Kinda looks like it ... but
it isn't Gor. HOWEVER ... it's pretty durned close to Gor in certain respects
Copyright 2008 by Pat Powers
Artwork info: I have many large illustrations from Volumes 1 and 2 that I wish to use to support the text in this review, so instead of embedding them directly in the main page, I'm going to set up text links like this (check out the Lovecraftian purple prose accompanying this illo). All you have to do is click on the highlighted text and you'll see an illustration supporting it. Sometimes there'll be captions providing further support, sometimes not. Mostly, not, as the artwork will support and illustrate the text in the main article.
The Savage Sword of Conan comic was considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, comic from the 70s. It had incredibly tasty pen and ink work, it featured stories that were sometimes direct adaptations of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories (such as the classic "Red Nails") and when they weren't by Howard they were almost always ripping yarns written by others that were well situated in the Hyborean Age world that Howard created, and it was in general just damn good.
I read all of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, basically by picking up the old paperback editions in used bookstores whenever I saw one I hadn't already read. I gobbled them up like the tasty mind candy they were. But I missed Savage Sword of Conan, because I've never really been into comics until quite recently.
Fortunately for me and everybody else who likes beautifully illustrated Conan stories, Dark Horse Comics (publishers of Empowered so you know they're the best comic book publisher going) has seen fit to reissue collections of Savage Sword of Conan in the form of trade paperback editions. I've read volumes 1 and 2, the volumes released to date, and let me tell you, they rock. They're about 500 pages long each and filled with superb black and white artwork, and great stories. Purely on the strength of the ripping Conan yarns and the great artwork, I'd advise anyone to buy this collection.
Handy link for buying Volumes 1 and 2 of Savage Sword of Conan from Dark Horse, and pre-ordering Volumes 3 and 4 (you know you want to):
But there's more. In reading the comics, I've noticed a few things. Like, the prevalence of slavegirls and prostitutes in them as characters. In fact, there's really only about four types of female characters who play any role in Conan comics ... slavegirls, prostitutes, queens (or princesses) and witches. There are two hot female warrior types in the stories -- Red Sonja and Valeria -- but they're the exceptions that prove the rule.
Now, let me make this clear: I am not making a claim here that Conan is Gorean. He obviously is not, based on the stories. Although he clearly likes slavegirls as sex partners ("toys" would be closer to the truth, I think) he has no interest in tying them up, chaining them up, or gagging them.
If given a choice between binding a slavegirl and leaving her unbound, Conan would undoubtedly choose in most cases to leave her unbound, just on practical grounds that it was less bother to do so, and because the chances of any slavegirl successfully running away from someone who is as fast, strong and as skilled a tracker as Conan are pretty close to zilch.
Most of the time, the slavegirls are not at all interested in getting away from Conan because he spends a lot of his time battling monsters and other men to keep them from killing/capturing her.
Besides, where would she run to? Almost every society in the Hyborean Age practices slavery, and also accepts the notion that any woman running around loose can be captured and enslaved if she doesn't have any local family/social structure to protect her, and sometimes even if she does. She can even be sold by her own father. And to judge from the stories, the Hyborean Age is a lot like Gor in this respect: any woman who sets foot outside her town without a large armed retinue is asking to be captured and enslaved, especially if she's a looker.
And it's easy to see who's a looker because all the women in Savage Sword of Conan -- queens, witches, slavegirls, what-have-you -- dress like strippers. Some wear nothing, some wear nothing but jewelry, but the usual outfit consists of a bra top and a skimpy thong bottom, maybe with a few wisps of translucent silk over it in lieu of a dress, though some don't wear any top at all.
(This is considerably different from Gor, where free women go about covered from head to toe, to distinguish them from all the naked and half-naked slavegirls scurrying about.)
Frankly, I think the reason for all the female nudity in Savage Sword of Conan is simple: the 1970s effect. The 1970s were the wildest time for the arts in terms of nudity, as sexual freedom was being experimented with, much to the helpless dismay of social conservatives, and anti-sex feminism had not yet reared its ugly head. God, I love that decade. So all the comic art at the time was wild, wilder than at any time before and in many respects, since.
Now, Conan, although he is certainly no Gorean, has been living in slaveholding societies all his life. (In one panel, when a female slave talks about being sold into slavery by her father, Conan says something along the lines of, "At least in Cimmeria, we do not sell our children into slavery." But he does not say, "In Cimmeria we have no slavery." Which means the Cimmerians buy slaves or capture other people's children in raids and enslave them. Yay, Cimmeria.)
Consent doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot to Conan where slavegirls are concerned. In the clearest example of this, Conan is in the tent of the chief of desert raiders, where he has become a trusted lieutenant. A beautiful, scantily attired (i.e, dressed as most women are dressed in Savage Sword of Conan) dancing girl finishes dancing. Conan says, "Farra, later tonight, come visit me in my tent."
Think about that. We all know what Farra will be doing with Conan when she visits him in her tent. Now, I doubt if this desert raider is paying this woman to be a dancing girl for him and his men. She is undoubtedly a slave. Which means she doesn't have the least bit of choice in the matter of fucking Conan. She has to do it whether she likes it or not.
The Savage Sword of Conan comics make it clear that most women, enslaved or free, enthusiastically return Conan's affections. But that doesn't change the fact that in the case of slavegirls, choice is not relevant. Whether they love him or loathe him, they have to fuck him when they're ordered to.
I think this is just part of the cultural milieu of the Hyborean Age and Conan has absorbed it. The extent to which he has absorbed it is illustrated in the story "The Haunters of Castle Crimson," the second story in Volume 2 of Savage Sword of Conan. In it, Conan is down on his luck, and is following a band of raiders who have managed to overwhelm a city's defenses, and are now engaged in looting it. Conan's idea: loot the looters.
At one point a looter breaks into a merchant's home and kills him. The merchant's beautiful slavegirl is trapped by the looter, who informs him that the bandit chief had said the only booty they'd be hauling out of the city was gold and such, no slavegirls, so after he finishes raping her he's going to have to kill her. A real shame. (And a really stupid idea: slavegirls are worth money in other markets, and with the city overwhelmed, who's going to come after them?)
The slavegirl is not at all agreeable to this plan, and does a lot of screaming and cowering to express her disapproval. Then Conan enters the room. In short order the bandit is a shish kebab. (A single average skilled swordsman against Conan is like Andy Dick facing off against Mike Tyson -- not really a contest.) Conan then proceeds to spirit the slavegirl Zulieka out of the city on horseback. Zulieka goes willingly, since Conan's plans for her do not seem to involve killing her.
Handy link for buying Empowered volumes 1-3 from Dark Horse, and for pre-ordering Volume 4 (go ahead, do it, you know you want to).
It turns out that Conan had an ulterior motive for rescuing Zulieka. He heads to Castle Crimson, a fortress in the wilderness that is the kingdom of Malthom, a personal friend of his. There, he informs Malthom that the slavegirl he has with them is the spitting image of Princess Yasmina, a beautiful princess who was betrothed to a nearby prince, but was captured by bandits while travelling to her suitor's kingdom for the wedding, and was never heard from again.
Conan proposes to pass Zulieka off as Princess Yasmina, and ransom her to her former suitor, Prince Valupak for 10,000 gold pieces, to be split evenly between Conan and Malthom. Conan provides the girl and sets up the deal, and Malthom and his army prevent Prince Valupak and his army from just taking Zulieka/Yasmina by force.
At no time is Zulieka consulted about her feelings about this plan. Because Zulieka is a slavegirl, her consent is assumed -- she will do as she is told. (To be fair, she'd have to be extremely stupid not to like a plan that has her moving up the social ladder from slavegirl to princess in one jump.)
At one point, Malthom compliments Zulieka on her humility, and she explains that she learned humility under the scourge, the lash, torture and through toil. She had once been free, but then she'd been captured and tortured and raped until she became an obedient, humble slavegirl.
Conan sets up the deal and things are going along swimmingly with their plans until Malthom gets all mushy over Zulieka and decides that he loves her and wants to keep her, and to hell with his 5000 gold pieces.
Unfortunately, Conan wants HIS 5000 gold pieces and he's none too happy about Malthom's new plan, so unhappy that the two of them draw swords and start trying to carve each other up.
I'm sorry, but Conan's being a real dick here. Actually, more like a pimp. Malthom knows the slavegirl is a fake but has decided he loves her for who she is, but Conan wants his money. He wants to sell her to another guy who may or may not love her, because he wants the gold pieces, and he wants it so bad he's willing to wreck his friend's romance and even kill him to get it, if necessary. Not to mention pimping out some hapless slavegirl to a guy neither she nor Conan has ever met, for the money.
That story really put Conan's character in a new perspective. The guy is kind of a lowlife.
A couple of other stories made me revise my estimate of Conan's character as well. In one story, a desert chief cuts Conan down from a tree to which he's been crucified by a bad guy. They put Conan on a horse and they ride to the desert chief's camp, where Conan gets healthy and becomes the chief's trusted lieutenant.
Meanwhile, behind the chief's back, Conan makes himself very popular with the men of the encampment, and a few of the women as well I imagine. When he's powerful enough, Conan crushes the chief's wrist -- his sword arm wrist -- and informs the chief that he's taking over. He gives the chief a camel to ride out on, rather than killing him, as a reward for having saved Conan's life.
So, let me get this straight: this guy saved Conan from a slow, grisly, torturous death and takes him into his camp and makes him a trusted lieutenant, and in return, Conan maims him but does not kill him?
I'd call that being an ungrateful cur, at the very least. But maybe it's an isolated incident by a writer who's gotten a little too carried away with Conan's dark side.
Well, no, practically the same thing happens in another story. In this one, Conan is the only survivor of his ship, and after swimming for a very long time he comes upon a ship and climbs over the side.
The ship's master, being of a liberal bent, does not have Conan tossed back over the side but allows him to stay on board and work off his passage as a member of the ship's crew. So he saved Conan's life. Conan shows his gratitude by ingratiating himself with the ship's crew, not hard to do as the ship's master is a wizard and they're afraid of him, and as soon as they hit dry land, he follows the guy into the jungle and challenges him to a swordfight, or in simpler parlance, murders the guy so he can take over the ship. (It wasn't exactly a fair fight, just one guy against Conan.)
So, once again, saving Conan's life proves to be a big mistake. Conan is a rotter, a heel, a traitor, and will kill you in return for such kindnesses.
I mention this because I think it establishes quite firmly that Conan isn't a moralistic hero (if his lengthy career as a thief and brigand wasn't sufficiently clueful). He's an antihero at best.
By these standards, his treatment of women is downright gallant. Although he will kidnap women if it seems like a good idea, and he's not particularly concerned with consent with regard to slavegirls whose skills are sexual in nature (which is a LOT of the slavegirls in the Conan stories), he doesn't kill women for minor reasons.
For example, in one story, an evil queen has Conan and a slavegirl dropped into a pit where a slimy man-eating (and woman-eating) monster lurks. They escape from the pit after Conan has the usual tremendous battle with the monster, not killing it but wounding it, and most of all not getting killed by it.
They make their way to the aboveground portion of the palace and turn the tables on the queen. She say, "I have been studying you, Conan, and I know you would never kill a woman."
Conan sheathes his sword, then grabs the queen and holds her over the pit he'd been dropped in -- and drops her in it. Conan didn't kill the woman, the monster in the pit did, judging by all the screaming in horror that comes out of it.
What a gentleman.
Of course, all of Conan's treatment of women must also be considered in light of his treatment of men, whom he mostly slays. Although Conan is portrayed as a natural leader who knows how to ingratiate himself with others, especially brigands and outlaws, his natural approach to disagreements with others is to kill the others. Individually or in groups. Conan does not so much solves problems as he does kill them.
Now, if you're a guy, you should be very careful about crewing with Conan because he has "only survivor syndrome." He turns out to be the only survivor of various disasters: shipwrecks, lost battles, etc. (Sometimes he will have a slavegirl with him, but you have to figure he brought her along pretty much in the same way he brought his water bottle along on any given trip -- as supplies against future "need.")
On the one hand, it would make sense that a man as strong, fast, tough, determined and resilient as Conan would be the one to survive any given disaster if anyone's gonna survive it. Say you were in a rowboat with him, the only survivors of a ship's sinking. Conan would probably do most of the rowing and let you have most of the water, but somehow YOU'D still be the one who died, because you're just not as tough, determined, etc. as Conan is.
But there's another way to look at things, knowing what we know of Conan's character thanks to Savage Sword of Conan. Suppose you're in rowboat with Conan, the only survivors of a ship's sinking, and you are not female.
There's only so much water on the rowboat and you have no idea when you'll spot land or another ship will spot you. Conan, the tough, determined, resourceful and, as we know thanks to Savage Sword of Conan, lowlife traitor and killing machine, is thinking about that fact. Your best bet would probably be to slip over the side of the boat before your remains get tossed over the side. I mean, all that "sole survivor" stuff could be the simple result of a "no witnesses" policy on Conan's part.
Conan succeed, rescues the prince, brings him back to the queen, and she informs him that she's going to wed a nobleman because he's got that noble bloodline, and Conan should go fuck off now that he's no longer useful.
Conan takes it well, which is good, because it's par for the course in the Hyborean Age (at least the rescued prince is properly grateful, you get a sense that Conan will be leaving town with some loot under his belt).
I found all this treachery and double-dealing very refreshing, even the stuff Conan did. It leant a truly adult feel to the stories that you didn't have pure good vs. pure evil, but a lot of shades of gray.
Hyborean Age Geography
I am somewhat puzzled by the frequency with which Conan runs across lost cities and vanished civilizations.
About 75 percent of the time, when Conan is travelling, he runs into either a lost city improbably perched in the middle of the desert or the ruins of a lost civilization hiding in the jungle.
And there's a near 100 percent probability that there's a hideous monstrosity from before the dawn of time, or at least, well before the Hyborean Age, lurking in the pits or the shadows and killing people in gruesome ways. Such was urban life in those days.
The probability of Conan encountering and slaying said monster is also very, very high.
The probability of there being one or more beautiful women who want to have sex with Conan in any given demon-haunted ruin or lost civilization is also very high.
Finally, the chances that there are one or more -- generally a lot more -- people in any given ruin or lost city who want to kill Conan is also very high -- not because they know him, most of the time, just on general principles. Apparently, the inhabitants of most lost cities have a strong interest in remaining lost. Probably explains a lot.
(Many of the monsters, demons and lost races hanging out in demon-haunted ruins and elsewhere may seem familiar to fans of H.P. Lovecraft, and for good reason. Howard was a Lovecraft fan too, and borrowed heavily from Lovecraft's stories when it came time to create the supernatural monsters for his own stories. This adds a certain depth and richness to the stories as well -- Lovecraft's monsters are truly frightening, not the simple "giant bug thing" that's normal in comics, although there is some of that.)
Here's the impression of how Hyborean Age geography worked that I get from Savage Sword of Conan: suppose you are a resident of Atlanta, but it is the Hyborean Age.
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You would be familiar with nearby kingdoms such as Buckhead, Decatur, Cabbagetown Avondale Estates and even distant Sandy Springs and Tucker. But beyond this, places would slide into the realm of myth and mystery. You may have heard of locales such as Union City, Austell, Powder Springs, Lithonia and Marietta, but you would know very little about them, and most likely what you know about them would be wrong. Alpharetta would be a demon-haunted ruin, Powder Springs would be a lost city, same for Union City, Eastlake would be a demon-haunted ruin, Stone Mountain would be a mysterious monolith surrounded by lost cities and demon-haunted ruins, Norcross would be a lost city, etc. Let us not even speak of distant, eldritch horrors such as Macon, Calhoun, Augusta (a lost city if ever there was one, which appears on Earth for only a few days each year) and the fabled port of Savannah, whose very trees are festooned with eldritch horror.
Now, as to the bondage in Savage Sword of Conan, there is plenty of it, mostly of the bound captive/chained slavegirl variety. Savage Sword of Conan is particularly rich in hot lesbian bondage action, because if there is a good girl and a bad girl in any given story, odds are very good that the bad girl will tie up/chain up the good girl at some point, so Conan can come rescue her. The bad girl may have some odd ideas about human sacrifices and whippings and whatnot, but Conan always straightens her and any minions she may have out.
If you're a gag snob (that is, a person who only finds bondage interesting if a gag is involved) you're going to find the bondage in Savage Sword of Conan disappointing, as there are only two images of gagged women and one of a handgag in both Volumes 1 and 2, both involving captives, one a slavegirl and one a princess, so I guess it's an equal opportunity thing. None of the images is a closeup.
There are quite a few instances where Conan probably should have bound and gagged his female captive, as he is sneaking through his enemies' territory. At one point he even asks a female captive, "Do you want to spend the rest of the journey bound and gagged?" I found this query out of character: Conan does not ask, he acts.
And the thing is, as the Savage Sword of Conan stories make abundantly clear, Conan is not a nice guy. He may not be Gorean, but he absolutely will not have trouble with the idea of tying up and gagging a woman if it seems like the right thing to do. So I find the two or three occasions where he's smuggling women past her friends and he doesn't bind and gag her to be way out of character for the guy who'll order a dancing slavegirl to his tent for some fucking as calmly as you and I might order a pizza at a pizza parlor, and who happily pimped another slavegirl out for 5000 gold pieces.
On the plus side of the bondage, almost all of it involves naked or half-naked women, as that's the way just about all of the women in Savage Sword of Conan dress just about all of the time. They don't suddenly put on less skimpy, bulkier clothing for their bondage scenes, as happens regularly in US movies and TV shows. If you like your bondage babes naked or half naked, you are going to find Savage Sword of Conan very rewarding.
There are also a couple of scenes which clearly establish that slavegirls are auctioned naked in the Hyborean Age. And what's one of the most beloved adages on Gor? "Only a fool buys a woman clothed." By contrast, in most visual media, i.e., film and television, slavegirls are almost always auctioned clothed, often covered from collarbone to ankle. Savage Sword of Conan gets it right again.
The thing about Savage Sword of Conan other than being damn good in and of itself, is that all the elements were there to make it a Gorean-in-everything-but-name comic (as it is, it's damn close to being that). All it would have taken is a little more focus on bondage where the slavegirls are concerned.
The best example would have been the scene from "The Haunters of the Crimson Castle" where the slavegirl recounts how she learned humility. In addition to the scourge, the whip, torture and toil, she might have mentioned that she learned humility when she was chained naked and hooded in a slaver sex pen full of male slaves who hadn't had a woman in a very long time.
You might think that such a frank depiction of rape as the "slaver's sex pit" idea would be well outside the pale for Savage Sword of Conan. Think again. Although there are no explicit images of rape, there are many instances where it is made clear that repeated and prolonged rape is going on, and not the relatively mild kind that involves a handsome, buff, easygoing (where women are concerned) guy like Conan ordering a dancing girl to his tent later that night, but lengthy, unpleasant rape and probably torture too in a dank dungeon cell with an ugly fiend doing the raping and torturing.
And it's made clear, to Savage Sword of Conan's credit that capture and enslavement for attractive women generally means serial rape, as they are sold to and used by one master after another, and whipped and otherwise tormented if they prove recalcitrant, which you gotta figure most of them are at first, being unused to being used by whoever can buy them. After repeated use the sheer volume of forced sex would just wear them down and make them roll over and spread 'em for anyone on demand.
What's more, just as on Gor, slave girls are cheap, not nearly so valuable as horses. Which means they are not valuable, but can be easily replaced or more likely, resold, if they are damaged or just don't work out.
Interestingly, although Savage Sword of Conan makes it clear that torture and rape are commonplaces for female slaves, it never shows them being used in sexual bondage, even though you have to figure it had to have been a commonplace practice for breaking in new slavegirls and for getting a little from captives. In the primitive societies of the Hyborean Age, once the women are sexually used they are damaged goods, so rape takes the fight right out of them -- what is there for them to fight for?
I'm not advocating explicit stuff here, because of course there's no explicit rape without bondage in Savage Sword of Conan. You could easily imply sexual bondage by adding one or two panels to a couple of stories. Just after the woman's captor says to the dungeon master, "You may have your way with her, just do not kill or injure her permanently." Next scene, prisoner is chained naked, face down (hence no naughty bits but still looking very vulnerable because she's) spreadeagled on the floor of a cell, looking back over her shoulder at the dungeonmaster whose naked body is silhouetted (once again, no naughty bits) in the door of the cell, screaming "NOOOO!" through her gag. One more panel, of a door clanging shut while the "Nooooooo!!" continues behind it. Easy as pie.
In the same way it could have been easy to show Zulieka being taught humility in a slavers' sex pen just by showing her standing naked and hooded, seen from behind once again to avoid naughty bit exposure and to show her hands chained behind her back, as a crowd of leering male slaves reaches out for her while the slaver locks the door to the pen shut. (A spreader bar attached to her ankles would really have made things clear, but I just don't see it happening in Savage Sword of Conan.)
(In fact, the hentai Imma Youj IV shows just such a scene, except no hood and multiple dungeon masters. Then again, it's a hentai and shows a lot more than that.)
Now as to why such panels were not drawn I can't say. Censorship? Could be. It was a great time of freedom and experimentation and it's really hard to say where the censors would have drawn the lines. But in the early and mid-70s when these comics were written, sexual bondage was still a relatively unknown subculture. The comics' writers could have been unaware of the power such imagery has for some readers.
Or they might have known about it and figured that the people who might find sexual bondage imagery appealing are such a small subculture that it wasn't worth appealing to them. Or it could be that the writers/artists simply didn't think to include such imagery, and might readily have done so if they had. If it's not absolutely apparent to you, I'm just guessing here.
And all of the scenes involving human sacrifices should have included gags so the victim's cries and pleas wouldn't interfere with the chanting and the incantations and so forth.
Given that practically all the women in the Hyborean Age run around naked or half naked, putting slavegirls in collars and chains and possibly even gags would make it a LOT easier to tell who's who. That would have made things sexier and more Gorean and would have made more sense. Conan might not have chained up his slavegirls, but there were certainly plenty of nobility and bad guys around (often one and the same) who would and did just naturally tend to chain slavegirls and captures who haven't been enslaved yet up.
In fact, if the slavegirl in "Haunters of the Crimsom Castle" had been in chains when Conan captured her, it could have led to a nice scene where they remove her chains at Malthom's castle, leading her to hope they might be freeing her, since they did not tell her their plans until much later, (she being a slavegirl it would never have occurred to either of them to inquire about whether she approved or disapproved of their plans). Then she would find out they had only unchained her to make her a more believable princess for their scam.
All of this sounds like quibbling, and I guess it is in the face of the massive onslaught of goodness that is Savage Sword of Conan. It's just that, the changes I've suggested are truly minimal in relation to the rest of the story and the artwork -- and it's all it would have taken to turn Savage Sword of Conan into an Empowered or Golden Age Wonder Woman level bondage-fest. Frankly, I don't think most readers would have noticed the difference, because the stories would still be about Conan hacking his way through a world of demon-haunted ruins, lost cities, and treacherous queens. It would be an excellent example of plausibly deniable bondage, and if there's anything that is a key to commercial success, it's bondage that's plausibly deniable.
To sum up, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Savage Sword of Conan are 500+ pages long and filled with incredible pen and ink artwork. It's full of drawings of half-naked chicks in chains. And sometimes rope. It's also full of drawings of half-naked and sometimes completely naked chicks who aren't tied up but look really sexy. It's stories are so full of testosterone-charged goodness that one reader said just leafing through volume 1 made him grow an extra nut. It's true, that happens. I have read all of volume 1 and volume 2, and now I have a severe case of grape nuts. I'm looking forward to volumes 3 and 4 because ... it's worth it.
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