With this issue of Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian, writer-editor Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith inaugurated the first proper extended storyline to appear in the title since its inception. A note on the letters page cited the single Conan novel written by the hero’s creator Robert E. Howard, “The Hour of the Dragon” (published in book form as Conan the Conqueror), as a model for the two storytellers; nearly half a century later, in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, Thomas would also invoke Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, as an inspiration. Both works scan as legitimate antecedents for the multi-issue chronicle of what would soon come to be referred to as the Hyrkanian War, or the War of the Tarim; still, I think its fair to say that of the two, the Iliad bears closer resemblance to the story that Thomas and his collaborators would unfold to Conan‘s readership over the next seven months, at least in its setting and overarching premise. Both epics tell of the siege of a great city by an equally great army; of a bloody war in which neither side may be said to be entirely in the right.
I’ve said “Thomas and his collaborators”, rather than “Thomas and Windsor-Smith”, because the latter creator would end up leaving the series before the storyline reached its end; a somewhat ironic turn of events, seeing as how Conan #19 represented the 23-year old Windsor-Smith’s return to the title following a hiatus of nearly half a year. The last regular issue drawn by the artist had been #15, published in February;* since leaving the book, he’d drawn a trio of Avengers issues, as well as contributing to Iron Man and to the newly revived “Dr. Strange” series in Marvel Premiere. But now, for whatever reason (or combination of reasons), he’d changed his mind; and as his designated replacement, Gil Kane, had opted to move on after drawing just two issues, the way was open for Conan‘s original artist to return.
And what a return it was. Windsor-Smith had already been working at a high level of accomplishment when he’d last drawn the feature, but in the relatively short time he’d been away, he’d somehow gotten even better. This was manifestly evident from the moment one looked at the cover, which was pencilled, inked, and colored by the artist. Everything about this cover — the graceful yet dynamic composition; the beautifully lettered title integrated within the illustration; the startlingly vivid coloring, featuring an unlikely yet irresistibly gorgeous combination of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, and blues — combined to make for a work of art your humble blogger is prepared to call a masterpiece. To this day, it remains my single favorite Conan the Barbarian cover.
But as great as Windsor-Smith’s newest work was, one thing hadn’t changed since his previous stint as Conan‘s artist, and that was the sheer amount of time it took to produce the finished artwork for each story. The situation had presumably been alleviated somewhat when the book was bumped from monthly to bi-monthly status back in the fall of 1971; but as of issue #16, Conan was once again coming out every month. So deadlines remained a problem in general; and in the specific case of Windsor-Smith’s first issue back, #19, they precipitated a crisis of sorts.
But as that crisis won’t rear its head until the tenth page of “Hawks of the Sea!”, we’ll postpone discussing it until we get there. For now, we’ll launch ourselves directly onto the waves of the Vilayet Sea, by way of our story’s opening splash page (see what I did there?) — which (like the remaining 19 pages that follow) was written by Roy Thomas, pencilled and colored by Barry Windsor-Smith, and (like the next 8 pages that follow) inked by Dan Adkins — the embellisher who, in a 1998 interview for Comic Book Artist, Windsor-Smith himself described as “certainly my favorite inker at that period because he meticulously followed my every line…”
Our story picks up directly following the conclusion of the previous issue, which found Conan and his new companion, Fafnir the Vanirman,** picked up by a Turanian war-vessel following their narrow escape by raft from the volcanic destruction of the island of Bal-Sagoth…
Conan responds to this abusive treatment about as well as you’d expect; after easily taking the soldier’s spear away from him, he opts to return the nose-bloodying favor by smashing the man’s face into his knee…
Writing about this sequence in Barbarian Life, Roy Thomas credited Barry Windsor-Smith with coming up with it; he also noted that even the minor amount of blood on display here would likely have been disallowed by the Comics Code Authority just a couple of years earlier. By mid-1972, however, “there were winds of change blowing across the comics industry… and we were poised to take full advantage of them.”
Leading Conan and Fafnir to the prow of his ship, Prince Yezdigerd asks them if they’re willing to embrace the cause of his “great and holy war“. Fafnir responds by pointing out the obvious fact that as rescued castaways, they really have little choice. “But,” he goes on to ask, “couldn’t you tell us who you’re fighting — and why?”
“Oh, yes,” the prince replies easily. “The details. Quite simple, really…”
“Tarim”, as the name of a major god of the Hyrkanians, comes from Robert E. Howard’s writings, as does the idea of those folk being descendants of the Lemurians. The rest of Yezdigerd’s account, however, appears to be original with our Marvel storytellers.
The analogy between the abduction of “the Living Tarim” in Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s story, and the abduction of Helen of Troy in the Iliad, is undoubtedly so obvious that I don’t even need to point it out (although I guess I just did anyway)…
Darkness has fallen, and soon it’s time for some shuteye. Conan sleeps rough on the deck (as do most of the soldiers and ship’s crew, one presumes), and the night passes uneventfully. Then, when morning comes…
Just in case you’re wondering, Conan appears to have been having a dream about the events recounted in issue #3’s “The Twilight of the Grim Grey God!”…
This blog has now arrived at an era of Marvel Comics when they stopped numbering the story pages, so you’ll have to take my word for it that the last panel above is the final panel of page 9 — which means it’s also the final panel inked by Dan Adkins.
So, what happens now, you wonder? Let’s start with the “official” editorial explanation offered on this very issue’s letter page:
…due to the truly fearsome amount of time and work which Barry poured into this, his initial return-effort on CONAN, plus a few other time factors, inker Dan Adkins was able to finish off only the first half of this issue – and the latter portion is therefore being reproduced from Barry’s pencils, so that Dan can get a head jump on the next tale.
In 2018’s Barbarian Life, Vol. 1, Roy Thomas offered some more details:
…because of all the work Barry was putting in, and our renewed monthly schedule, it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be time to ink all the pages of the story. The fault was not that of Dan Adkins, whom we’d carried over from Gil Kane’s last issue, but just a matter of too many art lines, too little time. So Stan [Lee, Marvel’s publisher] decided, after we consulted, to try a daring experiment. We would print the last eleven pages of “Hawks from the Sea” from Barry’s pencils, which he was told to make a bit extra strong and tight… The resulting issue is good in some panels over the rest of the issue, and less good in others. But it’s not like we had much of a choice.
And then there’s the account of Barry Windsor-Smith, as related in the same 1998 Comic Book Artist interview I quoted from earlier:
…the latter pages of “Hawks from the Sea’… [were] printed from not-too-keen copies of my finished pencil drawings. That came about because of… Dan Adkins’ deadline problems: It was a choice of getting [John] Verpoorten, [Frank] Giacoia, [Herb] Trimpe and [John] Romita to hack black ink through those pages in a matter of days or go with pencil drawings. My pencil work was quite finished in those days (had to be because I never knew what inker I’d end up with) so we went with printing from pencil. It looked pretty lousy even though I tried to beef up some lines on the copies and I deliberately toned the color vocabulary down to pastels so as to not obliterate what little line work remained in the copies. Comic book printing in those days was deplorable, to say the least.
Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s versions of the story of issue #19’s deadline crisis differ on one significant point: the extent to which Dan Adkins may have borne some responsibility for the situation. The latter artist was himself interviewed for CBA in 1999, and while he didn’t address Conan #19 specifically, he did offer some general comments regarding the time-related challenges involved in inking Windsor-Smith’s pencils for the series:
…I was late with a number of jobs, you know? I cannot ink real fast. I’ve inked nine pages during an 18-hour session, a page every two hours. That was a Marie Severin story, Sub-Mariner vs. the Hulk, for Tales to Astonish #100.
So, I inked a page in an hour, and I’ve penciled 11 pages in one 18-20 hour sitting; but basically, I can do a page-and-a-half a day. So, when you get Barry and what you call the slow pencilers… and he’s slow. I don’t know how fast he is now, because if you look at Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller [a Dark Horse Comics series published 1996-97], he’s a fast penciler in there, and a fast inker, and a fast artist! [laughter]
The first issue of Conan, I inked and there were no problems, probably because it had been sitting around forever… But when I got to #7, I think I only did about seven pages before Frank Giacoia, I think, came in and helped finish it off. But Barry’s slow, and if you give me his job, it’s usually already late before I start; but if you give me John Buscema or Jack Kirby, who are both fast… I did eight John Buscema Silver Surfer issues with no problem, you know? And it was no problem for two reasons: 1) These guys don’t put in as much detail as Smith, and 2) What they do put in, they put in quickly, therefore they’ve got some kind of system. So, you can handle problems with deadlines; but you take a guy that’s meticulous like me, and a guy who’s meticulous like Barry, and you’re asking for trouble!
As your humble blogger obviously has no direct knowledge of what went on with this book fifty years ago, I think we’ll have to let Adkins’ be the last word on the matter. And now, on with the rest of our story…
As the deadly flight of arrows falls to the decks of the war-galleys, Conan finally finds the spearsman Fafnir told him could supply him with armor — only to see the man himself go down with two arrows in the back of his neck. Ouch.
Per the fourth from last panel above, Conan has now equipped himself with the fallen spearsman’s own helmet and mail-shirt. Hey, it’s not like that guy had any more use for ’em…
The scene now returns to the sorcerer Kharam-Akkad, as he leads a troop of soldiers through the palace hallways…
“Wizard?” Oh, Conan… don’t ever change.
As Fafnir and his two Turanian draftees head for the wall, they leave behind a scene of growing carnage. Even Balthaz, devout as he is, wonders briefly if Tarim might actually favor the enemy, before banishing the blasphemous thought from his mind…
Thomas’ callback here to the death of Conan’s friend Burgun in issue #10 — a scene which stands as one of the two or three most emotionally affecting moments yet to appear in the series at this point — is quite apt in the present context; it’s also inevitably portentous.
Re-reading this story fifty years after my first experience of it — and having more knowledge now than I did then of how Thomas and Windsor-Smith worked together on the series — I wonder if Thomas himself knew why his collaborator had drawn Conan picking up the bow and arrow, then putting it down again; and if either of the options suggested in the script were what Windsor-Smith had originally had in mind. But regardless of our hero’s murky motivations for opting not to take out Kharam Akkad here and now (or at least to try; it is of course entirely possible that he might’ve missed), his decision will prove to be a very fateful one — and in hindsight, probably a very regrettable one, as well.
Conan’s single, instinctive act immediately turns the tide; with the giant warrior(s) dispatched, the horsemen who have been there mostly as his/their support quickly retreat behind the safety of the city gates, which once more drop firmly into place. “But,” wonders a relieved but bewildered Balthaz, “what caused those phantasms, now melted like the morning mist?” And Conan, kneeling down beside the fallen giant’s corpse to retrieve a single gleaming object, replies, “I think perhaps it was… this.”
So ends the first chapter of the Hyrkanian War epic, which is off to a strong start, in my opinion; though as regards the art in the back half of the book, I think I’ll have to go with Roy Thomas’ estimation of how the print-from-pencils experiment worked out; to wit, “good in some panels… less good in others”. Nevertheless, I give kudos to the higher-ups at Marvel in mid-1972, including newly anointed publisher Stan Lee, for their willingness to try something different.
Fortunately, the stars would align well enough in the next month to allow for Conan the Barbarian #20 to be both fully pencilled by Barry Windsor-Smith and fully inked by Dan Adkins. But to see what that one looked like — as well as to learn the final fate of our friend Fafnir — you’ll have to check back in August.
*Conan #16 had featured Windsor-Smith’s art as well, but with the exception of a new cover and frontispiece, only in reprinted form.
**Coincidentally, Fafnir’s literary inspiration, Fritz Leiber’s barbarian hero Fafhrd, was making his own full-length comic-book debut this same month, in DC Comics’ Wonder Woman #202.