In The Curse of the Golden Skull, Roy Thomas’ insane one hundred and fifty issue tenure on Conan the Barbarian continues. While the last volume of the Epic Collection dipped its toes into the cosmic unknown of Weird Horror fiction, volume 3 tends more to ride the line just adjacent to the sorts of horror books Marvel was putting out at the same time. While the run collected sometimes crosses into horror territory with some sexy skull-faced or tentacled women, sword-bearing shadows, and. . . sexy shadow women, more often we find our bumbling barbarian fight other big bros, animals, and climb yet more towers to fight yet more nameless wizards.
Most notable is the arrival of John Buscema on penciling duties. Buscema, Thomas’s first choice when pitching the series, had initially been priced out by publisher Martin Goodwin’s unwillingness to commit too heavily to an untested concept (sword and sorcery), with fresh-faced Barry Windsor Smith being slotted in on the cheap. Now, twenty-some issues into the series, Conan was getting some critical love. . . but so was Windor Smith, who Stan Lee wanted to put on to more profitable books.
Enter Buscema, who would go on to work on an also insane one hundred plus issues of the series. Buscema was a veritable workhorse of an artist, a cornerstone of Marvel Comics artwork in the sixties and seventies, even replacing Jack Kirby on the King’s titles when Kirby left the company. While Barry Smith grew to huge critical acclaim, Buscema just kept doing the work.
The magic in Conan is that Thomas and Buscema never seem to run out of steam. There seemed to be an endless well of ideas at their disposal, both original and adapted. In this volume, not only are Conan creator Robert E Howard’s stories loosely adapted but so, too, is a novel called Flame Winds by Norvell W. Page. That novel, released several years earlier, was heavily marketed to be “In the great Conan tradition”, which is to say a sword and sorcery book with a Conan-like hero doing Conan-like things. The story spans three issues (#32-34), which might be one of the longest ongoing arcs in the series so far.
With the whole of bottom-of-the-barrel pulps to guide and inspire, it’s no wonder that Conan has run, almost continuously, for half a century, but there is no doubt that these original Conan comics bolstered up the later work by Kurt Busiek and contemporary work by Jason Aaron and Jim Zub, whose contributions to the Conan canon may be more original (and, if we look at Savage Avengers, just plain zany) but nonetheless indebted.
One interesting thing of note is that these books — and, indeed, current Conan books — can’t be read on Marvel Unlimited, likely due to licensing limitations. This means that, while digital copies can be picked up through Comixology, these Marvel Epic Collections are probably the savviest way to experience the material (outside, of course, scouring the secondary market for pricy back issues or the Chronicles of Conan trades Dark Horse put out during their tenure as Conan Captains).
Golden Skull is a very solid span of books for any of the reasons enumerated above, but for my money, I still think Hawks From the Sea is the best entry in the Epic Collections so far; while both are available, that’s where I’d sink my first forty dollar investment. Like John Buscema, the 17 issues collected in Golden Skull are workhorses, intent on steadily doing the work well. They are not, however, the most brilliant work of Buscema or Thomas, which makes the anticipation for the next Epic Collection release all the stronger.
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