvel Conans for about a year by the time we reach this volume, was clearly writing for the door. In a candid introduction, he recalls longtime Conan penciller John Buscema's dissatisfaction with DeMatteis's work and admits "as much as I loved the character, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell were best suited to other venues." This becomes quite clear when reading his three-parter, "The Creation Quest."
Here Conan takes up the cause of saving a childhood friend, a minstrel who has settled down in Cimmeria (Conan's homeland, where most of Vol. 17 is set) with a Khitain princess who turns out to be nothing less than the keeper of the four cornerstones of creation, daft-sounding objects like "The Rose of Peace" and "The Mirror of Beauty" which Conan must help her collect to rescue the minstrel from an evil wizard who has turned him into a stone bird.
DeMatteis' writing suggests frustration, perhaps at the carping he was getting about having made Conan too soft. In one issue, Conan destroys another magician's library of books to distract him while stealing one of those creation cornerstones. Told what he has done is "evil...dishonest," Conan replies: "So is life, old man!" In the next issue, he walks away from the story's resolution expressing total disgust with the way it has all turned out. Given this was the last Conan penned by DeMatteis, it seems to represent the author's thinking as well.
Such contempt is contagious, apparently. Bruce Jones may not have suffered from DeMatteis's problem of frustration; one senses he never cared about Conan or Robert E. Howard and just saw the book as a means to a paycheck and a better book. Jones' Conan stories not only lack authenticity, they are too often pocked by contrivance and coincidence, weakish plots aimed at an exclusively juvenile audience involving scheming wizards, bizarre monsters, and left-field divine interventions to tie up loose plot ends.
Roy Thomas, who was responsible for Marvel Conan's adaptations in the first place, was gone from "Conan the Barbarian" by 1981 but still under contract for an extra-length Conan Annual. The result, "King Of The Forgotten People" is a disappointment. Like DeMatteis he seems to be running out the clock as he produces an awkward high-fantasy story of Conan fighting another wizard, this time one who thinks himself a reincarnated king.
The book does feature one half-decent story by Jones, "The Ring Of Rhax," about a cursed ring Conan must get rid of. It's implausible and rife with plot holes, but it does present Conan in recognizable form and moves to an involving finale. DeMatteis's "The Snow-Haired Woman Of The Wastes" is weakened by his typical overuse of big magic, but it's the one time in the book the penciling of comics legend Gil Kane, employed throughout this book, works to good effect. Otherwise, Kane's drawings are another minus, all zippy lines and distorted dimensions, accentuating how far removed Conan has become from the realish world that once seemed to hold him.