Big John Buscema was one of the greatest comics artists to ever take pencil in hand. He was recruited by Stan Lee at Marvel to replace the great Jack “King” Kirby on several main titles in the late sixties, but Buscema really leaped out from the King’s shadow when he did the immortal SILVER SURFER series, turning that character from a second-stringer into one of Marvel’s most unforgettable heroes.

Buscema, however, never really enjoyed drawing superheroes. He found his true purpose in comics when he took over drawing CONAN THE BARBARIAN after Barry Windsor-Smith departed in the early 70s (after an amazing run that brought Robert E. Howard’s pulp character a whole new audience). I’m sure that nobody believed at the time that anyone could ever eclipse BWS’s run on the CONAN title, but if anybody ever did it was definitely John Buscema. He did more issues of CONAN THE BARBARIAN than anybody else, and he also did an unbelievable number of issues of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, the black-and-white mature readers magazine that followed the uber-success of the color CONAN comic.

Both of these CONAN books are marked by spectacular runs, mostly written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema with his great inking partner Ernie Chan. When I was a very picky lad growing up on comics, I was a huge fan of John Buscema’s work, but like the artist himself I was incredibly hard to please when it came to inkers. There were only three artists whose inks really “worked” over Buscema’s gorgeous pencils: Ernie Chan, Tony DeZuniga, and Alfredo Alcala.

Thanks to Dark Horse comics, the entire runs of CONAN and SAVAGE SWORD are being collected in terrific trade paperback collections. I have the first dozen volumes or so of each of them. They read much better than the old fading, yellowed, dog-eared comics that I used to have. However, recently I re-discovered another great CONAN series that Buscema did (with Roy Thomas), and thanks again to Dark Horse it is being preserved with the same loving tpb treament.

KING CONAN was a spin-off from the main CONAN book, and it featured tales from the barbarian’s latter years as the King of Aquilonia. I had quite a few issues of the series as a kid, and now I’ve gotten my hands on the first two volumes of the collected series from DH. This summer I’ve been enjoying my return to the Hyborian Age with these great collections. They are every bit as pleasing to the eye as the CONAN THE BARBARIAN runs featuring Buscema and Chan. There are also a couple of great issues inked by Danny Bulanadi, wherein Conan finally settles the score with his arch enemy, the evil sorcerer Thoth-Amon.

The biggest difference between the main CONAN THE BARBARIAN book and KING CONAN (besides the fact that Conan is the king of Hyboria’s mightiest nation), is the presence of his son Conn. Yes, Conan the Cimmerian is both a father and a husband (he married Queen Zenobia, whom he rescued in one of the CONAN annuals). You might think being domesticated would make for some boring Conan tales–yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

For one thing, Conan wasn’t your typical monarch. He would never send his soldiers out to fight a war unless he was in their midst, leading them to victory against Zingaran rebels or Stygian wizards. It was hard to keep Conan on the throne–as a man of action he was alwasy running off to settle a score, or rescue his kidnapped son–or kidnapped queen. Also, there were endless plots featuring subversives who wanted to remove the barbarian usurper from the Aqulilonian throne. Conan was the king of a civilized realm, but this was still the Hyborian Age–an age of savage violence and lurking menace.

Another trait that drove Conan’s advisors and generals a bit mad was his propensity to take his 13-year-old son on adventures with him. Conan wanted to be sure his heir didn’t grow up as a coddled, pampered city-boy. He wanted Conn to be every bit as tough and experienced as his northern upbringing in Cimmeria had made him. And Conn was not one to disappoint. In the final conflict with Thoth-Amon it is Conn who is Conan’s ace-in-the-hole. The presence of “Conan Jr.” doesn’t slow down these stories, but actually adds to their charm.

As a 12-year-old reading these stories, I remember how I used to identify with Conn. What boy doesn’t want a father who is the mightiest warrior the world has ever seen, and who drags him across the world on one adventure after another? Roy Thomas did a great job of fleshing out the Conan character–who was now in his fifties but still a formidable swordsman–and giving him a depth that went far beyond the barbaric simplicity of his youth. Conan is the kind of king you’d want if you were a Hyborian peasant: He is just, mighty, and has a way of cutting right through the silliness of courtly ettiquete. He even makes sure his people aren’t over-taxed, though he leaves most of that boring stuff to his queen. Yes, Conan in this light could even be considered a feminist, letting his queen do most of the actual ruling of the kingdom while he runs off to slice up evil-doers and demon-gods.

Buscema’s work is phenomenal, as usual. The first volume is the best of the two, but only because Roy Thomas left Marvel in ’82, so that the last two issues of the collection were done without him. Not that the great Doug Moench didn’t do a good job taking over, but there is only one Roy Thomas, and he had been the “voice” of the Conan comics for well over a decade.

I highly recommend THE CHRONICLES OF KING CONAN volumes 1 & 2, which sits perfectly with my glowing recommendations for THE CHRONICLES OF CONAN volumes 1-13 and the SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN volumes 1-5.

This is the really, really good stuff. If you love fantastic comic art, sword-and-sorcery, and/or epic fantasy, don’t miss it. (Nevermind that last CONAN movie; the books remain unharmed.) If you’ve never read any of Howard’s original Conan tales, these comics will do for you what they did for me decades ago: Send you to the bookstore or library on a quest to find the source material. Luckily, all of Howard’s CONAN tales are widely available thanks to constant reprints and new editions.

All of these Dark Horse collections of the classic Marvel runs are testaments to the great lives and works of Big John Buscema and Ernie Chan (among others).

If Conan was a King among Men, these guys were Emperors among Artists.