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.