In our February blog post about Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian #15, we covered how that issue’s final story page — a full-page splash panel of Conan bidding the wizard Zukala farewell, signed by its artist, Barry Windsor-Smith — also served as the artist’s farewell to the series’ readers, as #15 was the last issue he would draw of the title.
Or, at least, it was supposed to be.
Despite a promise on Conan #15’s letters page that the next issue would feature the advent of Gil Kane as the title’s new artist, when #16 showed up in April, it featured 19 pages of interior artwork, as well as a cover, by… Barry Windsor-Smith.
Of course, with the exception of the comic’s cover, as well as a single new frontispiece for the lead story “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, all of that artwork was reprinted from earlier comics. The aforementioned lead story, an adaptation by Windsor-Smith and writer Roy Thomas of a classic Conan tale by the hero’s creator, Robert E. Howard, had appeared some fifteen months earlier in Marvel’s’ black-and-white comics magazine Savage Tales #1. And the second story, “The Sword and the Sorcerers!” — a short piece that Thomas and Windsor-Smith had produced as a sort of “dry run” for Conan — had run in the fourth issue of the horror anthology title Chamber of Darkness (April, 1970).
The thing was, my fourteen year old self hadn’t bought either of those comics when they’d come out, so as far as I was concerned, they didn’t really count as reprints. So, nineteen pages of new-to-me sword-and-sorcery comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith? Believe me, I wasn’t complaining.
And any melancholy I might have been feeling due to my knowledge that, even if Windsor-Smith’s departure had been postponed by one issue, it was still happening, was eradicated by this announcement that appeared on Conan #16’s letters page, just like the news of the artist’s leaving had appeared on the same page in issue #15, a mere two months earlier:
So, as things turned out, we Windsor-Smith fans of 1972 would hardly have time to miss the “talented young Britisher” on Conan before he’d be back — evidently having found the experience of drawing Avengers, “Doctor Strange”, and the like less rewarding (whether creatively, financially, or both) than his previous gig. And with Conan restored to monthly publication as of #16, he’d be returning after just two months away, rather than four.
Having said all that, I hope no one has gotten the impression that my younger self was extremely bummed about the prospect of Gil Kane taking over Conan. On the contrary — I’d been enjoying Kane’s artwork for practically as long as I’d been reading comics (his Green Lantern #40 was maybe the third or fourth comic I’d ever bought, back in 1965), and I’d appreciated his brief earlier foray into the Hyborian Age back in Conan #12 — an issue for which he’d not only drawn an unsurprisingly dynamic cover (inked by Vince Colletta) but also illustrated what turned out to be both the first and last episode of “Tales of the Hyborian Age” — a back-up feature evidently intended to appear semi-regularly in the 25-cent/48-page version of Conan, where it would likely have alternated with “King Kull” in those issues that didn’t feature extra-length adventures of the headliner. (Alas, the abrupt end of Marvel’s giant-size experiment after just a couple of months meant that no further installments would be forthcoming, either by Kane or by anyone else.) Even so, Barry Windsor-Smith basically was Conan, as far as I was concerned; and thus, I imagine I was relieved to be able just to sit back and enjoy Gil Kane’s two issues, without needing to worry about whether the title had taken a turn for the worse with the exit of his predecessor.
Ironically — and unknown to me in 1972 — Gil Kane had almost been the first American* artist to draw Conan the Cimmerian in comic books, not just once, but twice. Kane had first become familiar with Howard’s original Conan stories (as well as the author’s other works) in the 1950s, when his neighbor had been Martin Greenberg — the co-founder of Gnome Press, which was the first publisher to collect the tales in book form. Kane had gone so far as to option the comics rights to two of Howard’s stories (though neither of them was actually a Conan tale; more about them in a bit). Later, around 1968, he’d hoped to bring out a black-and-white Conan comics magazine as a companion piece to his recently self-published, His Name Is… Savage, but the project never came to fruition — probably for reasons associated with the failure in the marketplace of Savage itself.**
Kane’s second opportunity to draw Conan came when Marvel eventually acquired the character’s comics license, a couple of years later. Kane had become friends with Roy Thomas during the duo’s collaboration on Captain Marvel, and the writer (and Marvel associate editor) was well aware of the artist’s enthusiasm for Howard’s hero. But Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman, was determined to keep costs down on the new title; and as the company was already forking over a whole $200 per issue to Howard’s literary estate for the right to do a Conan comic book, Goodman was determined not to pay top page rates for the series’ artwork. That took both of Thomas’ top choices for the assignment, John Buscema and Gil Kane, out of contention — and opened the door for the younger, and hungrier, Barry-Windsor-Smith to land the job.
But now, almost two years later, Conan the Barbarian was selling well enough that Marvel could afford to pay Kane to draw it on a regular basis. And how would the artist begin his tenure? Why, with an adaptation of one of the two Robert E. Howard stories he’d optioned years before, “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”.
Of course, as we’ve already noted, “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (which, if you’re interested, can be read in its entirety online, here) wasn’t originally a Conan story — rather, it was and is a historical fantasy featuring Howard’s 11th century Gaelic adventurer Turlogh O’Brien (aka “Black Turlogh”). But that was hardly an obstacle, as transmuting non-Conan Howard tales into Conan stories was an established practice going back to the property’s Gnome Press days; one that had already been utilized by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith in the Conan comic book on several prior occasions.
Joining Thomas and Kane to produce their adaptation — the first half of it, anyway — was a young inker named Ralph Reese, who’d previously worked as an assistant to Wally Wood and would also, sometime in 1972, become associated with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano’s Continuity Studios. Your humble blogger knew Reese’s work (and maybe even his name) from a couple of short stories he’d done for DC Comics’ House of Mystery anthology title — which was more than I could say for the equally young artist who inked Kane’s cover illustration for Conan #17, Frank Brunner (though, as a Doctor Strange fan, my unfamiliarity with Brunner wouldn’t last for long).
But that’s probably enough introduction, don’t you think? I’ll give you just a moment to take another admiring look at that fine Kane-Brunner cover up top, and then we’ll dive right on in…
From the very first page, Reese’s inks lend Kane’s pencils a level of texture that we hadn’t seen in a while; I’m reminded, if only slightly, of Sid Greene’s embellishment of Kane on DC Comics features like Green Lantern and Atom in the 1960s.
Thomas doesn’t offer us a footnote here, so we’re on our own in recalling the circumstances of Conan’s previous encounter with Fafnir. But if you’ve been a regular reader of this blog for a while, perhaps you’ll remember our post about Conan the Barbarian #6 from fourteen months ago, and the brief scene early in that issue’s “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar” where our Cimmerian hero interrupted a couple of fellow thieves…
As I mentioned in the original post, I wasn’t yet knowledgeable enough about the sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction subgenre back in March, 1971 to have recognized Fafnir and Blackrat for what they were — parodies of author Fritz Leiber’s S&S heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In retrospect, it’s rather obvious that Roy Thomas never intended either of the two to appear again after their little in-joke of a walk-on (and, at least as regards Fafnir, apparent die-off); but, in adapting “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”, he and Gil Kane needed a replacement figure for a major character in Howard’s yarn, a “giant” Anglo-Saxon warrior named Athelstane — and why invent a new large-statured Northman (especially one your hero is supposed to have met previously) when you’ve already got a perfectly good one lying around (quite literally, in a back alley of Shadizar)?
Sword in hand, Conan dives into the raging waters. Moments later, he comes up for air, and glimpses another survivor lying unconscious across a piece of wreckage… while the fin of a shark swiftly cuts through the waves towards him…
The two men manage to make it through the breakers on their raft; but mere moments after they’ve both staggered safely onto the island’s beach, Conan tries to pick a fight…
As a fourteen-year-old, I was fascinated by the references to Norse mythology you could find scattered throughout the Conan stories, whether Howard’s or Marvel’s. The god that Fafnir*** invokes at various points in our narrative, including in the last panel above — Ymir — had also been referenced more directly in the previous issue’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (said god being the “Frost Giant” of the title), and I was the sort of reader who couldn’t help but wonder whether this Ymir was the same one who’d given the modern-day Marvel heroes the Avengers such a hard time back in issue #61 of that series. Granted, it was hard to see much family resemblance between the beauteous, human-sized Atali of Conan #16 and the icy behemoth of Avengers #61, but you never know — especially when gods are concerned.
The rescue is successfully accomplished, although it ultimately takes the efforts of both men to dispatch the reptilian creature…
Kyrie invites Conan and Fafnir to help her win back her throne, promising them the usual rewards: “Garments — palaces — fairest maidens shall all be yours.” Conan is at present less interested in any of those than he is in food to fill his empty belly, but is nevertheless game. Fafnir is willing as well, though he expresses some understandable skepticism: “…the three of us — against a city?”
The trio proceeds to make their way from the beach to the shore of the lagoon where Kyrie had been stranded the night before; from here, Conan and Fafnir get their first look at their ultimate destination:
Conan and Fafnir quickly set to work building a raft out of materials gathered from the forest they’ve just passed through, and soon…
Kyrie, aka Aala, calls on her “children” to avert their own doom by rising up against Gothan and Ska. Ska responds by beginning to draw his sword, in obedience to the city’s tradition that (as Aala puts it) “a king must fight a challenger’s champions for his crown — or be hurled from the highest parapet” — but Gothan stops his puppet before the blade can even clear its scabbard…
In comics, whenever you see two guys fighting with swords on a practically horizontal plane, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re looking at the work of Gil Kane — or at least of someone strongly channeling his influence.
Conan manages to duck his uncanny foe’s next sword stroke, but the one after that shatters his own blade. It looks like curtains for our Cimmerian — but the keenly observant Aala has deduced what’s actually going on. She “strides, tall and cold-blooded, across the marbled court —”
And so ends the first part of Thomas and Kane’s adaptation of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”. As I’ve already mentioned, I think that Ralph Reese’s inks brought a special quality to Kane’s pencilled artwork, so it’s a little disappointing that he didn’t continue on with Conan #18’s conclusion, “The Thing in the Temple!”. Not that I have anything against his replacement, Dan Adkins, who was at this time perhaps the most sympathetic embellisher Kane had yet had at Marvel, contributing significantly to the slick look of the artist’s work on Captain Marvel and “Warlock” (in Marvel Premiere). But, perhaps due at least in part to its sheer familiarity, Adkins’ finishes on #18 didn’t make the same strong impression on my younger self as had Reese’s on #17.
Similarly, I wasn’t as taken with the cover of issue #18 as I had been with #17’s. Though it had been pencilled by Kane, the inker this time around was John Romita — and while I generally liked Romita over Kane on Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t think that the combo made for the right look for Conan the Barbarian. Honestly, to my eyes this was the least attractive cover yet to appear on an issue of Conan; so, naturally, issue #18 would be the best-selling issue of Conan thus far — at least according to Roy Thomas, who happily credits Romita, the man with “the golden touch”, for the accomplishment.**** (So much for your humble blogger’s tastes, then or now, being any kind of a bellwether for commercial success.)
And now, on to the interiors. As you might expect, the first few pages of “The Thing in the Temple!” are given over to a recap of the previous issue — one that wraps up with Aala bidding her two new favorite bodyguards goodnight, as she leaves them to stand watch in a room adjoining her own bedchamber…
The combination of Conan’s sword and the fire ultimately get the job done. Fafnir wakes up to the stench of the monster’s roasting flesh, swearing to Conan that he must have been bewitched not to have roused before now…
Fafnir does quite well for himself against this latest monster — good enough that the thing soon cuts and runs. The Vanirman immediately heads off in pursuit, heedless of Conan’s calls for him to stop…
“…the dark god Gol-Goroth!”
In “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth”, Gol-Goroth (misspelled as “Gol-Gorth” on page 13 of Conan #17) is little more than a colorful name. But it’s a name that Robert E. Howard must have liked, as he used it again in another story, “The Children of the Night”, where it appears in a list of “ghastly gods and entities” that also includes Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, both of whom were creations of Howard’s colleague H. P. Lovecraft. That reference implies a connection between Gol-Goroth and the “Cthulhu Mythos” born out of Lovecraft’s fiction, and makes “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” Mythos-adjacent, at least, if not actually itself a “canonical” Mythos story.
Uh, “molten lava“? So… I guess what looks like a big golden basin in the two panels above is actually the mouth of a volcano? Based on what follows, that’s my best guess, but the storytelling could be a bit clearer here, no question. (In case you’re wondering, things don’t go down quite the same way in the original prose story, so it’s no help in this regard.)
Before they can reach the city gates, however, our doughty pair are briefly waylaid by the late Gothan’s former puppet-king, Ska (remember him?), and a few of his loyal warriors. This incident has no real parallel in Howard’s story, and frankly serves no purpose in this adaptation save to burn up some page count. In any event, Ska doesn’t survive the encounter, and Conan and Fafnir are soon able to resume their flight…
The two men fight their way out of the city, even as the ongoing earth tremors make the buildings crumble around them, and crevasses open to swallow the battling Bal-Sagothians whole. Then, it’s on to the beach…
The climax and denouement of Thomas and Kane’s adaptation of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” differs from its source material in several interesting ways. For one, the Aala analogue in Howard’s tale never turns against her two outlander allies; one assumes that Thomas and Kane wanted to make the character less sympathetic so that her death would seem more “fitting”. In addition, there’s no volcano in Howard; rather, disaster comes to Bal-Sagoth in the form of a sudden invasion from the city’s traditional enemies, the less “civilized” inhabitants of other islands. Even allowing for the mysterious workings of the gods, the “prophecy of doom”, etc., this development somehow seems harder to swallow than the volcanic eruption our comics storytellers have opted to go with, instead; in this particular instance, the comics version has improved on the source material, or at least it seems so to me.
Finally, at the very end of the original story, Turlogh O’Brien opts to keep the very valuable “emblem of kingship” he’s come away with, rather than doing as Conan does at the conclusion of the adaptation, i.e., chucking it into the ocean. The latter action might be considered an unlikely action for a young barbarian who, until very recently, has been making his living as a professional thief, and Roy Thomas has acknowledged as much:
Got to admit, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the mercenary Conan would simply have thrown away something so valuable—unless perhaps he believed that Prince Yezdigerd would otherwise relieve him of it. Still, it was a dramatic gesture, and made a good ending for #18, with no complaints noted in the mail.*****
Yeah, I guess it was pretty dramatic. And it’s not like I remember being bothered by the incident as a fourteen-year-old reader back in 1972. So Thomas may well be right about the fan mail, for all I know.
In the end, whatever quibbles one may have with this or that minor bit, the two-part story contained in Conan the Barbarian #17 and #18 is a pretty terrific one — so much so that one might wonder why Gil Kane, having finally gotten his shot at drawing Robert E. Howard’s most famous hero after waiting so many years, decided to give up the assignment after only two issues. Because, according to Thomas, it was Kane’s choice to leave; if he hadn’t, Windsor-Smith wouldn’t have been allowed to displace him by returning to the book:
…Gil had his own reasons for leaving.
He never told me what they were, not directly. However, as we worked together on #17–18, I was aware that Gil felt (as had Barry) that he was having to put in way too much work, even for one of Marvel’s highest page rates at the time. Love Conan though he did, Gil had other financial responsibilities, and he felt they had to come first—so at some point, probably near the end of his work on the second half of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” he told me I’d have to find someone else to continue Conan. I regretfully acquiesced.
Later, a mutual friend told me Gil had said I wanted him to do “a goddam epic every issue,” and that it was just too much work.
Gil was absolutely right, of course. We did need him to draw, and me to write (which at least took less time), an epic of sorts every month. Our readers would expect no less, after Barry had raised their expectations with his increasingly detailed work.******
One can only wonder at what might have been, if Kane had chosen otherwise; if he, and not Barry Windsor-Smith, had gone on to chronicle, with Thomas, the epic narrative to which Conan #17 and #18 ultimately serve as a sort of prologue — the tale of the Hyrkanian War, aka the War of the Tarim, during the course of which the world of comics would first come to know a certain she-devil with a sword. Would Red Sonja have turned out appreciably differently than she did, if co-created by Kane rather than by Windsor-Smith? We’ll never know — any more than we’ll ever know if Windsor-Smith, unable to return to Conan when he wanted to, would’ve responded by going to DC to draw Batman or something. Roads not traveled, folks.
At any rate, I’m glad that to be able to report that Gil Kane, even if he couldn’t commit to drawing Conan month in and month out, would still manage to return to the character on several later, and mostly memorable, occasions — and not just for covers. Eventually, the artist would even get to adapt that other Robert E. Howard story he’d optioned all those years ago — and not as a retooled Conan adventure, this time around. But, as you might guess, that’ll be a tale for another post… another time.
*The very first comics version of Conan appears to have been La reina de la Costa Negra, an unauthorized, very loose adaptation (and expansion) of the 1934 Howard story “Queen of the Black Coast”; featuring a blond (!) Conan, the series was published in Mexico on an intermittent basis from 1952-1966.
***Fafnir’s own name, unlike that of the Fritz Leiber character on whom he’s based, is itself derived from Norse myth, of course.
*****Thomas,, p. 104.
******Thomas, p. 101.