Conan the Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Mike Docherty, Tony DeZuniga & Tom Vincent (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-639-0

During the 1970′s, in response to a global downturn in superhero sales, and rise in interest in all things supernatural, the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practices. These had come about as a reaction to the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: A body created by publishers to police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-inspired Witch-hunt during the 1950s. Thus instead of crime comics – the other big casualty of the CCA – the first genre to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that came the pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian.

Sword & Sorcery prose stories had undergone a global renaissance in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and the 1960s saw the resurgence of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary versions of man, monster and mage. Indisputably the grand master of the genre was Robert E. Howard.

Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with a little tale called ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (from the horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4) whose hero Starr the Slayer bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by young Englishman Barry Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was just breaking out of the company’s Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month, the comic-strip adventures of Robert E. Howard’s characters were as big a success as the prose yarns. Conan became a huge success: a mega-brand that saw new prose tales, a TV series and cartoon show, a newspaper strip and most importantly a Major Motion Picture in 1982.

…And it all largely stemmed from the vast range of comics initiated by Thomas, Windsor-Smith (as he became) and the excellent succession of comics creators that followed.

Thomas was a huge fan of the prose material and took great pains to adapt the novels and short stories into the graphic canon, but he was also one of the top writers in his field and much of the franchise’s success devolves from his visceral grasp on the character, which makes this particular graphic novel of particular interest.

After the success of the first film Thomas and fellow Marvel stalwart Gerry Conway were invited to write the second movie script.  How they did and why their script was accepted and never made is textbook Hollywood (I know whereof I speak: buy us a drink one day and I’ll tell you my own tales of Tinsel Town Tactics) and makes a fascinating introduction to this tome; but the upshot was at the end of the protracted process the scripters had a brilliant Conan yarn that everybody loved but that wasn’t going to be Conan the Destroyer. This meant of course, that with a little wheeler-dealing and a few secured permissions it could be returned to the artform that spawned it…

Thus “King of Thieves” became the superb savage thriller ‘The Horn of Azoth’ and opens with the itinerant Barbarian earning a crust pit-fighting in Shadizar the Wicked until he runs afoul of a local Magistrate – to the legislator’s lasting regret. The burly brigand is captured by the city guard but escapes the dungeons with the aid of a beautiful young witch. Together they flee the city with her giant bodyguard and it transpires that she needs Conan to help her fulfil a dark and ancient prophecy. Of course she tells him it’s to help unearth a fabulous treasure…

Locating the lost fortress and broaching its defences are child’s play for a bandit like the Cimmerian, but the mages within prove an unexpected obstacle and the little band is soon augmented by a boy-wizard with his own hidden agenda and an Amazonian Nubian warrior princess as they all converge on a distant rendezvous with fate.

It’s soon clear that everybody is lying to Conan as warring factions struggle to awaken or re-inter antediluvian god Azoth. Whoever wins the world is equally imperilled and unless he works a miracle Conan is collateral damage in a cosmic war that has been brewing for eons…

With brawny battles, warring wizards and enough suspense to choke a mastodon, this action-packed yarn is rip-roaring fantasy fare, brimming with supernatural horrors, wild women and spectacular titanic clashes, cannily recounted by immensely talented creators at the top of their form. Especially effective is Mike Docherty’s supremely illustrative art, ably enhanced by Tony DeZuniga’s smooth inking and Tom Vincent’s lush colours.

Still available, this is a another magnificently oversized tale (produced in the European Album format with glossy white pages 285mm x 220mm rather than the standard US proportions of 258 x 168mm) that provides another heady swig of untrammelled joy for lovers of the genre and fans of the greatest hero ever to swing a sword or plunder a tomb…
© 1990 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.