Sunday, September 18, 2011

Savage Memories

Savage Tales #5 was the first issue of the Marvel Black & White Magazine that I ever saw. I was 12 years old and digging through the comics and magazines at Blair's Food Town, the only supermarket in those days in the small town of Canton Georgia, and the source of most of the early part of my comic book collection. Distribution was spotty back then and I don't know if Blair's hadn't carried the previous four issues or if I'd just never seen them. In any event, I bought that issue as soon as I beheld it. I'd been reading the Marvel color comic Conan the Barbarian for several months and I was desperate for ANYTHING else with Conan in it. Little did I suspect what a treasure trove I'd found.
To begin with, the magazine had a beautiful, vibrant cover by Neal Adams. Adams had drawn the first issue of Batman that I'd ever bought (The Joker's Five Way Revenge!) and I'd sought out his work in other DC Comics. His cover for Savage Tales #5 featured not only Conan but Marvel's resident jungle hero, Kazar. Of course, like many comic covers back in the day, the cover was a little misleading. The two characters don't actually appear together in the magazine.
The Conan story in that issue was written by Roy Thomas, whom I was familiar with from the color comics, and drawn by Jim Starlin. I don't recall if that was my first exposure to Starlin, but it's possible. However I saw right away that the magazine was much more violent than the Conan the Barbarian spinner rack comic. There was more blood and gore. There was more partial nudity too. See in those days the Comics Code of America still oversaw the color comics, protecting the youth of America from sex and violence in the four color pages of comic books.
But by putting out larger size black & white magazines, Marvel could get around the Comics Code. Savage Tales didn't fit on the spinner racks. It was a full size magazine and so it fell under different distribution rules and mailing restrictions. Thus, more sex and violence. It wasn't really that big a deal. The girls wore scantier clothing and the beheadings and disembowelments were shown with more detail. Any sex was implied, much as it was in TV at the time. But still, eye opening stuff for a 12 year old, let me tell you.
Then on the very next page following the Conan story, Roy Thomas wrote a short article entitled Savage Tales is Dead! Oh no. Were they already canceling the magazine, just when I had found it? But no. Roy was just being dramatic. The big announcement was that they were changing the format. Conan would no longer appear in Savage Tales. He was being replaced by Kazar as the cover feature. Why? Because Savage Tales featuring Conan had been so popular that Marvel was giving Conan his own black & white magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan! Holy cow. Now there would be two of these just discovered magazines I'd have to buy.
Now we come to what to me, was perhaps the most nifty part of the early days of Savage Tales and Savage Sword. The magazines didn't only feature illustrated stories, but also prose articles as well. Savage Tales #5 had part two of an article by Thomas about the Gnome Conan books. This was my first sight of the hardbacks that had brought Conan back from pulp oblivion. I reread the article this morning and it's still fascinating. This is the stuff I miss in the current Dark Horse 'phone book' reprints of the Savage Sword material.
Next up was yet another discovery, The Spell of the Dragon, a tale of Brak the Barbarian scripted by Brak's creator, John Jakes. I wasn't familiar with Brak or Jakes, but of course I soon would be. Weird thing about this story is that it's an original Brak tale, not an adaptation, and it was considered canon at the time, so this Brak story isn't available in any reprints of Brak tales but it is part of official continuity.
The final story for the issue was The Legend of the Lizard Men, featuring soon to be cover boy, Kazar, the lord of the hidden jungle. This one sports absolutely gorgeous art by John Buscema at his prime. Both penciled and inked by Buscema, this is amazing stuff.
As you can see, this was quite a find for a young sword &sorcery enthusiast. Heck, the letters column even had a letter from Fritz Leiber, congratulating Savage Tales on their adaptation of Red Nails and asking for a similar adaptation of People of the Black Circle. Of course in those pre-comic book shop days the next problem was how could I be sure of getting the next issue, and more importantly the first issue of Savage Sword of Conan? It would never have occurred to me at 12 to find the manager of the store and ask him to hold the comic for me. So did I get it? That's a story for next time.


Dougie said...

I was 12 when I got my first copy of SSOC, also number 5. It was like buying porn, especially the portrait of a bare-breasted Belit.But I was actually more enthralled by Tim Conrad's map of the Hyborian World.
I got two more issues in the 70s then Marvel UK released a reprint title in about '79 which I followed sporadically for a couple of years.
I've been buying up the collected versions of the horror mags this summer but the second volume of the DH Conan "phonebooks" is my favourite.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

It DID almost feel like buying porn. I was always careful to keep my copies of Savage Sword of Conan in my room so that my mom wouldn't pick one up and flip through it and see drawings of bare breasted women. Ah, youth.
I'm picking up the phone books as well, even though I have a full run of the magazines. Beat's digging them out for sure.