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THE MAN-EATERS OF ZAMBOULA (review)—”Vigorous youth rock the ages”

Writer/Artist: Gess

Ablaze 2020

FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO ancient cities of grand proportions flourished in Sumeria, Egypt, India, and China. In China, and in Palestine, blast furnaces made case-hardened iron millennia before engineers in the West introduced steel. Fine civilization as we know it today has vestiges far older than is easily imaginable.

Bringing these lost ages of humanity to life was the first achievement of young 1930s pulp writer Robert E. Howard in his adventurous tales of Conan, and others like him. We remember only stones and bones from the past, and forget the rich fabrics, woodwork, and other softer, perishable materials embellishing those ancient times, like the sinews and vigor of youth, a smirk, a song. The original REH stories themselves, though eminently perishable, keep coming to life in reprints and imitations, and in numerous comic books since the 1970s: most notably in a series by Ablaze, starting in 2019, revisiting REH Conan stories anew under the title, THE CIMMERIAN, featuring a host of talented writers and artists.

Eight titles so far include well-known REH stories, including “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and the book-length “Hour of the Dragon.” The original REH texts, mostly from Weird Tales magazine, are reprinted in the back few pages of each issue, and at the end of each story in four collected hardbound editions.

The results are perhaps the most stunning renditions yet. Each set of two to four issues is deliciously illustrated in fine penwork and washing inks, some very alike, so the change in artists between stories is hardly noticeable; others are more stylized, a bit askew, though all bear a family resemblance evidently emerged from multiple generations of European monks in grottos scribbling away with scrolls and brushes, and bottles of vermillion and indigo, making a heritage of devotion to illustration that inspires the ages as well as our current breeds of artists, with new tools and teamwork, to unequalled excellence.

A lesser-known story in the set, THE MAN-EATERS OF ZAMBOULA (2020) by writer/artist Gess, spans two issues in sweeping perspectives squeezed into narrow panels, backgrounds dense in details as if one is always looking around to observe. First follow heavily laden camels toward a mound of a city squatting in the desert, through the gate, into thronged streets and alleys, to spot young Conan, a tiny figure leaning against a post in the bazaar, amusedly talking to a white-bearded merchant, who warns him: “Beware the demons in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Of course, this house is precisely the place where Conan has already paid to stay the night; and there’s the plot. Add Conan’s cunning, straightforward character, strength of will, and strength of arm, and general good humor; plus an unclad damsel in distress; and yawning panels that at last allow deep breaths of the awesome splendor of the place at the temple where the final challenge occurs. Much of it all is bathed in various violet hues of the night as Conan wordlessly stalks the demons before they have a chance to stalk him, and then lured toward profit, before the night is over, turns toward the larger, sorcerous predator at the pinnacle of power in this crossroad-town on the edge of the eastern desert. Forebear to say more. Start to finish, this version is pure Conan, paced straight from the source. You can love it, enriched, and ride away laughing.