As the year 1970 wound down, it seemed that mainstream American comic books had, at last, embraced the “sword and sorcery” fantasy subgenre in all its pulpy glory. After some tentative moves in that direction — courtesy of DC Comics’ three “Nightmaster” issues of Showcase in 1969, which were followed in 1970 by Marvel’s publication of several S&S short tales in its new horror anthology titles like Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows — Marvel finally jumped into the deep-end of the pool in July, 1970, with a licensed adaptation of the field’s most prototypical character, Robert E. Howard’s Conan:
By November, Conan the Barbarian was on its third bi-monthly issue, and its writer, Roy Thomas — unquestionably the driving force behind Marvel’s foray into sword and sorcery — was probably already planning the forthcoming comic-book debut of another Howard-created barbarian hero, King Kull. Nevertheless, Thomas’ enthusiasm for genre fantasy seems to have been so great around this time that it couldn’t help but spill over into other things he was writing — like Avengers.
Avengers #84’s “The Sword and the Sorceress!” (that title’s a dead giveaway, right?) opens with a wonderfully atmospheric splash page, as the title’s regular artists, John Buscema (penciller) and Tom Palmer (inker), bring their always-formidable “A” game to a scene that says “fantasy” at least as much as it does “superhero”:
The Black Knight depicted here — the third Marvel Comics character to bear that name — is Dane Whitman, whom Thomas had introduced back in Avengers #47 (Dec., 1967) as an occasional ally of the Assemblers. He’d finally ascended to official team membership about a year before this story, in issue #71 — though on a long-distance, call-me-when-you-need-me basis, due to his being based in the United Kingdom (which helps explain why he hadn’t shown up in the book since then).
“The Well at the Center of Time!” Pretty evocative name, that, eh? According to remarks Thomas made a few months later on the letters page of Avengers #89, he was likely inspired in its coinage by the titles of two classic works of fantasy: William Morris’ 1897 novel The Well at the World’s End, and William Butler Yeats’ 1916 play At the Hawk’s Well.
Some readers at the time, however, noting that the “mystic waters” of the well look rather like molten lava, and that the scene’s protagonist is shown attempting to destroy a powerful magical object by hurling it into said “waters”, wondered if Thomas hadn’t also been inspired in his crafting of this scene by yet another fantasy classic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (specifically, the sequence in which Frodo Baggins attempts to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom)*. But, according to Thomas’s comments in the aforementioned Avengers #89 letters column, his depiction of the unhealthy bond between Dane Whitman and his magic sword was less consciously influenced by Tolkien than it was by another fantasy author; more on that in a bit.
Taking once again to the skies on his winged horse Aragorn (whose name is definitely a Tolkien reference), the Black Knight proceeds to battle for his life, wondering all the while why these unknown warriors on their winged… not-quite-horses want to kill him; indeed, he poses that very question out loud:
Arkon the Magnificent had been introduced by Thomas, Buscema, and Palmer earlier in the year, in the same two-issue storyline that saw the return of the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to the Assemblers’ ranks — but since I hadn’t been reading Avengers (or hardly any other comics, either, for that matter) during the months when #75 and #76 were published, the guy was new to me. Besides which, since I myself had yet to pick up an issue of Conan the Barbarian, and so still didn’t quite “get” the whole sword and sorcery thing, I’m not sure that I comprehended where the inspiration for the character had come from.
In his 2008 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 8, Thomas provided the following background regarding his creative process in developing Arkon:
This was the immediate pre-Conan the Barbarian era, when Marvel and DC were flirting with introducing the sword-and-sorcery genre into comics… For my part, not yet being firmly committed to straight “s&s,” I was flirting with combinations of Robert E. Howard’s Conan/Kull template and the older “sword-and-science” feel of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series starring John Carter of Mars. That was the basis of Arkon…
Certain aspects of Arkon and his world — notably the unearthly flying creatures, and the alien night sky — clearly derive from the subgenre of science fiction called “planetary romance” (or “sword-and-science”, to use Thomas’ phrase) typified by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars”. However, in November, 1970 my younger self would have been just as unlikely to recognize these influences as I would the sword and sorcery stuff, seeing as how my experience of planetary romance was pretty much limited to the Hanna-Barbera animated TV series The Herculoids. (That lack of familiarity would change in a little over a year, naturally, when DC Comics would acquire the ERB license and start publishing an adaptation of Burroughs’ first John Carter novel… but that’s a topic for another post, on another day.)
Also according to Thomas, both he and Stan Lee were so impressed with John Buscema’s visualization of Arkon and his world that the artist became their “unequivocal first choice” to draw Conan when Marvel finally licensed the rights to the hero — making it rather ironic that “Big John” would end up only the third penciller assigned to that series. (Though that, too, is a subject better left for discussion in a later post.)
In Avengers #75 and #76, Arkon learned that all life on his extra-dimensional world would perish without an infusion of energy from a large nuclear explosion on our world. The Magnificent one then traveled to our dimension to execute a plan to make the Earth go boom; along the way, he kidnapped the Scarlet Witch, intending to make her his bride. Ultimately, the Avengers averted disaster by finding another power source to keep the lights on in Arkon’s realm, and Wanda Maximoff rejected the warlord’s suit, despite feeling attracted to him (that destroying-the-Earth thing being something of a deal-breaker).
In the present day, the Avengers decide they’d better check out Wanda’s story, just in case she wasn’t simply having a bad dream. Placing a trans-Atlantic phone call to Dane Whitman’s castle in England, they discover that their fellow Avenger is missing; duly alarmed by this news, the team resolves to travel to Arkon’s realm to investigate.
As indicated in that last-panel footnote by “Stan” (i.e., editor Stan Lee — although the note was almost certainly actually written by Roy Thomas), the Enchantress had featured as the Avengers’ adversary in their most recent issue, #83, making this story a direct sequel to that one, in a sense. Having spent most of that tale masquerading as the Valkyrie, the Asgardian witch eventually to be known as Amora was, at its climax, blown away to parts (then) unknown by one of the Scarlet Witch’s hex spheres. Obviously, however, she’s come through the experience unscathed, and has landed very much on her feet.
Got all that?
When Dane Whitman had made his debut in Avengers #47, he was presented as the nephew and heir of the recently late Nathan Garrett, Marvel’s second — and villainous — Black Knight, a character with no apparent connection to the hero of the eponymous five-issue series published by Marvel (then Atlas) in 1955-56, But in Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (Nov., 1968), Roy Thomas had updated the third Black Knight’s pedigree, revealing that both Dane and his rotten Uncle Nathan were descended from Sir Percy of Scandia — the star of the ’50s Atlas series, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, and the original wielder of the Ebony Blade. In the course of that story, Dane Whitman was bequeathed that magical weapon by the shade of his ancestor, who explained that “wise Merlin” had fashioned the weapon for the OG BK “from a star which fell from the secret-shrouded heavens”.
The Ebony Blade — which originally went by the slightly more prosaic moniker of “the Black Blade” — had indeed been provided to Sir Percy by Camelot’s resident enchanter, Merlin, in Black Knight #1 (see left), and then carried by him through the remainder of the series. (As to its origins, however, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, a close reading of the original Stan Lee-Joe Maneely tale indicates that Merlin simply enchanted the sword that Sir Percy was already carrying, turning it black in the process, rather than make a new one out of a meteorite. But since we don’t actually see that happening directly on panel, I think we can allow Thomas a little artistic license.)
The Black/Ebony Blade didn’t demonstrate any especially sinister tendencies during Sir Percy’s 5-issue career in the Fifties, or in Dane Whitman’s early outings with the weapon in various issues of Doctor Strange and Avengers. But sometime between Thomas’ respective authorings of MS-H #17 story and Avengers #84 — perhaps during that period of “flirting” with bringing the sword and sorcery genre to Marvel — the writer discovered the Elric stories of British fantasist Michael Moorcock.
Like the Black Knight, Elric of Melniboné (introduced by Moorcock in the 1961 short story, “The Dreaming City” wields a magic black sword. This sword, named Stormbringer, provides Elric with unnatural vitality, but only by consuming the souls of the people it slays. And because it wants to consume souls, it exerts an influence on its “owner”, increasing Elric’s bloodlust and, on more than one occasion, causing him to take lives when he doesn’t want to do so. Sound familiar?
Thomas was obviously taken with the notion of a sinister, semi-sentient sword that’s its owner’s own worst enemy; so much so, that he retrofitted it into the Black Knight’s existing backstory. And it does make for good drama , though it also begs the question: if Sir Percy was aware of “the evil power inherent within [his] former blade”, why the hell didn’t he warn his descendant about it when he gave the sword to him? Seems a pretty dickish move for such a presumed paragon of chivalry, if you ask me. But, of course, if we’re unwilling to buy into that premise, we won’t be able to enjoy this story — or, for that matter, many of the other stories featuring the Black Knight that Marvel would go on to produce over the next half-century.
Having Sir Percy send Dane all the way to Stonehenge just so some other random sorcerous person can instantly whisk him to Arkon-land seems a rather roundabout way to get our guy where he needs to go. But, it’s atmospheric, I guess.
Meanwhile, back in our world, the Avengers have been trying to locate Thor, whose mystic Uru hammer is the only way they know of to bridge the dimensional gap. But it seems that the God of Thunder won’t pick up his phone (or, as Quicksilver frets on page 7, “respond to our electronic call!”), so the Black Panther goes out to look for him by scampering across Manhattan’s rooftops. Believe it or not, this actually works, and soon Thor and the Panther are making their way back to Avengers Mansion:
This story came out during a transitional era when the Avengers’ “Big Three” of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America could be said to be both on and not on the team. Years previously, Stan Lee had informed Roy Thomas that those three heroes, all of whom had their own titles, could only appear in Avengers as occasional “guest stars”. Thomas had technically complied with this directive — but ever since issue #66 or thereabouts, at least one of the big guns, and frequently all three of them, had turned up in virtually every issue. There were still exceptions, however — indeed, in the issue just prior to this one, none of the Big Three had appeared — and whenever one or more of the trio were in the story, Marvel was sure to note it on the cover. (Which might help explain why the Son of Odin is featured so prominently on #84’s arresting cover by John and Sal Buscema, while poor Dane Whitman, the focal point of the story, is shut out completely.) It would take another year for the trio’s presence in Avengers stories to be fully normalized — a minor milestone marked by the emblazoning of the names “Thor! Captain America! Iron Man!” just above the book’s title logo, beginning with issue #96.
But, methinks I doth digress. To return now to our story…
Unfortunately for Quicksilver — and for Goliath and the Vision, as well — they find themselves suddenly weakened, allowing Arkon’s warriors to quickly overwhelm them. I’ll give you exactly one guess as to who’s responsible:
While Thor wades into Arkon’s troops, the Panther heads for the tower, where he finds the Vision, Goliath, and Quicksilver all languishing in prison cells, without the will to even attempt to escape. Guessing that his teammates are under a spell which may make them susceptible to anyone’s commands, he orders them to free themselves:
In Avengers #83, the Enchantress was defeated handily (maybe too handily) when the Scarlet Witch enclosed her within a hex sphere, making her own magic rebound upon her. Why doesn’t Wanda try the same gambit this time? Um, beats me. But it’s sort of a moot point, since immediately after the Enchantress “triumphs” (as the next to last panel on page 19 tells us), she makes a speedy, off-panel exit from the story (as the first panel on page 20 is about to tell us):
And so, with the Ebony Blade destroyed forever in the Crack of Doom — sorry, the Well at the Center of Time — the Black Knight would return to being a guy who fought bad guys with a technology-based “power lance” — though, as things turned out, that particular reset lasted all of… (checks notes)… sixteen months. By the time of Dane Whitman’s next full appearance, in Avengers #100, it appears that Thomas had reconsidered the wisdom of depriving BK of his magical weapon; and so, in that issue, readers learned that the Ebony Blade hadn’t been destroyed at all, but had, rather, been transported to Olympus, the realm of the Greek gods. (Good story, but a discussion of it will have to wait until… oh, you know.)
Perhaps the scripter was influenced in this decision by his recently enhanced familiarity with Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, having by this time not just read a few stories about the doomed albino emperor and his cursed black runesword, but scripted a couple as well — namely, a two-part adventure teaming Elric with Conan the Barbarian, co plotted by Elric’s own creator, Michael Moorcock, drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, and published in the 14th and 15th issues of Conan’s series.
But however things went down back then, in the end it just goes to show — you can’t keep a good (or bad) black blade down.
*It’s possible that your humble blogger was one of those readers — I’d read Tolkien’s trilogy for the first time that very summer, and had fallen madly in love with it — but I don’t specifically remember making a connection between it and “The Sword and the Sorceress!” before the subject came up in the Avengers lettercol.