Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Savage Memories #5

I mentioned in my last Savage Memories post that I'd have to backtrack to Savage Sword of Conan issue #11 because I wanted to take the time to read the actual Robert E. Howard story on which the Conan tale in that issue was based. This was an El Borak yarn called The Country of the Knife. El Borak, aka Francis X. Gordon was a former gunfighter from Texas and an adventurer in Asia, primarily in Afghanistan, whose adventures took place in (for Howard) contemporary times. Not that this kept the stories from having plenty of sword swinging action. 1920s-30s Afghanistan was still a wild and wooly place, at least in the pages of Adventure Magazine, where writers like Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy spun tales of adventure in far off places that would influence the young Robert E. Howard in the creation of his own Lawrence of Arabia style adventurer.
However, this meant that Conan scripter Roy Thomas had to do a bit of rewriting to turn Country of the Knife into a Hyborian Age tale. I've explained before that Thomas had two methods of adapting Robert E. Howard stories to the Conan comic. If he did a straight adaptation, changing very little, the credits box at the front of the comic book story would say 'adapted from the story by Robert E. Howard.' If Thomas did a good bit of rewriting, then the box would say 'freely adapted.'
I discovered the Marvel Conan the Barbarian color comic with issue #36, which featured a pure Roy Thomas story, not an adaptation, but within the next half a dozen issues or so, and one previous issue I found on a spinner rack, Thomas would adapt three REH non-Conan stories from widely varied sources into issues of the Conan comic. He adapted The Fire of Ashurbanipal, The House of Arabu, and oddly enough, The Purple Heart of Erlik . (Why do I say oddly about Erlik? Tell you later.)
So as you can see, a 'freely' adapted Robert E. Howard story was nothing new to me by the time I got around to Savage Sword issue #11's lead tale, The Abode of the Damned. And here's the thing. At age 13 or so, I still hadn't read much in the way of real Robert E. Howard, and truthfully I was probably happier with Roy's Conan-izations than I would have been with stories of El Borak, Wild Bill Clanton, and the rest. Forgive my callow youth, but all I wanted in those days was more Conan. With the exception of Solomon Kane, who I also discovered through Savage Sword, I didn't know or care much about Howard's other characters. All of that would come later. Anyway, the biggest change Thomas made in the story was changing one of the lead characters from male to female. In The Country of the knife, transplanted Englishman Stuart Brent is hanging out in his San Francisco apartment when he hears a scuffle in the hall. He opens the door to find one man viciously stabbing another. Brent hits the knife man with a whiskey bottle and the fellow flees. Brent is then stunned to learn that the victim is an old friend, one Dick Stockton, an agent with the British Secret service.
The dying Stockton tells Brent that Brent must get a message to a man called El Borak in Afghanistan. Brent, being a stand up guy, agrees, and travels to the far off land to deliver said message. Unfortunately Brent is taken prisoner by slave raiders who are traveling to a mysterious refuge for criminals called Rub El Harami. Along the way, a stranger joins the slavers and manages to aid Brent. Obviously this is El Borak in disguise, but that won't come out for some time.
In the Conan story, Brent is replaced by a woman named Mellani. Mel is a former prostitute who now owns her own small tavern. Late one night, after closing time, Mellani is pouring herself a drink when she hears a scuffle outside her door. She opens the door to find one man viciously stabbing another. Mel hits the knifeman with a wine jug and the fellow flees. Mel is then stunned to learn that that the victim is her ne'er-do-well brother.
The dying brother gives Mel a bit of information that she doesn't understand, and also tells her that his enemies are connected to the mysterious refuge for criminals Rub El Harami. Mel sets out for revenge against those who murdered her brother. Unfortunately Mellani is taken prisoner by slave raiders who are traveling to Rub El Harami. Along the way, a stranger joins the slavers and manages to aid Mellani. Obviously this is Conan in disguise, but that won't come out for some time. Except for the exchange of motives, personal revenge versus counter espionage, the narratives are pretty much the same for the first half of both stories, and of course, Mel is a chick. So why the sex change? Only Roy Thomas would know for sure, but I would speculate that the primary reason was that the El Borak story was lacking a hot babe and part of the mix for any Marvel Conan story was a hot chick, presumably to lure adolescent male readers in. (Worked for me.) In fact, many Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan covers featured scantily clad women even if there wasn't one in the story (or at least in the cover scene). This non-existent babe came to be referred to as Miraj by some of the comic creators.
As I read through Country of the Knife and Abode of the Damned, switching back and forth, I noted that the first half of Thomas's adaptation sticks pretty close to the REH tale, even using most of Howard's dialogue and many descriptions and such in the captions. (Thomas was really good about this, always striving for the REH flavor, even in his non-adaptations.) Thomas adds the other Marvel Conan requisite, a supernatural menace, in the form of three strange men with sorcerous powers who also seek the city of thieves, but otherwise events progress in similar fashion in both stories up until the travelers enter the city. After this, while some scenes and incidents occur in both stories, Thomas goes in more his own direction. The Country of the Knife is a very long story and Thomas understandably dropped a few of the subplots to make things work in the comics format. He was also building to his own climax, which is very different from the end of the El Borak yarn. So this one was definitely 'freely' adapted. Still, a lot of fun.
Oh, one more thing, as Colombo would say, L. Sprague de Camp, another man who Conan-nized several non-Conan REH stories, once said that it was easy to change the characters in these tales to Conan, because all Howard's heroes were basically the same character. I'd like to disagree with that. Francis X. Gordon is very much not Conan, and that's easy to see when you read The Country of the Knife. Gordon's character is much less serious in many ways, and seems to relish his disguises, being very much a 'method' actor when pretending to be a native. Sure, once the balloon goes up, Gordon can dole out the harshness with the best of them, but he's not the killing machine that Conan is. Sorry Sprague.
Wow, this has turned into a long post and I haven't even mentioned the fantastic art job on Abode of the Damned by John Buscema and Yong Montano. I'm including the splash page from the story, just so you can see how awesome the art was.


Anonymous said...

No need to apologise to Sprague. He never really understood REH, in truth.

Kveto from Prague

Charles R. Rutledge said...

heh, I think you're right, Kveto.