As noted in last month’s post about Conan the Barbarian #20, at the time that issue went to press, the series had recently received the 1971 Shazam Award for Best Continuing Feature — a fact writer-editor Roy Thomas was understandably happy to publicize in the comic’s letters column. But for anyone who’d missed the good news, they got a second chance to learn about it one month later, when Marvel trumpeted the accolade on the cover of Conan #21. (Considering that Marvel’s rival DC Comics had done the same thing a year earlier when their own Green Lantern won the same award, it was hardly a surprise that Marvel would follow suit.)
That the blurb ended up appearing on the cover of this particular issue of Conan, however, would turn out to be somewhat ironic, as a number of the people involved in producing it would in later years view it as something of a train wreck. As Roy Thomas put it in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1:
I knew, even as I wrote that cover copy, that Conan the Barbarian would never have won any “best-comic” award based on the story, penciling, inking, or coloring of #21. Only Artie Simek’s lettering was up to its usual high standard.
So, what had gone wrong, in Thomas’ opinion? One might take a hint from the cover image itself — which, despite being an inarguably excellent piece as pencilled, inked, and colored by regular Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith, is decidedly generic when compared to the same artist’s covers for issues #19 and #20, — two illustrations which were both highly specific to the stories contained within. Why hadn’t the artist delivered something similar for #21’s “The Monster of the Monoliths!”?
A text box on the letters page of issue #21 — almost certainly written by Thomas himself — offers another contemporaneous clue:
Writing in Barbarian Life some forty-six years later, the author offered more details:
With #21, though I can’t recall why, [Dan] Adkins inked only a bit of the story and then withdrew… Actually, I’m not sure at this late date whether Dan totally withdrew, or if he simply called me up and said he had to have help. I said okay (like, I had a choice?), and he went to two young artists who were assisting him the same way Dan himself had earlier assisted Wally Wood.
Co-inkers Craig Russell and Val Mayerik would both go on to make names for themselves in fantasy comics… At that time, both artists were quite young, and a bit raw, but they did their best under trying circumstances, and the issue turned out reasonably well, even if no one is ever going to confuse its artwork with that of the best of the issues immediately before or after.
There was another complicating factor: at some point early in the story, Barry felt he had to do merely breakdowns—layouts—on the rest of the issue, rather than full pencils. I concurred, hoping it would help us get a better jump on #22. But of course the combination of less Barry full-penciling and more inking/finishing by relative newcomers could not help but affect the look of the book.
So that’s the writer-editor’s version. As you might guess, some of the artists involved have had their own takes — just as they did in regards to the similarly troubled Conan #19, which, as you may recall, had to be partially reproduced from Barry Windsor-Smith’s raw pencils after Adkins had inked roughly half the issue.
First up, here’s Windsor-Smith, via an interview given in 1998 for Comic Book Artist #2:. In response to a question regarding “assists from other artists” around this time, the artist responded:
Technically those weren’t assists to me, rather they were assists to Dan Adkins and his inking coterie. It was an experiment that failed utterly—that being that to catch up on the heat of the deadlines, I’d do a book, every now and then, in breakdowns only and Dan and his studio would finish the work “in my style.” Needless to say, this didn’t quite work out in the end. I’ve never looked at that particular issue since it was published.
A year of so later, P. Craig Russell had this to say in CBA #6 (Fall, 1999):
He [i.e., Dan Adkins] had us all work on one Barry Smith Conan that Smith had done the layouts on and then Dan’s studio was supposed to do the finishes. Well, that was just a disaster! I read in that Smith interview [in CBA #2] that he’s never looked at it since for which I’m grateful! The way it worked out was that Dan had me do backgrounds which was my strong suit at the time—and I really slaved. I did all these intricate backgrounds. All the trees, the patterns on the walls, the ornate palaces and all this. Val Mayerik did a lot of the figure work. And this Mark [Kersey] guy was helping out with the inking; he had a nice control with the brush. Well, when it came down to the crunch time, Dan was supposed to do the finished inks. If he had done the finished inks, I think it would have worked. But it got down, the deadline was tight, and he enlisted all of us to help out on the inks. Which I couldn’t begin to ink. Val had a nice fleshy feel to his anatomy but a very sketchy, kind of undeveloped style to his inks at the time. It was just a mess. It didn’t come off… really unfortunate because we started out, I know I started out, thinking that “Wow! I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got here!” [laughs] And I just didn’t have that much to give—but I tried!
Finally, Adkins himself weighed in in his own CBA interview (published in issue #7 [Feb., 2000]:
…we all worked on this horrible job we did for Conan that Barry laid out… The thing about Barry is that he has to take his time, and has to really overwork it. So when he does layouts, it’s just not right, he’s just not a guy who can do layouts like John Buscema. John’s a natural artist, he knows how to draw. Barry only knows how to draw by redrawing and redrawing, so there was just no way we could get this done on the time schedule they had. This was when Barry was very young.
So, there you have four different accounts (five, if you count Roy Thomas’ 1972 and 2018 versions separately) of What Went Wrong with the pencils and inks on Conan #21 — accounts which pretty well agree in the main, even if they differ a bit in the particulars. Interestingly, the one thing we don’t learn from any of them is when and how “our pal” Sal Buscema, who wasn’t part of Dan Adkins’ studio, got involved with the production process. One must assume that, even after delegating the inking as well as the finished penciling to his assistants, Dan Adkins still couldn’t get the job in on time, and Buscema was called upon to help save the day at the last minute. But as to which pages or individual panels Our Pal Sal worked on? Your guess is as good as mine.
As for the two other aspects of “The Monster of the Monoliths!” that Thomas found less than award-worthy several decades later — the story and the coloring — well, we’ll get to those presently. For now, however, please allow me to suggest that, as you peruse the following excerpts, you might consider dwelling less on why a comic book story crafted by such exemplary artistic talents as Barry Windsor-Smith, Dan Adkins, P. Craig Russell, Val Mayerik, and Sal Buscema doesn’t look better than it does, and instead be grateful that it looks even this good.
Along with their unusually robust roster of creators’ names, the credits for Conan #21 are notable for the rather unusual phrasing of the citation to an original tale by Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, as we’re told that “The Monster of the Monoliths!” has been “inspired in part by the story ‘The Black Stone’“. Of course, there had been several occasions prior to this issue — most recently, issues #17 and #18’s two-part adaptation of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” — when Roy Thomas had adapted a non-Conan fantasy-adventure yarn by Howard into a Conan comic book story. As such tales were generally set in some historical period not too dissimilar to the Hyborian Age (in the example cited above, the 11th century), not much adjustment was necessary on Thomas’ part beyond changing the proper nouns.
But “The Black Stone” is something quite different; it’s a modern-times-set horror story, originally published in the November, 1931 issue of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. There’s nary a brawny, Conan-type warrior to be found within its pages; what there is, instead, is a central scene of what we’ll call Lovecraftian horror, after H.P. Lovecraft, Howard’s fellow Weird Tales contributor and friend-by-correspondence. The story is one of those Howard wrote to explicitly tie into Lovecraft’s own “Cthulhu Mythos”, and as such, it’s almost certainly one of those Thomas had recently licensed the rights to from Howard’s estate for use in a multi-issue, Mythos-flavored Doctor Strange storyline that had begun several months ago in Marvel Premiere #4, and was still ongoing at the time Conan the Barbarian #21 was released. Was Thomas making the most of Marvel’s investment in “The Black Stone” by drawing on it for Conan as well as for Doctor Strange? Maybe — or maybe he just really liked the story, as is suggested by the fact that he’d later produce a “straight” adaptation of it, in collaboration with artist Gene Day (see right).
The miller’s comment about Conan wielding a “smithy’s hammer like one born to the trade” is undoubtedly a nod on Thomas’ part to Conan’s Cimmerian father having been a blacksmith, as established by Howard in the novel “The Hour of the Dragon” (aka Conan the Conqueror), and mentioned in Marvel’s comics on various occasions.
The dazed Conan is draped over the back of Haram=Pyr’s horse, then transported directly to a prison cell — where he awakes the next morning to somewhat kinder treatment than he might have expected…
Ah, yes… the exchange of names between our hero and some poor schmo who’s made the mistake of disrespecting him. Regular readers of Conan would know that such a scene was all but certain to be followed by the violent death of said schmo, if not in the same issue, then not long thereafter.
Although we readers had first met the king and queen of Makkalet in Conan #19 (the issue which launched the present “Hyrkanian War” storyline), this is the first time we’ve been told their names. Or, at least their real names — since, as the next couple of panels are about to remind us, we (along with Conan) knew Queen Melissandra briefly by the assumed name of Caissa, back in issue #20…
Would anyone reading this be surprised to learn that the title of the next chapter of the Hyrkanian War epic is “The Shadow of the Vulture!”? Nah, didn’t think so.
Conan, Khurusan, and their two compatriots manage to slip past the Turanian encampment and into the dark forest beyond… well, almost. At the last moment, they’re espied by two scouts, and Conan is forced to kill them both. That’s a bummer, because he knew both men when he served on their side, and, as he tells Khurusan, “either of them was worth a regiment of you!” Ouch.
The quartet of soldiers then continues on their way, traveling for two weeks until they reach a steep hill. Khurusan directs them to ride straight up the slope, and Conan wonders aloud why they’re doing that, rather than taking one of the easier roads that seems to lead around the eminence…
With the arrival of our hero and his companions at the site of the monoliths, we’ve finally reached that part of the story inspired by Howard’s “The Black Stone” (which, if you’re so inclined, can be read in its entirety here.) The name of this locale, “Xuthltan“, appears in the prose story as the “aboriginal name” of Stregoicavar, the fictional Hungarian village where the main action of the narrative is set. Meanwhile, the character of “Justin, the blind hermit” is based on the story’s “mad poet”, Justin Geoffrey, who is said to have died in an asylum five years after visiting Stregoicavar.
Interestingly, there’s only one monolith in “The Black Stone” (as one might indeed guess from the title), not two. In Barbarian Life, Thomas wrote that he probably added the second one just to make his tale a bit more different both from Howard’s story and from a somewhat similar 1968 Conan prose adventure by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, called “The Curse of the Monolith”.
Naturally, the verse quoted above by the blind hermit Justin comes from “The Black Stone”, where it’s represented as the work of poor mad Justin Geoffrey, and serves as the story’s epigraph.
The fate of Justin’s daughter (as well as that of the hermit himself) is pretty brutal; but the scene’s source material is even more shocking, as the protagonist of “The Black Stone” witnesses the bloody sacrifice of both a young woman and a baby. Yeesh.
Conan manages to free his arms, and then to push himself off the altar. He’s even able to grab a sword — but it seems all that may not yet be enough…
There’s some visual confusion in that last panel, mainly due to the coloring, as it seems that one of the two Makkaletian soldiers summarily slain by Khurusan a couple of pages back has been mis-colored as the betraying leader himself; obviously, it’s the helmeted figure behind that one whom Windsor-Smith, or Mayerik, or whoever, intended to be Khurusan, the only Makkaletian still alive at this point.
Speaking in general about Conan #21’s coloring (uncredited within the comic itself, as was Marvel’s practice at this time) back in 1999, P. Craig Russell said, “…it had to be one of the worst coloring jobs I think I’d seen. Everything was orange and yellow in the middle of the night!” In 2018’s Barbarian Life, Roy Thomas essentially concurred, stating:
I remember that I was quite unhappy with the way the night sky went back and forth from blue to orange to purple to red to whatever. There were altogether too many of what we used to call “knockout” panels—panels colored all in one color, or at most in a couple of shades. But, time being short, there wasn’t much I could do about it. George had probably been rushed.
According to Thomas, “George” was George Roussos, who was handling much of Marvel’s coloring at this time. And in all fairness, the veteran artist probably was given an impossibly short turnaround time to get the job done, based on everything else we know about this issue’s troubled production.
If there’s a single page of “The Monster of the Monoliths!” that could be said to be based on “The Black Stone” rather than just “inspired” by it, it’s the splash above, whose first three narrative captions come quite close to quoting Howard’s prose verbatim. Here’s the corresponding passage from the short story:
I saw its bloated, repulsive and unstable outline against the moonlight and set in what would have been the face of a natural creature, its huge, blinking eyes which reflected all the lust, abysmal greed, obscene cruelty and monstrous evil that has stalked the sons of men since their ancestors moved blind and hairless in the treetops. In those grisly eyes were mirrored all the unholy things and vile secrets that sleep in the cities under the sea, and that skulk from the light of day in the blackness of primordial caverns…
It’s at this climactic moment that the unnamed narrator of “The Black Stone” falls “into a merciful faint.” Not so our boy Conan, however. Rather, he stands his ground, hurling his sword point-first at the charging toad-thing. But the creature simply takes the blade up to the hilt and keeps coming, leaving Conan to shake his now-empty fist in frustration…
I think P Craig Russell may well have had the page above in mind when he complained about the colorist’s overuse of “orange and yellow in the middle of the night”.
And so, as this episode ends, we come to consider the final aspect of Conan the Barbarian #21 that Roy Thomas found unsatisfactory almost fifty years later: the story itself, which its scripter described as “relatively slight” and “almost a mere interlude” in the context of the larger narrative of the Hyrkanian War.
While I appreciate Thomas’ willingness to admit that not every story he ever crafted was solid gold, I have to say I think he may have been a little too hard on himself here. Granted, the titular menace of “The Monster of the Monoliths!” may not have a whole lot to do with Prince Yezdigerd’s siege of Makkalet, but it has its own narrative potency, nevertheless, courtesy of Robert E. Howard’s original horror classic. Plus, the incident that precipitates Conan’s jeopardy in this tale — i.e., his seeming betrayal by Queen Melissandra — will be one of the main drivers of the ongoing storyline’s plot over its remaining chapters.
That said, “The Monster of the Monoliths!” can hardly be counted as being as significant in the history of Conan — and of fantasy comics in general –as the episode which would immediately follow it. After all, “The Shadow of the Vulture!” would bring us the debut of the greatest woman warrior Robert E. Howard ever created (sort of). You probably already know who (and what) I’m talking about — and if you don’t, well, you can come back next month to find out more.
Whoops, did I say next month? Sorry, I meant November. Details to follow… in two short months.