One week ago, in our post about Amazing Spider-Man #101, we shared the two lead items from the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page that ran in that issue (as well as in other Marvel comics shipping in July, 1971), which explained how, due to editor Stan Lee taking a couple of weeks off his comics-scripting duties to work on a screenplay, other writers would be temporarily stepping in to handle his titles.
But Stan’s sabbatical wasn’t the only big news out of Marvel that month, as was indicated by the very next Bulletin:
As this “ITEM!” hints at with its closing remark about “what the future holds”, the move of Conan the Barbarian and select other titles to a 25-cent, 52-page (including covers) format in July actually foreshadowed the imminent transition of virtually all of Marvel’s 15-cent comics to this new standard — a change which followed in the wake of Marvel’s rival DC having made the same transition in June. As many of you reading this will already know, Marvel’s line-wide move to the 25-cent format would ultimately last no longer than a month — but in July of 1971, we readers didn’t know that. Indeed, as of yet we didn’t even know that the publisher’s whole roster of titles would be going to the 25-cent format in August, though some of us likely gleaned the truth by reading between the lines of this Bulletin (and also by assuming, not unreasonably, that where DC went, Marvel must eventually follow).
For the record (and courtesy of Mike’s Amazing World of Comics), here are the (non-Annual, non-reprint) Marvels that came in at the 25-cent, 52-page size in July, listed alphabetically:
- Astonishing Tales #8
- Conan the Barbarian #10
- Marvel Feature #1
- Monsters on the Prowl #13
- Rawhide Kid #92
- Sgt. Fury #92
Out of this batch,* the final three titles listed had already been featuring a mix of new material and reprints, so adding more reprint pages to justify the ten-cent price increase — as Marvel did — may not have seemed like much of a stretch for those books’ regular readers. Marvel Feature #1, on the other hand, obviously didn’t have a track record, it being a first issue and all — and since we’ll be blogging about that very comic in a mere four days, we’ll postpone a discussion of its contents until that time. Suffice it to say for now that, of these six “early adopters” of the new format, the only one that managed to make it to the stands with zero reprinted content was Astonishing Tales #8.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “On the cover of Conan #10, right there below the title logo, it says ‘All New Stories’! Surely you’re not going to tell me that Marvel (gulp) lied?”
Well, no; I don’t think that Marvel intentionally meant to mislead anyone, so they didn’t actually lie, as I see it; nevertheless, the book did end up going to press with 6 pages of reprinted material. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to postpone further discussion of that material, and the reason for its inclusion, until we get to it in the course of reviewing the whole comic. For now, though, let’s simply proceed on to Conan #10’s lead story — “Beware the Wrath of Anu!”, by the regular creative team of writer Roy Thomas and penciller Barry Windsor-Smith, with Sal Buscema on inks:
As the story begins, we see that Conan continues to be accompanied in his travels by Jenna, a young woman he first met in issue #6 while she was working in a tavern in the city of Shadizar. That initial encounter had ended inauspiciously when, after the couple had saved each other’s lives from a giant bat-god and its murderous priestess, Jenna abandoned an unconscious Conan, taking his gold (which was stolen to begin with) in the process. The two resumed their acquaintance in #8, in which Conan, having arrived in another city, found Jenna again working in a tavern — though this time as the establishment’s proprietress, she having bought the place with the aforementioned ill-gotten gold. Letting bygones be bygones, the two fled together when the local constabulary attempted to arrest them both — taking them directly into issue #9, where in an adaptation of “The Garden of Fear” (a non-Conan short story by the barbarian’s creator, Robert E. Howard), the duo’s journey through a mountain range brought them afoul of a mysterious winged man-like creature. This being kidnapped Jenna and carried her off to his lonely tower; though Conan ultimately slew the creature and rescued Jenna, the couple was understandably ready to return to civilization afterwards, which is how they now find themselves at the gates of the unnamed Corinthian city-state where Conan #10 is set.
Attempting to gain admittance for himself and Jenna, Conan’s discussion with the guards becomes more and more heated, but before things inevitably degenerate into violence, there’s a timely interruption:
Conan and his new acquaintances go scrambling over the roofs and walls of the city until at last they come to the steps of the aforementioned temple; and then…
Yep, it’s our old friend Burgun the Gunderman, from Conan #8 — the mercenary soldier-turned-thief who’d appeared to buy the farm not once, not twice, but thrice over the course of that comic. I told you we’d learn his true fate in this issue, didn’t I?
As we noted at the time, the character of Burgun originated in a synopsis Robert E. Howard wrote for a story he himself never completed, but which became the basis for Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s “The Keepers of the Crypt”. But Howard also wrote another Conan story set around the same time as that synopsis, called “Rogues in the House”, that mentions (but doesn’t name) a certain “Gunderman deserter” — and Thomas, knowing that he and Windsor-Smith would be adapting that story in just a few issues (the basic plot framework of “Beware the Wrath of Anu!” is in fact derived from a brief passage in “Rogues”) had the idea to make Howard’s two Gundermen one and the same. It’s the sort of thing that Thomas did awfully well during his long first tenure as Marvel’s official Conan biographer, stringing together bits of lore from various pieces of Howardiana to establish a consistent, coherent continuity for the hero’s primary series, as well as its various offshoots.
But, to return to our present story…
Luckily, the Temple of Anu borders on the most disreputable section of the city, “the Maze”, so our crew is able to slip away into the night without encountering further harassment from the authorities. As they saunter along the busy streets, Burgun, believing that he and Conan running into each other again like this must be a good omen, suggests that they “make a team of it”; and Conan agrees.
Yeah, this isn’t looking good…
Over the next several nights, Burgun and Conan pull off one job after another, eluding the ever more grim Captain Aron each and every time, until one night Burgun announces they’re going to go for a really big one — “the Red Priest himself!” And so…
As you might guess, Nabonidus the Red Priest will be a major player in Conan #11’s adaptation of “Rogues in the House”; Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s introduction of him in these brief scenes is subtle, but effective.
Once they’re actually deep inside the building — which, as Burgun notes, is merely Nabonidus’ “official residence, not his real one” (a distinction that will prove significant, once we get to “Rogues” proper) — Conan, complaining that the “whole place stinks of sorcery“, opts to take nothing but a dagger-belt. “But that’s not worth anything,” objectts Burgun, as he himself loads up on loot. “No,” Conan replies, “but my life is.”
Not that Nabonidus himself is inclined to make such fine distinctions among the culprits, once he discovers the theft later the same night…
Well and truly on the hook, Captain Aron immediately takes a troop of guards to the Temple of Anu where he demands that the priest help set a trap for Conan and Burgun when they inevitably show up. “But — the risk,” protests the priest. “If the Maze-dwellers ever learn I am both fence and informer –” (Informer? Yup. Remember Igon wondering back on page 2 how the guards knew where he and Burgun would be that night?)
Conan manages to elude the guards’ nets; his companion, however, is not so fortunate…
“He’s delicate — sensitive — not like you.” Yeesh. I hate to break it to any “Conna” shippers out there, but I’m pretty sure that Conan and Jenna’s relationship is toast.
For the remainder of this scene, Thomas — a writer who’s been known to lay on the purple prose a time or two in his day — eschews captions completely, letting Windsor-Smith’s art carry most of the weight of the narrative. It’s a wise choice.
That night, there are no guards patrolling the area around the Temple of Anu, “for, who would suspect that thieves would do aught but tremble in the Maze this night?” Of course, they don’t know our boy Conan…
But pursue the priest Conan does — straight into the “holy of holies”, where the priest once more speaks the incantation that summons the Bull of Anu. This time, however, something is different… something which Conan explains to the priest, even as the Bull begins to materialize:
Conan expects the priest to speak another spell that’ll send the Bull back where he came from, but the pudgy cleric says that’s impossible. The god-monster proceeds to effortlessly knock down a stone wall, then snatches up our hero in one mighty hand…
As it turns out, the Bull recognizes the priest as the man who’s kept him imprisoned for years — and thus, he pays Conan no attention as the barbarian begins scrabbling in the rubble, trying to clear away just enough of the debris to allow his flight from the temple…
For my money, the ascension of the Red Bull is the most awesome (in the “inspiring of awe” sense of that word) sequence to appear in Conan since the transfiguration of Yag-Kosha in issue #4; your mileage may vary, of course (especially if your tastes are less cosmically-oriented than those of your humble blogger).
According to Roy Thomas in his book Barbarian Life, Vol. 1, the sequence shown directly above was his and Windsor-Smith’s attempt to obliquely convey an action that the Comics Code Authority wouldn’t allow them to depict overtly:
…we had to deal with the fact that REH [Robert E. Howard] says that Conan decapitated the evil priest of Anu. The Comics Code wouldn’t have allowed us to say that in either the dialogue or the captions, let alone draw the scene, so Barry got the idea to show the priest’s head in profile after Conan has dealt him the death blow and not draw his obese body in the spot where it would otherwise have appeared. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
I’m not sure that the solution was completely successful; I think one might easily assume simply that the priest is simply lying on an uneven pile of rubble, rather than that “his obese body” isn’t where it’s supposed to be. But I’m also not sure it matters; surely, the important thing to get across here is that Conan kills the priest, rather than precisely where the stroke falls, and Windsor-Smith’s visual storytelling accomplishes that quite efficiently.
In another context — say, in virtually any other Marvel comic book of 1971 — my fourteen-year-old self would probably have viewed the unfortunate guard in this scene as simply a cop trying to do his job, and Conan as a murderous criminal. Here, though, I’m pretty sure my response was the one that Thomas and Windsor-Smith wanted; namely, “hey, serves the guy right”.
And here, at last, is the final fate of our old friend Burgun the Gunderman. He won’t be coming back from this one, I regret to say.
The captions in the story’s final panel, which rather awkwardly telegraph the predicament we’ll find our hero in next month at the beginning of Conan #11, were evidently not in the original script. Once again, we have the Comics Code Authority to thank, according to Thomas:
The enforcers of the Code… were unhappy with the fact that Conan went unpunished at the end of the story, notwithstanding how greatly the priest deserved his end. It wasn’t enough for us to argue that the Cimmerian would get arrested by the authorities in #11; they wanted us to make it clear in #10 that Conan wasn’t getting away with it. So that was the rationale for the three hastily written captions at the end of the story.
From such vicissitudes are born the great moments in comic-book history.
Frankly, it seems odd that the CCA would get so exercised about Conan getting away with murder in this story, considering the number of killings he’s already been responsible for over the short run of the series to date. And it’s not like he’s going to stay in prison for any length of time, so what’s even the point? Could the explanation simply be a very literal and legalistic reading of the Code — the 1971 version of which clearly stated, “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds”, but then left ample leeway regarding how severe that punishment had to be? Your guess is as good as mine on that one.
In any event, that’s a wrap for “Beware the Wrath of Anu!” Reading what Thomas has to say about the story in Barbarian Life, I get the impression that he sees it as being not much more than the necessary prelude to what he calls the “main action” of “Rogues in the House”. Prelude it may be; nevertheless, I’d rank it as one of my personal favorite Conan stories of this period — and probably higher than “Rogues”, when you get right down to it. But you’ll be able to make up your own mind about the two stories’ relative merits in August, when we’ll be bringing you our overview of Conan the Barbarian #11 as part of the blog’s Giant-Size Marvel Month.
As you may have noticed, Thomas and Windsor-Smith did manage to take advantage of the new 25-cent format to an extent, taking 23 pages to tell this issue’s Conan tale, in contrast to previous issues’ 20-pagers. And there was yet more brand-new material to be within Conan #10’s pages — but before we readers of 1971 could get to the “Kull the Conqueror” story promised on the cover, there was a reprint to peruse. A text box at the top of the comic’s “Hyborian Page” letters column — anonymous, but almost certainly penned by Roy Thomas himself — explained what had gone wrong between the creation of the comic’s cover and the final assembly of its contents:
This is the first time we’ve felt it needful that we correct an error on one of our covers. The blurb thereon states that this issue contains “All New Stories”-but, due to Roy’s heavy workload, at the last second he was unable to finish a third original tale scheduled for inclusion — so we’ve reprinted one of the much-requested tales of Marvel’s first s&s swashbuckler, the Black Knight, from some years back.
One might quibble with the description of Marvel’s original Black Knight, Sir Percy of Scandia, as an “s&s swashbuckler” — technically speaking, the strip didn’t feature enough sorcery amidst the swordplay to really qualify — but it was about as close to the genre as Marvel had ever gotten prior to 1970.
“Men of the Shadows” was originally published in Black Knight #5 (Apr., 1956); like most Marvel comics stories of the Atlas era, it bears no credits, but the Grand Comics Database attributes the art to Syd Shores (pencils) and Christopher Rule (inks).
Most of you reading this can probably predict the remaining beats of this story without my telling you, but here goes anyway: The forest outlaws are essentially honest men who’ve been driven to outlawry by excessive taxation. They blame King Arthur, but of course it’s really the fault of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, whom the Black Knight (Sir Percy’s secret identity) eventually brings to justice with the outlaws’ help, restoring Arthur’s good name in the process. (Evidently, the story’s unknown scribe had the tales of Robin Hood on his brain at least as much as he did the Arthurian legend when he pulled this yarn together.)
In the summer of 1971, I was still roughly two years away from developing the enduring Arthurian obsession which would have made me considerably more interested in this story than I was at the time (and which would also eventually inspire me to create this hoary old web site). Nevertheless, I was probably at least mildly pleased to have the opportunity to read a tale of the first Black Knight, due to the character’s connection to modern Marvel continuity (via the Avengers’ Dane Whitman, whom Roy Thomas had established to be a direct descendant and heir of Sir Percy). And at six pages, it hardly had time to wear out its welcome.
The third and final feature in Conan #10 was apparently intended to be a regular part of the new, larger-format Conan the Barbarian comic. As the earlier-referenced “Hyborian Page” text box put it:
[July, 1971]… marks the inclusion of Kull the Conqueror as an extra feature slated to appear in most (though not necessarily all) future issues of CONAN, We’re sorry to see the passing of Kull’s own short-lived mag at a time when we haven’t the foggiest notion of whether it soared or swan.dived in the sales arena, but we deemed it wisest to put all our sword-and-sorcery eggs in one basket-and watch that basket! Maybe later…
To your humble blogger, this reads very much like someone (again, probably Roy Thomas) trying to put the best face on a not-so-great situation. While it’s easy enough to believe that Marvel publisher Marin Goodman took an axe to Kull the Conqueror after only two issues, I very much doubt that Thomas, at least, felt that this was the “wisest” decision that could have been made; and, indeed, in Barbarian Life Thomas writes:
I wasn’t happy about the swift cancellation of Kull the Conqueror, a series I had got Marvel to start when the first issue of Conan the Barbarian sold well, so I asked Marie and John Severin to illustrate an adaptation of “The King and the Oak” (a Howard poem featuring Kull), based on my own arrangement of the stanzas. The result was a beautiful piece of work.
“The King and the Oak”, though only five pages long, is one of my very favorite Marvel Kull stories; like Thomas says, it’s a beautiful piece of work. We offer it here in full, without interruption:
Despite what was said in this issue’s “Hyborian Page” text box, King Kull would not be returning to the pages of Conan the Barbarian — at least, not for quite a long time, and not as a regular ongoing feature. There would in fact be only one more issue of Conan in the new giant-sized format, and the titular star was going to have that one all to himself. Kull would eventually make a comeback, of course, but not until 1972; and thus, it’ll be 2022 before I can tell you about it. Just keep reading, however, and I promise we’ll get there, sooner or later.
UPDATE, 7/30/21: An earlier version of this post mis-identified the guard killed by Conan on page 22 of “Beware the Wrath of Anu!” as Captain Aron. Thanks to JoshuaRascal for the correction.
*As you may have noticed, one 25¢ title mentioned in the Marvel Bullpen Bulletin reproduced above — “the spanking-new TOMB OF DRACULA” — is conspicuous by its absence from this list. It appears that Marvel was expecting to publish the premiere issue of ToD in July, 1971 — as we discussed in last week’s Amazing Spider-Man #101 post, the book had already been mentioned in the same Bulletins column as one of the comics someone else (in this case, Gerry Conway) was stepping in to write in place of Stan Lee — but for whatever reason, the book’s release was delayed until November, at which time Tomb of Dracula would debut as a 20-cent, 36-page comic book.