Wednesday, May 29, 2013

La Reina de la Costa Negra: The Mystery of the Mexican Conan Comics

The latest iteration of the ongoing monthly Conan series from Dark Horse (written by Brian Wood) has received a great deal of praise from critics and readers alike for its fresh take on the iconic 80-year old barbarian. However, the series has had mixed reviews from the hardcore Robert E. Howard fans to say the least, and has been the subject of much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth on various REH-related online communities. Wood's current adaptation of "Queen of the Black Coast" is certainly a different approach to the classic story than what most longtime Conan comics readers are used to. The classic adaptation by Roy Thomas and John Buscema was a legendary run in the 1970's, spanning over 40 issues in the main Marvel title and for many the image of Buscema's Bêlit with her fur mono-kini is iconic. But what few people realize is that nearly a quarter of a century before Marvel's "Queen of the Black Coast" and six decades before the current Dark Horse version, the classic story of Conan and his she-pirate lover had already made their comic book debut in an obscure, unauthorized Mexican publication.

La Reina de la Costa Negra #2 (EMA 1958)
The series "La Reina de la Costa Negra" appeared in several formats in the 1950s and 60s. While Howard's original story was adapted in a few issues, the writers of this version took considerable liberties with the characters and added dozens of issues of pastiche stories. The most unconventional features of these stories included the fact that Bêlit—not Conan—is the lead protagonist and Conan is depicted with blond hair rather than black. The Black Corsairs of Howard's story were also changed to Vikings and first mate N'yaga had his name changed to Yanga. For many years there was very little known about these curious Mexican bootlegs and today they have achieved something like urban myth status among Howard collectors.

Supposedly, they first appeared on the radar of US fandom in 1966 when L. Sprague de Camp, then editing the Conan stories for the Lancer paperbacks, learned that the Mexican company Ediciones Joma was publishing a Conan comic book. De Camp contacted the company with the intention of trying to inquire about them, but they never replied and stopped publication (perhaps fearing a lawsuit) (Bacon 3). De Camp seems to have let the matter drop and the knowledge of this series was not circulated within American fandom. 

La Reina de la Costa Negra #16 (Joma 1965)
Then in 1968 collector Douglas Menville found a copy of La Reina de la Costa Negra #2 in a bookstore (dated October 8, 1958 and published by Ediciones Mexicanas Asocidas or E.M.A.). In 1970, when Marvel began publishing its Conan series, Menville contacted them to let them know about this earlier Conan comic from Mexico, but his letter was never printed or acknowledged. Then more issues began to appear: Roy Thomas acquired photocopies of #3 and #4 (dated October 15 and 22, 1958) and Menville found a copy of #16 published by Joma and dated December 16, 1965 (Menville 53). 

In 1976, Jonathan Bacon acquired a photocopy of #10 (again by Joma) dated October 27, 1965 from Bill Blackbeard at the San Francisco Academy of Art and reproduced it in full for his contribution to the APA fanzine REHupa #21 (Bacon 3, 5ff). Bacon mentions the story of De Camp contacting Joma for the first time in print and notes that it was believed that there were around forty issues printed. That same year, Glenn Lord, the executor of the Howard estate, mentioned the series in his Howard bio-bibliography The Last Celt, noting that at least forty-five issues were published by Joma in 1965-66 (Lord 333). 

Fred Blosser's article in Savage Sword #26
In 1978, the larger comic book community became aware of the series for the first time when Fred Blosser wrote an article for Savage Sword of Conan #26 describing a copy of La Reina de la Costa Negra #15 he had acquired from Roy Thomas (Blosser). After seeing Blosser’s article, Menville wrote Marvel again. This time Thomas was very interested in his information and made him aware of Bacon’s discovery (Menville 53-54). This led to Menville writing his own article (in Savage Sword #44) about his research into the series and more of the pieces began to fall into place. Menville also noted that issue 16 was a partial adaptation of the original "Queen of the Black Coast" story (55-57).

So by the late 1970s, several researchers had begun to compare notes and put together the story behind these interesting comics. It appeared at that point that La Reina de la Costa Negra had begun as a weekly series published for a few issues by E.M.A in 1958. Then after a gap of seven years the title had resumed in 1965, this time by Joma, with the break in publication occurring somewhere between #4 and #10. This remained the extent of the knowledge about these curious comics for the next two decades.

Cuentos de Abuelito 17 (CEMSA 1952)
Over the years a few more issues were discovered, but it was not until the advent of the internet and eBay that enough issues began to surface to fill in the gaps in the story. It turns out that the Joma series in 1965-66 was not a continuation of the E.M.A. run in 1958, but a completely different series with separate numbering. Then it was discovered that "La Reina de la Costa Negra" had first appeared even earlier in 1952 as a feature in an anthology series called Cuentos de Abuelito (Grandpa’s Stories). This was first pointed out by Paul Herman in The Neverending Hunt in 2006, but his information was incomplete. He noted that a series called Cuentos de Abuelito presents La Reina de la Costa Negra, published by Corporacion Editorial Mexicana S.A. (C.E.M.S.A.), had run for 18 issues in 1952 in a small-size format (4x5½") and that he owned a copy of #17 (502).

In 2008, Paul Wells, added a more information (and more questions) when he discussed "La Reina de la Costa Negra" in an article on sword and sorcery comics in Alter Ego #80. Using information provided by Ulises Mavrides, a researcher and collector from Mexico, Wells first notes that La Reina appeared in two issues of Cuentos de Abuelito, (13) then later contradicts himself saying that it appeared in issues 8-12 (14). He credits the writers of that story arc as Loa and Victor Rodriguez and the artist as Salvador Lavalle with covers done by Hector "Hecky" Gutierrez. Excerpts from these issues also indicate that they adapt the Howard story, though with Bêlit surviving at the end. The opening panels from #8 show Conan riding down to a port as in the beginning of the original Howard story (14). While Wells does not explicitly say it, this suggests that #8 may have been the first appearance of La Reina and thus the first comic appearance of Conan. That said, he clearly was not aware of the 18 issues that Paul Herman referenced so the question of exactly how many issue of Cuentos there were and how many contained Conan stories was still unclear.

Opening panels of Cuentos de Abuelito #8 adapted form the orginal story.
Wells did have more information on the two later standalone La Reina de la Costa Negra series. According to his source, Mavrides, the digest-sized (5x7") E.M.A. series ran for 11 weekly issues from 1958-59 (13). Written by Riol de Man, it retooled some of the stories from the earlier Cuentos series with new artwork by Lavalle and Gutierrez (including no small amount of swipes from Joe Kubert’s "Viking Prince" that was running in The Brave and the Bold at the time). 

The later Joma series (standard comic book size), according to Wells ran for at least 47 issues in 1965 to 1966 (17). The early issues of the Joma series were re-prints of the 1958 E.M.A. series, but new stories by J. Kstro and art by Lavalle were added for the later issues. One of the interesting characteristics of this series is its depiction of violence and gore, which was far more graphic than anything the Comics Code Authority would have allowed in the United States at the time. 

La Reina was much more violent than US comics in the 60s

For the next couple of years, that was where the knowledge of these books stood. The 1958 and 1965-66 series were fairly well-documented with the latter being more common (though still very scarce). The earlier Cuentos de Abuelito series was still more of a mystery and they were incredibly rare. Unlike comics in the US, Mexican comics were not collected until very recently and were considered disposable trash. It is remarkable that any of the issues from the 1950's survive.

Then in 2011, there was a break-through when a Mexican collectibles dealer acquired a full run of Cuentos de Abuelito and put it on eBay. The auctions never ran their coarse, however, as someone made a private deal to buy all of the issues with Conan appearances for several thousand dollars. Scans of the covers of many of the issues were saved by various individuals and they can be seen online now on several sites such as Jungle Frolics and CROM!. I contacted the seller recently to get more information from him and discuss these interesting comics. 

Conan's 1st comic appearance: Cuentos de Abuelito #8 (1952)
First of all he was able to confirm that issues 1 through 7 did not contain "La Reina de la Costa Negra" stories. Therefore it can now be said with some certainty that the first appearance of Conan in a comic book is Cuentos de Abuelito #8. Its scarcity is probably impossible to overestimate. There are at least two copies in existence: Mavrides' copy that was pictured in Alter Ego #80 and the recent eBay copy. There may have also been another copy in the 18 issues that Paul Herman knew about (though it is possible that set is the same as Mavrides' set). The eBay seller was also able to confirm that there were no Conan stories in issues 20, 22, 27, 29, and 31. But that every other issue from 8 to 61 contain "La Reina de la Costa Negra." That makes 49 issues of Conan comics from 1952-53, many of which had never been seen in the US before 2011. It is also very likely that some of these issues have less than five to ten copies in existence. As time goes by and collectors become aware of their significance, more will likely come to the surface and we will be able to more accurately judge their relative scarcity. 
The 1958 series also seems to be quite scarce. Only issues 2, 3, 4, and 11 have been positively identified. It is possible that the series went beyond 11, but that has not yet been confirmed. The latest issue that has been positively identified for the 1965-66 series is #53, though Jim Van Hise once posted on the REH Forum that he had seen a #60 sell on eBay. No copy of the first issues of either the 1958 series or the 1965 series have ever been shown publicly. Again the internet has made our knowledge of rare collectibles grow rapidly in just a few years and has help shed new light on this old mystery of the strange Mexican Conan comics. 

My personal collection of La Reina and Cuentos comics.

[NOTE: This is a revised version of an essay that appeared in REHupa 237 (October 2012) and in Comic Book Quarterly 11 (Spring 2013). Last year I acquired a set of eight copies of issues from the 1965-66 Joma series from a collector in Belgium and I also know a collector that has a copy of #11 from the 1958-59 E.M.A. series. Even more amazingly I had the good fortune to acquire one of the Cuentos de Abuelito issues (#58 from 1953) from a seller in the summer of 2012. Just this week and since the original publication of this article, I acquired a large collection containing issues from all three series, including a large number of Cuentos del Abuelito, which I believe may be the sames ones that Paul Herman saw years ago. It also included issues 2, 3, 4 of the 1958 series, which may be the same copies that circulated among Menville, Thomas, and other researchers in the 1970s. Another large group of Cuentos sold on eBay recently including a few of the earlier issues like 12. My hope is that in spreading the word about these rare comics more will begin to surface and we can get a better understanding of how many are out there.]


Bacon, Jonathon. Ixion Unbound 5, compiled in REHupa 21, ed. Jonathon Bacon. May 1976. 1-38. Print.

Blosser, Fred. "The Other Queen of the Black Coast." The Savage Sword of Conan 26. January, 1978. 42-46. Print.

Herman, Paul. The Neverending Hunt. Rockville: Wildside Press, 2006. Print.

Lord, Glenn. The Last Celt. West Kingston: Donald Grant, 1976. Print.

Menville, Douglas. "Conan the Conquistador." The Savage Sword of Conan 44. September, 1979. 52-57. Print.

Wells, Paul. "Sword and Sorcery in the Comics, Part 1." Alter Ego Vol. 3, No. 80. August, 2008. 3-36. Print.


  1. Artículo Fantastic! Yo nunca había oído hablar de estas publicaciones antes de hoy ya que nunca leí a través de todos los celtas LAST y se perdió el resto de publicaciones. Bravo!

    1. Muchas gracias, Russ. La historia de su descubrimiento por parte de los fans americanos es tan interesante como los propios cómics.

  2. Great Job! I collect certain Mexican and Spanish-language comics and know how hard it is to track down copies! I lived in Venezuela for ten years and was able to track down a tiny quantity of certain books that were distributed there. There is a Venezuelan cartoon magazine, Fantoches, from the 20s & 30s that was extremely popular and I was never able to turn up a single copy! Some important comics and characters -- such as perhaps the first super-powered protagonist, Paturuzo -- are virtually unknown here and mightily expensive when found.

    1. Thanks Mike. Collecting non-US comics is certainly a challenge -- but it's a lot of fun.

  3. This was awesome info, Jeffrey. I'd never even heard of these. I'm going to go look up the article from SS #44! Great work!

  4. Thanks for sharing your collection with us at Howard Days, Jeff.

    1. Your very welcome. Having fun stuff in your collection isn't much fun at all unless you can share it with friends.

  5. Jeff, those are indeed the same issues Paul spoke of. I bought them and now they are yours.

  6. Dear Jeffrey: congratulations for your blog. It has very interesting information. I'm a collector of Monje Loco, a mexican horror comic that appeared in various decades in different collections. I'm making an investigation about Monje Loco issues in Cuentos de Abuelito. Could you inform me the date of the christmas issue #25, which features Conan and Belit and Monje Loco in the cover?
    Carlos from Montevideo, Uruguay


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