Heroes Con: Conan the Barbarian #163
By Andy Frisk
June 20, 2010 - 21:57
Writer(s): Michael Fleisher
Penciller(s): John Buscema
Inker(s): Charles Vess
Colourist(s): George Roussos
Letterer(s): Janice Chiang
Cover Artist(s): Ernie Chan
After cruising up and down the aisles of this year’s Heroes’ Con in Charlotte, N.C., passing out my business cards to the small and indie presses, publishers and creators while offering my services as a reviewer of any material they would like to pass on to me, then standing in the various lines to get a specific creator, writer or artist’s autograph, and THEN attending some panels on which to report back about, I finally got down to my favorite part of this and all comic book conventions: rummaging through the countless bargain bins and long-boxes that populate most of the physical space at most comic cons. These boxes and bins are often crammed full of titles from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and other various publishers that are not of any speculative value (I hate using those words when talking about comics!) or are rare enough to have a dollar value that is driven by their scarcity. Several of these long-boxes are crammed with titles from the 1990s, a major boom and bust time for comics (and many other markets), that were massively overprinted and are almost given away at this point (except for those early 1990’s Uncanny X-Men titles like issue #266—of which I of course own since I used to be a huge X-Men fan). I own most of the issues in these boxes, so they don’t interest me much. I’m more interested in the specific period from the very late 1970s to the mid 1980s.
I was between the ages of 5 and 10 during these years, and was already reading at a somewhat advanced level, or so I’m told by my most likely overly proud Mom, and was already into comic books. My dad, more so than Mom, encouraged my burgeoning love of comics by buying me whatever caught my eye, which was usually Superman or Thor (and of course only whatever they approved of—Dad was a little more liberal than Mom when decision making time came—I suspected he wanted to read them as much as I did, or maybe even more so!). Even though times were very shortly to get very rough economically for my parents, they managed to squeeze out the $.15 to $.60 for various titles. Unfortunately, very few of these early books still remain in my collection as they were very well read and therefore very well thumbed, and in some extreme cases used as coloring books by my younger brothers. Some of the cover images and some fleeting and faded memories of internal art images are still barely visible in the rusted and dusty file cabinet of my old memories. One in particular that stayed with me through the years was the cover image of Conan the Barbarian #163 (Oct. 1984). Anytime I late night channel surf past a rebroadcast of the 1982 big screen version of the Cimmerian’s origins, Conan the Barbarian, or think back on those early childhood years which were filled with dog-eared comics and lazy summer days biking around the neighborhood letting my imagination run wild, this certain issue of Conan the Barbarian often comes to mind. I remember it as having a very special place in my tiny and parent-funded comic book collection. It was my first Conan comic book, but at this point was also long gone. When I came across it in a $.50 bin this year at Heroes Con, quickly purchased it, and hurriedly sat in the corner to fondly thumb through it, Conan the Barbarian #163 proved to be much more than just a well remembered and cherished old comic book I once previously owned a copy of. It proved to be a virtual time capsule of memories, especially of the day Dad bought it for me…
Nardone’s Pharmacy at the corner of 5th Avenue and Arthur Street was one of my favorite places in our small Western Pennsylvanian town. They had the best counter-made Cherry Coca-Colas and a rack full of my favorite things in the world at the time, comic books. This was way before the days of the direct market. Single issues of comics were sold at nearly all newsstands (yeah there were still newsstands—no mass information overloaded internet yet), comic book specialty shops, and everywhere in between where print media was sold. I would often bike the few blocks to the pharmacy to check out what new action-packed and four-color-filled superhero adventures graced the stand and, if I had enough allowance left, buy myself, one of my brothers or childhood pals a Cherry Coke, and a comic book for me. In hindsight these early trips to the pharmacy were precursors to my current Wednesday (“Nerd Day,” as my fiancée jokingly calls them) trips to my local comic shop. Sometime during the summer of 1984, Conan the Barbarian (1982), the motion picture, must have been airing on HBO as I remember seeing promo spots for it and begging my parents to watch it. No way was that going to happen, and after finally watching it years later, I understood that a 9 or 10-year-old boy probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch it, even though it is incredibly and surprisingly tame by today’s standards. It didn’t matter, the promo spots were enough to get my imagination rolling and the mysteries of Conan’s adventures would roll around in my head all summer as I dreamed up what the plot of this awesomely cool looking movie could be. Conan obviously was a kick butt type of dude who had just about the coolest sword I ever saw. Conan also was a comic book character as I recognized his name. It was emblazoned across the top of at least a few different titles I often brushed past on my way to locating the newest Superman or Thor title on the racks. Now though, I held a newly kindled interest in Conan and his world that simply wouldn’t leave me alone until I read something more about it. It was a moot topic though as Conan and his fictional world were definitely off limits…
Off limits that is until the fateful summer day that I made my way, by myself this time, to Nardone’s Pharmacy. Their new shipment of comics had come in as I saw several different titles and issues on the racks that I hadn’t noticed there before. Somewhere on the rack this time, the newest issue of Conan the Barbarian was sitting. It had an orange background and an image of Conan with a wolf skin tied around his neck and over his head like a cowl while brandishing a rather small, but to me incredibly cool, axe with a menacing look on his face. It was perhaps one of the most totally awesome comic book covers I had ever seen. I quickly thumbed through it and this fleeting glance of Conan’s world was everything, and even more than, my overactive and imaginative brain could fathom. Swordplay! Monsters! Other barbarians (one of which looked to be Conan’s friend)! And most wonderfully of all…a beautiful girl with blonde pigtails in a midriff baring outfit that looked like she was Conan’s friend’s girlfriend! I would have to have this book and read it and find out what these wonderful characters were up to and what their world was about. I remember standing there trying to figure out what to do…I feverishly wanted to snap up this forbidden comic book, buy it and read it over and over. Where would I hide it though? Mom always had a way of finding my and my brothers’ hiding places with their treasure troves of the kind of junk young boys always collect like used firecrackers, snail shells, cool shaped (and in our minds, precious and rare) rocks, broken toys that were beyond repair but impossible to part from, etc. No, Mom would find my Conan comic book and I would get in trouble. There really wasn’t anything bad in it though…no naked ladies or blood… Should I try to get approval to buy it? Would Dad allow me to? Should I just forget the whole thing? No, by this point that wasn’t an option. Decisions, decisions…
I pedaled as quickly as I could back home as I was sure that if I did get permission to buy this comic book it would definitely be gone by the time I got back to the pharmacy. It was just too cool a book and every other kid from Koppel Elementary would be after it (in reality, I can’t remember a single friend of mine from those days as being comic book readers). Dropping my bike in the front yard, (I remember that bike well—it was a BMX type with blue padding on the handle bars and crossbar and had front foot plant pedals for tricking with—this was my and my friends’ great summer pastime), I ran into the house. My parents were seated at the table of our huge, white tiled floor kitchen discussing, most likely, the week’s finances, when I, all in a sweat (as Mark Twain would say of Huck) to get permission to buy my gloriously forbidden comic burst in and promptly lost my nerve…
“What is it Andy?” Mom asked.
“Uhhh…” I awkwardly replied, promptly forgetting my well though out arguments.
“Your Mom and I are busy, son, what do you need?” interjected Dad.
“I want to buy a comic book…” I started.
“Okay?” Dad didn’t see where this was going or why it needed announcing. I’ve bought comic books before with my allowance.
“It’s a Conan comic book…”
“Oh George, I don’t know…Andy, isn’t there something else you’d rather read?” Mom directed her prompt concern towards my father and then towards me.
Dad just sat there for about half a minute. He never really spoke much, or eloquently for that matter, but you could see the understanding in his eyes. He never had the gift that I ended up displaying later in life, that of the gift of words, but he was immensely gifted with understanding and (although you’d never know it) compassion. He knew I wasn’t a much of a youngster anymore, but wasn’t ready for the seedy adult world of Conan the Barbarian, the movie. He couldn’t insulate me or, very shortly, my brothers, from our rapidly expanding interest in the grown-up world and its more mature themes and stories. Conan the Barbarian, the comic book, was the type of middle ground work that would ease me into the world of mature themes. He knew I was reading beyond the comprehension of a kid of my age already, so I would most likely be able handle the fantasy violence of Conan’s comic book world (again incredibly tame, but more serious than Superman’s).
“Go ahead. But bring it straight home and if I don’t like it and take it away, don’t get mad. You can get something else with next week’s allowance.” Dad leveled this directive with the calm and steadiness of one whose familial authority was as steadfast as it was fair.
The trip back to the pharmacy and then home again seemed like it took forever, but in a matter of minutes I was standing back in the kitchen as Dad thumbed through my newly purchased Conan the Barbarian #163. After another few agonizingly long moments, Dad passed it to me…”Tell me about it after you read it, I want to hear what the story is about.” I realized later, much later, after Dad had passed on that he really didn’t care so much about what the stories behind what I was reading were about. He just wanted to hear me, full of excitement, relate what I read and what I thought about it as reflected in my enthusiasm or lack thereof. He was, in his own way, enjoying his son’s burgeoning talent for words and gab, that while they were incredibly meager themselves, surpassed his own, to his great joy.
Sitting on the concrete floor of the Charlotte Convention Center as the multitude of Heroes Con attendees hurried by, this simple single issue of the world’s favorite Cimmerian’s adventures managed to transport me back to a world where my biggest worries in life were keeping my baseball cards and comics out of the hands of my little brothers. It was a world that was a very safe place filled with love and the joys of childhood. It opened the rusty drawer in the old file cabinet of long neglected memories, not just of a child’s first “adult” themed comic book, but of a display of adult themed wisdom and judgment exercised with deft and great care by my Dad. Conan the Barbarian #163 is now one of the most prized pieces in my extensive comic book collection. Not because it has any type of monetary value, but because the memories about Dad it jogged and that I have committed to paper (or more aptly the internet) for posterity are priceless in ways that can’t be described.
Single issue finds like this one, culled from amongst the countless bargain priced issues from the 1980s that fill long-box after long-box at comic book conventions, truly represent the joy and wonderment that many of us children of the ‘80s and ‘90s feel towards our favorite hobby. It’s not about the money or value. It’s about a value that is as nearly indescribable as it is personal, yet universal to anyone with a heart and a memory.
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