When we last left Conan back in December, he and his two companions — Zephra (daughter of Conan’s old foe, the wizard Zukala), and Elric (ruler of an otherworldly realm called Melniboné) had just fended off an attack by Prince Gaynor the Damned and his Chaos Pack of beast-men. We now pick up the tale where Conan the Barbarian #14 left off, as presented by the same storytellers — plotters Michael Moorcock (creator of Elric) and James Cawthorn, scripter Roy Thomas, artist Barry Windsor-Smith, and co-inker (with Windsor-Smith) Sal Buscema:
These demonic creatures aren’t quite as formidable as Gaynor and his bunch, but there are a lot of ’em; enough to keep our heroes busy for a page or two, anyway…
Back on the mortal plane, Conan and Elric are of course unaware that Gaynor and company are coming after them again; rather, they believe they’ve won the day — or at least a moment’s respite…
Yep, it’s a boat made out of bones. Conan would rather swim, frankly, but he ultimately boards the eerie vessel with the others.
Rowing across the Sighing Lake, the travelers discover how it got its name, “as voices rise from the dark waters, calling out a lamentation of the dead…”
If you’re a current reader of Marvel’s Savage Avengers, or of Dynamite Entertainment’s various Red Sonja comics — or if you were a reader of plain ol’ Avengers back in the early ’00s, or even of X-Men ll the way back in the mid-’80s — you may be thinking, “Gee, that doesn’t look like the Kulan-Gath I know.” Well, there’s a story there, naturally; but it’ll have to wait until just a bit later in the post…
Gaynor promptly dismounts, so that he can go sword-to-sword with Elric. Conan begins to come to his ally’s aid, but then, at Zephra’s urging, turns his attention back to reaching and stopping Kulan-Gath. However…
Both Gaynor and Elric are correct in surmising that Stormbringer has only banished the Chaos Pack’s leader, rather than truly end him. Prince Gaynor would in fact go on to feature in many later works by Michael Moorcock, and not only in the prose format; for instance, he’d play a significant role in Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, a 12-issue series published by DC Comics from 1997 to 1998 under its short-lived Helix imprint. (Moorcock scripted every issue of this series himself, incidentally, working in collaboration with multiple artists –including Walt Simonson, who drew the cover of #11, shown at left).*
Having fulfilled his assigned role in Moorcock and Cawthorn’s plot, Kulan-Gath is of no more use to our storytellers, and is thus quickly dispatched. You’d think that would be it for the guy — but, as we’ve already alluded to above, this seemingly second-rate Stygian sorcerer would in fact go on to have a rich and varied afterlife in more than one comic-book universe. Rather than derail the present narrative with a long digression on that topic, however, we’re going to save the saga of Kulan-Gath for the very end of the post. (Of course, if you want to go ahead and check it out now, you’re welcome to click here to do so; we’ll still be here when you get back.)
As the battle continues, victory seems to favor one combatant, then the other. Watching helplessly, Conan tells Elric that the two of them have to stop the fight…
The text provided by Roy Thomas for Barry Windsor-Smith’s full-page splash, in addition to revealing Elric’s true motivations for seeking Yagala (motivations which, if Conan knew them, would almost certainly make him more sympathetic to Elric, no matter what the latter thinks), help place this episode as coming before Moorcock’s 1961 short story, “The Dreaming City”. That information wasn’t terribly useful to my fourteen-year-old self in February, 1972, however, since (as I related in my Conan #14 post) the bulk of the Elric stories were at that time hard to come by in the U.S., unless you had access to a good used paperback outlet or a store specializing in science fiction and fantasy, which I didn’t.
As things turned out, that situation would change pretty rapidly; over the course of the year, Lancer Books would bring out a couple of brand-new Elric novels by Moorcock (the first of which. confusingly, bore the title The Dreaming City, though, like Elric’s adventure with Conan, it takes place before the short story of the same name; the same novel was titled Elric of Melniboné in the UK, and in later U.S. editions). The cover art for both of these, by Charles Moll, makes Jack Gaughan’s version of Elric from earlier paperbacks (and by extension, the Barry Windsor-Smith version based on it) seem extraordinary faithful to Moorcock’s descriptive prose by comparison; but though my younger self recognized this flaw and was irritated by it, it hardly mattered in the long run. Thanks to Conan #14 and #15, I’d become absolutely taken by Moorcock’s approach to heroic fantasy (especially its sense of cosmic scope, which stood in such contrast to the earthier milieu of the sword-and-sorcery fiction by Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard); and so I scooped up both books and devoured them happily, as I would the later Elric books — which included new editions of the old stuff as well as brand-new novels — that followed in their wake throughout the decade.
During that decade, and into the 1980’s and beyond, Elric would turn up in comics almost as often as in prose fiction, and I’d pick up those as well, at least when I could find them. These included original adventures as well as adaptations of Moorcock’s stories, and the roster of artists who worked on them represent a true Murderers’ Row of talent, especially if one includes ancillary formats like covers and portfolios (remember portfolios?) along with conventional graphic narrative: Philippe Druillet, James Cawthorn, Howard Chaykin, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Robert Gould, Frank Brunner, P. Craig Russell, Michael T. Gilbert, Walt Simonson, Jack Kirby…
Jack Kirby? Yes, indeed — even if the King’s contribution was limited to a single cover illustration (inked by Joe Sinnott) for Marvel’s Giant-Size Conan #5 (1975), a reprint of Conan #14 and #15.
No, it’s not a pure and perfect piece of Kirby/Sinnott art, as John Romita appears to have made alterations to Conan’s face. Even so, it’s one of the few times that Kirby is known to have drawn Conan (and the only time he drew Elric, as far as I know) — as well as one of the very few occasions he tackled straight up sword-and-sorcery at all (though, yes, a lot of his “Tales of Asgard” stuff came very close) — so it’s a small but valuable part of the legacy of these two issues of Conan the Barbarian. At least, it is for me. (UPDATE 2/26/22: An earlier version of this post stated that Giant-Size Conan #5’s cover was Kirby’s only known Conan illustration; my thanks to commenter Spirit of 64 for the correction.)
And speaking of these two issues… we’ve still got a couple of pages left of Conan #15 to take a look at…
The splendid full-page splash panel which closes the issue — signed by the artist — represents much more than Conan’s farewell to Zukala; it’s also Barry Windsor-Smith’s farewell to Conan the Barbarian and its readers.
The letters column in the back of #15 carried the announcement:
If Barry Windsor-Smith had indeed left Conan the Barbarian for good after issue #15, his legacy would already have been assured; however, as many of you reading this are doubtlessly already aware, the artist changed his mind about leaving almost immediately — and thus, the best of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan was yet to come. But, of course, that’s a story for another post, on another day.
And now, Kulan-Gath.
As previously noted, the evil wizard who raises Terhali in Conan #15 — and gets blasted into atoms for his pains — doesn’t seem to have had any particular interest for our storytellers beyond his role as a plot device. It’s more than likely that he would have forever languished in the ranks of extremely obscure one-off Conan characters, if not for what seems to have been an arbitrary decision made about seven years later by scripter/co-plotter Chris Claremont and artist/co-plotter John Byrne, when it came time for them to put together the 79th issue of Marvel Team-Up.
Their story in that issue pairs the amazing Spider-Man with Conan’s fellow Hyborian Age adventurer, Red Sonja — an unlikely coupling made possible by (what else?) magic, which allows Sonja to temporarily take over the body of (who else?) Mary Jane Watson. The villain of the piece? An evil sorcerer from Sonja’s time whom she slew at some point in their shared long-ago past, but who has managed to return to life in the present day by means of a mystic necklace. His name, of course, is Kulan-Gath.
Neither the back-story nor the physical appearance of this Kulan-Gath match up with those of the guy we met (albeit very briefly) in Conan #15, and it’s not clear whether Claremont and Byrne actually meant him to be the same character; it’s possible they just liked the name, and figured nobody would mind if they recycled it. In any event, he’s dispatched at the conclusion of MT-U #79, and that might have well been the end of him once again (or for the first time, depending on how you look at it). But Claremont appears to have taken enough of a shine to this iteration of Kulan-Gath to bring him back (though it took him almost six years). Thus, the dark sorcerer resurfaces (again by means of that magical necklace) in Uncanny X-Men #188 (Dec., 1984); he then proceeds to give Manhattan a Hyborian makeover in #190-191, courtesy of Claremont and artists John Romita, Jr., and Dan Green; he even manages to murder Spider-Man (temporarily) before he’s defeated and everything is set back to rights.
By this point, the “new” Kulan-Gath had become an established Marvel villain, and if anyone associated with the publisher was at all concerned about how he did or didn’t fit in with a couple of long-ago issues of Conan the Barbarian, they gave no sign of it. Such remained the state of affairs until 1991, by which time Roy Thomas (who’d spent the better part of the ’80s toiling for DC Comics) was back writing Conan comics for Marvel. I think one may fairly state that Mr. Thomas has rarely, if ever, met a continuity problem he hasn’t felt compelled to try to fix; in any case, a little more than a year into his second run on Conan the Barbarian, he took up the issue of the two (?) Kulan-Gaths.
In Conan #253, written by Thomas with art by Dave Hoover and Dell Barras, Conan and his current traveling companion, Hobb, attempt to pay a visit to an old friend of Conan’s, Queen Yaila of Zahmann, only to find the queen’s court currently dominated by…
This storyline continues for several more issues; along the way we learn that the body Kulan-Gath wears now originally belonged to somebody else, who presumably perished when the sorcerer’s “free-floating atoms” took possession of it. And there you have it — the Kulan-Gath quandary, all sorted. From here, he could continue to appear in stories set either in the Hyborian Age (e.g., the 2000 miniseries, Conan: Flame and the Fiend) or in the modern Marvel Universe (e.g., Avengers [1998 series] #28 -30 [May – Jul., 2000]) without occasioning any questions about consistency in continuity… at least until Marvel relinquished the licenses to Conan and the other properties associated with the estate of author Robert E. Howard. After that, things got rather interesting.
To back up just a bit: at some point in the waning years of the last century, the Howard estate had spun off the Conan-adjacent character Red Sonja as a separate license. Marvel’s final Red Sonja project had come out in 1995; by the time the publisher released its final Conan comics in 2000, there were already Red Sonja comics appearing from other publishers. It would take several more years for the “She-Devil with a Sword” to find a stable home. — but when she did finally land at Dynamite Entertainment in 2005, Kulan-Gath was right on her heels.
I’m not an intellectual property lawyer and frankly have no idea how all this works, but evidently the license for Red Sonja includes the rights to use characters that appeared in any of her stories published by Marvel, including Kulan-Gath — who, to the best of my knowledge, had ever only met Sonja in that one 1979 issue of Marvel Team-Up prior to the character’s arrival at Dynamite, but has fought her so many times since then that he can easily be considered her arch-foe. Ol’ K-G has even figured into a number of Dynamite crossovers featuring Red Sonja, including 2008’s Spider-Man/Red Sonja (which was kind of a no-brainer, I guess) and 2012’s Prophecy (which features Sonja alongside other Dynamite licensees, such as Warren Publishing alumni Vampirella and Pantha and Army of Darkness‘ Ash Williams, and then throws in the Dynamite versions of a number of public domain characters like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Herbert West, Dorian Gray, and the goddess Athena, because why not). More recently, Kulan-Gath has shown up in Red Sonja: Age of Chaos (2020), in which the heroine meets the Chaos! Comics crew (Evil Ernie, Purgatori, et al).
But that’s not all, folks! In 2019, Conan the Barbarian returned to Marvel after a sixteen-year stint at Dark Horse Comics; and while Kulan-Gath had never turned up in a Dark Horse book as far as I’ve been able to determine (outside of the company’s reprinting of Marvel’s material, that is), Marvel wasted virtually no time in drafting him back into service at the House of Ideas. (Again, I don’t know exactly how this works, but it seems safe to assume that there’s some sort of “joint custody” arrangement, kind of like Disney and Fox used to have with Quicksilver.) Beginning with the first issue of Savage Avengers (Jul., 2019) and continuing through a 28-issue run, writer Gerry Duggan and an assortment of artists pitted a time-displaced Kulan-Gath against an equally time-displaced Conan — the latter of whom teamed up at various times with Wolverine, the Punisher, Elektra, Black Widow, Venom, Majik, Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom, Doctor Voodoo, etc., etc. (basically, any Marvel character with a propensity for magic and/or lethal violence became a likely recruit for this “team”, who, incidentally, never refer to themselves within the comics as “Avengers”, savage or otherwise), in an ultimately successful (thank Crom) attempt to keep the nigh-omnipotent wizard from, well, conquering the universe.
Honestly, at this point it’s like Kulan-Gath stands at the nexus of, if not all comic-book, fantasy, and horror genre realities, at least a goodly chunk of ’em. Not bad at all for a one-off character created a bit over fifty years ago as little more than a plot device.
But considering that one of his creators was Michael Moorcock — the man who essentially gave us the word “multiverse”, at least as it’s commonly used in both genre entertainment and theoretical physics — it also seems rather appropriate.
The author would like to acknowledge the following online resources for their invaluable assistance with the research for this blog post, as well as for its predecessor:
- The Internet Speculative Fiction Database’s Michael Moorcock Bibliography
- “Elric and the Artists” by John Davey at Moorcography.org
- Terhali’s Particular Satisfaction, or Reading Through the Michael Moorcock Multiverse
- “Kulan Gath” at the Appendix to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe
*Gaynor would also make a brief, and frankly inexplicable, appearance in a tale published in Savage Sword of Conan #189 (Sep., 1991); despite the fact that this story is framed as a sort of sequel to Conan #14 and #15 (Zukala is in it as well), I think it’s best taken as apocryphal — if for no other reason, then because Roy Thomas didn’t write it (and yes, I am serious).