Sunday, January 29, 2012

Savage Sword: The Dixon Years

In one of my Savage Memories posts I mentioned that after Roy Thomas, Chuck Dixon was my favorite writer on The Savage Sword of Conan. I've recently started re-reading Dixon's run on Conan and now I remember why I liked his stuff.
I've referred to the time right after Roy Thomas left Savage Sword of Conan as the Long Wasteland of Michael Fleisher. Fleisher wrote most of the issues between #61 and #112, and I didn't really care for any of them. This shouldn't be taken as a dig at Fleisher. I've read plenty of the man's other comics work that I liked a lot. He just didn't seem to 'get' Conan. His stories had a lot more standard fantasy tropes to them than any of Robert E. Howard's work and his Conan just wasn't as savage as Howard's Cimmerian.
Which brings us to the issues written by Chuck Dixon. After a brief period following Fleisher's departure from SSoC, several different writers worked on the magazine before Dixon settled down as regular writer around issue #136. He would hang around to write the majority of the issues up to #180. Dixon had already been on hand for a while, often scripting the Kull backup features and such. When he got to Conan he followed REH's original concept closer than anyone had since Thomas. Not that his stuff was as Howard-Like as Roy's, but what Dixon did was treat the comic like he was writing historical fiction with monsters and sorcery rather than writing fantasy. Dixon seemed to enjoy writing stories with a military background and his Conan is often a soldier or mercenary. He also seemed to like the setting from REH's story Beyond the Black River, as many of the tales are set in the Pictish wilderness.
However, Dixon's take seems to be modeled more on Roman occupied Briton than the American frontier. In fact Dixon's Aquilonian soldiers are fairly obviously patterned on the Roman Legions. (Aquiromians, as my pal Al Harron would call them.) The story I read tonight (issue #137) is even called The Lost Legion! In this story, Conan and his fellow mercenaries are sent into the wilderness to try and learn what became of the missing Legion. This turns into a running battle with the Picts as the mercs try to fight their way back to the Aquilonian fort, rather like the recent movie The Centurion.
Dixon's writes Conan as a bad-ass. Not a choir boy or noble savage. This is not somebody you want to mess with. my favorite bit of dialogue is in a scene where Conan is collecting scalps from the Picts he's just killed. A comrade asks him if he knows what will happen if the Picts catch him with the scalps and Conan says, "I'll have more scalps."
Now truthfully I don't know that Howard's Conan would have taken the scalps of fallen foes, but it is a good scene to establish that Dixon's Conan isn't messing around.
The art on this issue is by Gary Kwapisz and Ernie Chan. Kwapisz was one of those artists whose style I didn't like much at first, but who I came to appreciate more as I went. The one thing I did like about it was that he very early on quit trying to draw like anyone else. I can respect that. His stuff was a bit more naturalistic than the average bombastic Marvel artist, but it was all his. He only did breakdowns for this story and his style is all but obliterated by Chan's heavy inks, but I've seen enough of Kwapisz's work to know what his pure art looks like. In fact I tracked him down a few years ago and got a Conan commission from him. Kwapisz would end up drawing a big chunk of Dixon's issues. They made a good team.
Anyway, I'll be looking at other Dixon issues here as I read my way back through them.


Dougie said...

That's really interesting. I lost interest in Conan any time it became more historically accurate;I started with the super-heroics of Barry Smith. I also think that's why I went nuts for Lin Carter's Thongor later- it was more Harryhausen.

Last summer, I re-read all the REH originals and the Pictish Wilderness stories became my new favourites, supplanting People of the Black Circle and Red Nails.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Dougie, I know what you mean. Harryhausen is an excellent way to describe Lin Carter's Thongor, and I like those too. Robert E. Howard tended to ground his stuff more in reality, the Hyborian Age being a pseudo-historical creation, but then introduce a monster or sorcery (and sometimes very little of that) into the mix. Dixon came at Conan with a similar approach. In fact I seem to recall his using one of Harald the Ruthless's tricks in one SSoC story. I'll note it when I come across it again.
Beyond the Black River is usually thought to have been modeled after the frontier fiction of Robert W. Chambers, author of the King in Yellow. When Howard wrote Black River, he was trying to bring a little American regionalism to Conan and write about something without marble cities and dancing girls. It made for an interesting and riveting departure, with characters wearing buckskins and Picts standing in for Native Americans. This seems to be the sort of story that Dixon enjoyed writing, particularly early on in his run of Savage Sword. So if you like that sort of thing, check out issue #137 and the ones that follow. Probably be a few volumes before the Dark Horse reprints catch up. Think the phone books are at issue #111.