In January I posed about Conan the Barbarian #4, the first issue I’d ever picked up of Marvel Comics’ series featuring Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero. As I wrote at the time, my thirteen-year-old self was quite favorably impressed by the efforts of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith in that comic — impressed enough that I feel fairly certain that I meant to buy the next issue when it came out. Somehow, though, I didn’t manage to do so. I suppose it’s possible that I never actually saw Conan #5 on the stands; but if that’s true, that was the last time that kind of thing ever happened. Because with #6, I was back on board, and would thenceforth faithfully acquire every issue through #118 (Jan., 1981), some 9 1/2 years later. (The occasion for my dropping the book then was Roy Thomas’ exit a few issues earlier; as far as I was concerned, Thomas was Conan’s official biographer, and without him at the series’ helm, it just wasn’t the same.)
One reason I’m inclined to believe that I’d made up my mind to start buying Conan after #4 is that if I’d still been undecided when I saw #6 in the spinner rack, I’m not sure its cover would have convinced me to give the book a go. A half century later, this remains one of my least favorite of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan covers. Probably the least favorite. To my eye, the positioning of two of the three principal (human) characters has always seemed awkward and ambiguous. Is Conan leaping onto the giant bat, or off it — or is he just hanging on for dear life? Is the brunette woman steering the bat, lounging on it, or…what? Only the presentation of the third figure — the screaming woman clutched in the bat’s right claw — seems straightforward enough to be plainly understood.*
On the other hand, that giant bat is pretty awesome.
Still, whatever the reservations I had about the comic’s cover, they didn’t deter me from buying it. And once I got the comic home and started reading it, I forgot all about them, anyway.
“Devil-Wings Over Shadizar” was the first fully original story that Thomas and Windsor-Smith had produced for the series since the second issue. Issue #3’s “The Twilight of the Grim Grey God” had been based on a non-Conan tale by Howard, while #4 was a straightforward adaptation of one of the latter’s best-known Conan stories, “The Tower of the Elephant”. Even #5’s “Zukala’s Daughter”, though mostly original, had taken inspiration from a poem by Howard, called “Zukala’s Hour”. But issue #6’s adventure, though set in Howard’s Hyborian world and featuring his most famous hero, was otherwise the product of its writer and artist’s imaginations — though, perhaps inevitably, other creative influences also crept into the mix.
In Roy Thomas’ Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1 (Pulp Hero Press, 2018), — an issue-by-issue account of the making of the first fifty-one issues of Conan — he relates how both he and Windsor-Smith appreciated the opportunity to dream up their own version of the evocatively-named Shadizar the Wicked; a place that Howard had named in his stories, but never described. “Barry let himself go,” Thomas writes, “and the images he created were even better than those he’d drawn of the City of Thieves for Conan the Barbarian #4.” According to Thomas, the opening splash page (shown above) was crafted by the artist “in the style of the classic film The Thief of Baghdad” (whether the 1924 silent film or the 1940 Technicolor remake, he doesn’t say).
While the joke was lost on me when I first read this story in March, 1971, more seasoned fantasy fans would have recognized Fafnir and Blackrat as parodies of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, a pair of sword-and-sorcery heroes created by Fritz Leiber in the 1930’s. Like Conan, they’d benefited from a renewed interest in the S&S subgenre beginning in the 1960s, attracting a new readership via a series of paperback reprints; ultimately, they’d follow Conan into the comic-book medium as well, starring in a DC Comics series, titled Sword of Sorcery, that ran for five issues in 1972-73. At this point, however, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s true comics debut (which would actually come in an issue of Wonder Woman, bizarrely enough) was still over a year away.
Interestingly, although Fafnir — whose name Thomas actually nicked from a Norse mythological character (who’d also turned up in Marvel’s Thor a few years earlier) — appears to meet a violent end in the last panel of page 2, above, readers would eventually learn that his wound wasn’t the least bit fatal; Fafnir would in fact return in Conan #17, and hang around for several issues after that.
Less surprisingly, perhaps, Blackrat would also recover; but while Thomas eventually brought him back as well, that return engagement would have to wait another twenty-seven years.
It’s rather hard to take our hero seriously when he ponders returning the stolen gold to its rightful owners; even in March, 1971, with just one Conan story under my belt, I knew that the young Cimmerian was a thief, and a fairly ruthless one, at that. Still, it was (and is) an amusing little speech.
In Barbarian Life, Thomas has this to say about the origins of the character Jenna:
I don’t know if Barry had anyone in mind when he drew our girl with the wavy hair. My own inspiration came from Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the ‘heroine’ of Dashiell Hammett’s novel(and Warner Bros.’ movie) The Maltese Falcon, a compulsive liar who operates under assumed names… Of course, we couldn’t come right out and say what Jenna’s actual job was in the tavern, other than knocking back free drinks. But I had a girl welcome Conan into the house of Suwong, a not very subtle reference to the popular book and movie The World of Suzie Wong.
Jenna and Conan’s idle chatter about the realm of Aquilonia, and its ruler, King Numenides, is a subtle bit of foreshadowing, tossed in by Thomas for the pleasure of the longtime Conan fan — who will know that a couple of decades further along the Road of Kings, Conan is destined to strangle Numedides on his throne and replace him as Aquilonia’s monarch.
As the story continues, the two brawlers seen in the last panel above come crashing into Conan and Jenna’s table; a fight is narrowly averted, but the two young people opt to leave, regardless, in hopes of finding a place where (in the barbarian’s words) “a man and a maid may talk in peace.”
As they make their exit, Jenna — who’d picked up Conan’s bag full of stolen gold after their table was knocked over — asks him why he’d told her (in the moment before the table was overturned) that it contained only “a few sweetmeats“.
If you’re wondering why Thomas has the smith Maldiz mention some random falcon he made once upon a time — well, just think about it for a moment or two, and remember where the writer has since said the inspiration for Jenna came from. As you can imagine, this joke went right over my youthful head in 1971 (as had the “house of Suwong” bit a few pages earlier).
According to Barbarian Life, both Thomas and Windsor-Smith had agreed that it was about time for Conan to lose the horned helmet, but it was Windsor-Smith who determined that it would happen in this particular issue. Windsor-Smith also came up with Jenna’s “yak” line, which he suggested in a marginal note that Thomas then incorporated into his script.
It takes a second blow to put Conan down for the count, but down (and out) he eventually goes. When he comes to some time later, he is, of course, alone:
And off the Cimmerian sprints, with never a look back to his discarded helmet. (I have to confess that my younger self missed the thing, at least for a few issues.)
Returning to Maldiz’s shop, Conan quickly fills in the blacksmith on what’s happened. Initially, the older man is eager to help, but then…
But Conan has already slipped back into Shadizar’s shadowed streets. Making his way to the Night-God’s temple, he accosts a single red-garbed acolyte who’s running late for tonight’s worship service, decks the guy, and steals his robes. Then, incognito, he makes his way towards the tower’s open dome:
While giving kudos to his artistic collaborator for the impressive rendering of the giant bat, Thomas notes in Barbarian Life that Windsor-Smith “made a mistake in drawing the joints of the bat’s finger/wing”, requiring inker Sal Buscema to correct the monster’s anatomy in the embellishment stage.
We’ve now arrived at the chaotic scene depicted on the book’s cover (which at last makes sense). Conan tells the priestess, Hajii, to command her god to glide safely to earth, only to learn that she has no control over it whatsoever. Conan then figures his best option is to use the flaming brazier he still holds to try to guide the beast beyond the city walls and make it land there. On hearing this, however, Hajii — incensed that her blasphemous captor might bring harm to her deity –shoves Conan off his precarious perch on the bat’s back, even though, as he notes, “If I perish — how long do you think you will survive?” (Conan manages to deliver this line in the moment it takes him to slip from the giant critter’s back to a new position below its neck. Hey, it’s a comic book.)
The finale of the story allows our storytellers to demonstrate some aspects of Conan’s character through his behavior. After all, a different sort of man might have felt compelled to return to Shadizar — to retrieve his gold, and perhaps to take vengeance on the one who’d stolen it from him. But our young barbarian — cognizant, one imagines, of the fact that he himself had stolen the gold in the first place (and from other thieves, at that) — and also aware that the lovely young woman he’d risked his life to save had saved him, in turn, before robbing him — chooses to accept his ill fortune with equanimity. He’s alive, after all, and no worse off than he was at the beginning of the adventure (well, not by much, anyway).
This story was evidently well-received at the time of release, by its creators’ professional peers as well as by fans. In Barbarian Life, Thomas writes of how gratified he was “that several other comics writers thought that my script was actually based on one of Howard’s stories because they felt it captured the atmosphere of the Conan tales so well.” “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar” would go on to be nominated for a 1971 Shazam Award (given by the short-lived Academy of Comic Book Arts) for Best Individual Story; it ultimately lost to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” (from DC Comics’ Green Lantern #85), a circumstance perhaps facilitated by the fact that another Conan story — issue #4’s “The Tower of the Elephant” — was also nominated, likely splitting the barbarian-favoring vote. (Conan the Barbarian did win Best Continuing Feature that year, however, and Thomas also picked up the trophy for Best Writer – Dramatic Division — so no need to feel too sorry for the Marvel guys.)
One final note: “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar”, though unquestionably a done-in-one story, would prove have implications for future Conan the Barbarian storylines. Though my thirteen-year-old self didn’t suspect it at all at the time — and, indeed, Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith may not have known it yet, themselves — neither Conan nor his readers had seen the last of the beautiful, though duplicitous, Jenna. But the tale of her return, and of her renewed involvement with our doughty, if naive, protagonist, is, naturally, a matter for another post… on another day.
*In addition to all that, I believe that when I first saw this cover, I was slightly irked that Conan was missing his helmet; in those days, I expected my comic-book heroes to show up in full costume on the covers of their books, dammit. Thankfully, I got over that pretty quickly (at least where Conan was concerned.)