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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Super Blog Team-Up - What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

Savage Tales #s 2-3 (October 1973, February 1974)
"Red Nails"
Roy Thomas-Barry Smith

One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. Friedrich Nietzsche
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Happy Super Blog Team-Up, everyone, and thanks for stopping by! If you've come from one of my partners, welcome - take a look around. I hope you'll like what you see. This blog posts twice each week, generally with a review of some great black-and-white comics on Mondays, followed by an artist spotlight/appreciation on Thursdays. The schedule's obviously a bit different this week, but that's a good thing - Super Blog Team-Up is always a great day!

Today I'm featuring what many aficionados of black-and-white comics, or sword and sorcery, or... shoot - of a whole bunch of genres - see as one of the all-time classics. Back in 1973, Roy Thomas and Barry Smith crafted an epic adaptation of Robert E. Howard's magnum opus (my perspective): Red Nails. Released over a four-month span and dominating two issues of Savage Tales, Red Nails took readers' breath away with the raw violence of the narrative and the highly-detailed depictions of the events therein. Truly, I'd say when the careers of Thomas and Windsor-Smith are evaluated by history, this story will stand atop the stack of work either man produced.

If you're playing along for the first time, it's my habit to give a short synopsis of the plot, followed by a 3-tier collection of my thoughts and impressions of the material. Today will be no different, so let's get on with it!

100-Word Review:
Valeria is on a quest for loot. However, she finds herself in a predicament atop a butte - her discovery of a human skeleton is a mystery. She is soon joined by Conan the Cimmerian, who then helps her avoid death by a massive reptile. The two set off for a not-too-distant city in hopes of plunder, but find it deserted. Or so they think. The plot thickens as Valeria encounters a man who relates a tale of two peoples, seeking to kill each other off - to score more Red Nails. But it’s Olmec and Tascela who enter the story that provides the greatest tension. Both have their minds set on Valeria - Olmec for lust, Tascela for… immortality.


If you've not read this story before, I hope the page samples I've provided attest to its brilliance. The level of detail Barry Smith poured into this project is simply off-the-charts. As this would be his final Conan story (John Buscema had taken over the color monthly by this time), he didn't leave quietly. Which brings us to -

The Good: No sense in venturing too far from praising the art, so I'll continue. Wow. Just double-wow. When you think where Barry Smith started, largely aping Jack Kirby (one could do worse, I know) and then arriving to the style we were treated to in his latter-day Conan stories, the metamorphosis is almost unexplainable. To read the Conan the Barbarian color series from the beginning is to have a front row seat to a master honing his craft. I'd like you to be aware, through the many page samples I've supplied, of the level of detail in each panel. There are no shortcuts here - no panels without backgrounds, each box a work of art in its own right.

The adventure at the beginning of the story, with the "dragon", was enthralling and if that's all we'd gotten it would have been a splendid read. It was long, but really proved to be only an appetizer for what was to follow. So why so much time spent? The dragons, or at least knowledge of them, would come into play later in the narrative.

Smith also did a wonderful job of varying the camera angles, creating mood and even adding tension by the way he chose to depict each panel. I know I had no difficulty maintaining my interest in what is a very long story, or in discerning the action at any point. 

Something I really enjoy about Conan is the seemingly endless possibilities. Sure, Robert E. Howard used geographic names that were familiar to those of us who've studied world history (and mythology) just a bit. But that Howard's Conan lived in a fantasy version of those familiar places opened up the opportunity to use large animals (as here), wizards, demons, all manner of weaponry, armadas and armies of all sizes and characteristics, and so on. And that the Conan mythos did not rely on continuity as did most four-color superhero comics, our hero could be dropped into any setting at any time and with any ally or enemy. Even Tarzan was confined to the jungle (before Edgar Rice Burroughs decided he needed to visit Pellucidar); not Conan. Desert, jungle, high seas, cold north, forgotten city -you name it, it could be done. And probably was. Take Valeria, for example: she's just dropped into this story. Conan knows her, but there is no evidence of her in any previous Howard-authored Conan story. I like that.

So let's talk about Roy Thomas's script. I've read the prose version of Red Nails three times, the comic version at least that many. Roy didn't have to take many chances here - Howard's original story was so solid, I think the strength of Roy's adaptation is that, for the most part, he left the story alone. Where Roy shows his skill is in the pacing - again, this is a looooong story at 58 pages. It never plays that way. Roy also gives us voices for each character in which we can believe said character would actually speak that way. And then Barry Smith made it happen, with facial expressions and body language. I know it's completely inappropriate in the age of #MeToo (or any age, truthfully), but the panels near the top of the post when Conan has become aware that the dragon is going to keep them on that butte for quite some time, and intends to pass the time with a little hanky panky, read as if watching a film. It's just perfect - the dialogue, pictures, camera angles... I said it previously - masterpiece.

Two tropes that appear in most Conan tales, sort of like bad guys using burner phones and good guys checking traffic cams on cop shows, are the protagonist getting ready to sleep with his/her eyes open and the use of a black lotus for mind-altering effects. Both of those are present in this story. I wore them like a pair of comfy bluejeans!

It's been said - not sure by who, but I'm sure we've all heard this - that a hero is only as good as his/her villain. That's probably true here. The menaces are many, from the dragon and the possibility of starving on the butte - to the forboding city and it's mysterious denizens. The Crawler adds to the "Holy...!" feelings, and then we meet Olmec and Talesca. Olmec is a big and scary dude. That beard is the envy of the boys in ZZ Top, for sure. But Talesca - she is the baddie that actually serves as the inspiration for today's review. As the SuperBloggers are discussing immortality and the thought that sometimes characters don't die, Talesca presents an interesting problem. Howard's plot, as mentioned above, had those who dwelt in the dark city fighting as two factions, killing each other to the point of extinction. Remember I said that the dragons would play a part later? They do and they don't - only because the creepy guys think they cannot leave their city. So they're stuck there. Which puts Talesca in a particular predicament. She needs to be rejuvenated with the blood of a supple young beauty. Enter Valeria.

The Bad: Well, Olmec doesn't look like he smells so good. I'd also, just thinking as a parent for a moment, definitely treat this story as being rated R. I'm not sure I'd have let my sons get their hands on this before they were at least 13 or 14. And to think this would have hit the magazine racks when I was only 7! There's a reason I never owned any of these black-and-white beauties as a kid!

But seriously now, I've only seen scans online of the colorized version of Red Nails from Marvel Treasury Edition #4. I do own the Dark Horse Chronicles of Conan, volume 4 trade, and that has Red Nails in a computer-colored version. I can more easily take the four-color treatment than I can the computerized version, but I'd overall say that this story was meant to be read in beautiful black-and-white and it should only be enjoyed in that manner. Anything else, in my mind, detracts from the lines of the artist, which are splendid.

The Ugly: I don't have anything much to add in this section - in fact, I rarely do. But in regard to the quote by Nietzsche atop this post - Talesca had no relationships with any of the humans with which she lived. They existed in her sphere based on utility alone. No emotion, only self-preservation and self-renewal dominated her daily thoughts. At first we're led to believe that Valeria is the object of Talesca's intense gaze due to some romantic infatuation; we then learn that it is indeed because of Valeria's looks and physical prowess that Talesca has set eyes upon her, though not in the way we might have forecast. Like all those who seek to live beyond their prescribed times, Talesca eventually met her end. Unlike other characters in literature, however, Talesca found no release in death - only failure of goals unreached.

I've one more set of page samples, and then below that you'll find links to the other bloggers and podcasters taking part in today's festivities. Give 'em a click and leave a comment at their space. I know they'll appreciate it as much as I have this visit from you today. Come back next Monday, when I'll feature a review of some Bat-Manga!

Two Staple Gold: Jim Henson Presents- The Soldier and Death

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

The Superhero Satellite: Mephistos Whisper: The Immortality Of Peter and Mary Jane (One More Day)

Comics Comics Comics Blog: Dr. Fate 

Between The Pages Blog: Doctor Who @ Big Finish Productions

DC In the 80s: Young Animals Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal (1992 Six Issue Mini Series)

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode - Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

In My Not So Humble Opinion : It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

The Retroist Via Vic Sage: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella - Roses for the Dead

Dave's Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT - Jupiter Ascending commentary


  1. Another fine review, Doug! And an excellent tale to consider. "Red Nails" is probably my favorite Conan story, and one of the best in comics in general.

    Yes, Roy Thomas did a fine job here. But Barry's art steals the show for me (probably due to my visual arts background). Words fail me in trying to describe it. I have those 2 issues of "Savage Tales" in which the tale first appeared. I also have the Marvel Treasury with the color version (which, incidentally, Barry colored himself). Both are wonderful, and Barry is a colorist with an eye for detail to match that in his line work. But You're right, it is best in b/w.

    1. I did not know that Smith colored that version of Red Nails. Now I'll definitely have to find it. Thanks for that tip, my friend!


  2. Thanks for posting this great review, Doug! And what wonderful artwork! Like Redartz I'm also a huge fan of this story - I always struggle to choose between this and The Song Of Red Sonja when I try to decide which is my fave Thomas / Smith Conan story. ( This is the kind of thing which keeps me awake at night! ) Seriously, it's a fantastic example of an outstanding creative team at the height of their powers and surely one of the pinnacles of the Bronze Age in general.
    I've recently re-read Howard's original story so it's interesting to see how faithful Roy was in his adaptation, even down to the overwrought "bondage" scenes which were a staple of the "spicy" pulp magazines. ( And in regards to your comments about age-appropriate material, I was only 8 or 9 years old when I first read the Marvel adaptation in the Treasury Edition... )
    There's a hilarious interview with Barry Smith from an old issue of Comic Book Artist where he clearly doesn't want to talk about Red Nails. Give it a read if you've got some spare time:

    1. Hi, Simon -

      The Song of Red Sonja is my personal #2 in the "Barry Smith swan songs". I think the epic-ness of Red Nails pushes it over the top. But the work on "Song" is no less spectacular!

      Thanks for the interview link. I believe I read that several years ago, but it's worth revisiting.

      Be well,


  3. Ah, yes. Red Nails. The Conan story I think I've read more than any other - both the prose original and this comics adaptation. And currently I have the original b&w version reprinted in the Savage Sword phonebook, and the color special edition version from the early 1980s (and I used to have the Treasury Edition as well).
    What can I say about it that already hasn't been said? It's a great story, and this adaptation with the Smith's stunningly gorgeous art is arguably better than the original prose version.
    Great review, Doug; this is definitely one of the black and white masterpieces of the Bronze Age.

  4. As you probably know, Doug, Conan has recently returned to Marvel in Conan The Barbarian and Savage Sword Of Conan (now a colour comic-book not a black & white magazine). Marvel has also launched Age Of Conan and #1-5 featured Belit. Now Age Of Conan has started again at #1 and features the origin of Valeria from Red Nails. I don't understand why Marvel created Red Sonja when they could have used Valeria who already existed - and Red Sonja was just Valeria in all but name anyway. But the "Age Of Conan: Valeria" mini-series means that Valeria finally gets her own Marvel series nearly 50 years after Conan's Marvel debut.

    1. Hi, Colin -

      That's cool that Valeria is getting some attention!

      I continue to find the prices of new comics cost-prohibitive. I just can't see spending upwards of $4 for a standard 20-page comic. And some are as high as $10! No way I can justify that. But... if you don't mind, let me know your impressions of the new stories.



  5. Doug, I've only bought a few of the new Conan comics - to be precise Conan The Barbarian #7 and #8, Savage Sword Of Conan #7, Age Of Conan: Belit #5 and Age Of Conan: Valeria #1. But I've also downloaded the e-book versions of the graphic novels Conan The Barbarian Vol.1 (featuring issues #1-6) and Savage Sword Of Conan Vol.1 (issues #1-5). The new Conan stories are excellent in my opinion and I'd highly recommend them. But I'm a life-long Conan fan so I'm a bit biased :)


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