Conan the Barbarian #11 (November, 1971)

Continuing the blog’s commemoration of Giant-Size Marvel Month, we have today an unusual entry — one of only two 25-cent, 48-page Marvel comic books published in August, 1971 that was the second issue of its title to appear in the new format.  (The other, if you’re wondering, was the partially-new, partially-reprint Rawhide Kid #93.)  As we covered in last month’s Conan #10 post, a number of Marvel titles made the jump to 25 ¢/48 pages in July, anticipating the increase in price and size the rest of the line would make a month later.  But since most of them weren’t published monthly, only a couple managed to get out two issues in the new format before Marvel publisher Martin Goodman abruptly pulled the plug at the end of August, dropping the page count back down to the old standard of 32 pages — though lowering the price only to 20 cents, so that buyers were now spending a nickel more for the “classic” standard-size Marvel comic than they had been before the July-August jump. 

The news of the expanded size for Conan #10 had evidently come too late for writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith to take full advantage of the increased page count; such was not the case with #11, which devoted all 34 of its non-ad, non-text-feature pages to an adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House” — the third of Howard’s Conan stories to be adapted by the duo in Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian title since its launch of  in July, 1970.  (Several other issues had been based on other Howard material, including a poem, a synopsis, and a couple of non-Conan tales; and another Conan story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, had been adapted for the first issue of Marvel’s black-and-white Savage Tales magazine.)

I believe that this may have been the first of Howard’s Conan stories that I read in its original prose version prior to encountering it in adapted comics form, as I’m fairly certain that I had started picking up Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks by this time, beginning with the chronologically first in the series — a volume titled simply Conan, which, in addition to featuring the full text of “Rogues” within its pages, also sported a cover painting by Frank Frazetta illustrating the tale.

According to Roy Thomas’ personal recollections (as published in his book Barbarian Life, Vol. 1), Windsor-Smith was “perhaps intimidated” by Frazetta’s painting, which was already well-known to Howard fans (the Lancer volume had originally come out in 1967) before Conan #11 came out — though he goes on to affirm that the young artist rose to the challenge.  I’m inclined to agree with that opinion — but why don’t I let you all have a look (whether for the first time, or simply as a refresher) at what Windsor-Smith (in collaboration with his semi-regular inker at the time, Sal Buscema) wrought within these pages, so that you can decide for yourselves?

Let’s do just that — starting with the story’s opening splash:

As you may recall from our Conan #10 post, the adaptation of “Rogues in the House” had in a sense begun in that issue, as Thomas and Windsor-Smith had built the story published there up from a short passage in “Rogues” that explained how Conan came to find himself in prison before the latter tale begins.  It’s worth noting, I think, that Howard’s original story (which can be read in full online here) actually opens with one of the story’s other characters — the nobleman Murilo, the Marvel version of whom we’ll meet anon — and takes a page or two to bring Conan himself onstage.  But Marvel’s Conan stories, at least in the early days, always featured the hero in the opening scene (and usually on the first page), regardless of how things had been handled in the underlying source material; in retrospect, I believe that was probably a wise idea.

The sequence of events that ends in Conan’s capture and imprisonment is related much more succinctly in Howard’s original; however, that approach wouldn’t have worked well in the comics version, which follows directly from the events of issue #10’s “Beware the Wrath of Anu!”, and involves characters whom Howard never even names, but whom the comic’s regular readers have already come to know well — such as Jenna, whom Thomas and Windsor-Smith had introduced months earlier in an original story published in issue #6, and had even already “cast” as yet another of Howard’s unnamed female characters, this one from the brief story synopsis that formed the basis for issue #8.

Regarding Jenna’ state of undress in the last panel of page 2 (which may seem like mild stuff by today’s standards, but was in fact quite daring for a Comics Code Authority-approved comic book back in 1971), Thomas writes in Barbarian Life : “We figured we’d get that page tossed back at us by the Comics Code—but strangely enough, they let it pass.”

Interestingly, in Howard’s story, there’s no mention of the wine being drugged; Conan is simply referred to as being very drunk.  While Thomas doesn’t specifically say this in Barbarian Life, my impression is that the writer thought that the Comics Code — or maybe just editor Stan Lee — might object to a comic-book hero who consumed alcohol to such an unfortunate excess.  For such a hero to be drugged against his will, however, was evidently a whole different thing.

Neither the script or art make much of it, but alert readers who’d also perused issue #10 would recognize the unfortunate “Cap’n Aron” as having been a significant supporting character there, who’d played a critical role in the events that led to Conan’s friend Burgun being betrayed, arrested, and ultimately hung; Conan’s killing of him in this scene is thus further retribution for that act, even if administered more or less inadvertently.

Igon, like Jenna, Aron, and Burgun, is a character who appears in Howard’s original “Rogues”, but never gets a name there.  As Thomas had made a particular point of writing the guy as an obnoxious little shit all through issue #10, his actions here come as no surprise.

In Barbarian Life, Thomas writes:

We were a bit uncomfortable, again because of the Code, with the idea of Murilo showing Conan a severed ear given him by Nabonidus, the Red Priest, but we went with it—and again, surprisingly, no reaction from the Code. Perhaps they were getting tired of complaining about the violence in Conan. Maybe we were wearing them down, just a little.

Returning to his own well-appointed home, Murilo settles down to wait… and worry.  As it turns out, he has good reason to worry, as he learns when the servant he’s set to keep an eye on things back at the prison suddenly turns up with unwelcome news:

Murilo’s servant, Sivraj, is another character who goes unnamed in Howard’s story, but gets a handle here, courtesy of Roy Thomas.  And if you’re wondering why the writer would even bother, well, just read the name backwards.  (If you still don’t get it, ask an Avengers fan.)

Sivraj doesn’t know why the jailer Athicus has been arrested, but it hardly matters.  With Conan seemingly now out of the picture, Murilo doesn’t see that he has any choice but to deal with matters himself…

Strolling freely from the prison (they keep only one guard on duty at night, it appears), Conan muses on what. he should do next.  By his lights, he still owes Murilo a debt for his freedom, even if the original plan didn’t go exactly as intended.  But first, he has some personal business to attend to, back in the Maze…

Again, here’s Roy Thomas in Barbarian Life:

The scene in which Conan tosses his faithless lover into an open cesspool—the word isn’t used in the comic, and many readers (and the Code) probably just thought it was a mud puddle*—is one of the most celebrated in Conan legend, right up there with his biting a vulture’s neck while being crucified.

I don’t know if Thomas is correct on this point or not, but I kind of hope he isn’t — since it seems to me that if a scene where Conan throws his ex-girlfriend into a pit of raw sewage really is “one of the most celebrated in Conan legend”, that doesn’t speak especially well for Conan fans.  Just sayin’.

Jenna, if you’re wondering, evidently survived the obvious health hazards of this experience, as she’d eventually return in Conan the Barbarian #118 (Jan., 1981).  (Or maybe not, since that issue was produced during the ten-year interregnum between Roy Thomas’s two stints writing Conan for Marvel, meaning its canonicity is questionable — in my personal Marvel Conan headcanon, at least.)

Like the two other extra-length stories Roy Thomas scripted for Giant-Size Marvel Month (Avengers #93 and Amazing Spider-Man #102), this tale is divided into chapters — though only two this time, compared to the others’ three.  Also like those, “Part Two” gets its own title, “The Talons of Thak” — which, as you may have noticed, is also the title used for the story on the book’s cover.  It’s not hard to see why Marvel would have considered it more of a grabber for the casual buyer, in contrast to the more subtle (if not downright oblique) “Rogues in the House”.

After scaling the wall (much as Murilo had done earlier — though without benefit of a horse’s back to give him a boost, obviously), Conan creeps stealthily forward.  He finds no guard or other obstacle — only a dying dog, whose throat has mangled by the fangs of some unknown creature.  Conan dispatches the unfortunate creature with a single merciful sword-stroke, then proceeds on his way…

There’s a bit of sloppy scripting on this page, methinks, as Murilo’s straightforward statement,  “I gained access to the house” implies that Thomas has forgotten all about the young aristocrat having been startled by “a low and throaty snarl” back on page 8, right before a scene change.  It’s not a mistake, exactly — we can presume that Murilo heard the sound, but never saw who (or what) made it — but it still strikes me as careless to set up a situation in that way, and then not provide any payoff.

Page 20’s reveal of the “hairy devil out of Hell” who’d been occupying Nabonidus’ chair obviously lacks the element of surprise for any reader who’s as much as glanced at this comic’s cover — but it’s still a powerful moment, exceptionally well rendered by Windsor-Smith and Buscema.

Conan doesn’t appear to bear any personal animus towards the Red Priest, beyond his aversion to (supposed) were-beasts; that’s in spite of Murilo’s somewhat cryptic remark back on page 6 about Conan having “no more reason to love Nabonidus” than he himself.  What Murilo is alluding to is the fact that Nabonidus was the one who who had commanded the immediate arrest and hanging of Burgun, as shown in Conan #10, and is thus indirectly responsible for all of Conan’s subsequent woes, as well.  But Conan wasn’t present for the scenes in the previous issue that imparted that knowledge to us readers, and so has no reason to suspect Nabonidus’ role in his misfrotunes.  Nevertheless, the reader’s awareness of the Red Priest’s culpability lends an extra tension to the interactions between him and the Cimmerian — a tension which, interestingly enough, has no parallel in the original source material.

Thomas’ version of Nabonidus’ speech explaining Thak’s nature and origins is edited down considerably from Howard’s original, which reads as follows:

“Some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man. His people dwell far to the east, in the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora. There are not many of them; but, if they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years. They are in the formative stage; they are neither apes, as their remote ancestors were, nor men, as their remote descendants may be. They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort, consisting mainly of grunts and clicks…”

In the original, it’s much clearer that we’re meant to see Thak as analogous to one of our own human ancestors, such as a member of the genus Australopithecus, and not simply as a highly intelligent ape.  While I sympathize with Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s need to streamline details of the original prose story in their adaptation, in this case that practice has, I think, resulted in an unfortunate obscuring of Howard’s true intent, and a subsequent lessening of the mystery and pathos of certain later scenes.

The black leopard tolerates Thak’s touch for a few moments, but then the latter puts a hand too close to the big cat’s fangs, and gets a bite for his trouble.  Things get very savage for a couple of pages — but, in the end, Thak is triumphant:

The preceding scene doesn’t appear in the original source material.  As Thomas explains in Barbarian Life:

In REH’s “Rogues,” by sheer coincidence, yet another gang of thieves decides to rob Nabonidus’ fortress house at the same time Conan and Murilo show up, and the intelligent ape Thak massacres them. We [Thomas and Windsor-Smith] both thought that was too much of a coincidence. Barry wanted to have Thak show his strength, instead, by fighting and killing Nabonidus’ pet panther…

The two comics creators had a legitimate point; unfortunately, this second, simultaneous home invasion is the main place in Howard’s story where he shows us how intelligent Thak is, as opposed to simply telling us.  In the prose tale, Thak successfully employs a fiendish death-trap he’d seen Nabonidus use on a previous occasion — it involves sliding glass panes and the release of a sort of poison gas (described as the “dust of the gray lotus, from the Swamps of the Dead, beyond the land of Khitai”) — to dispatch the intruders (who are in fact a cadre of nationalist assassins, rather than a simple “gang of thieves”).  To my way of thinking, opting to emphasize Thak’s strength at this point in the story, rather than his intelligence, was an unfortunate storytelling choice on Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s part — even if it probably made for more exciting visuals.

“I am a man of science.  Magic is too unreliable.”  Thomas is nodding here to an intriguing aspect of Nabonidus’ character that’s rather undersold in Marvel’s adaptation of “Rogues” — namely, that he’s a genius inventor, “centuries ahead of his generation”, in Howard’s words.

Arriving on an upper floor, Nabonidus is shocked to discover that every door is locked from their side — “and Thak — took my keys –!”  In desperation, Murilo tries to kick one door down, but only succeeds in making sufficient noise to attract Thak’s attention.  The three rogues hide in a curtained alcove, but it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered…

Conan’s brief but sincere eulogy for his fallen foe is a strong and memorable moment — though I’m of the opinion that it would have been even stronger if our storytellers had placed more emphasis on Thak’s human-like intelligence earlier in the narrative.

Our story, which has seemed very well paced up to the final scene, feels a little rushed here at the end.  Which I suppose just goes to show that even 34 pages may not be quite enough, if one isn’t very careful.

But I really am picking at a nit, here.  In spite of my criticisms — most of which have to do with how Marvel’s comics adaptation of “Rogues in the House” measures up to the original Robert E. Howard story** — I consider Conan the Barbarian #11 to be an excellent comic book; certainly, it’s one of the highlights of Giant-Size Marvel Month, well demonstrating the potential of the extended story length that might have become the standard at Marvel, had things turned out differently.

As I mentioned in my Conan #10 post, however, I’m at least as fond of that issue’s “Beware the Wrath of Anu!” — the mere lead-in to issue #11’s main event, some might consider it — as I am “Rogues in the House”; and perhaps even more so.  I believe that’s due at least in part to the more positive emotional focus of the former tale — the heart of “Beware” being the way Conan keeps faith with his friend Burgun (or with the man’s memory, at least), while that of “Rogues” is the broken faith between Conan and Jenna  — but it’s also likely down to my own particular taste, which prefers my swords and sorcery fiction to have a good, heaping helping of the latter element whenever possible.  Give me magic-workers and divine bulls over proto-scientists and hypothetical hominids any day.  And if you’ve got any cosmic forces in conflict lying about, or maybe some parallel worlds, even better.

I felt pretty much the same way in 1971 — which, as you might imagine, meant that I was primed and ready for the collision of Conan’s Hyborian Age with the expansive multiverse of British fantasist Michael Moorcock when it came along later that year.  Needless to say, I look forward to telling you all about that come this December, just four short months from now.

 

*I’m pretty sure that, in 1971, my fourteen-year-old self would have looked at these pages and thought “garbage” rather than “excrement” — though, if I had read “Rogues in the House” in the original by this time, as I well might’ve, I surely must have picked up on the “cesspool” reference and thus been a reader In The Know.

**For those interested, “Rogues” received a more faithful (and longer) adaptation in 2007, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.  Appearing in the 41st through 44th issues of Dark Horse’s Conan title, this version was written by Timothy Truman and illustrated by Cary Nord, Tomas Giorello, and Richard Isanove.

15 comments

  1. B Smith · August 21

    Wonder if Mr Smith had a hand in naming Conan’s jailer – “chunder” is an Australian euphemism for the act of vomiting; it could be young Barry harking back to associated antipodean expatriates in London, and slipping a sly jest past the Comics Code folk 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · August 21

      Interesting theory, B! But according to Roy Thomas in Barbarian Life, “the name of the jailer “Ch’unda” came from Frank Frazetta’s 1950s jungle hero Th’unda”.

      Like

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · August 21

    I write this having just returned from a trip to my old home town and discovering (to absolutely no surprise at all) that the Jr. Food Mart where I used to buy comics back in the pre-comic shop days has been torn down and is now a Dominoes Pizza. SIGH. Not the biggest change I saw on my hometown tour, but a poignant one, nonetheless.

    As for the matter at hand, I enjoyed this issue of Conan a great deal. BWS’s art continues to improve and the expanded 32 page length gives Thomas the chance to really lay the story out and let it breathe. My only real problem with this issue doesn’t come from Thomas or Windsor-Smith, but those over-zealous arbiters of moral morbundity, the Comics Code Authority.

    For example, let’s take a look at the issue’s opening splash, in which Conan lies at Ch’unda’s feet, supposedly having been viciously lashed repeatedly by the jailer’s barbed whip (not said in the narrative in so many words, but certainly the implication), and Conan has no wounds. None. And considering the fact that he’s basically naked in the scene except for this fur diaper, such damage should be obvious. The same thing happens toward the end of the story as Conan, Nabonidus and Murilo finally escape the clutches of Thak (which is not so much as name as it is a sound effect) and the priest tells Conan to be sure he binds the wounds which he obviously does not have. I know the Code enforced this rules on every book, but in a story like this one, drawn by an artist of Windor-Smith’s ability, it really sticks out. It’s a shame Barry and Roy had to work under such draconian restrictions and I wonder what they could have done together had those rules not limited their creativity. I’m sure the Dark Horse version of the story felt no such restraint and is not only much more accurate, but far bloodier as well (I haven’t read it), but it wasn’t drawn by BWS during his heyday, either.

    Nitpicks aside, this was a great issue. I don ‘t remember what sort of mess I thought Conan threw Jenna into back in the day, but a much shorter and more descriptive word than “cesspool” was certainly the one that came to mind fifty years later. I was really surprised when I read the original that Conan didn’t kill the girl, but I guess chivalry lives, even in the Hyborian age.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · August 21

      That’s a good point about the bloodlessness of the Code-approved Conan, Don. I can still remember how startled I was when Savage Tales #2 came out a couple of years later, with Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s “Red Nails”, and there was suddenly blood in Conan’s world. Even in black-and-white, it set you back a moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chris A. · August 21

        I enjoyed Savage Tales #2 and thought Wrightson’s King Kull story looked better there than in Creatures on the Loose #10. Also enjoyed John Buscema’s cover. Barry Smith went all out in that issue. Was that his last comics story of the 1970s?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Alan Stewart · August 21

          “Red Nails” (which finished up in ST #3) appears to have been he last complete BWS comics story of the decade — but he did also contribute the art for the first part of “Worms of the Earth” in Savage Sword of Conan #16 (Dec., 1976). Tim Conrad finished that job, though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chris A. · 29 Days Ago

            I found it at Diversions of the Groovy Kind. Never knew about this! BWS always said he had a nine year break from comics. It never occurred to me that his last ’70s story had been held back for a few years until it was completed by another artist.

            As it is, some of BWS’ best drawings of his ’70s comics work is in those early pages of the tale.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Alan Stewart · 29 Days Ago

            I might also mention BWS’s inking of Jack Kirby’s pencils on one chapter of Marvel Treasury Special Featuring Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles #1 in 1976 (though I understand why the artist doesn’t count that job in his “nine years away from comics” calculation). If you’ve never seen it, Chris A, it’s unique, wonderful stuff.

            Like

  3. crustymud · August 21

    You know that old belief that gorillas on covers sold more comics? Subjectively speaking, there must be some kernel of truth to it because it always seemed to work on me. Strangely enough, despite the gap in age between us, I also read Howard’s text story first, in a later reprint edition featuring that same Frazetta cover, and the image of a man in a desperate fight with an ape thrilled me. Then the story itself lived up to the image. This remains an all-time favorite Conan tale for me, in both its prose form and in the comics.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brian Morrison · 30 Days Ago

    Hi Alan, I want to say a big thank you to you for the huge amount of time and effort you must put into creating these blog posts, and also for including your personal reminiscences of buying the comics. I found your blog via the “Why I love comics” Facebook group back in May and after looking at a couple of the posts decided to read it from the beginning back in 2016. I didn’t realise that it would take me three months to catch up but it has been a great ride and I’m now in for the long haul.
    Like you I started reading comics in 1966 at the age of 8 and reading through the blog, so many of the comics that you bought, I did too. Luckily I had two older brothers who were already reading comics. As their interest waned mine increased and I managed to incorporate their comics into my collection ( sorry guys, but you are not getting them back!). Unlike you I was brought up on a farm in the north east of Scotland, distribution of comics was woeful and you could never guarantee to get the second or subsequent parts of a continued story. I therefore preferred the done in one comics which usually meant DC, although I tried to follow the Avengers too when possible because, I think like yourself, team books were my favourites.
    I didn’t buy the Conan books when they first came out being a superhero only guy at the time but have widened my horizons since then. I enjoy the Barry Windsor Smith art, but am I the only person who has issues with the way he draws noses? They always seem to small to me eyes.
    Anyway, a heart felt thanks again for all that you do

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · 30 Days Ago

      Noses? My thing with BWS’s art in this particular stage of his development has always been that he drew eyes a little too close together. Noses, though… hmmm….

      Anyway, Brian, I’m delighted to hear that you’ve read the whole blog from the beginning to date and that you thought it was worth the time (3 months? Holy Moley!) You’ve made my day, sir.

      Like

  5. JoshuaRascal · 30 Days Ago

    “In REH’s [original] “Rogues,” by sheer coincidence, [a group of “ardent young nationalists” surreptitiously enter] Nabonidus’ fortress house [intent on assassinating the Red Priest the same night] Conan and Murilo show up, and the intelligent ape Thak [gasses] them. We [Thomas and Windsor-Smith] both thought that was too much of a coincidence. Barry wanted to have Thak show his strength, instead, by fighting and killing Nabonidus’ pet panther…”

    If Thomas and Windsor-Smith had tried to do it like in the REH Original, with the killing by gassing of the nationalists, the story never would have gotten past the Comics Code, IMHO. Killing an animal was a different matter. Like I wrote in a comment for Conan #10, this was years before the Animal Rights Movement.

    It is an eye-opener that Jenna was able to bare as much as was shown in a Comics Code Comic Book in 1971. Yes, she IS “nekkid” under that sheet, boys. But, she wasn’t showing her belly button and Conan still had his “Shorts” on, so I guess it was ok.

    Regarding the “drugged” wine. I guess there was an anti-drug message of sorts here. Like alcohol itself isn’t a drug…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · 30 Days Ago

      Hmm… do you really think that the CCA would have been that upset about the nationalists being gassed, JR? It seems to me that they were mostly concerned with blood, dismemberment, and the like, and the gas would have been a relatively “clean” way to exterminate a group of characters, rather like the soldiers who get buried in the Conan-caused rock-slide in issue #8. But maybe I’m missing something… 🙂

      Like

      • JoshuaRascal · 30 Days Ago

        To quote the REH original:
        [After the “Gold Buds” opened] “Instantly the scene changed from one of hysteria to one of madness and horror. The trapped men began to stagger; they ran in drunken circles. Froth dripped from their lips, which twisted as in awful laughter. Raging, they fell upon one another with daggers and teeth, slashing, tearing, slaying in a holocaust of madness. Murilo turned sick as he watched and was glad that he could not hear the screams and howls with which that doomed chamber must be ringing. Like pictures thrown on a screen, it was silent.”

        That would have been one graphic scene for a Comics Code Comic Book. Death by gassing would touch too many raw nerves. Note REH’s use of the word “holocaust”. World War 2, with the Nazi extermination camp gas chambers, was still a living memory. Only 26 years had passed since the end of the war in 1971.

        Still, removing the scene took the “guts” out of the story, like you wrote, Alan. In the original, Thak kills the Red Priest’s attack dog just for starters, instead of this pet leopard.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Alan Stewart · 29 Days Ago

          Points taken, JR. Although I think that Thomas and BWS could have finessed the bloody violence of the scene by making it hard for the reader to “see” through the lotus clouds, keeping the focus on the reactions of Murilo and the others, etc,, execution by gas in a closed chamber might well have struck the CCA as too evocative of the reality of the Holocaust.

          Like

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