Saturday, May 8, 2021

Epic Conan - The Coming Of Conan!

Marvel's Conan the Barbarian series is a very important one for me and I think I just figured out why. I'm second generation Marvel fanboy, chiming in around 1968 or thereabouts. By this time most comics scholars reckon the burst of utter energy which most identify as Marvel has already begun to recede. Galactus has come and gone, as has Steve Ditko. Stan writes fewer and fewer books as Roy, Gary, Archie and others step in to fill the void. Jack Kirby is annoyed and has put a bottled up many of his creations for himself at a later date, though one here and there will still slip out. DC Comics recognizes at last the threat of Martin Goodman's company which has just slipped the leash which limited Marvel's newsstand presence. New comics by new talents were flocking onto the stands and among these was an old hero made new, one created by one of the pulp's greatest Robert E. Howard. 

New artists were needed to fill the pages and among the talents tapped by Marvel was a Britisher named Barry "Not-Yet-Windsor" Smith. He along with his writer buddy Steve Parkhouse had dropped in on the Marvel Universe but immigration law flogged them back to "Merry Old England" and it was some months before Smith could properly showcase his talents which blossomed with each page he drew. Seeing a raw talent like Smith grow and become increasingly skilled and recognized for that skill was fun to see, but also growing up before my eyes was a surly Cimmerian from a shadowy territory in the North of a mythical land. Conan is a teenager when we first meet him, not much older than I was myself and not unlike many older fans who utterly identified with Peter Parker, I found I identified with Conan. 

Part of the power of Smith's Conan is that when his style matured, he drew Conan as what he was, a lithe young man, still immensely powerful but clearly not a man who had grown into his full maturity. That sense of youth was unconsciously attractive to a boy like myself who yearned for a life different from what he was leading on a farm tucked neatly way in the shadows of the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Conan was a free man who wandered his world and took on threats without hesitation or qualm. While that's not the kind of man I have ever been, that clarity of purpose in life, to live on your own terms was and is immensely attractive. I might not have daydreamed of cleaving skulls precisely but the modern world does make young men and women seek uncluttered responses. Learning that life is not nor ever will be so simple is called growing up. 

As I read the Conan stories this time, I consulted the recent book by Roy Thomas where he once again illuminates from his perspective how those stories came to be shaped and how they fitted into the larger Marvel publishing scheme. It was a hectic time for comics in the early 70's and the eventual success of Conan the Barbarian helped shape it to no small degree. 

Actually the first story in this collection is not about Conan at all, but rather was inspired by Lin Carter. Starr the Slayer is a character who doesn't wish to disappear when his creator tires of making his stories and in the pages of Chamber of Darkness #5 we discover how he's able to do something about it. This was an experiment by Thomas and Windsor-Smith (hereafter dubbed "BWS") and is filled with raw energy that even the untutored BWS could bring to a comic page. 

In the debut issue of Conan the Barbarian we meet our hero as he fights on the snow-covered slopes alongside the Aesir against the Vanir. His savagery is immediately evident and in this story which has the thankless task of introducing a new hero, a new world, some villains, some allies, and more than few supernatural monsters, we find it deft at all of these tasks. We even learn as does Conan that he will be a king some day and that knowledge will come up again and again in the series. 

The second issue finds our hero battling a semi-civilized underground society of ape-men. The art is improved by the addition of Sal Buscema on the inks and BWS is still drawing in his raw forceful way. 

The art takes a tremendous leap forward in the third issue which is much more elegant in many respects and much more somber. Conan is an important presence in the story but the tale itself is really about others in the cast who choose both wisely and unwisely in life and love. The advance in art technique is because this is actually the fifth issue to be drawn by  BWS and he improved by the page. 

The fourth issue is also the fourth drawn by BWS and its one of the most famous Conan stories ever told. The story of Yag-Kosha the forlorn visitor from the stars has always been one of the most potent that Marvel ever produced. 

The fifth issue is a step back artistically, but that makes sense since it was the third to be drawn. The encounter with the wizard Zukala will of course come back to haunt Conan again later in the series. 

In the sixth installment Conan the Barbarian really matures as a series with BWS doing the best work yet and the obligatory horned helmet getting the shove after doing its duty to make Conan a recognizable figure on the stands. Besides a sideways introcution of Fhafrd and the Grey Mouser created by Fritz Lieber we also meet one of the best characters ever in the series, the lovely and always untrustworthy Jenna. 

The God in the Bowl was developed from a fragmentary REH story and it's one of the best of the series long run. The monster, a giant snake with a refined human mug was truly scary. 

Jenna's back in the eighth issue as Conan has to hit the trail again being chased by the local authorities. His attempts to steal various things from various places over the course of the series constantly put him at odds with the powers that be and in this one he fights ancient mummies and an enormous Gila Monster to boot. 

The Garden of Fear is one of scariest damn stories Marvel ever published. The flying creature who never speaks and lives alone in a tower surrounded by meat-eating flowers in a valley of Mastodons is as weird as the series ever gets. The monster man in this one reminded me much of the enigmatic creature from those Jeepers Creepers movies. 

The series gets one of its most potent emotional moments when an ally of Conan's gets hanged. Conan always seems to be a man alone but when he makes a friend he is true to the core and loyalty means more to him than all the gold he constantly gets and loses. Fending off a giant bull god ain't no fun either. 

The lovely Jenna is at it again and in this one she turns on Conan just as he's about to confront the Red Priest. This is a double-size saga, with some of the BWS art in the series and a wonderful adaptation of one of the most famous REH stories. The fight with Thak the ape that wants to be a man is amazing. 

Conan finds himself in the desert again and has to struggle against a wicked queen who wants his body of course but then cannot share him even for a second. This one was a story done originally for Savage Tales #2 and so has more nudity that the color comic usually displayed and the violence had a little more blood as well. It's a good story with BWS inking himself. 

This collection wraps up with a story plotted by John Jakes who at this time was most famous for his Brak the Barbarian. Conan has to fight yet another giant spider, a humongous one as big as a bus and he survives but barely. This is wild and crazy adventures with some dandy images, but it's missing a little of the heart of some of the earlier escapades. 

This collection is chock full of extra goodies as well. Several "Roy's Rostrum" articles from Marvelmania magazine as well as the house ad used to promote Conan. I love this kind of material as it takes me back to those heady days as a kid reading these stories for the first time and wanting to be Conan, at least when he wasn't getting nibbled by giant spiders. 

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  1. I'm a greedy boy so it will come as no surprise to some that I have two copies of this Epic Collection, plus the Omnibus Edition, plus CTB #1. Why two? One to (re)read, one to keep in reserve for the future. Just think - if it hadn't been for Marvel watching the budget, John Buscema would've drawn Conan from the start and BWS might never have had the chance to hone his skills in the way that he did.

    1. I'm like you. I own more different versions of this run of comics than about anything else, save perhaps for Kirby's Fourth World. It was indeed a lucky day when cheapskate Martin Goodman denied Stan the money to hire "Big" John and later we're lucky Gil Kane turned down the gig full time so that Buscema could eventually work his magic on the strip he likely enjoyed the most in his career. And we're also lucky that Lin Carter's agent turned down Roy's first offer for Thongor, the S&S property he first wanted to adapt. The success of Conan in comics and elsewhere as it turned out was dependent on a lot of things happening just so. Even in the novels the success of the character is often credited to Fazetta as much as to REH's stories, though in the long run those tales had to stand the test of time too.