John Buscema will go down in comic book art history as one of its most dynamic heroic artists, with an individual style that, for a significant time, was so synonymous with Marvel Comics that their primer How to Draw The Marvel Comics Way could only have been done by Buscema. But he also occupies a more idiosyncratic place as the artist who had the most unenviable job in comics history: filling the cosmic-sized shoes of Jack Kirby after Kirby left Marvel, after arguably the greatest creative and prolific era ever created by a single artist.
For Buscema was the Lou Gherig to Kirby's Babe Ruth - a great artist who lived in the reflected light of the greatest. I respected Buscema's Fantastic Four and Thor, but loved Kirby's archetypes more. The same goes for Conan; for me, it's the later Barry Smith Conan, the Conan of Red Nails, say, that is my idea of the definitive version of the character, more so than even Frazetta's. Buscema followed in his departure and "Marvelized" Conan into a standard Buscema brute character, in much the same way that Romita had to follow Ditko on Spider-Man, and turned him into a standard superhero, with none of the idiosyncratic twitches that made Ditko's Spider-Man so unique (if you're like me, no disrespect to Romita, there have always been only 38 issues - and 2 annuals - of Spider-man). Though Romita certainly has his adherents (as recent homages by Rude and Tim Sale attest), and, like Buscema, ranks as a Hall of Fame comic book artist, their work on those characters will never outshine that of their predecessors.
And that's how I always felt about Buscema vis-à-vis Conan - until I saw the first of those black and white Savage Sword of Conan stories he illustrated, "Iron Shadows in the Moon" (#4, February 1975), that was inked by the great Phillipine artist, Alfredo Alcala. From the very first splash page, we are in awed witness to the unveiling of a new look to Conan and his world, one that combines the superheroic dynamism of Buscema with the organic texturing of Alcala. From that point on, in ten issues that spanned a two-and-a-half-year period (‘til #24, November '77), the team of Buscema and Alcala created a body of Conan artwork that, as the epitome of Buscema's works on the character, not only stands with the best of Smith's, but also shines as paragons of black-and-white comic book art.
How ironic. Here Buscema has just passed away and yet, when I think of his career, the work I think of most are those Savage Swords - primarily because of the inks of Alcala, who passed away a few years ago. Critics of this work usually cite Alcala's overpowering inks as the problem; I say it's no different than citing Kirby's Sky Masters of The Space Force as great work (some say Kirby's best) because of the incredible - yet overpowering - inking by the legendary Wally Wood. Murphy Anderson gets the same rap for his teamings with Carmine infantino and Curt Swan; in fact, Infantino himself has gone on record for not caring for Anderson's heavyhanded inks.
Yet, in the same way Vince Coletta's praised for his scratchy rendering of Kirby's pencils on Thor (those that he inked, of course), while he's often pilloried for his inking elsewhere, because his scratchy look suited the rough-hewn world of the Norse warriors more than the slick, high tech world of the Fantastic Four that Joe Sinnott rendered so well (though for my money I'd still rather have seen Sinnott on Thor), so too were Alcala's ornate, elaborate inks - while often looking out of place in a slick, high-tech modern world, were right at home in a more rustic, ancient world.
And especially in an ancient, black and white world. There are two schools of inking for black and white reproduction, the artists who modify their approach to suit the special demands and limitations - yet infinite possibilities - of the black and white concept, and those whose work looks essentially the same in color. Sure, Alcala, along with all the other great Filipino renderers - Nino, Nebres and Redondo - was basically known for a heavily rendered approach that was expected to be applied in either color or black and white, but in these Savage Swords, Alcala goes that extra step to make each page - yea, practically every panel - a tour de force of brush-and-pen and ink hatching and cross-hatching to rival Joseph Clement Coll or Charles Dana Gibson or any of the past masters of pen and ink. Spotting of blacks, direct and indirect lighting, brush feathering and rendering of a panoply of organic textures, from wood to stone, from vine to vegetation, resulted in a staggering amount of pages (remember, these were all roughly 40-page stories) that became virtual tapestries of pen and brush virtuosity, giving the finished work an appearance to rival that of any exquisite engraving.
Which made, therefore, perfectly awesome stages upon which to tell Conan stories, and therefore makes for the best Buscema Conan art of all - and perhaps Buscema's greatest work. He claimed to enjoy his Conan work the most of all his Marvel output because he didn't have to draw the modern world, so the swaggering, sinewy figure dynamics and strong sense of place and perspective that is found in all of Buscema's work are on fuller display in Conan, the fullest in black and white in these Savage Swords - because the most lush and atmospheric rendering by Alfredo Alcala ensures that this singular body of work will stand the test of time as the definitive artistic legacy of John Buscema.