CONAN THE BARBARIAN: QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST AND AMRA

queen of the black coast smallerWell, after last week’s Curse of the Conjurer some of you wanted more of the 1970s Marvel Comics adaptations of Conan stories and some of you REALLY didn’t. As a compromise I’ll do just one more before moving on to another topic next Saturday.

conan 58CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #58 (January 1976)

Title: Queen of the Black Coast

Villains: The Black Corsairs

NOTE: Yes, with this issue Marvel finally got around to adapting one of Robert E. Howard’s greatest Conan stories. At last, Belit (bay-LEET), the pirate queen and the great love of Conan’s life, was introduced in this tale.

           Marvel fairly faithfully adapted the opening of the story in this issue, then, rather than just refer to the years that Conan and Belit sailed the seas together, their writers did dozens of stories depicting their adventures together. All of that culminated with Conan the Barbarian issue #100 when Marvel adapted the tragic conclusion of Queen of the Black Coast, a small part of which was ripped off in the 1982 Conan movie.

        queen of the black coastThis blog post will review the first meeting of Conan and Belit, then Marvel’s depiction of their first shared adventure (featuring an imaginative “fan theory” regarding why Conan was also called Amra) and finally, the sorrowful finale of the longest romance of our Cimmerian’s life.

Synopsis: Just like the original story Queen of the Black Coast from 1934, Marvel’s adaptation opens up with Conan being pursued by the authorities through the streets of the port city of Messantia, the capital of Argos. Conan’s latest clash with the law saw him kill a powerful man, leading to his current plight.

After a daring, hell for leather chase to the harbor, Conan made a spectacular leap onto a merchant ship that had just pulled out and was a few yards away from the shore. He threatened the crew if they turned back or tried to force him overboard. The captain of the merchant ship Argus, knowing that he and his crew were headed for dangerous waters, merely shrugged and welcomed aboard the obvious fighting man and hoped he’d come in handy if pirates attacked.

arrow BelitDays later, when the ship was off the coast of the Hyborian Age’s equivalent of Africa, pirates did indeed attack the merchant ship. The captain identified the attacking vessel as the Tigress, captained by the legendary white woman Belit, called the Queen of the Black Coast because of her flagrant career of piracy along that coastline, leading her black crew.   

The Argus tries fleeing the Tigress, but is ultimately overtaken and boarded by Belit and her Black Corsairs. Conan and Belit distinguish themselves in the resulting battle and are very impressed with each other.

belit and conan first meetIn the end, Conan is the last surviving man from the Argus, and Belit offers him the chance to join her and her crew, given that all of the men he sailed with are already dead. She also makes it clear that she wants him as her mate. The alternative is death.

For many obvious reasons, Conan joins Belit and she performs her memorable mating dance as foreplay to her first coupling with the Cimmerian.

conan 59CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #59 (February 1976)

Title: The Ballad of Belit

Villains: The Mound Dwellers and Uzumi  

Synopsis: This tale opens several days later. Conan, Belit and the crew of the Tigress have overtaken and boarded a Stygian galley in the waters off the Black Coast.   

Amid a lot of violence the pirates win out and plunder the Stygian vessel. Conan anticipates his and Belit’s usual post-battle sex but she states that she first wants to wash “this unclean Stygian blood off my limbs.” 

Conan bides his time while Belit bathes herself in the captain’s quarters by asking the crew’s oldest member N’Yaga why she hates Stygians more than the other nationalities that fall victim to their piracy. In flashback, N’Yaga tells Conan the origin of Belit.

ballad of belit splash pageLong ago, during Belit’s childhood, she was the daughter of King Atrahasis of Asgalun, one of the city-states of Shem. N’Yaga back then was one of the Royal Tutors of the little girl, showing the cosmopolitan, open-minded approach her father took toward her education. Belit’s uncle Nim-Karak hired Stygian assassins to kill King Atrahasis and Princess Belit.    

The Stygians succeeded in killing Atrahasis but Belit was spirited away to a departing ship by N’Yaga. Wanting to keep the girl safe from any hunt mounted by her evil uncle, the tutor took her back to his isolated homeland in the Silver Isles in the south. 

To ensure that his former tribe would not kill Belit like they did with all other outsiders, N’Yaga convinced the tribe that the child’s light skin was attributed to her mother, the death goddess Derketa. Chief Uzumi and the rest of the isolated tribe accepted this explanation and N’Yaga was permitted to raise Belit there.

belit growing up thinking of revengeAs the years passed, Belit, a remarkable child, proved as capable as any men of the tribe when it came to hunting and fighting. The legend about her semi-divine status combined with all of that to make her a very popular figure with the tribe … except for Uzumi.

Uzumi had come to doubt N’Yaga’s claim regarding Belit’s parentage and her popularity made him fear she would one day become a rival for control of the tribe. Belit was in her late teens by now and was about to undergo the ritual by which she would become a full warrior of the tribe, with all the privileges of any of the men.

The cunning Uzumi, who had made Belit’s life as dificult as he had dared, chose an initiatory task for her to fulfill that he assumed would lead to her death. Uzumi ordered Belit to recover the stolen Silver Eye of Dagon, an ancient relic of the tribe, from the monstrous Mound-Dwellers, who had stolen it years earlier.

mound dwellersThose Mound-Dwellers were beings that were humanoid but ugly men above the waist, and huge worm beings from the waist down. N’Yaga objected to expecting Belit to accomplish a task that many men of the tribe had been killed attempting. Uzumi stated that if Belit really was the daughter of the death goddess, then surely she would be able to succeed.

Belit armed herself with a spear and was about to set forth on the ritual deed, when N’Yaga explained to her that the Mound-Dwellers, though incredibly strong, were all but blind. Their other senses made up for it in terms of deadliness but in fact they could not truly perceive images like humans could.

N’Yaga gave Belit a vial of melted silver and told her that her best bet for survival was to substitute the vial for the Silver Eye of Dagon and hope that the replacement would serve to deceive the Mound-Dwellers long enough for her to escape with the real Eye.

Belit made her way to the entrance to the underground lair of the Mound-Dwellers and stealthily approached them. She was repulsed by the sight of the man-worms but noticed that they constantly passed the Eye of Dagon among themselves, glorying in its light, which was bright enough to register on their weak eyes.

belit stealing eye of dagonWaiting for a chance to strike, Belit chose a moment when one Mound-Dweller had enjoyed the Eye long enough and was passing it on to another. Darting toward them, she used her spear to knock the relic out of the creature’s hands and grabbed it.

The Mound-Dwellers moved far more quickly than she had thought they could and Belit did not have a chance to try using the vial of silver to distract the creatures. Just to escape with her life, she fled back to the surface and, her skin still crawling from thoughts of the hideous monsters, ran all the way back to the village.

Uzumi STILL tried to pooh-pooh Belit’s incredible accomplishment, pushing the fiery young woman past her breaking point. She disarmed Uzumi and held a knife to his throat and, in her anger, forced him to swallow the liquid silver in her vial.

Their confrontation was interrupted by the ground trembling underneath Belit and Uzumi. The Mound-Dwellers, from underground, had followed the vibrations from Belit’s footsteps all the way back to the village. (Think of the monsters in the Tremors movies doing that kind of thing.)

Belit got far away from the emerging Mound-Dwellers, like the rest of the tribe. Uzumi, reacting violently to the silver he had been forced to swallow, did not move quickly enough. The Mound-Dwellers sensed the silver in his gullet and – since it was the closest equivalent to the stolen Eye of Dagon – dragged him underground back to their lair, where they planned to remove the silver from his stomach with their crude surgical instruments.

conan and belit tenderWith their chief gone, Belit was acclaimed as the tribe’s new leader. She boldly redirected the tribe’s activities to piracy on the high seas rather than hunting and gathering. The tribe made up the first crew of Black Corsairs under Belit’s command.

Back to the present, with N’Yaga’s tale over, Conan now joins Belit in their cabin and notices that she still has the Eye of Dagon in her chest of treasures. Once again, Conan is impressed with his lover’s ruthlessness and abilities.      

conan 60CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #60 (March 1976)

Title: Riders of the River-Dragons

Villains: The Riders of the River-Dragons 

Synopsis: We pick up an unknown number of days, weeks or months later. The Tigress is sailing moderately close to the shore. Conan’s attention is drawn to the way Belit’s battle-hardened crew show a wariness and fear toward the entrance to the River Zarkheba as they sail past it, a fear that they never display toward any other place.

NOTE: As all Robert E. Howard fans know, this passing reference was fan service as a shoutout to the infamous river down which Belit and Conan will one day sail in the tragic conclusion to her adventures with Conan. 

The Tigress sails further south for several more days. At last, Belit, Conan and other crew members form an away party to travel inland to the village of the Watambi tribe. The tribe pays Belit and her Black Corsairs tribute in return for being spared from having their village raided.

The Watambi people claim that they have no tribute to give this time because of late they have become regular victims of the Riders of the River-Dragons. Those men come from a deep jungle tribe whose warriors have tamed and ride “river-dragons,” which modern day readers will recognize to be huge primitive crocodiles.

belit and treasure chestBelit, Conan and the rest of the away team want to see if the Watambis are telling the truth and plan to stay with the tribe to see if there really are such Riders preying on them. That night, at a hard-drinking and hard-dancing party, Belit grows passionately (and unfoundedly) jealous from thinking that an attraction is forming between the Watambi chief’s daughter Nyami and Conan.

Fearing unnecessary violence if Belit acts on her mistaken belief, N’Yaga slips a powdered drug into Belit’s drink to sedate her. When the party is over, Conan is surprised by how mellow Belit is feeling as she has him carry her off to their tent.

By chance, the Riders of the River-Dragons raid the Watambi village again late that night. While Belit sleeps deeply from N’Yaga’s drug, Conan and the rest of the away team help the Watambi warriors defeat and drive off the Riders for the first time ever.

belit drawingA furious Conan realizes that some of the retreating Riders of the River-Dragons abducted the unconscious Belit. One of the defeated Riders is still alive and Conan demands to know where his comrades would have taken Belit.

The dying Rider tells the barbarian that, having heard that the Queen of the Black Coast was in the Watambi village that night, they decided to raid and seize Belit to take her as a bridal offering to the remote figure called Amra, the Lord of the Lions. 

conan 61CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #61 (April 1976)

Title: On the Track of the She-Pirate 

Villains: Riders of the River-Dragons 

Synopsis: Conan immediately assembles the other members of the away team and several Watambis to lead them into the jungle in search of Belit and her captors. One of the crew members threatens to mutiny since the Cimmerian is not their captain, but Conan smacks down the potential mutineer.  

Days go by as our hero and the accompanying pirates plunge deeper and deeper into the jungle in their search. At one point Conan ponders how thoroughly Belit has captivated him, more than any of the other women in his life. 

conan and past womenThe barbarian contemplates Belit’s superior allure to other lovers he’s known, like Jenna, Melissandra and many more, some of them canonical to the Robert E. Howard stories from the 1930s, others just from the Marvel Comics stories. 

Elsewhere, Belit, no longer under the influence of the powdered drug, interrogates her Riders of the River-Dragons captors and learns that she is being taken to be the bride of Amra, the Lord of the Lions, a near-mythic figure that the Riders pay tribute to like the Watambis pay tribute to Belit and her Black Corsairs.

Belit frees herself from her bonds, overcomes the particular Rider whose giant crocodile she is on and escapes into the jungle. She has never been in this territory, however, and spends time on the run from the other Riders, unsure of which way to go. 

Eventually, Conan and his fellow pirates plus the Watambis come across the camp of the Riders of the River-Dragons. In the following brutal, bloody battle all but one of the Riders are killed. Conan demands answers about Belit from that survivor, Tindaga, who informs him that she escaped them the previous day and they have been looking for her ever since.

amra appearsElsewhere, Belit is attacked by a gigantic moth-creature. She fights back against it but has no sword or knife and is at a disadvantage. A man wearing a zebra-skin loincloth emerges from the jungle and attacks the moth-creature, overcoming and slaying it with a knife.

This red-haired man accompanied by a large black lion now identifies himself to Belit as Amra, the man that the Riders of the River-Dragons were delivering her to. And that serves as the cliffhanger ending to this issue. 

conan 62CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #62 (May 1976)

Title: Lord of the Lions

Villain: Amra

Synopsis: This issue picks up with the Watambis, Conan and his fellow pirates being led through the jungle by Tindaga, their Dragon-Rider prisoner. Their quest to recover Belit continues as they now seek out the territory ruled by Amra.

conan and tindagaOne of the pirates is killed when the party suffers a sudden attack from a jungle boar and Tindaga tries to get Conan killed as well. However, the barbarian succeeds in killing the beast.

Only the fact that the Cimmerian needs Tindaga alive to lead them to where they usually meet Amra with their offerings prevents him from killing the prisoner immediately. For his part, Tindaga continues to contemplate escaping his captors.

amra and belitBack with Belit and Amra, his lion companion eats the remains of the slain moth-creature. Amra says that his black lion is named Shulo and that he had been shadowing Belit and her Dragon-Rider captors for quite a while, so it’s not just coincidence that he was on hand to save her from the moth-creature.

Belit makes a sudden move which Shulo mistakes for an attempt to attack his master Amra so the great cat lunges at her. The red-haired man intercepts the lion and intimidates it into submission with his savagery.

As he and Belit make their way to Amra’s city their conversation leads them to his background. When he was a very little boy he was traveling on the ship his Aquilonian father commanded.

amra by the fireHe and his parent were at sea and ran afoul of Barachan pirates. Next, a storm caused a shipwreck, killing the rest of the crew and leaving just the child and his father alive. The pair washed up on the shores of the Black Coast, where his father was killed by the first tribe they encountered and the boy himself was taken as their slave. 

Eventually, the men using the future Lord of the Lions as a slave encountered a seemingly lone lion cub and killed it, which act was considered to bring good luck. To their surprise, the cub’s mother and the rest of an entire pride of lions were nearby and slaughtered the men who had slain the cub. 

amra child and shuloThe dead cub’s mother regarded the small human child as a replacement for her late cub and raised the red-haired boy along with her other cub, the black colored Shulo. Over time Shulo died but had sired a son that also had black fur. Amra named it Shulo like its father.

NOTE: Yes, it’s an obvious variation on the Tarzan story plus Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf and similar legends. Also, the way Robert E. Howard’s character Kull had been a feral boy raised by tigers. Still, I find the notion of a Hyborian Age Tarzan in the form of Amra to be very intriguing and I wish Marvel’s writers had done more with the character in prequel stories to this Conan tale.

          toward the lair of the lionsAmra could have been a nice combination of Marvel’s original Ka-Zar from the Golden Age AND the revised Ka-Zar from the 1960s, but with Shulo in place of Ka-Zar’s saber-tooth tiger Zabu. Just as the new Ka-Zar fought dinosaurs and other monsters in the Savage Land, Amra could have fought human foes and real jungle animals as well as the kinds of supernatural creatures that Conan often battled in his own stories.  

amra shulo and belitGetting back to the story, Amra further explains to Belit that as he grew to adulthood he and the first Shulo became inseparable friends and Amra took control of the lion pride. As the years went by Amra became a legend, but a predatory one, demanding tribute in gold, ivory and brides from various tribes.

Back with Conan and company, Tindaga tries to escape again but is killed by the bite of a snake. Conan and his men continue their search for Belit as best they can. 

lair of the lionsThe next day, after the sun has set, Amra leads Belit into his lair – the majestic ruins of a deserted city whose race is long gone. Amra calls the place the Lair of the Lions and he gives his pride the run of the treasure-filled city. He and Shulo and his brides live in a prominent building in the city’s center.

Belit inquires about the beautiful marble statue of a lion that adorns the top of the building, and Amra tells her it was not there when he first settled here. He was once offered several captive artisans as his tribute by one of the tribes and he had those men carve the statue in exchange for a few more weeks of life.     

amra poseAmra introduces Belit to a black woman named Makeda, the princess of the Moon Hawk tribe whose father offered her to him a few years ago as tribute. Makeda has been his favorite wife for quite a while and she even taught him to read.

Makeda regards Belit as a dangerous rival and tries to kill her, but Belit easily defeats her. Amra is even more impressed with Belit now and tells Makeda he is through with her. He lets her depart alive in honor of their good times together but orders her to leave the city and never return.

For her part, Belit has no intention of staying there as one of Amra’s wives. She plans to bide her time until she can kill the red-haired man and hopes to escape and lead her pirates back to this Lair of the Lions to plunder the vast riches of the city. 

makeda reading the spellsHours pass, and we join Makeda making her way in the jungle not far from Amra’s city. She is attacked by a leopard but Conan saves her life. He inquires about where he can find Belit and Amra. Makeda tells the Cimmerian that his woman and Amra are both as good as dead. She elaborates by explaining that before leaving the lion lord’s city she spitefully descended to the catacombs to enact a ritual in order to seal their doom.

makeda castingOnce there, she recited an ancient unbinding spell – written on the catacomb walls – that she had discovered years earlier. It was in a language that Amra did not know and she never taught him. Makeda did understand it, however and she was aware it could let loose monstrous creatures who had been mystically bound in the darkness of the catacombs for countless millenia.

taloned hands stirMakeda tells Conan that those beings will be free very soon and they will slaughter every living thing in the city. The cliffhanger ending for this issue shows us readers the first stirrings of the unholy abominations summoned by the former Moon Hawk tribal princess.        

conan 63 coverCONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #63 (June 1976)

Title: Death Among the Ruins

Villains: Amra and the Unbound Ones

Synopsis: This issue opens up with Makeda leading the way into the Lair of the Lions for Conan, the remaining members of the away team and those Watambi warriors who accompanied him. When they are just outside the city’s walls they hear a distant singing and Makeda says it is an Aquilonian wedding song, one of Amra’s few remaining childhood memories of civilization.   

She further states that the Lord of the Lions only sings it at the Lion Altar when he is acknowledging his newest wife before his unnamed lion god, whom he calls only “the god of the maned ones.” 

death among the ruins picConan is now in even more of a hurry and must force Makeda onward, given her fear of the creatures she unbound from their long confinement. He also has to rally the Watambis, who hang back from fear of the legendary Amra. Conan can hear their whispers about whether or not even he can overcome the Lord of the Lions, but knows that the only way to settle the issue is to win the impending battle. 

Inside, at the Lion Altar, Amra has bound Belit’s hands behind her as a precaution since his song and appeals to the lion god to bless his new “marriage” require a lot of concentration. The pirate captain has been unobtrusively trying to free her wrists but this has caused a trickle of blood to form on her hands.

amra killsOne of the younger lions from the pride which surrounds the altar is driven to a frenzy by the smell of the blood and lunges at Belit to kill and devour her.

Amra intercepts the animal and Belit is amazed at the way the lion lord swiftly outmuscles the beast and stabs it to death with repeated strikes from his knife. She reflects that she thought only Conan himself would have been capable of such action.

amra roars downAmra roars his warning to the other lions about leaving his bride unharmed as Belit grows apprehensive about whether or not either she OR Conan could defeat Amra in battle. Not far away, Conan and company are attacked by a lion that Amra left on guard at the only cleft in the walls of the ruined city.

Conan overcomes and kills the beast with his sword and Makeda taunts him that Amra could have slain the lion with just a knife.

She reminds him that he may reclaim Belit only over the dead body of the Lord of the Lions.

amra at the altarBack at the altar, Amra and Belit have heard the death-noises of the lion killed by Conan, and Amra rallies his pride and his favorite, Shulo (spelled Sholo throughout this issue). Before he can take any action, however, the monstrous, four-armed creatures unbound by Makeda last issue at last make their presence known, opening a trap door in the floor of Amra’s Lion Altar and dragging Belit down into the lower levels with them.

amra down to catacombsThe Unbound Ones are as plentiful as ants and more of them emerge to attack Amra and his lions, intent on feeding upon them. Amra fights savagely and manages to kill a few of the creatures, as do his lions.

Next, he and his pride charge down into the depths beneath the trap door, intent on finding and freeing Belit.

in the catacombsCut to Conan, his comrades and Makeda. She is leading them through the catacombs, planning on using the same trap door entrance that the Unbound Ones used to take Amra by surprise at the Lion Altar. They hear the sounds of the lion lord’s battle with the demonic monsters and realize that the beings freed by Makeda are attacking. 

unbound onesThe next moment those same four-armed creatures swarm over Conan and his colleagues, forcing them into deadly combat with them as well. Nearby, Belit has used a sharp stone from among the wreckage strewn around the catacombs to cut her bonds and she battles the Unbound Ones as she and Conan are at last reunited.

Amra and his pride now arrive on the scene and the bloody, savage warfare rages on. Conan and Amra take each other’s measure as the battle continues, knowing that if they survive this hellish clash they must then face each other in a life-or-death battle over Belit.

belit conan amraIronically, at one point the two men even stand back-to-back against the numberless hordes while Belit and the others share in the fighting. At long last, the humans (and lions) seem to have seen the last of the Unbound Ones, leaving just Conan, Belit, Amra, a few lions and two Watambis still alive. Makeda lies among the many dead, killed by her own spiteful plan.

Immediately, Belit tries to convince Amra to just let her leave with her chosen mate. Conan agrees, saying he and Amra should part as comrades who fought alongside each other against inhuman and unholy foes.

conan fighting amraAmra refuses and Conan joins in combat with the Lord of the Lions, using only a knife so that the two of them will be evenly armed. In a similar spirit, Amra forbids his lions from interfering with the coming struggle. Belit and the two surviving Watambis watch the battle, with Belit reflecting that she loves Conan, and if Amra wins she will do her best to kill him herself.

The narration is almost worthy of Robert E. Howard himself as the savage clash between Conan and Amra goes on for a very long time, describing their similarities and noting how neither man seems entirely human at times.

amra against conanUltimately, Conan stabs Amra through the heart and emerges triumphant. He and Belit embrace while the Watambis cheer and shout. Conan silences them, expressing his respect for his dead foe and his regret that they could not have met as friends.

Shulo the black lion approaches and Conan braces himself for another potential struggle, but Shulo simply displays his submission to the Cimmerian, recognizing him as the new leader of the pride. The Watambis, observing this, declare Conan to be the new bearer of the name Amra, “first among lions.”

NOTE: For all of us Robert E. Howard geeks this is an interesting bit of fan service. Though Howard didn’t write this Lord of the Lions story, he DID refer to Conan as having gained the epithet “Amra” during his time with Belit and her Black Corsairs. The author also used the name Amra elsewhere in his writings, even in his poems, sometimes spelling it “Am-Ra.”

more unbound onesBack to the story, Belit is telling Conan about all the gold and other loot throughout the Lair of the Lions, when suddenly our heroes realize the Unbound Ones are not all dead, after all. The survivors have been eroding the supporting foundation of the ancient city, which now begins to collapse around Conan, Belit and the two Watambis.

They all manage to escape the city just in time along with Shulo and the other surviving lions from Amra’s pride. From a safe distance, Conan, Belit and the Watambis watch as the city collapses as if into a sinkhole as the Unbound Ones drag the ruins down into the depths with them.

The Watambis discuss how they will tell their fellows and all the other tribes about the new Amra, and our characters begin to make the long journey back to the Watambi village. 

conan 100CONAN THE BARBARIAN Vol 1 #100 (July 1979)

Title: Death on the Black Coast

Villain: The Dead City on the River Zarkheba

NOTE: After the Amra storyline, which I included here because of the tie to Robert E. Howard’s use of the name, Marvel Comics did many more stories covering the years Conan and Belit sailed together. With those “hidden” years filled in by Marvel’s adaptations they moved on to cover the remainder of Howard’s original story Queen of the Black Coast, which jumped ahead a few years after the portion which first brought Conan and Belit together. 

Synopsis: Once again, the Tigress is approaching the River Zarkheba. After her years-earlier enigmatic reference to this river (see above), Belit this time tells Conan the reason why her crew fears the river so much.   

belit aloneLong ago she and her crew were pursuing a Stygian ship down the Kushite coast when their intended prey sought to lose them by sailing down the River Zarkheba, known as the home to nothing but poisonous reptiles. Belit assumed the Stygians would not dare to stay on the cursed river for very long and had the Tigress drop anchor near the mouth so they could catch the Stygians on their way out.

Days later the vessel emerged but when Belit and her crew boarded it, they saw the cargo was intact, but the decks were red with blood and only one man was left alive. That man was insane and soon died, gibbering.     

conan and belit on boardBelit also tells Conan that she has long speculated that there is a city somewhere along the River Zarkheba. She has heard sailor’s tales about high walls and lofty towers sighted from afar. “We fear nothing, you and I,” she continues, “Let us go and sack that city.”

Conan is fine with that and the Tigress sails down the River Zarkheba. In the hours ahead, Belit keeps the ship clear of sandbars and overhanging branches, from which large poisonous snakes can be glimpsed. As the sun goes down an almost human voice can be heard laughing but Belit dismisses it as noises from an ape in the surrounding jungle. 

At length, the River becomes wide enough that the Tigress can avoid either shore by staying in the middle of the body of water, so she lies down beside Conan on the deck and they converse while the voyage continues.

As always with ANY Conan story, the best parts are when the exact words written by Robert E. Howard are used. The conversation eventually reaches the famous exchange in which they talk about religion and Belit observes that she has never heard Conan call on his gods.

book coverConan replies “Their chief is Crom. He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you. He will send you dooms, not fortunes. He is grim and loveless but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?” 

From discussing the gods, Belit moves the conversation to speculation regarding an afterlife. Conan is indifferent, but Belit offers the lines that foreshadow the conclusion of this tragic tale. “There is life beyond death, I know. And I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria – my love is stronger than any death. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul. Were I lying still in death and you fighting for life I would come back from the abyss to aid you. I am yours and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us.”

Suddenly, a huge anaconda-like serpent slithers up the bow of the Tigress from the river below and attacks one of the Black Corsairs. Sword swinging, Conan tries to save the man but the snake kills the crewman before the barbarian slays the snake in turn.

The long journey continues, and as the sun rises our characters arrive at the ruins of the city whose existence had been whispered about. Amid the decaying architecture is a tall column rising above it all. The pirates spot what they think is a large, winged statue crouching atop the column.

con and belit see the beastSome think it a bird of some kind, but Belit says it is an ape. All are shocked when it reveals itself to be a winged ape that flies from its perch into the jungle. Conan and the crew are growing cautious but Belit, gripped by her obsession with whatever treasures may lie in the city, orders her men to follow her as she enters the ruins.

No human life is found, but our heroes come across an obvious altar at the top of some blood-stained stone stairs. Conan, Belit and the others inspect the altar and the pirate captain observes aloud that priests often hide their valuables inside their altars, counting on religious superstition to dissuade the curious and the greedy.

belit swordBelit orders some of her men to grip the handholds on the four sides of the altar’s lid and remove it. Conan and three others move to perform the task but note that the handholds do not look like they were made to accommodate human hands.

Belit orders Conan to come and kill a snake in the weeds. The Cimmerian obeys his captain and another of the pirate crew takes his place trying to lift the altar’s lid. When the four lift the lid off the altar it triggers an Indiana Jones-style trap which buries them in massive rocks, killing them and covering their corpses as well as the treasure inside.

Belit whispers to Conan that she suspected such a booby trap and summoned him to her side so that he would be safe. There was no snake. Conan is a bit taken aback because he has never seen Belit be so casual toward the lives of her crew. Her obsession with this city’s riches is affecting her deeply.

When all the rocks and the four crewmen’s corpses are cleared away, the fantastic treasure concealed in the altar is on display. Belit almost sexually relishes the jewels as she lolls among the diamonds, rubies, opals, emeralds, etc.

belit and treasureThe accompanying crew members all gasp and cheer as they crowd around the sight of the incredible wealth before their eyes. Belit fixates on a long necklace of odd rubies which seem to her like fire but remind Conan of clotted blood.

Suddenly, a crewman cries out and points to the Tigress. The “devil-ape” is seen winging its way from the ship. Conan curses that they were all fools for not leaving guards on board.

NOTE: Sadly, that is also a fault of the original Robert E. Howard story. It is inconceivable that such savvy people as these characters would EVER leave their ship unguarded. I reconcile it in my own mind by figuring that the story could just as easily have depicted guards being left on the Tigress but the winged ape would simply kill them all. The tale would remain the same from there.

Belit, still in the grip of her strange fixation, puts the necklace she is fondling around her neck, too distracted to care about what the creature may have done to the Tigress. Conan is worried that it may have knocked a hole in the bottom of the ship so he rushes back to it.

weird tales coverHe is infuriated when he sees that the winged ape has shattered all their casks of water. The waters of the River Zarkheba are too poisonous to drink. Meanwhile, Belit supervises her crew loading up the fabulous treasure and transporting it to the Tigress.       

Conan asks for Belit’s okay to take several men with him into the surrounding jungle to look for any bodies of fresh water to replenish their drinking water before they cast off. The she-pirate gives her okay but seems barely able to concentrate on the peril in which they have all been placed, so wrapped up is she in her new necklace and its otherworldly gems.

Our barbarian and the selected pirates undertake a lengthy search for fresh water and at one point, Conan senses that they are being followed and has the crew members go forward while he stays behind to see if their follower can be flushed out.

Sadly, this sensible plan leads to Conan getting exposed to the narcotic flower called the Black Lotus, a fictional element of assorted Conan stories. Not even he is strong enough to resist the effects of the Black Lotus and he collapses into slumber on the ground.

Like everything else in the abandoned city and its surrounding jungle, even this drugged sleep seems influenced by supernatural forces and Conan has a vivid dream in which those forces expose him to the history of the region.

conan dead cityLong before the continents were even in their current shapes, the city was home to a winged race that was more like angels than like human beings. They could die but their life spans were enormous. Eventually, a series of world-shaping earthquakes erupted all across the planet and even the residual quakes were enough to nearly destroy the once-splendid city.

Worse, the massive quakes unleashed black toxic sludge from deep within the earth, polluting the river, which is the only source for water in several miles. The winged inhabitants of the city drank from the poisoned waters, which over time mutated their wings into batlike pinions and their humanoid bodies into apelike monstrosities.

Those winged apes were bestial and irrational. They fed upon each other and warred upon each other until, millions of years later, there was only one left alive, presumably the winged ape tormenting the crew of the Tigress.

The arcane forces influencing Conan’s dream now leap forward in time to when recognizable human beings – as we are now – venture into the city millenia after all but one of its inhabitants died. Fifty humans, driven from their former land by a loss in war, enter the city and collapse into exhausted sleep.

While they sleep, the winged ape creeps upon them and whispers ancient spells into their ears. By morning those spells have transformed the fifty people into hyenas which howl with an agony which indicates they retain their human minds despite their new forms.

cover belit and conanNext the supernatural dream shows Conan the grisly, hellish fates of every party of human beings who dared venture into the city over the past thousands of years, ending with him dreaming about the arrival of himself, Belit and their fellow pirates.   

Conan springs awake just as night has fallen and races away before the Black Lotus scent can put him under again. He tries to find the rest of the party which went searching for water with him but finds only their abandoned shields and spears, with blood-stained ground all around them. 

One lone crew member survived, but he is insane, frothing at the mouth and gibbering. He tries to kill Conan, who slays him with his sword, then moves on to a nearby cliff. Looking below, he sees the other pirates who accompanied him, all lying dead and broken, surrounded by vultures.

Filled with anxiety for Belit’s safety, Conan runs back to the dead city and its crumbling wharf, where the Tigress is still ported. He finds all of the Black Corsairs bloody and torn apart. Last of all, he sees the dead Belit, naked and hanging from the yardarm of the ship’s galley with the new necklace of rubies tied about her neck as a noose.

For newcomers to Robert E. Howard I’m laying out all the details. Conan throws all the treasure from the city overboard into the waters of the River Zarkheba. Next, he covers Belit’s body with a red cloak and lays her on the deck. He heaps up all of her “clean” treasures (as in NOT from the dead city) around her.

Conan dons the chainmail vest and the helmet that he was wearing the day he first encountered Belit and her crew. Grabbing a bow & arrows, and with his sword at his side he waits defiantly on the stone stairs near the altar which contained the cursed treasure of this dead city.

Later that night the winged ape lands nearby to watch Conan and looses on him the twenty survivors of its still-living pack of hyenas that were once men. The tormented creatures emerge from the jungle and charge hungrily at Conan, who shoots them dead with arrow after arrow until they are up close.

conan pinnedDrawing his sword, he engages in a bloody, savage battle, ultimately killing all of the hyenas. Now the creature that slew Conan’s mate flies down and attacks him. Their battle eventually results in Conan being pinned under part of a collapsing column, with his sword just out of reach. 

The column is so heavy that it will take too long for Conan to push it off himself before the winged creature can finish him off. Then comes the famous scene that Howard rendered magnificently in this original 1934 story but which has forever been ruined cinematically by the 1982 Conan movie which replaced Belit with Valeria for this iconic moment. And had a moron playing Conan. 

belit saving conanWe see the fulfillment of Belit’s passionate promise that if she were lying still in death and Conan was fighting for his life she would come back from the abyss to aid him. Ghostly Belit appears between Conan and the approaching creature, holding it off long enough for the stunned, almost disbelieving Cimmerian to get the column off his body.

Conan can now reach his sword, and he rises to close with the winged beast in final combat. Belit is gone now but the barbarian kills the creature with sword-thrust after sword-thrust, until, as the narration tells us, “the oldest race in the world is extinct.”

With the beast-thing dead the hyenas transform back into human form, still dead and rapidly decaying now that the spell which affected them is broken.

belit on pyreEPILOGUE: Conan cuts the ropes binding the Tigress to the pier and mans the sweep at the rear of the boat as the current takes him and the ship downriver toward the ocean. He watches the course and Belit, to quote Howard, “the cloak-wrapped shape that lies in state on the pyre, a pyre the richness of which is equal to the ransom of an empress.”

conan watching shipAt length the sun is just rising as Conan sets the Tigress on fire, then goes to shore far from the mouth of the River Zarkheba to watch the vessel burn, taking Belit’s remains and her accumulated treasure to the bottom of the sea she loved. Wisely, the Marvel writers let Robert E. Howard’s actual words guide us to the end:

“Conan of Cimmeria leans on his great sword upon the white beach, watching the Tigress swinging out on her last voyage. No hand is at her sweep, no oars drive her through the green waters, but a clean, tanging wind bellies her silken sail.

“And as a wild swan cleaves the air, she speeds seaward, flames mounting higher and higher from her deck to lick at the mast and envelop the pale, still figure that lies wrapped in scarlet on the shining pyre. To Conan, Belit was the sea; she lent it splendor and allure. Without her, it rolled a barren, dreary and desolate waste from pole to pole.

“She belonged to the sea, and to its everlasting mystery he has returned her. He can do no more.

conan crying“For himself, its glittering blue splendor is now more repellant than even the leafy fronds which rustle and whisper behind him, telling of vast, mysterious wilds beyond them, and into which he must now plunge.

“So passes the Queen of the Black Coast, and leaning on his red-stained sword, Conan stands silently until the red glow has faded far out in the blue hazes and dawn splashed its rose gold over the ocean.”

And Marvel’s artists drew Conan shedding a lone tear over Belit’s death. A virtual storm of emotion from the stoic Cimmerian.

complete chr con*** Okay, that wraps up this adaptation of one of Robert E. Howard’s best Conan tales. Between this and Red Nails I go back and forth about which one is my favorite. Next Saturday I will move on to another topic.

           But since too many people still seem to think that Conan was a mere comic book character, please bear in mind he came from the printed page as one of Robert E. Howard’s greatest creations. The original stories from 1930 until Howard’s suicide in 1936 predated even Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Robert E. Howard even set the standard in world-building for Tolkien, drawing detailed maps of the fictional nations in his Hyborian Age and writing a history about that age.  

FOR MY REVIEW OF ALL FOUR PARTS OF THE SWORD AND SORCERY STORY ABOUT THE DC CHARACTER CALLED STALKER CLICK HERE.

8 Comments

Filed under Pulp Heroes, Superheroes

8 responses to “CONAN THE BARBARIAN: QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST AND AMRA

  1. I’m completely offtrack here, but comics reminded me of a segment on Fox, about the new conservative, back-to-comic-roots creator? R something? I think you reviewed it. I thought I’d re-read that, see what you thought of them.

    • Hello! Yes, Eric July aka YoungRippa59 just started The Rippaverse. Below is the link to my blog post about it. He is part of that whole group of people who are doing independent comic books with no political content either left or right, they just focus on escapism and story-telling. Others that I’ve written about over the years are Ethan Van Sciver and Jon Malin.

      Rippa/ Eric July also does a regular podcast for his political beliefs. For years he’s been labeled one of the “black faces of white supremacy” because he doesn’t obey the Democrats. He’s back in the news because of how successful his launch of the Rippaverse has been. As for his comic book Isom, nobody has read it yet, I’m afraid, people will start to receive their copies in August.

      THE RIPPAVERSE HAS BEEN LAUNCHED

  2. I tell you what.with your knowledge, you could come up with a fantastic concept for a comic book or novel.

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