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…
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.
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:
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?
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”…
…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.)