Conan the Barbarian #20 (November, 1972)

As we discussed on the blog last month, the 19th issue of Conan the Barbarian saw not only the beginning of the title’s most ambitious multi-issue storyline to date, but also the return of artist Barry Windsor-Smith after a hiatus of several months.  That return was marked by a noticeable improvement in the artist’s already impressive skills in the time he’d been away; but it was also marred somewhat by deadline problems that resulted in only the first nine pages of the story being fully inked (by Dan Adkins), the remaining eleven having to be reproduced from Windsor-Smith’s pencils; an intriguing, but not altogether successful experiment, given the limits of comic-book printing technology of the time. 

Happily, Conan #20 didn’t have to contend with such problems; thus, not only did we readers get another gorgeous cover pencilled, inked, and colored by Windsor-Smith (who also performed that duty for the issue’s interior pages), but twenty pages of the artist’s pencils fully embellished by the aforementioned Mr. Adkins.  (Of course, if we’d known what was coming, we would likely have been even more appreciative of this bounty, as #20 would be the last regular issue of Conan that would feature Windsor-Smith’s pencils inked by the same hand throughout — save for his very last, which he’d ink himself.  But that’s a topic for a later post.)

The second chapter of the “Hyrkanian War” sequence picks up right where Windsor-Smith and writer Roy Thomas left things at the end of issue #19’s “Hawks from the Sea”…

Along with drawing and coloring this page, Windsor-Smith also designed and produced the story’s title logo.

While Conan knows his friend Fafnir was shot by an arrow in the last issue, he — unlike we readers — is unaware that afterwards, the big Vanirman fell from the top of the sea-wall into the sea itself.  Of course, as far as we all knew at the time, Fafnir had drowned as a result — so learning that he’s still among the living counts as good news.

As he’s been told he would, Conan finds the wounded lying in heaps upon the ship’s middle deck; impassively, he seeks among “the gaunt, tormented faces whose pain he could never allay” for one face alone…

Writing in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, Roy Thomas credited Barry Windsor-Smith for coming up with the idea of Fafnir’s losing his left arm.  He went on to add:

Barry and I were humanizing Conan to a greater degree than REH [i.e., Robert E. Howard, Conan’s creator] would have done, but I didn’t feel then, nor do I now, that we were weakening the character. The hero of a couple of dozen stories, the number REH wrote, doesn’t have to act as much like a human as the hero of a monthly comic. We had now reached our twentieth issue, and in all likelihood many more lay ahead.

Interrupting Conan’s vigil, Balthaz — a Turanian officer with whom Conan has already had one run-in with, as well as the man who’d given the orders that resulted in Fafnir’s being wounded in the first place — comes to tell him that Prince Yezdigerd wants to see him; Conan is initially reluctant, but acquiesces when Balthaz promises him a chance for revenge against the soldiery of Makkalet…

As the small band of soldiers clamber down off the side of the ship and into a rowboat, Balthaz explains their mission to Conan; they’re to steal into Makkalet’s Temple and rescue the Tarim, the captive “god” of the Hyrkanian peoples.

Soon after, as the boat approaches the city wharves, Balthaz cautions the Cimmerian about being too noisy…

Conan’s powers of persuasion get the job done, as the hapless Makkaletian points the way to the temple of the Tarim.  Our story next briefly shifts scenes to show how the second group of soldiers swiftly ascends the city’s “Wall of Archers”, easily surprising the, um, bowmen they find there, before returning once again to Conan and company…

The foursome splits up, heading off in different directions to search for the Tarim… which maybe isn’t the best idea, considering that most of the large and unfamiliar building is shrouded in darkness.  And indeed, Balthaz runs into a couple of guards right away, while Conan, having ventured upstairs, is soon accosted by a watchman…

Why is it important for the Turanian soldiers to kill a few archers and then make a pyre of their bodies on top of their wall?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the whole band of soldiers to focus on the mission of retrieving the Tarim, rather than diverting one contingent to this seemingly pointless side errand?  I wish I could explain it to you — but Thomas’ script never offers a clue (unless you count the opportunity the occasion offers Yezdigerd to make his “tasteless jest”), and I’ve got nothing.

Ah, well… tough break for Alafdahl (who seemed like a nice enough guy, based just on his brief conversation with Conan on page 2) and Kerim Bey (who didn’t get even that much characterization, but whose name Thomas appears to have lifted from a character in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love, so he at least had that going for him).

Of course, “Caissa” the “temple wench” is in actuality the Queen of Makkalet, whom we readers (though not Conan, naturally) met briefly in the previous issue.

Conan is of course relieved that the figure he’s truck is a mirror image, not an actual skeletal warrior; nevertheless, he’s pretty freaked out by the fact that even a single shard of the shattered looking glass reflects a skull back at him, rather than his normal fleshed-out face.  Still, there’s nothing to do but go forward, towards the one small glimmering light he can make out ahead of him; meanwhile, in the chamber he just left…

In Barbarian Life, Thomas praised Windsor-Smith’s depiction of the Tarim’s mirrored chamber:

…I think it was the subtle way that Barry showed how light was reflected and space was expanded by the temple’s mirrored walls and floors that revealed his attention to detail. And it wasn’t just detail for detail’s sake; it was done to create a scene that was memorable and yet at the same time realistic.

Conan’s almost-but-not-quite face-to-face encounter with the Living Tarim foreshadows the climax of the whole Hyrkanian War story arc, still six months away at this point.

Even with his left arm clasped tight in the hound’s jaws, Conan manages to get the animal under him.  But then…

In Barbarian Life, Thomas wrote that although he considered the scene of Conan’s fight against the hound to be basically successful, “because of the fabulous drawings that preceded it, you could almost say it was a bit anticlimactic.  And anyway, a dog is just a dog.”

Impressive though the last eighteen pages have been, the story’s most memorable sequence is yet to come.  As Thomas wrote in 2018:

For the last two pages of the story, Barry set me a problem…  He drew an epilogue where I had to come up with straight prose to accompany the drawings.  No balloons and no captions.  I hope I managed to rise to the occasion…  The final result had a kind of far-off intensity, as if we were seeing it through a glass darkly.

As startling as the revelation of Fafnir’s loss of an arm had been back on page 3, it couldn’t begin to compare in impact to the news of the big man’s death — an especially cruel and pointless demise that doesn’t even occur on panel.  The closest thing to it in any earlier issue had been the hanging of Conan’s friend Burgun in issue #10; but since we readers hadn’t spent nearly as much time with Burgun as we had with Fafnir prior to each character’s violent end, the red-bearded Vanirman’s death felt like more of a loss.  In addition, the different format used for the two pages of the Epilogue — distinguished not only by letterer John Costanza’s calligraphic presentation of Thomas’ straight prose, but also by the more muted and limited color palette used here by Windsor-Smith — added to the impact of the death and its aftermath, giving the whole sequence the “far-off intensity” Thomas wrote of in Barbarian Life.

In the years to come, the seeming permanence of Fafnir’s death* would only add to its dramatic impact, making it (for this reader, at least) one of the most indelible episodes of Conan’s first decade at Marvel Comics, as well as a signifier of what made the Hyborian Age — for all its wizards, demons, and monsters — seem somehow more “real” than the standard superheroic milieu in which most other Marvel characters operated.

And it’s probably a good thing for “The Black Hound of Vengeance” overall that it ends on such an aesthetically high note, as that may well distract the reader from asking a number of questions relating to what is, to be honest, something of a head-scratcher, plot-wise.  I’ve already mentioned the apparent pointlessness of the pyre-lighting on the Wall of Archers; there’s also the whole notion of the secret mission to retrieve the Living Tarim in the first place.  After all, we’ve been given to understand that Prince Yezdigerd is at least as motivated by a desire to sack Makkalet of its riches as he is by religious reasons (and probably more so) — so why would he want to eliminate his only legitimate pretext for attacking the city?  Then there are the portentous references to the Turanians’ mysterious contact on the inside, as well as to Balthaz’s surprising familiarity with Makkalet’s byways, that as far as I can tell never pay off, either in this episode or in later ones.  (UPDATE 8/19/22:  As noted by reader Joe Gill in his comment below, the contact will in fact be identified in issue #23, so your humble blogger was wrong about that one.)  Finally, there’s the matter of how Balthaz himself — whom, you’ll remember, we’d last seen crapping his pants in fear after hearing the death-screams of Alafdahl and Kerim Bey — made it safely out of the temple, and then out of the city and all the way back to the Turanian flagship, apparently without incident.  I guess we’re supposed to assume that he was able to hook back up with the wall-pyre contingent of Turanians, and that they all then managed to get back to the “unguarded” wharf (in what should surely be a roused city by now) and, having found their boat right where they’d left it, merrily rowed back to home base.  Yeah, sure, that could work… but it still seems like an oversight on our storytellers’ part not to show or tell us any bit of it themselves.

Of course, as is so often the case with these fifty-year-old comic book stories, none of these objections occurred to me as a fifteen-year-old reader, back in August, 1972.  But, interestingly, they also don’t appear to have occurred to (or at least didn’t bother) the members of the Academy of Comic Book Arts, who nominated “The Black Hound of Vengeance” for the 1972 Shazam Award for Best Individual Story, Dramatic Division (it lost to “Dark Genesis” in DC Comics’ Swamp Thing #1, if you’re wondering).  There are probably a number of good reasons for that success; but I suspect that for the most part, it comes down to the Epilogue.  There are stories that stick with you for a long time, and possibly forever; and that stunning sequence, more than anything else, made this story one of those, at least for me.


Speaking of the Shazam Awards, the “Hyborian Page” letters column of Conan the Barbarian #20 was mostly given over to listing the winners for 1971 — which included both Conan itself as Best Continuing Feature, and Roy Thomas as Best Writer, Dramatic Division, for Conan and Avengers.  Not bad for a title that had narrowly avoided cancellation, somewhat less than a year earlier.

The letters page also featured a newly revised edition of the “Hyborian Age” map — with the newly invented city of Makkalet “discreeetly added” to Marvel’s version of Conan’s fictional world.  And so, for those of you who, like your humble blogger, need to know just where Makkalet sits on the Vilayet’s eastern shore…

And now that you know exactly where this story is taking place, there’s no excuse not to return to this very same spot next month, when we’ll be having a look at the saga’s third chapter: “The Monster of the Monoliths!”

 

Fafnir lives! And since Roy Thomas said so, it’s canon! From Savage Sword of Conan #231 (Mar., 1995). Text by R.T., art by Mike Docherty and E.R. Cruz.

* I say “seeming” permanence, because, of course, Fafnir didn’t stay dead; although his survival wouldn’t become known to the readers of Conan the Barbarian until 1984, and not to your humble blogger for at least a couple of decades after that You see, I’d stopped buying Conan in 1980, just a few months after Roy Thomas stopped writing it, and thus I missed the storyline in issues #161-163 where writer Michael Fleisher and artist John Buscema revealed that our favorite Vanirman had managed to avoid drowning in the waters of the Vilayet Sea.  Of course, even after learning such a story existed, I likely would have discounted it, my “Marvel Conan” headcanon being the peculiar thing it is — but then I discovered that none other than Roy Thomas himself had acknowledged that story following his return to Conan in the 1990s.  And since said headcanon basically consists of Roy Thomas-written stories and nothing else (at least until Conan shows up in Avengers: No Road Home #5 in 2019, after which all bets are off — look, I did use the word “peculiar”, didn’t I?), that means it “counts”.

7 comments

  1. frednotfaith2 · August 17

    Well, for August 1972, Conan the Barbarian #20 and Swamp Thing #1 are the best comics, with the only serious competition for best of 1972 being later issues of the same titles drawn by Smith & Wrightson, respectively. I’d give the edge to Conan as better written, but overall both are great works of comics art. Love that epilogue — I think Roy solved the “problem” Barry gave him very well, providing a very moody little tale to end this issue with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joe Gill · August 19

    A few comments. The artwork. It’s no surprise that Smith eventually left. No one could keep up this quality in a monthly or even a bi-monthly comic. Look at the shattered mirror panel. All though shards of glass, or the mirrored “cage’ of the one true Tarim. These are works of immense detail that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery. Simply stunning.
    As for the story inconsistencies you’ve pointed out. Balthaz return to the ship. I always surmised that after hearing the death throes of his compatriots in the temple he fled like the coward he was, making his way to the shoreline. It wouldn’t have been that hard for one lone man, perhaps shedding his uniform, to make his way back to the flagship via stolen boat or even swimming ala Conan. As for the assignment of the other contingent, who veer away from the temple. I always thought this had to do with meeting Narampyr and son. The two traitorous soldiers introduced later in the saga, though this isn’t mentioned in the script, merely inferred by Narampyr on page 23 of issue 23. Your point about why recapture the Tarim at that point? Well, how about the emotional boost, the sheer euphoria of announcing to his men that their living God was safely returned, in their midst? Now then men, on to the plunder! Forward!
    A few quibbles of my own. I shook my head upon learning later, as you did that they’d brought back Fafnir. To undercut a superb ending like this, it’s nothing short of blasphemy. I write it off as laziness on the part of Comic’s writers. it’s easier to latch onto an already created character than to invent and breath life into a whole new one. Tsk Tsk. Also, the aforementioned “Black Hound” looked like a giant black panther to me and still does today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · August 19

      Ah, Joe, you’re right about Narampyr and son being the traitorous contacts in the city… I missed that completely, so thanks for the catch! I’m adding a note to the post.

      Like

    • JoshuaRascal · 29 Days Ago

      I agree that Barry Smith’s artwork in Conan #20 was absolutely gorgeous. His best yet in the series. Really too good for a 1970’s 20 cents comic book. Not something that should have been expected to be maintained on a monthly basis.

      The fate of Fafnir was the central theme of the story. The rest of the story with all its’ inconsistencies and contradictions amount to being a diversion, basically to get Conan off the ship for a while and then to return for the two page finale and confrontation with Balthaz.

      So Fafnir did survive and eventually reemerged in the Conan saga. News to me. That’s a comic book death for you. There is no final death in a comic book. Look at all the other comic book characters that died but then were resurrected over the long history of comic book literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. B Smith · August 19

    Those last two pages seemed to be Barry Smith’s “Write pretty, Roy!” moment, as often practised by Neal Adams. Fortunately, he was up to the task.

    Just wondering, as someone unfamiliar with the general background – does that Hyborian map bear relation to any modern day coast or landform? Or was it made simply to give some consistency to the stories as they unfolded?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alan Stewart · August 20

    Marvel’s map is based on one Robert E. Howard himself drew, and represents what Europe and North Africa supposedly looked like in Conan’s imaginary prehistoric epoch.

    Here’s a link to a map made by a couple of Howard fans that superimposes the Hyborian geogrpahy over the equivalent areas of the modern world: https://hyboria.xoth.net/maps/original.gif

    Like

  5. Pingback: Conan the Barbarian #21 (December, 1972) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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