Like many Howard fans, I was first introduced to his lusty characters through Marvel comics. Piggy-backing on the success of Lancer’s paperbacks, Marvel launched the four-color Conan in 1970. It ushered in a comics phenomenon that continues until today, almost half a century later. Let’s look at some of the highlights of Howard’s comics career, starting with Conan and Kull.
I think it is significant that Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was released in 1970, a watershed year, heralding the end of the Sixties and the love and peace generation. The black-maned barbarian may have worn his hair long, but nobody would’ve mistaken him for a pacifistic flower child. Here was a red-blooded, assertive hero for a new era in which the disillusionment of Vietnam seeped into pop culture, spawning a generation of amoral anti-heroes. Eschewing garish, day-glo spandex and traditional heroic virtues, Conan anticipated the punk movement, which swept away the last vestiges of the love generation. He was a Hyborian Sid Vicious avant la lettre with a broadsword.
Naturally, I didn’t realize any of that when I first came across the character on the cover of CtB #4 on a newsstand in Melbourne in the early Seventies. I was about nine years old and a loyal Marvelite and superhero devotee. I recognized the Marvel logo, but who was this bare-chested, helmeted lout masquerading as a hero? I didn’t know and I wasn’t interested despite the pulp allure of the giant spider and the scantily-clad damsel in distress. It all seemed a bit seedy and steamy. Being a good little Catholic, I was more interested in wholesome Peter Parker and his virginal sweetheart Gwen Stacy. So, I passed on the classic “Tower of the Elephant,” a decision that was to haunt me for many a year. Ah, the sins of youth.
Green Empress of Melnibone
I wouldn’t become a full-blown Conan fan for another year or two with issues 14 and 15. At the time, I was really enjoying Barry Smith’s short run on the Avengers. Issues 98 and 99 had already come out and I was looking forward to issue 100 with all the anticipation a pre-pubescent boy can summon (and that’s plenty). One fateful afternoon, I found my big brother lounging on the living room couch reading his latest acquisitions. Even upside down, I recognized Smith’s distinctive style, but I mistakenly thought it was the eagerly-anticipated Avengers #100. Little did I realize it at the time that it was something even better. Due to the unpredictable vicissitudes of comic distribution in Australia in the early 70s, my brother had managed to snag issues 14 and 15 of Conan. It was a rip-roaring double-parter pitting Conan and Elric of Melnibone against the evil sorcerer Zukala and the Green Empress of Melnibone. I had never read anything quite as enthralling and exciting, nor seen art as mesmerising and visceral, marrying an ornate grace with an almost operatic sturm-und-drang. It made me a fan of Conan and Barry Smith for life.
My next introduction to the Howard’s creations and the sword and sorcery genre came shortly after. I’m not completely sure of the chronology, so forgive me if I play loose and fast with history. My brother had come home with another treasure; Monsters on the Prowl #16 featuring Kull the Conqueror. He looked vaguely like Conan, but the artwork was clearly not Smith, which was a bit of a let-down initially. This was actually Kull’s fourth Marvel appearance. He had debuted a bit earlier in Creatures on the Loose #10 in a story by none other than Berni Wrightson in a story called “The Skull of Silence.” It is a beautifully illustrated tale and the young Wrightson does himself proud. It was probably better than what Smith was doing on Conan at the same time. It would be years, however, before I would ever lay eyes on that masterpiece. Kull then premiered in his eponymous mag, illustrated by the unlikely and miss-matched team of Ross Andru and Wally Wood.
Issue 2 of Kull the Conqueror saw the debut of the mag’s regular artistic team consisting of the siblings Marie and John Severin. They would go onto craft a wonderful 10-issue run on the mag, which is among the highlights of sword & sorcery comics. It took me a little while to get used to the Severins’ artwork compared to Smith’s, but once I made the mindshift, I loved their work almost equally. John Severin’s meticulous inks lent the mag a classic look that owed more to Harold Foster’s Prince Valiant than to Smith, who was then writing the book on sword and sorcery comics. Severin’s take is more traditional and less visceral than Smith’s, but it has a timeless, illustrative quality that easily makes it stand the test of time. Monsters on the Prowl (MotP) #16 with its fetid swamps, leviathans and serpent men sent thrills and chills down my spine. Until this day I still remember with a shudder the scene in which a young guardsman begs Kull to kill him before he comes under the thrall of the loathsome serpent men. The noble Kull honors his request without hesitation. This was a different kind of hero than your average Marvel adventurer.
A Phantasmagorical Feast
My next big Howard thrill came with Kull #3, which takes place after right after Monsters on the Prowl #16. The story pits Kull and his faithful companion Brule the Spearslayer against the evil necromancer, Thulsa Doom.
An epic battle unfolds, in which the barbarian king confronts skeletal horses, demons, goblins and all kinds of other horrors conjured up by Doom. Kull eventually wins the mismatched battle through a combination of sheer grit, tenacity and valor. The Severins turned in a beautiful job and the issue is a phantasmagorical visual feast, the likes of which had never been witnessed in comics before. This was real sword and sorcery. Both issues were superbly scripted by Roy Thomas, but issue 3 was his last issue for the nonce. The Severins went on produce another seven issues of Kull with various writers. They were all beautiful to behold and provide good solid, sword and sorcery thrills, but they never again reached the pinnacle of MotP #16 and Kull #3 with Roy at the writing helm.
“The Black Hound of Vengeance”
My next encounter with Smith’s Conan came a few months later, when I stumbled across a copy of issue 20 while visiting my father’s work in the heart of Melbourne. It was another mind-blowing mag and until this day “The Black Hound of Vengeance” remains my second favorite issue of Smith’s color run on Conan and among my most cherished sword & sorcery comics ever. Within the span of mere two years, Smith had developed into a masterful storyteller, producing seamless visual narratives. The pacing and staging was incredible as Smith masterfully manipulated the reader, just as the evil sorcerer of besieged Makkelet, Kharim Azar, sends Conan scurrying like a scared rat through his labyrinth of mirrors, pulling his strings like a master puppeteer. This imagery is further enhanced by the image of a puppet with severed strings in the bottom panel of page 19.
These kinds of subtle visual cues showed Smith’s complete mastery of his craft, even at such a young age. Of course, I had no idea why Smith’s work had such a powerful impact on me. All I knew is I wanted more, which led me on a year’s long search for back issues.
The great joy of Barry Smith’s meteoric rise to fame on Conan is tracing his rapid evolution from a faux Kirby on Conan #1 to a consummate comics artist with a distinctive style all his own. Smith’s unique combination of cinematic story-telling with an unerring eye for decorative detail, presented comic readers with “an age undreamed of.” To be honest, you had to be a veritable Oracle of Delphi to predict his later greatness based on issue 1, but he progressed by leaps and bounds, producing a certifiable comics classic with the aforementioned “Tower of the Elephant.” Issue 4 is universally acclaimed as Smith’s first great work and it is a fine comic, but as far as I’m concerned Smith’s first real masterpiece is Conan #7; “The God in the Bowl.” This probably has something to do with Dan Adkins doing part of the inks.
Seeds of Greatness
Smith quickly went from strength to strength, developing at an amazing rate under the constant deadline pressures. You see his decorative style slowly emerge under Sal Buscema’s overpowering inks and his storytelling prowess improves with leaps and bounds. Smith reached his peak when he found an inker more sensitive to his pencils like Dan Adkins. Outside of his self-inked work, Smith produced his best material on Conan with the assistance of Adkins. Sadly they only did a handful of issues together.
During his short tenure on Conan, Smith actually produced his best work on the b&w mags, where free of tight deadlines, he was allowed more time to give free rein to his imagination and to ink his own work. His first b&w tale was The Frost Giant’s Daughter for Savage Tales (ST) #1, followed shortly after by the amazing Dweller in the Dark, which bears all the seeds of latter-day Smith’s greatness; ornateness, opulence, decadence, sensuality and hair-trigger violence.
Smith Sees Red
Smith’s evolving style is often mistakenly described as art noveau, but it owes more to the romantic, illustrative style of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood than the more decorative work of Beardsley and Mucha. This style reached its peak in on Ctb #24; The Song of Red Sonja and his epic two-part adaptation of Red Nails in ST 2 & 3. Red Sonja was Smith’s swansong on CtB and a fine tune it was. He went all out on the issue, inking and coloring it himself. It’s an exquisitely rendered tale full of lusty, red-blooded action, as Conan allows the eponymous Red Sonja to let his loins do his thinking for him.
The story contains some of most subtly sensual imagery in comics up until then. Despite Smith’s delicate handling, Marvel still felt it necessary to move Conan’s hands from under the water’s surface, where they were having a party and place them demurely on the small of Sonja’s back. Smith certainly went out in style, but he would return for an encore and what an encore it was.
Farewell Fab Barry
With Red Nails, Smith’s comics career reached its absolute zenith. It’s his Abbey Road. Like the Fab Four, Smith’s talents developed at an unprecedented pace. Compare the bubblegum pop of Please, Please Me to the sublime song-smithing on Abbey Road. The difference is light years apart and not a mere 8 years. Now compare CtB #1 with Red Nails, a mere three years later. There is a quantum leap in quality. As if sensing it would be his final word on the character he helped catapult to iconic status, Smith pulled out all the stop, leisurely pacing the story and even adopting a new, lush inking style, perfectly utilizing the b&w medium. Rarely had the comics medium witnessed such finely-wrought, fully-conceived, evocative imagery. The result is a visual cornucopia of vivid images that etch themselves into the reader’s minds-eye like those catchy Beatles song, lingering long after the final page has been turned on. And thus the book closed on Smith’s Conan career, ending an era in the mag’s history.
The Common Denominator
The common denominator in most of these stories is writer Roy Thomas, who ensured Howard was first adapted into comics and who skilfully shepherded his various creations for more than a decade. Thomas deserves a great deal of credit for his masterful work on Howard’s properties, displaying a clear understanding of their characters and respect for them. He also did a fine job of translating Howard’s prose and ethos to comics, presenting a much more faithful version than most of Howard’s prose pastichers. Doug Moench wrote some decent material on Kull, as did Alan Zelenetz, but when it came to Marvel, nobody wrote better sword and sorcery than Roy.
End of part one. In part two; Barbarians in Full Color B&W, David takes a look at more Howardian highlights in comics, including the Thomas/Buscema era on Ctb and Savage Sword of Conan, Mike Ploog on Kull, Frank Brunner’s only Conan classic and Solomon Kane’s storied comics career.