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.
You can only imagine what BSW’s work would have looked like here and elsewhere if the comics industry had been able at that time to do a better job of reproducing his incredible artwork. These days, artwork is produced with a cleaner line and less smudging and the colors are more subtle and offer a wider pallet than was available in 1972 and the difference is night and day. Still in all, it was obvious even to the most casual reader at the time that, whether you were a Conan fan or not, Smith was doing something special. What a thrill it must have been to see his finished pencils come into the Bullpen before they were inked. I wonder if Adkins and others had any appreciation of what they were working on or if it was just another job to them? Were they able to appreciate the beauty of Smiths pencils or Kane’s or Jack’s or was it all reduced to how many lines needed to be inked within a certain time frame? Certainly takes the romance out of it for the inker, doesn’t it?
As for the story of the Hyrkanian War, Thomas does a good job here, though I think from time to time, Roy’s original ideas get hijacked by well-intentioned artists who want to be story-tellers themselves. Would some of these stories have gone the way they did if the artists had been working off a definite script rather than an outline? This really points out the weaknesses in the Marvel method, a method that really only worked 100% for Stan and Jack and to sometimes much lesser degrees for everyone else. If your artist is really respectful of the story the writer has constructed and works with him to create a great story, adding visual touches and flourishes that help drive the story forward and not send it off in an opposiite direction, as it seems here that BWS has done, then we get a great marriage of story and art. If the artist works against the writer to the point that it almost seems the penciller wants to do a completely different story (which has happened more than once), then the writer is at the mercy of whatever the penciller puts on the page as there is usually no time to change it given the tight deadlines the industry imposes.
Fortunately for us all, Thomas and Barry seemed to have the same goals with Conan and were able to use their partnership to create truly memorable stories. It’s a shame that the industry couldn’t be more receptive to the needs of an artist of Windsor-Smith’s calibre and find a way for him to work fully without having to rush or come up with fixes or patches that dilute the over-all work, the legacy of these books would be even greater than they are.
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I first read “Hawks From The Sea” in black and white format in 1973 or ’74 when it was reprinted for the UK weekly comic market and contained within, I think, The Avengers comic. Even as an eleven or twelve year-old, I knew the artwork was both special and different. At the time, I put the uninked / original pencil pages down to poor printing and it wasn’t until around 1987 that I learned why those pages differed in reproductive quality (when I bought the large format b&w magazine reprint of that issue).
Recently, however, I treated myself to the Marvel Epic Edition TPB and, for the first time, finally got to enjoy this iconic issue in full colour. To me, this issue is the one where BWS hit his stride on Conan and I can never read it without wondering what might have been had the circumstances been different.
It is hard to believe that it is now fifty years old and just goes to demonstrate that quality never dates.
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Roy Thomas: “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.”
IMHO, the “daring experiment” was an unmitigated failure. I read Conan #19 when it first hit the news stand fifty years ago. The pages with the pencil artwork looked terrible. Pretty much ruined it for me. It should be remembered that comic books were published on cheap newsprint in 1972. On better paper using better printing technology, it might have worked. The digitized version of Windsor-Smith’s pencil art used here, for instance, actually looks pretty good. Looks like the artwork from a 1930’s pulp fiction magazine. I guess it was either publish the pencil art or maybe have Vince Colletta do one of his overnight inking jobs. Who knows how that would have looked. Today, they would have waited for the inking to be done. Comic book publishing is no longer captive to the timetable of a printing press or the schedule of a newsstand distributor. I guess the last 11 pages were never inked.
“The War of the Tarim” was quite an ambitious effort for a comic book back in 1972. It’s too bad there were mishaps. The incomplete inking job for Conan #19 would be the first mishap. At least one more would follow. What I most disliked was that Windsor-Smith did not finish up on the epic before leaving the Conan comic book for good.
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Such high panel count per page! I wonder if they were trying to cram too much story into 20 pages? Quite the opposite of the decompression of the ’90s. I do like the intensity of many panels, for the most part, and the abundance of story we’re given in them.
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I loved the whole “War of the Tarim” series within Conan. To me it stands as one of the highlights of Comics in general. I can’t help thinking what would’ve been the result if the makers of the Conan movies had used these issues as the script for their movie instead of the hackneyed revenge oriented ones that were actually produced. The first glimpse of Makkalet from the sea. The warships abreast, Conan and Fafnir looking across. The artwork here is simply magnificent and yeah , sure it’d be better if the second half of the issue was properly inked. Yet even as is, it stands head and shoulders above ninety percent of what was churned out in that same time frame, fifty years ago. I have long since stopped reading comic books. I’ve exchanged that habit for novels and nonfiction. Yet as I take a nostalgic look back at the comics of my youth, like this one, I am always struck by how well authors like Thomas and Lee could fit so much pathos, so much feeling, so much characterization so succinctly. They often convey, as Thomas does here, more with a few words than some of todays authors do with ten thousand words. “Conan. remember it.” “Wizards? No one said aught of Wizards”
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Anyone have scans of the originally-published pages to share? I’m curious to see how this this experiment with Smith’s pencils came out on that newsprint-quality paper they used at the time.
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