For me as a young reader in early 1971, the road to Robert E. Howard’s fantasy realms of the Hyborian Age — and Marvel Comics’ version of the same — led through the equally imaginary landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
This was true despite the fact that, just one year earlier, I probably wouldn’t even have been able to tell you what the word “fantasy” meant, at least in terms of genre. Science fiction, horror, mystery, Western, romance — I had at least a rudimentary understanding of all of those, even at age twelve. But fantasy? What was that?
In the summer of 1970, however — after I’d been eyeballing the Ballantine Books editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on the paperback racks for some time, and continuing to be both bemused and intrigued by them (as I also was by the occasional Tolkien reference in the comics I read, e.g., X-Men #60) — my good friend Ann Cummings finally convinced me to buy and read them. As I recall, I bought all three books together at some convenience store in New Orleans, where my parents and I had gone for our summer vacation. I probably started reading The Fellowship of the Ring on the car trip back home to Jackson, MS; in any event, I didn’t come up for air until I’d finished devouring all three, days later, back at home. I was already a heavy reader in those days, and not just of comics, but I’d never read anything that compared to these books. My just-turning-thirteen year old self was utterly captivated by the world of Tolkien’s imagination. And I wanted more — if not more Tolkien (and while there was more of that, at least at the beginning, I tore through The Hobbit, and even The Tolkien Reader, pretty quickly), then more of something like Tolkien.
That same summer saw the debut of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian series. By this time, the American comics industry had been dabbling with genre fantasy for several years; earlier forays had included several Steve Ditko-illustrated tales for Warren Publishing’s black-and-white horror comics, DC Comics’ three “Nightmaster” tryout issues of Showcase, and a few short stories in Marvel’s own “mystery” (i.e., Code-approved horror) anthologies, illustrated by the likes of the legendary Wally Wood, as well as the much less well-known Barry Windsor-Smith.
The culmination of these flirtations in Marvel’s acquisition of the “Conan” license from the estate of his late creator, Robert E. Howard, was driven largely by associate editor (and prolific writer) Roy Thomas, who wasn’t necessarily a big fan of the genre (yet), but was attempting to be responsive to what he perceived as a significant amount of interest on the part of Marvel’s readership. Thomas’ bosses, editor-in-chief Stan Lee and publisher Martin Goodman, knew even less about “sword and sorcery” than he did, but were eventually persuaded by the younger man’s persistence. Goodman, however, remained skeptical, and was determined to keep the costs of production down; thus, having coughed up money in Marvel’s budget for a modest monthly licensing fee, he wasn’t willing to offer a high enough page rate for either of the two artists Thomas thought best-suited to the project — John Buscema and Gil Kane — to take on the job. Ultimately, then, the gig went to the aforementioned Barry Windsor-Smith, a young Englishman who had worked with Thomas on Daredevil and Avengers, among other things, and whom Thomas believed would bring a distinctive look to the project.
That decision might have disappointed some comics fans, but my younger self probably wouldn’t have been among them; as much as I liked both Buscema and Kane, I was also one of those who’d enjoyed Windsor-Smith’s early Marvel work, which, though heavily influenced by Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, and unquestionably sporting more than a few rough edges, also demonstrated tremendous energy and a flair for dynamic, imaginative storytelling. In the summer of ’70, however, I was still working my way back into the comics-buying habit after having gone through a months-long spell where I’d largely lost interest in the medium. And so, while I was happy to see Windsor-Smith’s return to regular series work at Marvel — and in fact started picking up Astonishing Tales when he began drawing the “Ka-Zar” feature — I wasn’t especially inclined to try something brand new, which is what Conan seemed to be.
Also, as keen as I was to find something else to read that was “like Tolkien”, I didn’t immediately see the genre kinship between Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian. Probably within a year or so, I would come to understand how the “sword and sorcery” school of pulp fiction pioneered by Howard, and the perhaps more literarily respectable “epic fantasy” of Tolkien, were different but related strains of the same genre; but in the latter half of 1970 it was hard to look at the furry-loincloth-wearing swordsman on the covers of Marvel’s comics and see much affinity with Tolkien’s hero Aragorn, let alone Frodo Baggins.
By January, 1971, however, I seem to have managed to work out that there were, in fact, enough similarities between the two properties to make Conan worth a look. Perhaps I was encouraged in this by my fairly constant exposure to Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks, whose stunning Frank Frazetta covers always drew my eye, and which were consistently racked close to Tolkien’s stuff regardless of where I did my book-browsing.
And perhaps I also happened to have an extra fifteen cents on me that day at the Tote-Sum, and Windsor-Smith’s fine cover for Conan the Barbarian #4 appealed to me more than anything else on offer in the spinner racks. Who knows? One way or another, the comic found its way into my hands, and ultimately, into my home. (Where it still resides, I’m happy to say, though of course the location of “home” has changed multiple times in the past half century.)
It was, in many ways, a perfect issue with which to sample the early Thomas and Windsor-Smith Conan. The young artist was improving rapidly on the job; while he still had a ways to go to achieve his mature style, his work was already noticeably better than it had been in the first couple of issues. His pencils for this installment also benefited greatly from the skilled and sensitive inking of Sal Buscema, probably the best of Windsor-Smith’s early embellishers save for the artist himself.
The story, too, was notable, in that it was the first such adapted from one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales. While issue #3’s “The Twilight of the Grim Grey God!” had been based on a Howard story, that one had originally had a completely different central character and setting, and thus had to be retooled by Thomas to become a Conan adventure. “The Tower of the Elephant!”, on the other hand, was the real deal — not only was it the earliest exploit of Conan’s career as chronicled by Howard, it was one of the best-known of Howard’s stories about the hero. (Attesting to its continued popularity, “The Tower of the Elephant” has been adapted into comics three additional times in the last fifty years, twice with scripts by Thomas.*)
Not that I would have known any of that, of course, when I first opened the book to its first page…
“Master Frodo? Um, I think maybe we took a wrong turn after the Bywater bridge. This doesn’t look like the Green Dragon.”
In his Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1 (Pulp Hero Press, 2018), — a very worthwhile read for anyone who admires Marvel’s early Conan comics, incidentally — Roy Thomas writes: “The tavern scene, the first in a Conan comic (but not the last!), was the model for all the rest. And though it may have been equaled, it’s never been bettered.” He’s probably right about that.
On page 2, the “fat, gross rogue” at the center of the first page’s splash panel begins to boast about the beauty of the unfortunate young woman he’s recently abducted into slavery (who, we’re informed, is intended to become the handmaid of the wife of the slaver’s aristocratic client — a slightly less unsavory fate than we might otherwise imagine, but not by much):
According to Thomas’ account in Barbarian Life, Windsor-Smith originally had the last two panels of page 2 in reverse order; Thomas’ requested change, which makes for a more dramatic first appearance by our story’s protagonist, seems to me to be a good call.
Responding to Conan’s query, the Kothian proceeds to condescendingly explain to the young barbarian from Cimmeria that if the jewel hasn’t already been stolen by someone in this city of thieves, it simply can’t be done. As another of the tavern’s patrons points out, in addition to the guard who patrols the tower’s grounds, there are more soldiers on duty in the tower. And as for trying to avoid the soldiers by scaling the tower, forget it, says the Kothian; the tower’s walls are as slick as polished glass.
Conan, however, is not dissuaded:
You might read that three-panel sequence above and guess that Thomas and/or Windsor-Smith came up with that “blackout” business as a way of getting a bit of bloody bedlam past the Comics Code — but it’s actually straight up lifted from Howard’s prose original (which, thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia, you can read in its entirety here).
Thomas writes in Barbarian Life that the scene shown above was largely Windsor-Smith’s invention; in Howard’s original, Yara doesn’t show up until near the story’s end. Thomas also indicates admiration of the artist’s idea of showing Yara walking with his feet floating above the ground; it’s interesting, therefore, that the writer’s narration makes a point of noting that Conan doesn’t actual witness this latter phenomenon, since if he had, “he would flee in stark fear, back toward the wastes of his barren homeland…”
Once the guard has closed the gate and moved on, Conan climbs over the wall, and begins to stealthily make his way through the tower’s gardens. Before he can get very far at all, he stumbles over a body; it’s the solitary guard he’d seen mere moments before. In that short interval, someone has choked out the soldier’s life.
This is probably as good a time as any to pause and reflect how odd it seems to me, a half century later, that my thirteen-year-old self apparently had no compunctions about identifying with a “hero” who not only was an unapologetic thief, but was also the kind of thief who wouldn’t stint at cold-bloodedly killing someone who just happened to get in his way. (No, Conan didn’t kill the guard himself, but it’s pretty obvious that he would have, had things gone that way.) This was a time when the protagonists in virtually all the fiction that I read or watched were unassailable moral paragons (with the notable exception of Dark Shadows‘ Barnabas Collins, who could be pretty damn ruthless even after he “reformed” from being a predatory vampire, but whom I was apparently willing to cut a whole lot of slack). Maybe I just assumed that, being the star of his own Marvel comic book, Conan had to be a hero.
As excellent as Barry Windsor-Smith’s art is through most of this story, especially in the areas of design and decoration, it has to be acknowledged that his drawing still occasionally exhibits a technical weakness here and there, such as in the awkwardness of Taurus’ figure in the third from last panel above. As already noted, however, the 21-year-old artist was noticeably improving with each and every issue, and soon these sorts of flaws would be things of the past.
Taurus is the person responsible for the guard’s murder, of course. And though he usually works alone, he admires the young barbarian’s grit enough to suggest that they go in on this job together. Conan agrees, and they set off again through the gardens — which, it turns out, do have other guards; just not human ones:
Regarding this page, Thomas writes:
The tower itself, with its walls adorned with fabulous jewels, marked the start of one of the most characteristic stylistic features of the issues that Barry went on to illustrate. In the last panel on page 8, Conan stands before a wall encrusted with jewels whose ten thousand shapes seem to emerge from the central figure of the Cimmerian as a way of showing his surprise. Barry had just broken with the Kirbyesque convention of expressing surprise with simple straight lines. He continued to use these kinds of devices in all the Conan stories he drew.
The reason for Conan’s surprise turns out to be another lion, who’s managed to escape Taurus’ lotus powder. The barbarian quickly dispatches the beast with his sword — so quickly, in fact, that you have to figure Howard must have thought his hero had been playing the passive observer just a shade too long, and so tossed in this perfunctory bit of bloodletting. (Or maybe the hard-working pulp writer simply wanted to pad his word count.)
Taurus assures his young associate that all the treasure of the tower will be theirs, once they secure the Elephant’s Heart. Then, upon reaching the roof of the edifice, the older thief sends the younger to the far side to scout for any guards that might have arrived below. Conan is a bit suspicious, but still does what he’s told. A moment later, however, he turns back to his companion, only to find the other man gone:
Had Taurus intended to betray Conan? It seems very likely, though it’s obviously a moot point now; the Nemedian is quite dead, without a mark on him… save for two small wounds at the base of his neck. Yikes!
At this point, another man might immediately skedaddle back down the rope and get the hell out of there — but not our stalwart young Cimmerian, who cautiously moves forward into the domed room…
And here, at last, we meet the giant spider promised to us by the book’s cover (which is more than can be said about the lovely young woman also portrayed thereon, who, alas, never shows). Upon reflection, I think this arachnid menace might have helped make the “this is kind of like Tolkien” case for me when I saw this comic on the stands, as it could well have reminded me of Shelob, or the somewhat less formidable Great Spiders of Mirkwood.
And now we know why it’s called the Tower of the Elephant. Presumably Conan has doped that out as well, despite the fact that, being the inexperienced northern barbarian that he is, he’s never seen such a creature in real life. (Earlier in the story, we were told that Conan had heard an elephant described as a “monstrous beast, with a tail at both ends”.)
And here we see that Conan is in fact a more empathetic character than the callous thief and killer he might first appear to be; he’s capable of feeling compassion towards a stranger, even an inhuman one; and, as we’ll see presently, he also has a rough sense of justice.
Perhaps he’s even capable of feeling shame, since, when Yag-Kosha says he can smell blood on Conan, the Cimmerian at first dissembles, owning up only to having killed the spider in the domed chamber and the lion in the garden. The creature isn’t fooled, however; he tells Conan he knows that he’s killed a man this night, and that another man lies dead in the chamber above. But he’s not judgmental.
“Listen, o man,” says Yag-Kosha. “I am foul and monstrous to you, I know — but you would seem as strange to me, could I but see you. For, there are many worlds besides this earth — and life takes many shapes…”
With the panels shown above, our story leaves the strict confines of the sword and sorcery subgenre and veers into science fiction — though, considering that Windsor-Smith depicts the folk of Yag as traveling through the airless void of space with no visible means of propulsion, let alone life support, “science fantasy” might be the better term. (Although I’ve sometimes wondered whether Howard meant for his “elephant men” to have come to Earth in spaceships, which crashed or otherwise failed in our terrestrial environment, and which Yag-Kosha refers to metaphorically as “wings” simply for Conan’s benefit. Perhaps not, however, since, as we’ll see, the lost wings return — after a fashion — to play a role late in the story. Still, it’s a thought.)
Yag-Kosha’s references to Valusia and Atlantis serve as a sort of plug (perhaps an accidental one, since the references come right out of Howard’s original story) for Marvel’s adaptation of Howard’s other, earlier barbarian fantasy hero, King Kull — a native of Atlantis who rises to become the ruler of Valusia. — who’d made his comic book debut a month earlier, in Creatures on the Loose #10, and the first issue of whose ongoing title, Kull the Conqueror, would appear in March.
Continuing his account, Yag-Kosha explains to Conan that, eventually, all the other Yag-ians died, “for, we are not immortal, though our lives are as the lives of the stars themselves…” Eventually Yag-Kosha, last of his kind, found himself worshiped as a god in the land of Khitai:
The restraining hand of the Comics Code Authority is evident in how Windsor-Smith is required to depict Conan’s fatal stabbing of Yag-Kosha in the last panel of page 16. (For the sake of comparison, the illustration of this same scene by J.M. (“Jayem”) Wilcox, which accompanied the original publication of Howard’s story in the March, 1933 issue of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, is shown at right.)
Once the being from the stars has expired, the clear crystal of the Elephant’s Heart jewel magically turns blood-red. (This is another concession to the Comics Code, as in Howard’s tale Conan is required to cut Yag-Kosha’s heart from his body, and then squeeze out the blood from it it over the gem, to effect this transformation. [Ew.])
Conan then takes the gem in hand, and descends the steps of the tower to fulfill Yag-Kosha’s dying wish:
To my mind, the final three pages of this story are every bit as stunning today as they were fifty years ago. Thomas’ skillful adaptation of Howard’s prose, Buscema’s deft inking, Sam Rosen’s assured lettering — and, last but not least, the dramatic and effective coloring, credited in the Grand Comics Database to Mimi Gold — are all virtually faultless.
But in the end, the greatest triumph belongs to Barry Windsor-Smith. It’s still rather astonishing to look at this comic and realize that it was drawn by the same artist who, just three years before, had been dismissed by many fans as an amateurish Kirby wannabe. With Conan, however — even more so than with the somewhat similarly exotic Ka-Zar — the artist had finally found a setting where he could fully explore and indulge the inspiration he’d found in such non-comics sources as Art Nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelite painters. And he was only going to get better.
Naturally, back in 1971, my thirteen-year-old self didn’t know his Mucha from his Millais, but he — I — knew what I liked. And I liked both what I saw and what I read in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #4. There were enough of the fantasy genre elements that I had loved in Tolkien’s works — swords, magic, monsters, imaginary lands — to scratch that particular, pre-existing itch; but fantasy a la Conan had its own distinctive flavor, as well; one that I found I enjoyed. I’d be back for more Hyborian goodness, and soon… but, of course, that’s another post, for another day.
*In order of publication:
“The Tower of the Elephant” by Roy Thomas, Doug Moench (writers), Rudy Nebres, Pablo Marcos, and Alan Kupperberg (artists). Daily syndicated newspaper strip continuity, Oct. 20, 1980 – Jan. 3, 1981, Register and Tribune Syndicate.