Conan the Barbarian #14 (March, 1972)

In October, 1971, the letters column in the back of Conan the Barbarian #13 alerted readers to the fact that the Marvel Comics series — which had been coming out monthly ever since issue #4 back in January — was going to a bi-monthly schedule;

In truth, Conan #13 was very nearly the last issue of the title — at least for a while.  As the series’ writer and de facto editor, Roy Thomas, would explain decades later in his book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Vol. 1 (Pulp Hero Press, 2018)

At a time when first issues weren’t the collectors’ items they are today, [Conan] issue #1 had sold pretty well…  But each of the following six issues had sold fewer copies than the one before, and in spite of its undeniable qualities, #7 was the worst seller of all (though it didn’t lose money).  Because of the drop in sales figures, Conan the Barbarian, which had appeared monthly since issue #4, spent a day as officially cancelled…on [editor] Stan [Lee]’s express orders.  For understandable reasons, he thought the comic wasn’t going anywhere, and if we cancelled it, then Marvel could have [series artist] Barry [Windsor-Smith] work on some more profitable superhero comic. I was working at home that day, because at that stage Stan and I only went into the Marvel offices two or three times a week, usually but not always on the same days. The next morning, I argued politely but passionately that, since it was our publisher Martin Goodman who made the decisions about which series got cancelled, Stan should leave the decision to him and not be in such a hurry…

 

I guess that morning my despair was persuasive, because Stan backed off of his plan to cancel Conan the Barbarian. However, starting with #14… it went back to being a bi-monthly series…

As the above recollection by Thomas indicates, sales figures tended to lag several months behind publication dates.  By the time Stan Lee (and Martin Goodman) made the call to reduce Conan‘s frequency, sales had already improved — meaning that even if the book had been cancelled, it likely would have been revived after some months’ hiatus (as indeed happened with Conan‘s sister title, Kull the Conqueror).  As it was, Conan would return to a monthly publication status by April, 1972; but for now, at least, Thomas and Windsor-Smith had two months to put together a single issue of Conan, rather than one.  That was in some ways a good thing, as the letters column announcement in #13 itself suggested, and as Thomas would later further explain in Barbarian Life: “If nothing else, that [i.e., the bi-monthly schedule] was going to help Barry in terms of doing the pencil-art chores. And Sal Buscema had begun to realize that, with all the detail Barry was increasingly putting into his work, it was taking him longer and longer to ink an issue, too. So the bi-monthly status gave us a bit of a breather…”

I don’t recall my fourteen-year-old self’s specific response to the news of Conan‘s decreased frequency upon first reading about it; I imagine I was at least a little disappointed, though probably not anywhere near brokenhearted (I had a lot of other regular comic-book series to keep me occupied back then).  In any event, I’d like to think (though I have no idea if it’s true) that I was more intrigued by the last bit in the announcement — the part about how #14 would see the beginning of the series’ first two-issue storyline, featuring “Elric, the fabulous sword-and-sorcery creation of English fantasy writer Michael Moorcock.”

Not that I’d ever actually read any Elric stories, let alone anything else by Moorcock, you understand; if I recognized either name at all, it was due to Thomas having cited the Elric stories as influential to the plot of Avengers #84 (Jan., 1971), a tale in which the modern Black Knight had attempted to rid himself of his accursed Ebony Blade.  The fact was, although I had by this time read and enjoyed several of the “Conan” paperbacks containing prose stories written by the hero’s creator, Robert E. Howard, as well as by others, I hadn’t yet branched out into reading sword-and-sorcery fiction that wasn’t specifically Conan-related.  Still, I was interested in doing so.

Of course, I had little idea that Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné was, among all the well-established sword-and-sorcery heroes of the time, the one who was the least like Conan of Cimmeria — and had indeed been designed that way, from the moment of his creation back in 1961.  In the words of literary critic Mark Scroggins in Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy, and the World’s Pain (McFarland, 2015):

Elric, to put it simply, is the anti–Conan, the dark underside to the healthy and hygienic barbarism the Cimmerian embodies. Elric is subtle, overcivilized…  And while Conan is content to follow whatever path presents itself, hoping only for women, wine, treasure, or adventure, Elric is painfully introspective and self-conscious, questioning his own motives and place in the world.

Compare Roy Thomas’ assessment in Barbarian Life:

Elric may have been partly inspired by Conan, but in many ways he was the exact opposite of the Cimmerian. He was pale and thin where Conan was bronzed and muscular. Elric was of noble birth, while Conan was born on a battlefield in a savage northern land. Elric depended heavily upon his mystic sword Stormbringer, while Conan would have despised the notion of a magical blade…

 

But, like they say, opposites attract.

 

So, getting his address in England from somebody-or-other, I wrote Michael and invited him to submit an idea for a Conan/Elric story…

Illustration by Philippe Druillet from Moi Aussi #1 (Dec., 1966). Text by Maxim Jakubowski.

Despite the disparity between the two characters, it was hardly a far-fetched notion for Thomas to approach Moorcock about plotting a comic-book crossover between his hero and Howard’s.  For one thing, Moorcock had actually worked for a while in British comics, having become the editor of Tarzan Adventures (a prose fiction-comics hybrid magazine) at the age of seventeen, and then going on to write a multitude of strips for Fleetway and other publishers early in his writing career.  More recently, the author had been involved with comics adaptations of his own fiction by other creators, including a version of Elric illustrated by the French artist Philippe Druillet, the first iteration of which was published in 1966 (though it would go through several later permutations).

In a 2008 interview for the British magazine Tripwire, Moorcock picks up the story of his 1971 collaboration with Marvel Comics:

When Roy got in touch with me to draft an Elric/Conan story for the Conan series, I thought it was a great idea but didn’t have a lot of time so, as has often been usual in our working partnership, I asked Jim [Cawthorn] if he wanted to work on the Elric/Conan story with me. He agreed and wound up doing the lion’s share of the work.

First British edition of Stormbringer, 1965. Cover art by James Cawthorn.

Artist and writer James Cawthorn had been a friend and collaborator of Moorcock’s since the latter’s 1950s fanzine days.  His association with Elric went back virtually to the character’s origins, as Moorcock explained in an interview for Back Issue #53 (Nov., 2011): “Before I ever wrote an Elric story I was talking about it with Jim, and he was doing sketches based in what I was talking about, so obviously I’m always going to see Jim’s Elric as being the definitive Elric.”  In addition to illustrating most of the earliest Elric stories for their initial publication in the magazine Science Fantasy, Cawthorn had even co-written one of them, “Kings in Darkness”; several years after the release of Conan #14 and 14, he’d write and draw his own graphic novel adaptation of Stormbringer.  In other words, even though Marvel wasn’t getting a “pure” Michael Moorcock plot for Conan , Jim Cawthorn was hardly some guy off the street.

And now, we’ll hop back across the pond to let Roy Thomas resume his account:

Michael enlisted the aid of his talented friend James Cawthorn…  Whichever of them contributed what to the storyline, they sent me a several-page plot synopsis of which none of us has a copy these many years later.  I do recall that, though I liked the storyline, I felt it was far too involved for a single issue, so I expanded the notion to two issues.  But it was still a bit too complicated, so I recall cutting out a character and subplot or two.  Even so, what remained was basically Moorcock’s and Cawthorn’s story, with the Conan action expanded somewhat by Barry and me.

We’ll hear again from Thomas and Moorcock later in the post; but seeing as how we’ve already gone over way more background information than was available to my fourteen-year-old self back in December, 1971, maybe we should just go ahead and get on with the comic book you’ve all come here to see in the first place…

Ah, Conan.  Always the highest motivations for our hero…

Conan quickly discovers that these are no ordinary brigands — besides the weird, beaked creatures they ride, they don’t cry out in pain when his sword slashes them, and the blood they spill is black, rather than red.  When one of their blades grazes him, he falls from his horse, and it’s looking bad for our Cimmerian, as well as his intended object of rescue.  But then, one of the black-robed figures calls his fellows’ attention to the approaching sounds of beating wings and clacking talons…

My younger self was at something of a disadvantage here, not having yet read Conan the Barbarian #5 (by Thomas, Windsor-Smoth, and inker Frank Giacoia), where both Zephra and her father, the wizard Zukala had first appeared.  I’m sure I recognized the characters’ names, if only from subsequent letters columns commenting on that story, but I couldn’t really appreciate the contrast in Zephra’s appearance and demeanor between this current adventure and her debut outing, in which she could (and did) become a menacing were-tiger.

Even more than his daughter, the wizard Zukala has changed quite a bit since the last time Conan saw him (see panel from Conan #5 shown at right) — something else that my younger self would have to wait a couple of years (by which time I’d acquired #5 as a back issue) to fully appreciate.

We should also note here that although the original Moorcock-Cawthorn plot synopsis included roles for a wizard and his daughter, the decision to make them characters that had already been seen in Conan was made by Thomas and Windsor-Smith.  As Thomas later explained in the letters column of issue #18, that choice seemed to tie the current story in more closely to the series’ continuity than the introduction of a couple of brand new characters would have.  An entirely reasonable explanation, though I wonder if Thomas might also have thought that the inclusion of Zukala, a character he’d derived from a Robert E. Howard poem, helped balance out the “Howardian” and “Moorcockian” elements of the narrative.

As requested, Conan follows Zukala into an interior courtyard, where resides an enchanted fountain…

Like Zukala, Thoth-Amon, the “most sinister of Stygians” comes from the writings of Robert E. Howard; while Conan hasn’t actually met the great sorcerer at this point in his timeline, he (along with the comic’s readers) did catch a glimpse of the evil one’s face in a magic bowl back at the end of issue #7.

Kulan-Gath, on the other hand, is an original creation of Moorcock and Cawthorn; we’ll have a lot more to say about him in February, when we discuss Conan #15.

“…a world called Melniboné…” In terms of Moorcock’s work, this isn’t quite accurate; in the Elric stories, Melniboné is but one island country in a world of many kingdoms, rather than a “world” in and of itself.  As Thomas must surely have been aware of this distinction, my guess is that he was intentionally trying to keep things simple for Conan readers who weren’t already familiar with Moorcock’s writing.

As for Terhali, while she’d been previously referred to in the 1964 Elric story, “Doomed Lord’s Passing” (at least according to Michael Moorcock’s Wikiverse — it’s been decades since your humble blogger read that story, so I can’t independently confirm), this appears to be her “on-stage” debut in Moorcock’s oeuvre.

“But now,” Zukala continues, “your blade will stand against the best… at least if the battle be not too long.”  As Thomas notes in Barbarian Life, magic swords were not at all Conan’s thing, and even the temporary introduction of such an element was likely to rankle some Robert E. Howard purists.  Still, in terms of giving our hero a degree of parity with his Melnibonéan conrade-in-arms-to-be — let alone the kind of beings we’ll soon see them fighting — it was probably a necessary move.

After seeing Conan and Zephra off, Zukala thinks silently, “Well, it’s done, Lord Arkyn.  The Cimmerian rides in the service of you Lords of Law…”

Readers of the Elric stories would be familiar with the general concept of an ongoing war waged across multiple realities between the Lords of Law and the Lords of Chaos, as well as with Xiombarg as a representative of the latter (she’d appeared in the aforementioned “Doomed Lord’s Passing”).  But they might not know her in her guise as “Queen of the Chaos Swords” — or recognize her servant, Prince Gaynor the Damned — unless they’d also read Moorcock’s recently published trilogy introducing a new fantasy hero, Corum Jhaelen Irsei:

First U.S. paperback editions of “The Chronicles of Corum”, published by Berkley Medallion, 1971. Cover art by David McCall Johnson.

Released over several months in 1971, the “Chronicles of Corum”, or “Swords Trilogy”, was likely still very much on Moorcock’s mind at the time he and Cawthorn put together their plot for Conan — which may help explain why that plot’s details seem to owe about as much to the author’s Corum stories as to his Elric ones.  And, who knows, maybe he even saw it as a way of promoting those books.  If so, he may have been on to something — because the two “Elric” issues of Conan certainly helped sell me the Corum novels, despite the fact that they’re never actually mentioned in them, either within the stories or even on the letters pages.

How did that work?  Well, the fact is that when my enthusiasm for these comics sent me to my usual paperback fiction retail outlets looking for Elric books, there basically weren’t any.  The two volumes collecting Moorcock’s original cycle of stories, The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, had been published in America by Lancer Books in 1967, and hadn’t had a new edition since.  In late 1971-early 1972, therefore, the closest thing to an Elric book I could find was a collection of Moorcock stories, published in 1970, called The Singing Citadel, which included a single tale of Elric.  The next closest thing, naturally, was the Chronicles of Corum.  I ended up buying all of those books, and have never had reason to regret it…

But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Here I am telling you how Conan #14 helped make me a lifelong fan of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy heroes, and Elric hasn’t even shown up in the story yet.  Where were we again?  Oh, right — Zukala was spying on Xiombarg through his magic fountain…

And here he is at last.  Elric of Melniboné — riding a big black horse, swinging a big black sword, and wearing a… tall green pointy hat?

Sigh.

The Stealer of Souls and Other Stories (Lancer Books, 1967). Cover art by Jack Gaughan.

Stormbringer (Lancer Books, 1967). Cover art by Jack Gaughan.

Let’s hear again from Roy Thomas:

We made one mistake that I have always regretted.

 

The American paperback publisher of the Elric books had, for some reason, fronted them with cover paintings of Elric that had him wearing a tall peaked hat—not unlike the “dunce’s cap” of early American schools and many a schoolboy cartoon ever since. That hat has no counterpart whatever in the Elric stories, but it was such a strong visual that, without thinking much about it, Barry and I slapped it onto Elric’s head. Barry drew the pictures, of course, but I remember distinctly that I wanted that hat there, too.

 

By the time we realized our folly, it was too late, though Michael Moorcock has always told me he forgives us.

Ah, if only Moorcock and Cawthorn had thought to send along a few of the latter’s drawings of Elric to Thomas, to accompany their plot… things might have gone very differently, then.  But they didn’t, alas; and so, we (and Elric) are stuck forever with that damn hat.*

Conan is somewhat skeptical of this tale; he wonders why Elric needs “more ‘sorcerous lore’” so badly that he’d travel between worlds to get it.  To which the sorcerer-king replies haughtily, “Do not seek, barbarian, to know all the secrets of Elric!”  That gets our Cimmerian’s back up, naturally — but before things can get too testy again between the two bladesmen…

Our storytellers proceed to give us several pages full of thrilling mayhem, culminating in this very fine full-page splash:

Elric explains that the warriors of the Chaos Pack, being “hellish, impure things”, can’t stand before cleansing waters.”  But even “the cataracts sent by Serusha” (in Zephra’s felicitous phrase) aren’t enough to wash the world free of Prince Gaynor, who slips away through the melting bodies of his minions…

And that’s that for the first half of Conan the Barbarian‘s first full-fledged two-parter.  I hope you’ll rejoin us in February for the concluding chapter, in which we’ll finally say a proper hello to the contemptible conjurer known as Kulan-Gath.  (And then quite promptly tell him goodbye.  And then say hello, again…)

 

*Of course, if Barry Windsor-Smith hadn’t drawn Elric wearing that hat, we might never have been blessed with “Elrod of Melvinbone”…

Panels from Cerebus #4 (Jun.-Jul., 1978). Text and art by Dave Sim.

…or if we had, the character wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.  And as undeniably problematic a figure as Cerebus writer-artist Dave Sim would become in later years, his early stuff is still damn funny.  (Well, I think so, anyway.)

10 comments

  1. Andrew Johnson · December 18

    Alan,
    Although I have never been a Conan comic book fan (I like the movies though) I absolutely ENJOY your perspective on every comic you review and am always anxiously waiting for your next one. I read ’em all!! I am also proud to be a 50+ year old comic collector / reader and I am so glad to know that you are too. Keep up the excellent work and I will keep enjoying your reviews. God bless!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · December 18

    I probably attempted this math the last time you covered a Conan book, but let’s see…I know I didn’t discover the Conan comics until ’74 or so, which led me to track down and devour all the Conan books published by Lancer later that same year, in addition to all the comics, which means I probably didn’t discover Elric until college. Did you introduce me to Elric, Alan? I have no memory of the details of my first encounter with Moorcock, but I do know that by ’77 I was actively tracking down everything he had ever written that I could find.

    As such, I missed this comic when it first came out, and when I did discover it, I had no familarity with Elric at all, so very little of his mythology or background made any sense to me, but in looking back, I really appreciate Moorcock’s willingness to share his character with the American comic book audience. I’m assuming there was more to it than “I sent Michael a letter…” and that there were contracts and stipulations and so forth between Moorcock and Marvel, but since it all turned into such an excellent comic story, it’s all to the good. In retrospect, however, to see Gaynor and Xiombarg, not to mention the melancholy Melnibonian himself cross swords with our favorite Cimmerian is a real treat and one of the highlights of this comic. I look forward to us all living long enough to get to P. Craig Russell’s run on Elric in the 80’s as well.Thanks, Alan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · December 18

      And I can’t believe I left this part out, but the whole post was made for me with that one panel of Elrod from the Cerebus comic. God that was funny stuff and Crom bless Moorcock for not suing and just sitting back and getting the joke…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. frednotfaith2 · December 18

    Roy’s comments about the change to bi-monthly schedule giving Barry & Sal more time to complete the pencils & inks brings up an interesting issue of the period of the late Silver & early Bronze ages — mainly that as some artists were producing more elaborately detailed and beautiful works, nearly all appear to have had problems keeping up with monthly schedules and they were earning less than far less detail-orientated artists who could draw several comics each month. But then, even of the latter, such as Kirby or the Buscemas, seems to me that when they were working on something like 5 or more titles a month, the overall quality of their work suffered, even if still very good. Certainly Kirby was capable of producing generally excellent artwork while regularly producing at least 4 mags a month at Marvel & DC for years, although it appeared more slapdash & rushed when he was doing much more than that, as in the early ’60s.
    As to the issue at hand, I didn’t read this until maybe the late ’80s. A fun romp bringing together two classic but very different sword & sorcery characters, albeit one who deplored sorcery and the other who derived his very strength and power from sorcery. A bit like the original trio of Defenders, the mystic Dr. Strange with the muscle-bound pair of Hulk & Namor, who were both about as well dressed as Conan, but lacking necklace and boots and Hulk not having wrist bands.
    During the ’70s, I had read references to Moorcock, mainly as to how his Elric stories strongly influenced Starlin’s Warlock stories. To my vague recall, in early 1983, checking out a particular comics store in Sunnyvale, CA, for the first time, I happened to come across Swords of Cerebus #1 (reprinting Cerebus 1-4) and something about it intrigued me enough to purchase it although I’d never heard of the character before. I thoroughly loved it, particularly that Elrod of Melvinbone chapter! Sometime within the next few years, I did read Moorcock’s Elric books and enjoyed those too, and Thomas’ various adaptations of those stories, with Craig Russell and other artists. I never purchased any Conan novels, although in the late ’70s, my brother Terry (10 months younger than me) had taken to collecting various pulp fantasy novels, including those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and John Norman’s rather infamous Gor series (but nothing by Moorcock) and I did read some of those myself (the Gor stories i found both titallating and disturbing, and I think anyone else who has read them will know what I’m referring to!). I did like some of Howard’s works, but overall I much preferred the Elric stories, maybe because I somehow found that character more relatable than Conan. Funny about the origin of that hat being rather happenstance at the whim of a paperback cover artist and thereby inspiring Smith’s version and providing comedic fodder for Sim. I might note, by the way, despite my brother Terry & I being “Irish twins”, we weren’t all that much alike and didn’t hang out together at all during the 3 years we attended the same high school. Amusingly, even other students who knew both of us didn’t realize that we were brothers! By the time we were in our teens, Terry was bigger than me — taller & beefier — while I was very slender and his hair was straight while mine was very wavy, such that when I let it grow out it became bushy, so much so that a black woman asked my mom if I’d purposely gotten an “afro perm” — nope, it just naturally grew out that way. In some ways, I was Elric to Terry’s Conan!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. crustymud · December 18

    I got seriously into comics in 1976, a time when Conan and Conan clones could be readily found on the spinner racks. I liked Conan but bought his titles irregularly. (Ditto his clones.)

    I discovered Elric in 1981 via Dungeons & Dragons; more specifically because of the Deities and Demigods sourcebook, which had several pages devoted to the character and his world. When I first read this, I was utterly captivated. Within a few month, I was out shopping with my mother and discovered the DAW paperback editions in a bookstore– they had all six books in the series, all priced between $1.95 and $2.50. My mother got me all six books that day. I shared them with my buddy (who was my Dungeon Master) and we devoured the whole series in just a couple months. The covers were by an artist named Michael Whelan, who had a Frazetta-type style, and definitely did not put Elric in a dunce cap. The headwear he gave him (when he gave him any headwear at all) was a more conventional medieval helmet with bat wings, which actually looked fairly badass.

    When I heard about Elric’s appearance in Conan a year or two later, I got the fifteenth issue at a back issue dealer for a hair under $10, like eight or nine bucks. The dunce cap was a step down from the bat helmet, certainly, but it didn’t really bother me overly much, iirc. (In a way, this fashion choice does make some sense, as Elric is a wizard of a kind, in addition to being a sword-wielding warrior.) I stumbled upon issue #14 a significant time later, and I believe it actually cost just a tad less than that fifteenth issue ran me. When Pacific comics started their adaptions of those Elric stories (by Thomas and Russell), I bought them religiously, through the Eclipse years and beyond.

    This mash-up could have been a mess, but I found it to be a ton of fun at the time, and still greatly enjoy it today. Looking forward to your follow-up in February.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. DAVID MACDONALD-BALL · December 20

    I first read this particular issue as a UK black and white reprint in, I think, 1974 – Conan was at that point sharing the comic with The Avengers if memory serves me correctly. I can recall that twelve year-old me not that impressed by Elric of Melinbone; I knew what I wanted in a hero and it wasn’t a skinny albino with a magic sword and a daft hat!
    By this point I had already disrupted the dusty serenity of our school bookshop – yes, my school had its own bookshop – by ordering anything available by Robert E. Howard; I think it was the Frazetta covers that caused the biggest stir, but sword and sorcery pulp fiction was definitely not the type of reading matter that was usually ordered (or expected to be read) by pupils at our school.
    The point is that I liked heroes in the mould of Conan and Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Cormac Mac Art; Elric just didn’t make the cut.
    So, zoom forward forty-seven years and I finally get to read this issue in colour when I buy the relevant volume of “Conan the Barbarian: The Original Marvel Years”… and I still don’t really enjoy the character of Elric! By this point I’ve read, on average, a book every week (or more) as well as multiple comics a month, but nothing can persuade me to try Michael Moorcock and his brand of fantasy. It is probably my loss, but as sixty rapidly approaches, I have no inclination to try.
    Finally, I have only recently discovered your site and reading your entries (and the well considered comments they both provoke and inspire) is proving to be one of the few genuine pleasures that I have had these past months. One can’t ignore a Pandemic, but it is possible to find some small relief in memories of comics from half a century ago. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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