Saturday, December 9, 2023

Hawks From The Sea!

In the second Conan the Barbarian Epic collection titled Hawks From the Sea we get a mature Barry Windsor-Smith as he makes a return to the character who made him famous. Smith's tenure on Conan was a journey all its own. He came to the book a relative novice, but in short order his talent and hard work made him a canny craftsman who was not just displaying the digested styles of the masters he'd studied but was becoming an artist distinctive and original in his own right. 

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. 

This collection kicks off with a real game-changing storyline fashioned by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn, the two men responsible for the success of another sword and sorcery anti-hero called Elric of Melnibone. Elric was nearly the antithesis of Conan. The former was a weak albino nobleman who was empowered by the black magic of his soul-drinking sword Stormbringer. He was the servant of some of the myriad gods that sought to control his universe and Elirc was mostly famous for his failures. Conan was a rugged, savvy but untutored barbarian who rejected sorcery for the most part and fought using his own brawn and brains which were considerable.

The two of them are thrown together in this two-part storyline that brings back the sorcerer Zukala and his daughter Zephira, though both are much changed. There is death and confusion before the tale is told and by the end Elric has returned to his other dimension never to stroll the byways of Hyboria again. 

It should be noted that Barry Windsor-Smith took his inspiration for how Elric looked from the recent Lancer novels with art by Jack Gaughan. These novels featured Elric sporting a weird, pointed cap and when it was drawn by Smith it looked by nothing so much as a dunce cap. This was done on Roy's order and he apologized for it. 

And then Smith was gone, but not before his story produced for the debut issue of Savage Tales in glorious black and white was colorized and adjusted to meet color Comic Code strictures (they covered up the daughter's alluring breasts and made Conan desire to rape the fetching Atali a bit less apparent). It's as heady story of a young barbarian against impossible odds, potently done. It was not published in REH's lifetime, but still one of my favorite Conan yarns. 

Other than Elric and Conan, likely the sword and sorcery characters who have the richest history are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser created by Fritz Leiber. They debuted in the magazine Unknown and offered up a saucy and sometimes even satirical take on the form. Roy and Barry had created a duo in homage to Leiber's creations named Fafnir and Blackrat for a cameo in the sixth issue. They seemingly killed off one another in a slapstick manner. But it turns out Fafnir was made of sterner stuff. 

By issue seventeen it was time for Gil Kane to step in and offer up a two-parter that really showcased the contrast of Smith's work with a more standard approach. There's no denying that this is handsome work helped muchly by the inks of Ralph Reese, a story of a lost island ruled by a nest of gods and a partnership between two barbarians. The story is most remarkable for returning Fafnir to Conan's universe. 

By the end of this two-parter Gil Kane is already gone on to other endeavors. It paved the way for the return of Conan's prodigal artist Barry Windsor-Smith. His return would be a relatively brief one, but he'd made some of the best Conan comics ever done and some of my most favorite comic books ever. 

With the nineteenth issue Conan the Barbarian crosses over in epic territory with a storyline that will occupy the next seven issues of the comic. The story is inspired by The Iliad no less according to Roy and what we have is a tale in which Fafnir and Conan after having been salvaged from the sea by the fleet of King Yezdigerd of Turania are compelled to be a part of the army which will sack the city-state of Makkalet and retrieve the "Living God Tarim". (Expect no end of spoilers as I proceed, so if you haven't ever read this one I suggest you get it and do that first, because it is a flawed masterpiece.) In this issue which is partially produced from Barry's pencils (no time for inking) the fleet arrive and the first battle is waged and Fafnir is wounded grievously. 

The twentieth issue is one of the most important comics in my career. I still vividly remember having got hold of this one and sitting in a local eatery when a stranger, older than me and looking rather cool, comes over and asks if I have the latest Conan. This recognition by a stranger of my oddball hobby and his suggestion that the comic was indeed quite cool fired me up and told this farm boy that there was a larger world than  the one I knew. This is an important issue also because it's beautifully drawn and rendered and Conan's battle against his own allies and a black hound (with a descendant heading to Baskerville someday no doubt) was amazing. The cover is amazing. And the finale in which Conan learns that the horribly wounded Fafnir (lost an arm) has been tossed overboard alive is a stunner. Conan's swift silent killing of the offender says more about his savage nature than all the purple prose anyone could muster. (For the record Fafnir does actually survive but doesn't show up again for many years and then he gets a new arm, that of a demon.)

As good as the last issue was the next one was weaker with a trio of inkers (Dan Adkins, P. Craig Russel, and Val Mayerik) darkening the pencils of BWS. In this story inspired by an REH horror tale Conan is betrayed by his new comrades in Makkalet and set up to be a sacrifice to an ancient toad-god thing. Then in one of the smartest moves anyone in any comic ever did, he decides against revenge and just rides off to escape the madness of this nutty religious war. 

Under a beautiful cover we get a reprint of Conan the Barbarian #1. BWS was and is a mighty artist but his ability to meet monthly deadlines is just not on. His detailed work is magnificent but expecting him to deliver on a regular schedule will only breed frustration. Sadly that's the way most comics were back then. 

We did a nifty old-style Barry Smith pin-up but not much else for someone already in possession of the debut. 

In the next issue we finally get the tale of the Vulture, who it turns out is a master swordsman from Turan brought in by Yezdigerd to take care of Conan who put a scar on the prince's face. But as you'd might expect things don't go to plan and in this story drawn by BWS and inked by a trio of talents including Adkins and Chic Stone the Vulture becomes a one-off baddie. But this story did introduce a major character into the Conan universe and one who has gone on to become a power in her own right - Red Sonja! 

It's in the next issue of Conan, the last one by BWS that we get to meet Red Sonja in the...ahem...flesh. This is arguably the finest issue of the comic book Smith ever drew and it pushes a lot of buttons that normally don't get pushed in the color comics of the day. The lust Conan feels for Sonja, a woman who can fight with him fair and square is palpable, so much so that the Comics Code demanded a few adjustments to certain panels. 

In arguably the sexiest page in all the history of comics, in the same category as Jim Steranko's evocative SHIELD page featuring Nick Fury and Valentina De Allegro and a certain gun in a holster, BWS has Conan and Sonja go swimming and despite the cooling waters things get hot. The duo also fight a mystical giant jeweled snake but who noticed that after Sonja took her mail shirt off. She ditches our favorite Cimmerian to boot and that's gotta' leave a mark. 

It's the beginning of a whole new regime with the pentultimate issue of Tarim War in Conan the Barbarian with the arrival of "Big" John Buscema in the penciling position. Of course Buscema had been top choice when the Conan property first came available but he cost too much, but with the book swiftly catching on and selling quite well it was easier to slot such a talent in the role. His brother Sal, who had been the regular inker on Conan steps in to gussy up his brother's work an fine team they made indeed. But it was a different take on the Hyborian Age and fans had been wooed by the hyper-detail of the remarkable and memorable BWS era. Admittedly Conan immediately looked ten years older and my affinity to him was some lessened to that degree. 

And those fans got a little of that detailed magic back in the finale of the saga when a talented Philipino artist named Ernie Chan steps into the inker's spot and gives Buscema's powerful pencils a gloss that hit a chord. Due to the lunacy of immigration he was called "Ernie Chua" at the time, but still he and Buscema formed a powerhouse team that too Conan the Barbarian into the next phase of the his career. His days as a fledgling thief were largely done and now as a proven mercenary he would barnstorm both the ancient world in which he lived and the modern world of ours. 

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  1. Comics at there very best, sone great tales with the Shadow of the Vulture being a big favourite of mine . CTB issue 26 was my very fist Conan comic ( and was thw first time I had heard of the character) and CTB #16 was the first back issue I bought, I still remember being blown away by the art and story.

    1. Agreed. Conan twenty is special to me because I was the last of my group to fall away from comics (never did) and so felt oddly validated when a stranger saw me reading it in a local eatery and came over and complimented the comic. It was the first time I had first-hand contact with another true comics fan. Years later we were a dime a dozen in comics shops across the land, but back then it was rare indeed.