Conan the Barbarian #8 was the third consecutive issue of the Marvel Comics series that I bought, and the fourth overall. But it was the first one that had the map.
By “the map“, I am of course referring to this work of imaginative cartography, familiar to virtually everyone who read Marvel’s Conan comics even occasionally back in the day:
Marvel had originally published their version of the fictional geography sketched out in the 1930s by Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, in the first issue of their new title starring Howard’s sword and sorcery hero. They had then reprinted it in the letters pages of the next two issues — but it hadn’t run in the first Conan I picked up — issue #4 — or in #6 or #7, either. (It was in #5, but I missed that one.) So this was my first look at a cartographic representation of the hero’s world.
And I’m pretty sure I was fascinated — quite likely almost as much as I’d been on my first exposure to a map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Sure, this map looked more like something out of a standard Rand McNally atlas than the ones in Lord of the Rings did (probably because it didn’t have any nifty drawn-in topographical features like mountains or forests), but if held plenty of promise for future narrative exploration, all the same. Plus, I had questions — like, why did “Aesgaard” look so much like “Asgard” from Norse mythology? (Eventually, of course, I’d learn that Howard had originally written the country’s name as “Asgard”, but Marvel changed the spelling in an effort to avoid confusion with the home base of their version of the Mighty Thor.) And was this “River Styx” supposed to be the same as the one from Greek mythology? And so forth.
In the end, the map was one more aspect of Conan the Barbarian that made the title feel special, back in 1971. There was, literally, a whole world out there, beyond and behind the individual stories we were reading every issue. And we were going to follow the life of this extraordinary individual named Conan as he traveled through this world — month by month and year by year, in more-or-less real time, for as long as the series lasted, or until Conan met his no-doubt violent end, several decades in the future — whichever came first.
That was the idea, anyway; in reality, I’m pretty certain that vision didn’t long survive writer Roy Thomas’ first departure from the Conan character (and from Marvel in general) in 1980. And even if it did, Marvel’s loss of the Conan license in 1996, though ultimately temporary, obviously cocked things up for good; otherwise, readers would be following the adventures of a 68-year-old Cimmerian in Marvel’s current Conan the Barbarian title. (Which might actually be of considerable interest to old geezer fans such as your humble blogger, but probably wouldn’t work out very well for the long-term commercial health of the Conan IP at Marvel.) In 1971, however, the notion that Marvel’s Conan would age naturally — that we readers would see him live out his lifetime on the printed page — made him virtually unique as an American comic book hero.
Of course, in planning out the chronology of Conan’s eventful life, Roy Thomas was not working from a blank slate. Robert E. Howard had written twenty-one stories featuring his most famous hero, only seventeen of which saw print during his lifetime. The tales were not written (or published) in any kind of chronological order, but featured Conan at a variety of stages of life, ranging from his teenage years (“The Tower of the Elephant”) to his fifth decade (“The Hour of the Dragon”). A couple of fans had arranged the individual stories into “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” as early as 1938; this chronology, which received Howard’s general approval, would be revised multiple times over the following decades; the latest version at the time Marvel launched their comics series — the one appearing in Lancer Books’ then-ongoing line of Conan paperbacks — was the work that Thomas used as his blueprint.
Howard’s chronologically-earliest Conan story according to this schema, “The Tower of the Elephant”, was adapted by Thomas and his collaborator, artist Barry Windsor-Smith, for Conan the Barbarian #4; the next, “The God in the Bowl”, followed in issue #7. Assuming you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering why we skipped this comic when its golden anniversary arrived last month. The bottom-line reasons are that 1) based on an original Howard story or not, this one’s never been one of my favorite Conans (though the artwork by Windsor-Smith and inkers Dan Adkins and Sal Buscema is of course terrific); and 2), there were eight other fifty-year-old comic books published in April, 1971 that I was more interested in writing about, and there are only so many hours in the day, y’know?
Even so, I can’t let “The Lurker Within!” (the new name Thomas and Windsor-Smith gave their adaptation of “The God in the Bowl”) pass without taking a look at the story’s final page — one of the most memorable single pages of early Marvel Conan, at least so far as yours truly is concerned; though also, viewed in retrospect, ultimately one of the most disappointing.
To set this up: In the city of Numalia, Conan is hired by the city governor’s niece, who’s run up some substantial gambling debts , to rob a house of relics. But the object he’s been sent to steal — a large covered bowl on its way to being delivered to a priest of Ibis as an anonymous gift — turns out to contain a homicidal monster, a giant serpent with the face of a man. Conan ultimately slays this man-serpent, though not before it’s killed the owner of the relic house, the governor’s niece, and most of the other characters we meet over the course of the story. Before fleeing the scene, Conan feels compelled to have a look within the supposedly now-empty bowl…
Wow, right? Reading this story for the first time in 1971, my thirteen-year-old self had no idea who Thoth-Amon was — but he was obviously a Big Bad of the Hyborian Age, maybe even its equivalent to Tolkien’s Sauron. Knowing nothing of the final scene’s context, I still recognized it as a piece of highly dramatic foreshadowing, which looked ahead to a first meeting between the Cimmerian and his destined arch-foe (c’mon, what else could the guy be?) that was bound to be a blow-out whenever it occurred — however many issues, years, or even decades away that might be.
What I didn’t know then — but would learn when I read the prose version of “The God in the Bowl” in Lancer Books’ Conan (probably not too long after this)*, was that Thoth-Amon doesn’t appear in the original story at all — not even as an image in the bottom of a bowl. Rather, he’s merely mentioned (and that by a secondary character who doesn’t even make it into Marvel’s adaptation), and the only thing inside the bowl itself (once the “god”, i.e., the man-serpent) has departed from it is a symbol carved onto its bottom, which said character recognizes as the mark of the great Stygian wizard. And Conan hightails it out of Numalia immediately after getting his first good look at the man-serpent, after he’s already killed it — with no “Pippin peeks in the palantir“-like moment involved.
The fact is, Thoth-Amon only appears in the flesh in a single one of Howard’s Conan stories, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (which, as it happens, is set during Conan’s reign as KIng of Aquilonia, placing it at least a couple of decades after the events of “The God on the Bowl”) — and even in that tale, the wizard and Conan never meet face to face. But L. Sprague de Camp and the other prose fiction writers who’d taken it upon themselves to fill in the “gaps” between Howard’s stories (pretty much the same project that Marvel was attempting in comics) had elected to elevate Thoth-Amon to arch-enemy status, crafting new adventures in which the magician and the barbarian actually went at it in direct confrontations, and Thomas had decided to follow suit. Hey, why not?
Unfortunately, Thomas and co. waited another five years after Conan #7 before bringing on Thoth-Amon as more than just an image in a bowl — and when they did, it was for Marvel’s adaptation of “The Phoenix on the Sword” itself, published in Conan Annual #2 (1976). The problem there wasn’t just that Conan and Thoth-Amon still don’t actually meet within the story, but that the wizard is also in a significantly reduced state through much of it. Some time before it begins, he’s lost the Serpent Ring of Set that provided him with most of his power, and has thereby become the slave of Ascalante, one of several men conspiring against King Conan. (Which seems pretty sloppy to me. I mean, you don’t see Tolkien’s Sauron secreting his power away in a magic ring and then losing it, so that his enemies can ultimately… oh, wait a minute…. ah. Never mind.) Sure, Thoth-Amon gets a lot of his mojo back before the end of the story, but still. Besides which, the guy doesn’t even have ram horns.
Of course, Thoth-Amon would turn up in a number of other Marvel Conan comics published after that one, and in most of those he proved a reasonably formidable foe for the Cimmerian. (In several, such as King Conan #1 [March, 1980], the two adversaries actually even met.) But whether due to his underwhelming initial turn in Conan Annual #2, or because even when John Buscema and Marvel’s other artists did draw the ram horns, they didn’t look quite right (at least not to me), the character never, ever lived up to the great expectations that Thomas and Windsor-Smith had fostered via that final page of “The Lurker Within!”
Others may take a different view, I realize. But I, for one, am not surprised that it’s not Thoth-Amon, but rather his former apprentice and later rival Kulan-Gath, who’s landed the ongoing gig of Conan’s number one enemy as the barbarian slashes his way through the modern-day Marvel Universe in the current Savage Avengers series.
OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest…
Like the issue immediately preceding it, Conan the Barbarian #8 had its origins in Howard’s prose — though in this case, in a one page plot synopsis, rather than in a complete story.
Howard’s unfinished fragment, “The Hall of the Dead”, had already been fleshed out into a full tale by L. Sprague de Camp, and (like de Camp’s edited version of “The God in the Bowl”) published in Lancer Books’ Conan (1967). At this time, Marvel didn’t have the right to adapt any Conan stories other than Howard’s (something that a number of old-school Conan fans thought was just as well, to judge by the comic’s letters pages), so Thomas and Windsor-Smith crafted their own independent version.
To avoid confusion with de Camp’s take, they came up with a new title — which, for those in the know (the numbers of whom in 1971 definitely did not include my thirteen-year-old self), was a tip of the hat to the long-defunct but fondly remembered EC Comics of the 1050s — more specifically, to one of that line’s horror-comic hosts, the “GhouLunatiic” known as the Crypt-Keeper.
The inking of Windsor-Smith’s pencils for the story was credited to “Sutton and Palmer” (who, quite coincidentally, happened to share the given name of Tom), neither of whom had worked on the series before this. According to the Grand Comics Database, Tom S. did the lion’s share of the work, with Tom P. stepping in fpr pages 3 and 9 – 11.
In Howard’s synopsis — and in de Camp’s finished story — the soldiers pursuing Conan are from Zamora, not Corinthia. But Thomas and Windsor-Smith wanted to dovetail the beginning of their narrative with the conclusion of the preceding issue, which had Conan fleeing from Numalia — “the second-greatest city of Nemedia“, to quote Conan #7 — so Zamoran soldiers wouldn’t have made sense. (I mean, just look at the map. Zamora and Nemedia don’t even share a border!)
Again seeking to avoid conflict with de Camp’s version of the story, Thomas changed the name of the soldiers’ captain from Nestor to Burgun** — though it hardly seems worth it, considering how quickly the guy buys the farm…
Okay… looks like I spoke too soon. Nice fake-out, guys!
The siege of Venarium had been established by Howard as being the occasion of Conan’s first battle, though he never wrote about it in any detail. Including a flashback to it here gives Thomas and Windsor-Smith the opportunity to enhance readers’ knowledge of the hero’s past, as well as allowing his old horned helmet, lost and abandoned without fanfare in issue #6, to make a brief comeback.
Alright, so I jumped the gun on Captain Burgun’s demise a couple of pages back. But it should be safe to bid him a final farewell this time. Shouldn’t it?
Climbing through a breach in a wall, Conan finds the city to be a deserted ruin. Well, not entirely deserted — for at the sound of “a sibilant whisper“, the barbarian turns to confront “a mind-blasting sight that makes the blood run cold.”
In his synopsis, Howard had referred to the monster haunting the ruined city simply as a “monstrous creature”. De Camp decided to make it a giant slug. For their part, Thomas and Windsor-Smith went with a dragon.
Well, not a dragon dragon, if you know what I mean. This isn’t any sort of bat-winged, fire-breathing, serpentine creature, such as you might find in fairy tales, medieval romances, or the novels of certain fantasy authors (cough, Tolkien, cough). This beast’s “dragonness” is pretty much limited to the fact that it’s reptilian, but considerably larger than any reptile that currently exists in our modern era. (According to Thomas in Barbarian Life, Vol. 1, it’s a giant-sized Gila monster; he asserts that the selection of Heloderma suspectum for the role of “dragon” was most likely the idea of Windsor-Smith, who after all “was the one who had to draw all the scales”.)
Why not just draw a more traditional sort of dragon? The answer is actually instructive in helping us distinguish between the sword-and-sorcery school of fantasy fiction typified by Howard’s Conan stories, and the “high” or “epic” style represented by Tolkien. The latter style hews closely to the fantasy genre’s ancient antecedents in myth, folktale, and epic poetry; but while sword-and-sorcery shares the same imaginative roots (how could it not?), its approach generally filters those sources through more modern, and usually pulpier, influences — e.g., horror stories, historical swashbucklers, and the sort of “lost world” tales penned by writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which one would never expect to find a fire-breathing dragon, but in which such superficially similar creatures as prehistoric dinosaurs — or giant ancestors of the modern Gila monster — are quite likely to be encountered.
Fleeing the “dragon”, Conan finds momentary respite by scaling a wall:
Thomas singles out the fifth panel on page 8 — the one which shows the weary Conan leaning against the monster’s dead body — as one of his favorite scenes from the early issues of Conan the Barbarian.
Care to take a guess who’s still not quite dead, faithful readers?
From the moment Conan arrives at the temple’s portal onwards, Windsor-Smith’s flair for ornate decoration is given ample opportunity to shine. This is the kind of work that helped ensure that, once the artist left the series, the Hyborian Age would rarely if ever again appear this, well, fancy, regardless of the talents of the artists delineating it .
Conan is ready to match swords against Burgun for the prize both want, but the Gunderman has nothing more deadly in mind than a game of dice. Conan agrees — and in the end, wins the throw. Still, Burgun doesn’t mope for long; after all, there’s plenty of other treasure to be had…
Howard’s synopsis refers to these crypt-keepers only as “ancient warriors”. I’d say that Thomas and Windsor-Smith did a pretty effective job fleshing out that description — although “fleshing” may not be the most appropriate word to use in this circumstance…
In Barbarian Life, Vol. 1, Thomas calls readers’ attention to the secret message Windsor-Smith drew into the upper left-hand corner of the second panel shown above:
… which I very much appreciate, as I’d otherwise have gone to my grave without ever having noticed it.
Luckily for both of our temple-looters, Conan discovers that the undead warriors are vulnerable to a good, quick sword-thrust to the backbone: “Sever the spine — and they fall like rag dolls.” Armed with this knowledge, the duo are able to survive the assault of their uncanny foes long enough to make a break for it:
Burgun, Conan. Dude’s name is — OK, was — Burgun. Try and at least make an effort, willya?
Though I suppose it doesn’t actually matter, now, as the Gunderman has clearly rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible — for real, this time. Right? What do you mean, you’re still not sure? Lemme check Howard’s synopsis, here… OK, it says: “A terrific earthquake shook down the deserted city, and the companions were separated.”*** Hmm, “separated” doesn’t sound all that conclusive, does it? I’ll read a little further… ah.
OK, moving right along, nothing to see here, folks… Conan manages to drag himself to the nearest inhabited village, and once there, to the closest drinking establishment:
Regular readers of the blog will recognize Jenna, a more-or-less original creation of Thomas and Windsor-Smith whom we first met in Conan the Barbarian #6. I say “more-or-less original”, because while #6’s “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar” was indeed a brand-new story, not based on any preexisting material by Howard or anyone else, Jenna not only fills the role of Conan’s “light-of-love” (as Howard’s synopsis identifies her) in “The Hall of the Dead”, but will take on a somewhat more substantial (though still unnamed) role in Marvel’s adaptation of Howard’s chronologically next Conan story, “Rogues in the House”, when it comes up in a few months. So, in a sense, “aspects” of Jenna’s character can be said to have existed long before Thomas and Windsor-Smith came along.
Of course, Jenna’s suddenly turning up three pages from the end of the story could be said to have been telegraphed at the very start by the comic’s cover — but maybe not, considering that by all accounts, editor Stan Lee had Windsor-Smith’s rendering of Jenna’s face on said cover redrawn by John Romita. (Lee was evidently convinced that any illustration of an attractive woman could be improved by replacing it with an alternate one by Romita.)
Maybe it’s just me, but I see a lot of inker Ton Sutton in how Jenna’s depicted in the second panel above.
Anyone out there who didn’t see that coming? Nah, I didn’t think so.
And so Conan and Jenna go galloping off into the night — and into issue #9’s reworking of a non-Conan story by Howard, “The Garden of Fear”. We won’t be giving that one the full-post treatment (as I wrote in my last post, June is already going to be a very busy month around these parts), but we’ll try to at least hit the highlights when we return to Conan the Barbarian in July, for issue #10’s “Beware the Wrath of Anu” — in which we’ll at long last learn the ultimate fate of Burgun the Gunderman. (No, really, I mean it this time.)****
Well before then, however — in fact, it’ll be in just one week — we’ll be returning to the sword-and-sorcery writing of Robert E. Howard, as well as to Marvel’s efforts at adapting same. Except this time, it’ll be with a different barbarian hero, in a different fantasy world. I hope you’ll join me then.
I promise to bring a map.
SPECIAL BLACK LIGHT BONUS SECTION:
As I’ve done in several earlier posts, I’m sharing the black light poster version of an image from this comic, as originally produced by a company called the Third Eye, back in 1971.
This is probably going to be the last of these that I share (which I expect may come as good news for those of you who’ve wondered why I ever bothered with them in the first place) — and it’s a good one to go out on, as it’s the only one in the series of twenty-four that I personally bought. This baby hung on the inner side of my bedroom closet door for several years, awaiting the day when I would replace the closet’s ordinary incandescent light bulb with a black light alternative — after which I would shut myself up in the closet and groove to my Conan poster in all its garish glory.
As best as I can recall, however, that never happened. Why not? Alas, the answer to that question is as lost to time as are the shining kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, which once lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…
Sorry about that, O Prince.
*I use the phrase “prose version” instead of “original story” advisedly, because as any Howard-head worth his flagon of blood-red wine could tell you, the version of “The God in the Bowl” published in the Lancer paperback had undergone editing by L. Sprague de Camp, and varies in small but significant ways from the original.
****Though if you don’t want to wait, you have a choice of two alternate takes on the fate of Burgun, aka Nestor: the first of those being, of course, de Camp’s prose version of “The Hall of the Dead”; the second, a three-issue comics adaptation of Howard’s synopsis (quite different from Marvel’s) by Mike Mignola and Cary Nord, published by Dark Horse in Conan (2004 series) #29-31.