Posted - October 20, 2015
Conan the Barbarian: Brothers of the Blade
This sweeping tale will take Conan, and us, from the Nemedian Capital of Belverus to the city of Ronocco in Ophir.
By now Conan is a mercenary, he used to be a thief, he will soon be a pirate, then a mercenary again, and lastly, King of Aquilonia. His job descriptions just invite dreams of adventure don't they? How about this: Conan is currently an employee for a fortune 500 company, he used to be a freelancer, he will soon be the owner of his own small company, go back to being an executive of a Fortune 500 company and end up as the founder of Conmart, the new Walmart. Doesn't have quite the same effect.
Oh well . . .
So Conan finds himself in this huge, Nemedian market. The place is bustling, the atmosphere is like that of a country fair.
Notice the gigantic dog on the left.
Before long, we have a rampaging bull on the scene and Conan gets to give us some interesting biographical information - all the while showing us just how strong he is.
Before this whole neckbreaking business we get to see the acrobatic skills of Tara of Hanumar.
The court jester outfit strikes me as thematically medieval. I'm about to complain at the inappropriate costume when I begin to notice that Nemedia looks like a medieval town. It is Conan in his Cimmerian furs that looks out of place here.
Well, well, well. Look who's here.
I really like Murillo, mainly because my favorite Conan story is Robert E. Howard's "Rogues In The House", the same that Conan refers to in the panel above as the "house of the Red Priest". I have fond memories of that tale. I remember I got sick for two weeks and for some unexplainable reason, all throughout that illness, I found great comfort in re-reading "Rogues In The House" multiple times. Anyway its nice to see Murillo here. He keeps us up to date.
So Murillo, having nearly been caught on corruption charges, escapes and founds a mercenary band called the Crimson Company. Conan, on the other hand, is hiring himself out as a mercenary. Murillo has the mindset of a business owner, Conan has the mindset of an employee. Think about it, Murillo could just as easily have hired himself out - he's not bad with the sword - but he thinks like an aristocrat. In modern parlance, he creates a company and earns more than a common sword-for-hire in the process. Kiyosaki would be so proud of Murillo.
Here's a great Buscema tavern scene of our small group.
Notice Murillo with the refined wine glass of the Hyborian city bred elite while Conan quafes his thirst with a gigantic mug? Murillo's keen sense of people - yet another quality that will keep him rich - has him correctly assigning the deadly yet honest Conan as his able Second-In-Command.
Before long, the Crimson Company sets off and crosses the border into Ophir. The border crossing also signals the welcome entrance of the old, dark, mysterious gods of a previous age. The current Hyborean Realms is the "shape of the world" after the sinking of Atlantis. Before that was the age of King Kull and from that time the monsters that you will shortly see will come. I love it when these ancient powers are referenced. What ancient powers you ask?
First we have a Scorpion God.
Then we have, quite simply, a dark power. Shown here emanating from a ring.
This corrupting force will take up a more corporeal form later.
The place where these old gods are found is well known, notorious, and actively avoided. Nonetheless, Murillo goes were the money is and his employer, the Lord of Ronocco, has asked him to retrieve the ring. This doesn't go down well with some members of the Crimson Company, including Conan, who has seen enough of magic to want to avoid it. But who's the boss? So off they go until they find the Scorpion tomb.
Underneath the crystal statue is the ring. And, of course the Scorpion comes to life. And, of course, Conan takes care of the situation.
I've heard Conan critics say that he's too super-heroic, he never gets beaten, blah, blah, blah . . . that's why he's boring and no fun to read. Their criticism is like a long list of things that I love about Conan.
With the scorpion "dead" (yup I've double-quoted that), we now see the ring.
Orders are not to touch it so two men are left on guard while the rest of the company head over to Ronocco.
The two guards are left for long hours to guard a ring that could easily be worth more gold than they'll ever earn in their lives. So, of course. both of them will attempt to steal it. Both are absorbed by the dark powers inside the ring and now we get a glimpse of the Black Shadow.
The main plot of this story arc concerns the political wranglings of the city-state of Ronocco with two other Ophirean cities, Carnolla and Pergona. Shooting through this plot will be the ancient powers of the Scorpion God and the Black Shadow.
Suffice it to say that the Black Shadow is loose and possessed of an insatiable hunger and growing bigger as he eats and heading, mysteriously, straight for Ronocco. But the beast is slow, so other subplots come to the fore.
Let us rejoin our protagonists as they approach the city of Ronocco. These must be truly tense times, for as the Crimson Company nears the city walls, instead of welcome they are greeted by arrows.
After some explaining they are eventually ushered into the throne room - although it is never mentioned as a throne room since the Master of the City is a lord not a king.
Murillo being the leader, the Lord inquires whether they have been given a good welcome. Now, we all know that they have been mistakenly "welcomed" with a hail of arrows - some members of the Crimson Company are actually dead. But Murillo says this:
It is not true but it is the right thing to say. You tell your boss what he wants to hear not what is true and certainly not what you want to say - what he or she wants to hear. This is a lesson that I have learned the hard way. Another thing to note is that during the course of this story arc, Murillo acts with practical wisdom but Conan is tactless and honest and shoots his mouth off at the worst moments - of course, this is how we want our Conan.
Soon, the further assignment of the company is discussed.
The situation unfolds thus: The rival city-states of Carnolla and Pergona are about to unite through a marriage between their ruling families. Such a union is unacceptable to the Lord of Ronocco, the Crimson Company's employer. The bride-to-be is currently in transit, under heavy guard, from one city to another. The Crimson Company is given the task of kidnapping the bride-to-be after which the Lord of Ronocco will compell the hapless girl to marry his own son.
Conclusion: Conan has been contracted to be an effing kidnapper. The role galls him but he'll do it anyway. C'mon, he's a barbarian after all.
Bring on the critics: Of course Conan will succeed he always succeeds. You know why I hate the movie Seven? Because the hero doesn't succeed. I'll take a Conan tale any day.
I did mention that the daughter of the Lord of Pergona was under heavy guard didn't I? There's a bunch of warriors but the leaders, three brothers, are of note: The Brothers of the Blade.
At first glance I thought that these guys with their weaponry gimmick were just tacky, but Roy Thomas handles them really well in this story. So, as you can see, one has an armored head, the other has a battle axe instead of a hand, the the last one has a very weird iron foot. Actually, that foot works like this:
In an entertaining twist, Conan decides to confront these guards on his own but not in his usual barbarian-dive-into-it-hack-and-slash manner. Conan, with Tara in tow, disguises himself as a beggar.
Conan is 6'5" with broad shoulders and a heavy build - so we pretty much have a cloaked beggar roughly the size of a Grizzly Bear. One reason why the company guarding the Lady of Pergona isn't unduly alarmed might be because one of the brothers, the axe-handed one called the Slicer, is roughly as big as the burly Cimmerian.
So how long can the rough and sensitive Conan keep up this appearance considering that the company - a group of rude and rough warriors - greet the appearance of the beggar and his waif with what I would take to be the usual manner - with jeers, insults, and threats? Not very long. Kudos to Conan for trying this stealth approach though - it was doomed from the beginning but it was fun to watch.
With the "preliminaries" over and done with we can dive into the melee. It's a curious fight mainly because Conan has come upon a sizeable group of armed men but he only gets to fight three - the three Brothers of the Blade. The rest of the company hang back and are reduced to the role of spectators together with the Lady of Pergona. What gives? The way I see it, these "Brothers of the Blade" are so famously undefeatable that the others - and the brothers - consider it par for the course to let the three take care of things - after all, it's only one man. More than that, the metal body parts of the brothers are not simple surgical constructs - they were attached through wizardry.
Did I say Conan fights the three brothers? I was mistaken. Tara "takes care" of the Clawfoot.
The thing I like about this, is that this is the first time Tara kills somebody. Now don't go and think about this using the rules and mores of our world. This is the Hyborean Realms, tremendously lawless and necessarily violent - killing is not uncommon. Still, we are shown that the first kill is the hardest and I appreciate that detail having heard so many accounts of soldiers after their first kill. Something in our humanity really takes a hit when we take a life - accident or no, necessity or no. I appreciate that that "something" is shown here through Tara.
Now let's get back to people who've probably killed so many that the number of their kills have probably outstripped their ability to count. Namely, Conan and the Brothers of the Blade.
Conan dispatches Steel Skull with an impressive double strike!.
The Slicer reveals himself as nearly a match for the mighty Cimmerian. This is my favorite panel in the Slicer matchup.
Roy Thomas has got his wordsmithing hat on and it's a great read. Another wonderful thing is that the Slicer is not the only one that Conan "bumps into" in this story arc that can roughly equal him in a fight.
After all the fighting, we're all in the mood for a little comic relief and we get it from the Lady of Pergona - now kidnapped and on her unwilling way to Ronocco. This panel should explain things.
I find it wonderfully amusing that later, in front of the Master of Ronocco, she is still complaining.
It looks like Ronocco's plans are coming to fruition. Just as things seem to be going smoothly somebody throws a monkey wrench into the well-oiled machine - a black, shadowy, monkey wrench.
The reaction to this is voiced by Conan.
And agreed to by Murillo and the rest of the court.
Now let's go back to this curious turn of events shall we? The Black Shadow is coming! Let's consult an oracle. Weird? No. It makes perfect sense. We've all had these "situations" we're we are not quite sure how it's going to turn out for us - and there is a reasonable possibility that it might turn out badly. And, for a time, we're stuck waiting for the outcome. Maybe it's the result of an important exam or test, maybe you did something at work that might or might not get you fired. Something. And with regards to this something you find yourself waiting for what will actually happen. And the wait is excruciating. No other word for it. Excruciating. It could get so bad that you're thinking that you'd rather have the worst scenario NOW rather than wait another minute. This is the mood in Ronocco's court as the eminent arrival of the Black Shadow is announced. Going back to that excruciating place were we are wondering what our final fate will be, the one thing, the ONE thing, we want is to know what will happen. WE WANT AN ORACLE. Of course, we don't have one. But in the world of fantasy, in the environs of Ronocco they do have an Oracle, they can know what will happen. So they send Conan out to this Oracle to get an answer. It makes perfect sense doesn't it?
Oracles. Inspired by the Greeks. Credit Roy Thomas for giving a common mythology trope some wonderfully brilliant details. First this:
First thing to note is that the so-called Oracle sitting on the throne is dead. He or she isn't skin and bones - just bones. Dead. Not a zombie, plain and simply dead. But when Conan talks to this Oracle he gets an answer. Why? Because the other fellow - shown sitting on the steps in the panel above - is a ventriloquist (first Tara the acrobat now a ventriloquist). This guy has been skulking around like Gollum for the better part of the subplot. So it's all a scam right? Nope. Check this out:
This ventriloquist is actually channeling something.
Conan receives this from the "Oracle"; a prophecy about Ronocco.
And this "bonus" prophecy about himself.
It's a common writing trope to frame these prophecies in vague, poetic language. It shows that these are special pronouncements but it also points to something else. Have you ever played this game? Take a piece of paper, write down everything that you think will happen to you tomorrow - don't just say what will happen ("I'll be going to the school play"). Add details ("I'll be sitting in the fourth row. I'll be meeting Sally during the intermission"). Now sit back and have tomorrow come and go. You'll find out that you will NEVER be 100% right when you try to prophecy about your day. The mind is a big fake when it comes to telling the future - the future is never what we think it will be - not if we go into reasonable detail. And this is why prophecies are written in such fancy and vague language. It's a symbol for the fact that the prophecies are real, and being real, the mind can't grasp them properly. The mind is ready for it's own "fake" prophecies, so when a real Oracle comes with real prophecies, the mind can't quite grasp that - something symbolically denoted by the poetic rendition of prophecies in fiction.
And yes, everything that Conan got from the Oracle is true and will come to pass.
The Oracle was very clever, but the best part is not the Oracle himself. It's his security system. So Conan comes near the Oracle's cave and comes into confrontation with this guy.
Actually there's peaceful way through this guard and to the Oracle beyond - just give up your arm, sheared at the elbows. Of course, Conan will not pay that kind of admission. So the battle is on.
And for the second time Conan meets someone very nearly his match.
The Cimmerian comes out on top but little does he know that he is now under the thrall of a mystical defense system and it is brilliant. The system is like this: If you defeat the Oracle's guard, you will be compelled against your will to take his place (after you get your "reading" from the Oracle, of course). It's brilliant. This system ensures that every guard will be stronger than the last one. The Oracle always ends up with the best defense possible. Conan defeated the guard, he got in and has asked his question, but he won't be allowed to leave. He finds this out soon enough . . .
If the tension felt by the inhabitants of Ronocco at the coming of the Black Shadow was not communicated very effectively, the tension at this part of the tale comes in loud and clear. Conan is trapped by magic?! It's over! Conan is no magician. He's got Tara and Yusef with him and they're no magicians either.
So what solves this problem? The Conan solution of course: brute strength.
This solution has some unforeseen side effects.
Conan is put in a position were he gets to see a fight between "himself" and the reanimated corpse of his former guard.
And his magical double loses - which is a good thing, can't have two Conans running around.
All in all, this oracular side trip was very ingenious. A bit elaborate though, let's have something straightforward. Like a good, old fashioned monster fight!
Yup, the two monsters have made it in front of Ronocco for the latest in a series of battles that was said to be first fought 8.000 years ago.
Before the arrival of the Scorpion, the Black Shadow was kept at bay by a steady diet of horses and cattle. Incredible panel.
In the end only one will win.
Once victory is secured, the scorpion becomes a statue yet again and the Black Shadow becomes the deadly ring. It's the old lesson for the Hyborians: Don't mess with the magic of the previous age - it's always uncontrollable.
The end of this arc also sees Conan quitting the Crimson Company with Tara and Yusef in tow.