When Dark Horse began reprinting Marvel's vintage Conan the Barbarian series well over a decade ago, I jumped on board with gusto. Some have criticized the reproduction (with some justification) but for a reader who has many if not most of the originals, those changes merely are a variation which added luster to a fresh read. Conan has proven to be an amazingly sturdy character and since his reintroduction into the pop culture in the 60's with the Lancer books and the Marvel books, he's been a sales leader. Robert E. Howard tapped a vein which was so pure that almost no amount of adulteration can totally undo its charms.
Let me begin my look at The Chronicles of Conan with the very first volume which gathers together some of the earliest work of Barry "Not-Yet-Windsor" Smith. Smith was tapped to draw the book for a very simple reason, given the cost of the license (tiny enough) he was considered cheap enough to try out this new venture with limited financial exposure. Roy Thomas had originally tried to get Thongor of Lemuria (he knew of it and relatively little of Conan) and only by a host of coincidences landed the contract to do Conan. (Roy's memories of those days are included in this volume by the way.) He and Smith created something with a brash energy which to my mind sits on the border of Silver and Bronze Ages of comics. Along with Jack Kirby's New Gods, Conan marks the beginning of a new era in the way comics were done.
Conan the Barbarian #1 features what just might be my all-time favorite cover. It ain't the best one I ever say, but there's a certain indefinable charm and energy to these early Smith images which overcome the raw technique. I've featured the cover on this blog many times and it always makes me eager to read the comic which it advertises with such gusto.
"The Coming of Conan" by Thomas and Smith features Dan Adkins on inks. His take on Smith's raw work is distinctive but lacks the lavish depth that later inkers will give to it. We find Conan fighting alongside warriors of the Aesir against the dreaded Vanir. He pursues a particularly heinous Vanir named Wulf who has killed his ally and is put upon by winged demons who take him unconscious into the lair of a wizard and he wakes next to a beautiful girl. The wizard projects into the future and we see that Conan himself will become king among other things. It turns out the girl ain't what Conan thought, but he escapes nonetheless to pursue his destiny.
In "Lair of the Beast-Men" Sal Buscema steps in to ink Smith's pencils and the result is quite effective. Conan this time finds the body of giant furry beast and is soon waylaid by his kin and made into a slave. He of course objects, leads a revolt and utterly changes the nature of the subterranean society. With this second issue it becomes clear that Conan's "superpower" is his potent will and his upbringing as a rugged barbarian which will brook no compromise. This purity of spirit is attractive in the abstract to us mere civilized folk who have to compromise daily to get along.
This time when I read the stories, I read the fifth issue next because it was the next produced by Smith and Thomas but it was delayed for a few issues. Adjustments were made to the continuity but in watching Smith's artwork unfold and develop seeing five before three is important. "Zukala's Daughter" is inked by Frank Giacoia and despite the verteran's skills he's not the best choice. Conan comes into a village put upon by the wizard Zukala and his shape-changing daughter Zephira. They hire the barbarian to kill the wizard and plot to kill the barbarian when he returns. Conan follows through on the contract but fails to kill the wizard and loses the girl. He decides to keep heading out and doesn't have to confront the duplicitous villagers after all. This is not the last we will see of Zukala and Zephira.
With the third issue, the comic really begins to gel. The artwork becomes much more tender and the attention to detail is maximized. Smith uses tiny panels to tell a complex story of two armies who confront one another on a great battlefield for the glory of their kings and the glory of their gods. It seems that Conan, who is drawn into the battle and must avenge a friend he makes along the way meets one of these grim grey gods and that encounter is pretty chilling indeed.
Conan the Barbarian four is a breakthrough issue. "The Heart of the Elephant" might be the single best Robert E. Howard story featuring the hero that he ever wrote. The...ahem...heart of the tale is unmatched in the canon and the complex plot is never confusing thanks to some deft storytelling by Thomas and Smith. Sal Buscema's inks make the most of Smith's lush artwork which seems to be developing at an astonishing. The story is that Conan makes his debut as a thief when he seeks out the glittering tower in the Zamorian city of Arenjun which most say is besotted with jewels. But it also has a wizard. He finds an ally of sorts and he finds Yah-Kosha a strange visitor from another world and one of the most tragic figures in literature. The denoument of this story is one of my all-time favorites.
"Devil Wings Over Shadizar" in the sixth issue is a turning point. In this one Conan becomes a mature character in several ways. For one he starts appearing with nipples, no big thing would imagine, but one of the oddball tropes of comics is that nipples didn't exist, even on bare-chested men (since bare-chested women were a no-no any it never comes up). The Sub-Mariner didn't have nipples, the Hulk didn't have nipples, no one had nipples until Conan. It's a small thing but it made a big impression and pointed out to this young reader the artificiality of many comic motifs. Also Conan meets Jenna, a charming whore who will appear off and on through the series and is the girl who convinces the young Cimmerian to doff his two-horned helmet. Later of course she betrays him, despite the fact he saves her life. The idea that Conan's look might change from issue to issue was novel also and added to the realism. The story here is really quite a good one with Conan facing down a death cult and their monster god in a city which earns its nicknamed of "wicked". One funny bit is when Conan encounters two rogues named "Fafnir" and "Blackrat" who of course are shoutouts to Fritz Leiber's two heroes from Newhon. Blackrat is a one-off but Fafnir will return.
"The God in the Bowl" was an unpublished Howard story (in his lifetime) but gets a good adaptation here. Dan Adkins steps in to help Sal with the inks and along with Roy and Barry they tell a neat little thriller. Conan gets involved with a duplicitous woman (a trend) who hope to wrangle the treasure which has come from the deep South of the continent. They encounter not jewels or precious metals but rather a monstrous snake with a weird human face sent as an assassin by a distant wizard to kill a rival. Conan survives but barely this time.
Wrapping up this volume is the eighth issue which features an original story titled "The Keepers of the Crypt". Tom Sutton is inking Smith this time and to my eye its the best yet. Because of his crimes Conan is being pursued on the Brythunian border and he manages to eliminate his enemies save for one who along with Conan form a rough partnership of sorts when they encounter a hidden ancient city. They find jewels and a very distinctive dragon and some exceedingly weird mummified guardians. Despite the cover there is no girl until later when Conan happens to meet Jenna again and she of course begs his forgiveness and the ride off as the story closes.
These early issues of Conan the Barbarian have a delightful energy. Each issue is a one-off though the story of Conan's early life is clearly one with a memory and a direction. He wanders but he is a man living his life and doing things from day to day. The strange thing is this seems in many ways more realistic than the fancy lives of superheroes who for all their soap opera antics still fall short. There was a vibrant immediacy to these stories, in which people really die that added to the thrill. This stuff seems commonplace now, but it was earthshaking then, at least it was to this fan.
More to come in Volume Two later.