Conan the Barbarian #4 (April, 1971)

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 (writer), John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala (artists).  The Savage Sword of Conan #24 (Nov., 1977), Marvel Comics.

“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.

“The Tower of the Elephant” (3 installments) by Kurt Busiek (writer), Cary Nord, and Michael Kaluta (artists).  Conan #20 (Sep., 2005) – #22 (Nov., 2005), Dark Horse Comics.

38 comments

  1. Derrick Ferguson · January 30

    I’ve owned a hardcover set of LORD OF THE RINGS since the 1970s and as of this date I have never gotten past the first fifty pages of “The Fellowship of The Ring” without dozing off. At least once a year I make a stab at trying to get through it but so far, no soap. If it hadn’t been for Peter Jackson I’d never know how the story ends.
    I chalk it up to having Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock as my gateway drugs into sword and sorcery. After experiencing them first, Tolkien seemed downright dull.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · January 30

      Aww, sorry to hear LOTR’s never taken with you, Derrick! But points to you for trying. 🙂

      Like

      • Derrick Ferguson · January 30

        I’m gonna keep hanging in there. DUNE is another one I’ve been trying to read since the 1970s but again, I can’t seem to get past the first fifty/sixty pages.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Keith Danielsen · January 30

          I’ve had the same problem with Faulkner. Can never get very far with him. And Jane Austen? What a snoozer.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Don · January 30

    It’s strange that you and I were both introduced to LoTR by the same person in the early seventies, especially since we didn’t actually meet until the end of 1975, but you know, it’s a small world and all that. I’d been a serious reader since I was eight years old, having devoured the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books in both my church and town libraries and also discovered L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and wanted more, but couldn’t find it. I had a sense that other things I’d enjoy were probably out there, but in those pre-mall days of the late 60’s/early 70’s I had no idea of how to find them. So when your friend Ann, who moved out to my neck of the woods for about a year during my Sophomore year of high school, pushed a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring into my hands during our Journalism class and said, “read this,” I did. In fact, I devoured it and mind-blown, my life was changed. From there, I discovered Narnia and Barsoom and yes, finally…The Hyborean Age of Conan. I discovered Conan through the Lancer books with those excellent Frazetta covers long before I found the comics. In fact, now that I think of it, my friend John may have actually introduced me to Conan before Ann pushed Fellowship into my hands. It’s been far too long and the chronology is vague and confused in my head, but I almost think that had to be the case, given the other memories I associate with those days.

    And yet, because when it came to comics, I was strictly a “flights and tights” kind of guy, I didn’t sample Conan as a comic until it came out in the Giant Treasury editions Marvel published in those days. Smith’s art, particularly in the large Treasury format totally swept me in, making me a fan from the very beginning and even though Buscema probably drew Conan longer and for many more stories than Smith did, when I think of Conan, I think of Barry Windsor Smith. Though this particular issue is just a hint at the wonder yet to come, Smith broke down walls and reinvented the way comics were drawn in ways that were almost as significant as Kirby himself. Without Smith, there would be no P. Craig Russell, no Kaluta, no Jeff Jones and so much more and we’d all be the poorer for it.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane, Alan. It’s probably good mental exercise to try and figure these memories out. I envy you your clearly much better recollections of those halcyon days of yore.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · January 30

      I’m a little surprised to learn that you first discovered Tolkien that much later than I did, Don, as well as that you didn’t pick up on BWS’ Conan until it was already in the reprint stage. Two to three years doesn’t seem like much now, but it was an eternity back then. I guess I’ve been making certain assumptions ever since 1975. 🙂

      And your reference to “pre-mall days” made me reflect on just how important the Waldenbooks at Jackson Mall was to me in the mid-Seventies, at least as far as my discovery of fantasy literature new and old was concerned. The history of my imaginative life would have been a lot different without that place.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Keith Danielsen · January 30

      Buscema seemed to pump out the artwork for the money. I don’t think it was ever an expression of artistry for him. He was fast and sold well. That’s all that mattered (although he could periodically say he hated the comics that made a good living for him for decades). I cringed when he took over Conan, especially after Smith had achieved his greatest success with the Song of Red Sonja.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alan Stewart · January 30

        J. Buscema regularly trashed the medium that supported him in interviews and on panels, there’s no doubt, but I wouldn’t say that he never cared about his art at all. It’s true that something seems to have gone out of him after Stan Lee denigrated his great work on Silver Surfer #4 (an episode covered in my post about that issue), but I think he was still able to bring enthusiasm (as well as facility) to his work on Conan and (to a lesser extent) Thor. The problem was that, for all the vigor and great draftsmanship he exhibited while drawing Conan, he could never really compete with BWS’ ornate otherworldliness, which had already defined the Hyborian Age for so many of us. For what it’s worth, my favorite Buscema Conan stories are the ones he himself apparently liked the least — the black and white stuff embellished by Alfredo Alcala in several early issues of Savage Sword of Conan. Gorgeous, and, yes, ornate, though in a completely different way than BWS’ art was.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. frodo628 · January 30

    Are you sure it was Walden at Jackson Mall? My memory of the bookstore there was a place called Bookland. Did they have both? Either way, you’re right in that “chain-store homegenization” of what they carried did make a lot more product available to us than had been in the old mom and pop and what-ever fit on the spinner rack at Jr. Food Mart (or Tote-Sum) days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Joseph Conteky · January 30

    It’s strange how things work out. I didn’t give this new Conan mag a second glance when it came out but by 1978, just before I took a ten year hiatus from comics, it was pretty much all I was reading. I had seen the house ads for the new Conan and even bought Kull #1 but seemingly couldn’t be tempted away from my beloved super heroes. Just like the horror mags of a few years later, I think I viewed Sword and sorcery as just the latest fad in comics. A few years later however I was getting every Conan mag every month and actively chasing these Barry Smith back issues,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · January 30

      I’d always assumed I was just about as superhero-centric a comics fan as they come, in my youth — but based on the comments I seem to get whenever I post about a book in another genre, maybe I was wrong! 🙂

      Like

  5. Keith Danielsen · January 30

    I disagree about Sal Buscema. I don’t think he meshed all that well with Smith. He left the pencils looking angular and wooden. I think Marvel had a dearth of A list inkers (Palmer, Sinnott and Severin notwithstanding) but were expanding their line so rapidly the job fell to Our Pal Sal. Of course the energy of the emerging Smith-to-be was bursting through anyway, imbuing every page with dynamism. I liked the choice of Smith from the beginning and it was a pleasure to see him improving with each issue. By # 7 he couldn’t be touched. Thomas seems to have approached everything he did as the enthusiastic and erudite fan turned pro that he was. I saw him at a convention in 2019 here in Western Washington and thanked him for giving me some of the best memories of my comics collecting experience. Certainly this issue was an example.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · January 30

      I like S. Buscema over BWS better than just about any other inker, though BWS inking himself is always better. But to each their own. 🙂

      I’m a little envious of you getting to meet Roy Thomas, I must admit. One of these days (I hope)…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stu Fischer · February 1

    I must admit that sword and sorcery was never my bag (I was a super-hero geek), but the artwork in this issue is wonderful. On another topic, I was so looking forward to meet Rascally Roy last summer at the Awesome Con festival in Washington D.C. (for his plotting and writing work on the super hero comics), but then Covid happened and it was cancelled. I hope that I get to see him while I still can,

    Funny that you should mention Barnabas Collins as last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of that character’s last appearance in “Dark Shadows”, as the show then finished off its run with a story containing all new characters in a past parallel time band.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · February 1

      Thanks for that DS factoid, Stu. I’m still surprised at how little time I actually watched the show before it was gone (I started in late ’69 or early ’70), since it seems that they covered so much ground during that period, plotwise. Of course, you can get a lot of story in when you have 2 1/2 hours per week to work with, and run all year with no breaks. Plus, it’s a scientific fact that time passed more slowly fifty years ago. 🙂

      Like

      • Stu Fischer · February 1

        I started watching Dark Shadows in April 1970, probably a little after you. Those episodes weren’t rerun until the Sci-Fi channel did so in 1994-95 (Barnabas era episodes before that had been released for syndication earlier) so it was really great to see them again. By the way, I had mentioned about time passing more slowly 50 years ago myself in my comment on your last Teen Titans post. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have never been a huge REH fan, and of the work by him I’ve read his character Solomon Kane is definitely my favorite. However I can understand why a lot more people prefer Conan to Kane. Conan was a hot-blooded barbarian warrior who frequently found a sexy half-naked buxom babes in his arms, whereas Kane was a dour, chaste religious fanatic. Additionally, there’s a lot more freedom setting stories in a mythical “Hyboran Age” untold thousands of years ago than in the very real Europe and Africa of the late 16th Century.

    Having said that, do like some of REH’s original Conan stories, and “Tower of the Elephant” is one of the vey best. I was impressed at how REH had balanced the action and adventure with an introspective, melancholy final act.

    In regards to Yag-kosha, I’ve always felt that his head should not be drawn to look exactly like an elephant. As the story explains, Conan “had never seen an elephant, but he vaguely understood that it was a monstrous animal, with a tail in front as well as behind.” I sort of got the impression that REH meant for Yag-kosha’s head to be vaguely elephant-like, with his “trunk” actually being closer to a tentacle and the large ears being a somewhat different shape than those found on an actual elephant. But everyone inevitably draws Yag-kosha like a green man with a big elephant head. Oh well. That aside, the artwork & storytelling by BWS in this adaptation is definitely stunning, especially those last few pages.

    As for Yag-kosha and his brethren literally flying through outer space with wings, I have always thought this was probably inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who was REH’s contemporary, and who corresponded with him. Lovecraft’s work was populated with “alien gods” and other-dimensional entities and strange extraterrestrial beings, entities for whom science and magic were more or less the same, who arrived on Earth in prehistoric eras before the rise of man, including some who were able to travel through the vacuum of space under their own power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · February 3

      Ben, that’s a very good point about Lovecraft’s having possibly influenced Howard’s approach to depicting alien life. — Howard was even a contributor to his pen pal’s “Cthulhu mythos”, so I expect you’re spot on.

      As for Yag-Kosha’s appearance, I agree with you — and so does Roy Thomas, per this passage from “Barbarian Life, Vol. I” which I considered including in the blog post, but ultimately left out:

      “I was never able to get any of the artists [who illustrated the adaptations of “Tower”] to visualize Yag-Kosha, the alien being held captive in the tower of the sorcerer Yara, in a way that I think REH would have liked. I’m not even sure that I tried…

      “Yes, you can settle for drawing an elephant’s head on a human body in response to REH’s description of Yag-Kosha. But you could also draw “wide flaring ears” that bear a vague resemblance to an elephant’s and yet still have a completely different shape; and a “curling proboscis” that looks like an octopus’s tentacle or Crom knows what; and even “white tusks” that aren’t shaped like an elephant’s (e.g., not necessarily curved). After all, Yag-Kosha was from another constellation.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. frodo628 · February 2

    Ben, if you like Solomon Kane, have you seen the movie from a few years back with James Purefoy? I don’t know the Kane stories well enough to speak to the quality of the adaptation and the story was definitely simple and low budget, but I enjoyed it for what it was. FYI

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · February 3

      Dunno about Ben, but I enjoyed the Kane film, which as I recall was something of an origin story — filling in details of his background that Howard never went into (I don’t think), and helping to explain why he was such a dour bugger. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. bluesislove · February 6

    I remember Bookland in the Jackson Mall fondly. That’s where I started buying books, especially the fantasy series….LOTR, the different ERB series among them. I was later arriving to the Conan books, but my first exposure to the character was Marvel Treasury Edition 4, which collected Red Nails. I was hooked after that, but mostly on Savage Sword. This version of Tower is my favorite.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · February 6

      A fellow Jacksonian, eh? Welcome aboard, bluesislove! I’m guessing that you’re roughly the same age as Don (frodo628) and me? Late 50’s-early 60s? (Sorry if I’m being overly nosy. 🙂 )

      Like

      • bluesislove · February 6

        Late 50’s. I’m from about an hour east of Jackson, but spent a lot of time there. Still work there a good bit now.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Mike W. · February 9

    Wow, you lucked out; I can’t think of a better story than Tower of the Elephant as an intro to Conan. it’s actually the first of Howard’s original stories that I read and it’s still one of my favourites.

    As for Tolkien, the Hobbit was my gateway, which led to me getting the LOTR trilogy soon after. Mine are the Unwin paperbacks; I’m not sure how available those were in the USA, but here in Canada they seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid (late 70s/early 80s).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. JoshuaRascal · February 10

    Since you mention Tolkien…

    I read “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the RIngs” during the summer of 1966, when I was all of twelve years old. I read “The Hobbit” first and liked it so much I went on the read “Lord of the RIngs”, which was a much heavier read. “Lord of the Rings” is broken up into six separate “books”, two “books” to each volume of the trilogy. I read one “book” per week that summer. Took me eight weeks to read the four books. I read through the books like I was sipping fine wine. I didn’t want to drink it all in a few quick gulps, it was too good.

    Since you mention Robert E. Howard…

    I discovered Conan and Robert E Howard sometime afterword in 1968 or 1969. Being in bookstores as much as I was, and being a fan of fantastic art and fiction, it was impossible not to notice the covers of the Conan Lancer Paperback books by Frank Frazetta on the bookracks. It was Frazetta’s art that attracted me to the books.

    I had read all of the Conan Lancer books before the Ad for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian Comic Book first appeared in 1970. I had no idea who the Artist for the Comic Book was going to be. I had the foolish and naive hope that it would be Frank Frazetta, (yes, he did do comic books at one time. “The Sensuous Frazetta” has lots and lots of Frazetta’s Comic Book Art) and if not him maybe someone like Burne Hogarth, Hal Foster, or Al Williamson. Fat chance on any of them. I wasn’t happy about the artist being Barry Smith, and in the first few issues, his work wasn’t too great. Conan the Barbarian #4 was Barry Smith’s breakthrough. The tavern scene in the first four pages was the best work Smith had done for Marvel up to that time.

    Equivalency between Tolkien’s work and Howard’s is a stretch, IMO. Tolkien was an English academic. He was an expert in his field, philology. His books were a modern version of English Myth and Legend. Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Giant Spiders and Wizards were from earlier fairy stories and folklore. The character of Aragon in LOTR is a version of the King Arthur legend fitted into LOTR. Hobbits were Tolkien’s own creation. The most remarkable part of LOTR (at least for me) are the appendices at the end of the third book and all the backstory material associated with LOTR in other books. Tolkien could have written a few more books based on his LOTR backstory material.

    Robert E. Howard was a small town Texan that actually managed to earn a living as a pulp fiction writer. Conan the Barbarian was his most successful creation. His Hyborian Age was nowhere near the elaborate work that Tolkien’s Middle Earth was. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a stage for his Crimmerian to have his adventures in. At best, it resembles the premodern world of maybe the 16th century. Creating this fictional Hyborian Age solved a lot of problems for Howard in terms of storytelling. None of the issues of historical accuracy had to be dealt with. No real religion or politics. No real morality. Just things needed for the story. Howard’s Conan stories all had a rough feel to them, like the entire world was the western United States frontier of the late 18th or early 19th centuries.

    Howard’s Conan stories were pretty violent. I haven’t read a Robert E. Howard story in fifty years, so for this comment piece, I read a few pages of “Hour of the Dragon”. In the space of three or four pages, Conan kills a giant snake regarded as a God by the locals, gets chased by an angry mob for killing the snake, loses the mob by escaping into an alley, wanders around nearly completely lost, kills a man to steal his religious outfit, then kills another man in order to gain entry into a temple. Once inside the temple, a beautiful “Stygian” princess immediately falls in love with him when she first sees him. All of this in a couple of pages.

    I don’t think your friend Ann Cummings would try to get you to read any Conan books.😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · February 11

      JR, I didn’t mean to posit any “equivalency” between Tolkien and Howard — my regrets if that wasn’t clear enough. The two were indeed very different writers, for all the reasons you’ve elucidated. I still believe it’s appropriate to see them as representing “different but related strains of the same genre”, i.e., fantasy. Fantasy is a big tent, IMHO.

      Also, if memory serves, you’re right about Ann C. never reading any Conan, either in prose or comics (though she would always listen politely when I talked him up). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure she did own a copy of the Eerie Annual which reprinted all of Esteban Maroto’s Dax the Warrior stories… so she came fairly close. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Conan the Barbarian #6 (June, 1971) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books
  13. Pat Conolly · May 17

    Conan the Barbarian #1 got me back into buying comic books again after a pause of a few years. I still have the first 116 issues. I had already devoured the Lancer paperbacks – starting with the excellent Conan the Conqueror (originally titled The Hour of the Dragon). I didn’t really get back into super-heroes though; over the next few years I would buy various Howard adaptations , Beowulf by DC, and other SFF adaptations e.g. Marvel’s Supernatural Thrillers which did Theodore Sturgeon’s “It”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · May 17

      Pat, hopefully you’ll enjoy my blog posts on all those books as we get around to them over the next several years. 🙂

      Like

  14. Pingback: Conan the Barbarian #8 (August, 1971) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books
  15. Pingback: Kull the Conqueror #2 (September, 1971) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books
  16. Pingback: Conan the Barbarian #10 (October, 1971) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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