Savage Sword of Conan weekly
In 1972 American comic giant Marvel launched a UK subsidiary to tap into Britain’s lucrative weekly comic book market. The quick success of their first title, The Mighty World of Marvel, gave them a foothold in the UK and over the next three years Marvel consolidated their position by launching five more weekly anthology titles. These comics mimicked the tried and tested formula of British models: cheaply priced (and printed) black and white weekly comics featuring a selection of different stories as well as competitions, puzzles and letters pages. It quickly became apparent that there was a place in the British market for their unique brand of superhero comics and between 1972 and 1975 Marvel hit a winning streak of best-selling titles. Unfortunately that streak came to an end with the launch, and quick cancellation, of Savage Sword of Conan which provided Marvel UK with their first flop.
In theory a weekly comic reprinting Conan stories must have seemed like a sure-fire hit. Marvel had acquired the rights to Robert E Howard‘s popular fantasy character in the late 1960’s and upon its launch in October 1970 Conan The Barbarian was a surprise hit. Written by Marvel stalwart Roy Thomas and pencilled by British newcomer Barry Smith the title launched a new vogue for Sword and Sorcery comics in the early Seventies. So successful was the title that a second, more mature black and white magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan, was launched by Marvel imprint Curtis in August 1974. With such a pedigree how could a UK version be anything but a winner?
The first issue of Savage Sword of Conan weekly was dated 8th March 1975, cover priced at 8p and was printed in black and white with full cover outer covers. In keeping with the tradition of other UK comics the first issue came with a free gift, a fold-out poster reprinting popular artist Neal Adams‘ cover to the second issue of the US edition of The Savage Sword of Conan (the only time content from that title would appear in its UK counterpart).
Savage Sword of Conan weekly featured stories reprinted from Conan The Barbarian issues 1-15 and 17-18, as well as a back-up feature that filled out the rest of the title’s 36 pages. This secondary story featured reprints from another Howard adaption from the early Seventies, Kull The Conquerer, which featured in Savage Sword of Conan weekly issues one to five, 8–12 and 17–18. Other back-up stories also featured Marvel reprints: Ka-Zar, Lord of the Hidden Jungle (originally published in Astonishing Tales #11) ran in issues 6 and 7; a one-off Tales From The Hyborian Age (from Conan The Barbarian #12) appeared in issue 11; Thongor, Warrior of Lost Lemuria (from Marvel’s Creatures on the Loose issues #22 and #23) appeared in issues 13-15; Solomon Kane (Monsters Unleashed #1) appeared in issue 16 and a one-off story, The Crusader (from Black Knight #2, July 1955), appeared in issue 5.
Sadly Savage Sword of Conan weekly failed to find an audience and was cancelled after just 18 issues (the Conan strip was folded into another Marvel UK title The Avengers, but more on that later). The original Conan title had proved a huge success in the US so why didn’t those same stories resonate with UK readers? One possible explanation was the state of the British economy, which had began to slow down during the mid-Seventies resulting in a drop-off in comic book sales. However, Marvel UK released two other new titles in 1975 – The Super-Heroes (launched the same day as Savage Sword of Conan) and The Titans – both of which saw print for a year so the problem couldn’t have been solely market-based. The title’s failure also couldn’t be blamed on the comic’s lack of superhero content: Marvel UK had scored big with two non-superhero titles, Planet Of The Apes, and Dracula Lives! less than a year before. There must have been other reasons for the failure of Savage Sword of Conan.
Right from page one (literally) there were problems with the new title. As was common with new Marvel UK launches, Marvel editor and frontispiece Stan Lee contributed an open letter welcoming fans to the new title which ran on its opening page. This gesture was meant to help forge a rapport between UK reader’s and Marvel, the kind of relationship that had helped propel the publisher to the top of the US comics industry. Sadly Lee’s welcome letter clearly wasn’t written by him – regular readers of Lee would have instantly recognised this trademark brand of upbeat chatter of bonhomie, all of which are missing from this letter – not a promising beginning.
Constant tinkering with the second feature didn’t do Savage Sword of Conan any favours either. During its short run there were six revisions to the back-up feature, and while some of the stories – Kull and Soloman Kane (both Robert E Howard creations) – fitted easily within the fantasy backdrop of the title, others did not. Tarzan knock-off Ka-Zar proved an uncomfortable fit, as did the inclusion of Lin Carter’s Conan rip-off Thongor. Marvel UK clearly believed that adding a backup superhero strip would be out of place with the rest of the comic’s fantasy content, but since superheroes were their stock and trade they struggled to find a back-up feature that would hit a cord with readers. Still, dredging up an old Crusader story from a 1955 issue of Atlas’ Black Knight just smacks of desperation.
The basic format of the comic also proved an impediment to both winning and maintaining readers. Regular readers of Marvel UK’s other titles, and British comics in general, were accustomed to a certain amount of interaction between themselves and the publisher. A letters page was a standard feature as well as a competition and puzzle page. Other Marvel titles provided these as well as a UK version of Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins, a regular feature informing readers of company news as well drawing attention to other comics in the publisher’s stable. However the basic format of Savage Sword of Conan – a 22 page story followed by an 11 page back-up feature – left little room for reader interaction. Although a letters page, The Hyborian Page, was eventually added in issue ten, the majority of letters reprinted were clearly submitted when the comic first launched, with several letters praising The Super-Heroes clearly used as fillers. Apart from a few full-page ads for other Marvel UK titles the standard reader-friendly pages never made an appearance.
Another clear sign that something was amiss with the title was the ongoing production problems with the front cover, of which all but one (the cover to issue 11 is a new piece pencilled by Frank Giacola) were reprinted from the original Conan The Barbarian US comic, with new blurbs added for the UK market. But on the cover to issue six Kull is flagged even though the strip was replaced by a Ka-Zar reprint. On the covers to issues seven through ten Ka-Zar is flagged even though Kull had returned in issue eight. By issue 13 Marvel had gotten its act together, correctly flagging both Kull and Thongar as back-ups features, and from issue 14 onwards only Conan featured on the covers. Ongoing indecision over the second feature was beginning to effect the production values of the comic itself.
After four months Marvel decided to cuts its losses and the comic was cancelled with issue 18 (cover dated 5th July 1975), with the decision to close the weekly title coming so suddenly that no mention of its demise is mentioned within. (The inside front cover to the last issue even features the first part of a text piece on the creation of the original Thomas and Smith Conan comic, promising another instalment the following week). There is also no mention of the title’s cancellation in the letters page, which ironically features readers praising The Super-Heroes.
Not wishing to give up on the character completely Marvel UK hit upon the idea of merging Savage Sword of Conan with one of the publisher’s more successful titles, and so a week later the Conan strip was incorporated into The Avengers issue 95, 12th July 1975, to form The Avengers and The Savage Sword of Conan weekly. This marked the first time Marvel merged a failing title into a more popular one, a practice the company would repeat over the next few years as overall sales continued to drop. Reproducing Conan stories in shorter segments surrounded by superhero strips was clearly a formula that appealed to readers – ironic bearing in mind the problems Marvel UK had experienced with sourcing another non-superhero back-up feature – and Conan continued to appear in the comic for over a year until the title’s eventual cancellation with issue 148 (14th July 1976). A week later the strip, along with The Avengers, was folded into Marvel UK’s cornerstone title The Mighty World of Marvel where Conan continued to appear until issue 216 (24th November 1976).
But this was not the last British readers would see of Robert E Howard’s brooding barbarian. A year later a new, monthly incarnation of The Savage Sword of Conan would appear and this time Marvel UK would get it right. I’ll be taking a closer look at that title very soon.