By Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith, with John Jakes, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2555-0 (TPB)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe in Blockbusters… 9/10
During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority. This body was created to keep the publishers’ product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.
One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian, via a little tale in anthology Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore no little thematic resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry (now Windsor-) Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was gradually breaking out of the company’s all-encompassing Jack Kirby house-style.
Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic book adventures of Robert E. Howard’s brawny warrior soon became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world flowering in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.
After decades away, the brawny brute recently returned to the Aegis of Marvel. Subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” (due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers and intellectual properties rights holders), this bombastic tome of groundbreaking action fantasy yarns re-presents the contents of Conan the Barbarian #1-13 plus that trailblazing short story, cumulatively spanning April 1970 to January 1972.
Digitally remastered and available as a trade paperback or digital formats, these absorbing arcane adventures sparked a revolution in comics and a franchising empire in my youth, and are certainly good enough to do so once again.
The drama begins most fittingly with a classic map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus an accompanying quote I’m sure every devoted acolyte already knows by heart…
Set in modern America, ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ primes the pump with the tale of a successful writer who foolishly decides to kill off his most beloved character Starr the Slayer: a barbarian so beloved that he has taken on a life of his own and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep it…
After that we are catapulted back in time approximately 12,000 years into a forgotten age of wonders as writer Thomas broadly follows Howard’s life path for young Conan, beginning with the still teenaged hero’s meeting with a clairvoyant wizard who predicts his regal destiny (‘The Coming of Conan’ inked by Dan Adkins), through brief but brutal enslavement in ‘The Lair of the Beastmen’ (inked by Sal Buscema), before experiencing a minor Ragnarok in ‘The Twilight of the Grim Grey God!’
An aura of lyrical cynicism grows to balance the wealth of mystical menaces and brooding horror as the wandering youth becomes a professional thief and judge of human foibles in ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. Conan’s softer side is revealed in issue #5 after meeting the bewitching ‘Zukala’s Daughter’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) and liberating a wizard-plagued town. Buscema returned for ‘Devil Wings over Shadizar’, wherein the warrior tackles a welter of antediluvian terrors and both Adkins & Sal B applied their pens and brushes to expose ‘The Lurker Within’ – based on Howard’s magnificent The God in the Bowl – after which tomb-raider Conan crushes zombies and dinosaurs in ‘The Keepers of the Crypt’ (inked by Tom Palmer and Tom Sutton)
Thomas’s avowed plan was to closely follow Conan’s literarily-established career from all-but boyhood to his eventual crowning as King of Aquilonia, adding to and adapting the prose works of Howard and his posthumous collaborators on the way. This agenda led to some of the best, freshest comics of the decade. The results of Barry (not-yet-Windsor-) Smith’s search for his own graphic style led to unanimous acclaim and many awards for the creative duo.
By issue #9 the character had taken the comics world by storm and any threat of cancelation was long gone. ‘The Garden of Fear’ – adapted by Thomas & Smith, with inks by Sal B from Howard’s short story – features a spectacular battle with a primordial survivor in a lost valley before the wanderer returns to big city life, and learns too late to ‘Beware the Wrath of Anu!’
This god-slaying bout is mere prelude to another classic Howard adaptation, ‘Rogues in the House’: an early masterpiece of action and intrigue benefitting from a temporary doubling in page count.
‘Dweller in the Dark’ is an all-original yarn of monsters and maidens, notable because artist Smith inked his own pencils, and indications of his detailed fine-line illustrative style can be seen for the first time. An added bonus in that issue was a short back-up yarn by Thomas & Gil Kane with “Diverse Hands” called in to ink ‘The Blood of the Dragon!’ which tells of a very different Hyborian hero getting what he deserves…
Fantasy author John Jakes plotted the final tale in this initial outing as ‘Web of the Spider-God’ offers a sardonic tale of the desert with the surly Cimmerian battling thirst, tyranny pompous priests and a big, big bug in a riotous romp finished off by Thomas, Smith & Buscema.
Adding value to the treasury is a vast bonus section which includes pencilled cover art (used and unused), Thomas’ original script breakdowns annotated by the artist, extracts from Marvelmania (the company’s in-house fanzine), unused illustrations, house ads and Marvel bulletin items, cover roughs, concepts and finished art by Marie Severin & Gil Kane, John Jakes’ plot synopsis and many pages of original art from the tales collected herein.
Also on show are cover galleries of the Marvel Books reprint paperback line and the Conan Classic comics series – all by Windsor-Smith – plus even before-&-after alterations demanded by the Comics Code Authority on the still contentious and controversial title.
These re-mastered epics are a superb way to enjoy some of American comics’ most influential and enjoyable blockbuster moments. They should have a place on your bookshelf.
© 2020 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”).