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  • Greg O'Driscoll

Conan looks a little too scared in this opening shot.

Conan the Barbarian #74

Conan listens to The Doors and decides to "ride the snake... to the ancient lake, baby." Cover by Gil Kane.

Written by Roy Thomas with pencils by John Buscema and inks by Ernie Chan, the cover blurb screams “One hundred feet of fangs and fury!! The SERPENT from the RIVER STYX!” It looks like another Gil Kane cover, which is never a bad thing. I kind of wish the fight with the river dragon inside had been more like this. Really though that battle is a footnote to other events in the issue.

Buscema and Chan deliver a bad ass looking dream/nightmare encounter with Thoth-Amon, who the comics built up into an archvillain only dimly hinted at by his very few appearances in the original Conan stories by Howard.

A battle with a Stygian ship follows shortly after Conan awakens. This results in the capture of Neftha, a pretty bit of baggage who will be sticking around for the near future, much to the annoyance of Conan's companion Belit, Queen of the Black Coast. The pirates burn the Stygian vessel and sneak into the enemy capitol. Obviously, Neftha is more than she seems, but that plot will have to develop over the next few issues.

Conan and Belit meet Neftha. Belit is not thrilled. Interior detail from CTB #74.

There are a few minor things that strike me as odd about this issue. For one thing, John Buscema does the art in this issue, and it looks great, yet only ten issues later there is a cover blurb triumphantly announcing that “Buscema returns!” My comic collection is scattered and sometimes redundant, so I read isolated issues or random pulls from a long box. I'll have to dig in a little more thoroughly to nail down exactly how long Buscema was away.

First page splash of Conan the Barbarian #74.Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan.

Conan nearly succumbs to a ghostly chorus of phantom voices. Interior art from CTB #74.

The other strange thing, or at least slightly out of character, is how overcome Conan seems in this issue. No hero wins every time, but even in defeat Conan usually makes a good show of things. The story opens with Conan tossing and turning in his bunk, mumbling in his sleep, tormented by a dream. Within the dream itself Conan is once more the defiant figure we are familiar with, but that opening page casts Conan in an unfamiliar and vulnerable light.

Not much later, Conan is confronted by a miasmic swarm of ghostly faces. This is pretty standard fare for not just Conan but the fantasy genre in general. What is odd is how Conan staggers beneath the phantom chorus of spectral voices. Hands clutched to his head and nearly bent double, Conan's posture is one of defeat even if he has his sword in hand. Maybe our favorite Cimmerian was having an off day?

A good issue and a good purchase. The double page spread I mentioned before is one of my favorite Conan images, illustrated with all the power people come to expect from John Buscema. I picked up my first copy of this issue in Pennsylvania at one of several places I used to prowl, looking for old comics. The cover was already a shade loose and I read it the rest of the way off years ago. This particular copy I purchased for one dollar from the sadly now-defunct Round Boys online comic auction. During the Covid lockdown, Round Boys was one of the ways I picked up old comics that I wanted to read.

Double-page spread of Conan the Barbarian confronting the evil wizard Thoth-Amon in CTB #74

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