Gil Kane’s cover for Conan the Barbarian #23 is a fine piece of work. Nothing to complain about here. I mean, it’s Gil Kane, right?
That said, I’ve always regretted that the story it illustrates, “The Shadow of the Vulture!”, wasn’t published under the cover that Barry Windsor-Smith had originally drawn for it…
…which, as you can see, was instead published one month earlier, as the cover for Conan #22. And what story had the comics buyers of October, 1972, found behind that cover? Why, a reprint of “The Coming of Conan” from the title’s very first issue, as originally presented two and a half years prior.
Back then, that wasn’t the worst news in the world for your humble blogger, who hadn’t gotten around to sampling an issue of Conan until #4, and thus had never read that premiere story. Obviously, however, it was a less than welcome development for fans who’d been around since issue #1 — and even for my fifteen-year-old self, it was somewhat dismaying, if only for the undeniable bait-and-switch aspect of the thing. Something had gone badly wrong here, but what?
The issue’s “Hyborian Page” letters column provided an explanation, courtesy of an anonymous Marvel staffer who was almost certainly the series’ writer and editor, Roy Thomas:
What would have happened had Marvel not honored their “legal contract” to “put out something called CONAN THE BARBARIAN” in October, 1972? According to Thomas’ non-anonymous account in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, shipping late would have meant “incurring hundreds of dollars in charges in an era when many comics didn’t make much more than that per issue in profits”. And so, the decision was made to release Conan #22 with its planned cover, but with its interior contents consisting of a reprint of Conan #1.
The “Hyborian Page” piece’s author tries to put the best face possible on this decision, correctly noting that many of the title’s present readers weren’t around for that initial release (and then going on to proclaim the historical significance of Conan #1 in helping launch a whole new wave of Marvel features, “including, one way or another, KULL THE CONQUEROR, the upcoming THONGOR OF LOST LEMURUA, …WAR OF THE WORLDS, the current adaptations in our macabre mystery mags, DOC SAVAGE…”, thereby turning the present unfortunate circumstances into an opportunity to plug other books in the company’s line), and offering a sop to the readers who had been there at the beginning in the form of a single page of barbarian-themed art by Windsor-Smith which, though several years old, at least hadn’t appeared in print prior to this.
The “Special Announcement” (which never quite offers an actual apology) concludes thusly:
Regular readers of this blog will recall that Conan the Barbarian had indeed faced several deadline-related problems in the months since Windsor-Smith’s return to the series after a two-issue hiatus (an occasion which had in its turn roughly coincided with the title’s return from bi-monthly to monthly publication) — problems which, as the first paragraph of the Special Announcement acknowledges, had resulted in some less-than-ideal outcomes: most notably, the reproduction of about half of issue #19 from Windsor-Smith’s uninked pencils, and the completion of issue #21 by multiple artists pencilling and inking over Windsor-Smith’s layouts.
Such readers might also recollect a recent tale of pages-gone-missing-in-the-mail in regards to DC Comics’ Swamp Thing #2, which, as it happens, also shipped in October, 1972 (leading one to believe that the United States Postal Service was going through a rough patch here, at least as far as the delivery of oversize art boards was concerned). As recounted in that issue’s letters column by the title’s editor, Joe Orlando, twelve pages of the story scheduled for that issue were (temporarily) lost in the mail relatively late in the production process. Artist Bernie Wrightson had actually begun redrawing the issue when the missing originals finally turned up, allowing the comic to be completed, printed, and shipped on schedule, if just barely.
Knowing all this, one can’t help but wonder how things ultimately turned out for Marvel with its similar postal problem. Did the missing Conan pages finally turn up in the mail, the way the Swamp Thing ones did? Or were the Marvel staff and freelancers forced to recreate the originals using those “xeroxed layouts we had lying around”?
These are the sorts of questions for which we can usually turn to the aforementioned Barbarian Life and find answers — even if the answers don’t amount to much more than Roy Thomas admitting that he doesn’t remember the details all that well after almost five decades. Unfortunately, in this particular case, we don’t get even that much; rather, in his book Thomas just refers generally to these two issues’ deadline problems, never mentioning the lost pages at all. It would appear, then, that this particular snafu completely slipped the author’s mind when it came time for him to write about Conan #22 and #23 in Barbarian Life (and also that he didn’t take the opportunity at that time to review #22’s letters column, which presumably would have reminded him of the incident). So, unless Barry Windsor-Smith or someone else involved steps forward with their own recollections regarding the episode, the fate of those particular pencilled pages may eternally remain a mystery.
One thing that does seem clear, however, is that having a whole extra month to deliver “The Shadow of the Vulture!” didn’t mean the end of Marvel’s deadline problems regarding the story — because, as things turned out, it still required two other artists in addition to “scheduled inker Dan Adkins” to provide the finishes for Barry Windsor-Smith’s pencils: Sal Buscema and Chic Stone. While the resulting product can hardly be called “bad”, it’s still not nearly as consistently satisfying as the artwork in the last issue of Conan to have been produced by the same penciller and inker from the first page to the last, #20.
That said, the opening splash page of Conan the Barbarian #23, pencilled by Windsor-Smith and (according to the Grand Comics Database) inked by Adkins, is unquestionably a beauty:
“The Shadow of the Vulture!” is the fourth chapter in Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s “Hyrkanian War” epic; like its predecessor in issue #21, “The Monster of the Monoliths!”, it’s based in part on a non-Conan short story by Robert E. Howard. We’ll have more to say about the OG “The Shadow of the Vulture” as we go along; for now, suffice it to say that it was originally published in 1934, and that it’s a historical adventure tale which has as its backdrop the Siege of Vienna of 1529.
As readers of our Conan #21 post will recall, our hero had been part of a small group of soldiers sent to request aid against the Turanian army besieging the city of Makkalet from the latter’s allies in Pah-Dishah. That mission had gone very, very south when the unit’s commander had attempted to sacrifice Conan to a monstrous toad-god, supposedly at the will of Makkalet’s rulers. In the end, Conan was the only member of the expedition to survive the experience; perhaps surprisingly, he still feels honor-bound to fulfill his original mission to Pah-Dishah (though it’s implied here that he’s not completely certain of King Eanntum’s complicity in his betrayal, which may factor into his decision).
Conan isn’t interested in chit-chat. Once he’s been assured by King Ghannif that Pah-Dishah will honor its alliance with Majkkalet by dispatching troops forthwith, he considers his obligation fulfilled, and proceeds to quit the city as quickly as he can…
With the page above (the story’s fifth, just so you know), Dan Adkins turns over the inkwell to Sal Buscema, at least for the time being… but that’s not the only shift in artistic duties that occurs on this page. As Roy Thomas explains in Barbarian Life:
…I decided the story needed an extra page, because I didn’t much care for the rather casual way Barry had introduced Mikhal Oglu, the Vulture, on original page 5. So I sat down and scripted a six-panel page, with panel descriptions, captions, and dialogue, which I then rushed to — not Barry, but Sal Buscema!
Yes, that’s right—page 6 [sic] of “The Shadow of the Vulture,” which uses a cinematic zeroing-in to then show Mikhal Oglu, with his symbolic “wings,” framed against the fire outside Yezdigerd’s tent, is the one page in all the Barry Smith issues that has no Barry art in it at all. Why I had Sal pencil as well as ink this page, instead of sending my script page to Barry, I don’t know. Probably it was a command decision to save time, since we were still running terribly late (and had been, ever since Conan had returned to being a monthly with #16).
Interestingly, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever so much as theorized that that page was not penciled by Barry. Nor do I think I’ve ever committed that fact to writing before now. It was no big secret—I just never got around to mentioning it anywhere. We were frantically turning out comics and had no time to worry. As far as I recall, Barry never objected to the added page. At least not to me.
Looking closely at the “new” page 5, one can see reasons why Thomas, Buscema, et al were able to get away with this little bit of subterfuge for decades — the whole page is set at night, after all, and what’s not shown in long shot is rendered with a heavy amount of crosshatching and, naturally, solid blacks. Nevertheless, I find myself at least mildly chagrined that, prior to reading Thomas’ “confession”, it had never once occurred to me in the last half-century that Barry Windsor-Smith had never touched this page.
And now for the original page 5 (aka the published page 6) of “The Shadow of the Vulture!”…
This scene between Prince Yezdigerd and Mikhal Oglu is the first one in the comic to be directly adapted from Robert E. Howard’s original story (which, like so many other Howard yarns, can be read in its entirety online for free, here). But there’s no equivalent to Oglu’s “seeing stone” in the prose tale, which, as we’ve noted, was written as a “straight” historical adventure, with no whiff of any supernatural elements at all — plenty of swords, in other words, but no sorcery.
Thomas and Windsor-Smith also added a scene that we’re going to skip here, despite the fact that it takes up a whole page, in which Oglu fights and quickly defeats an ordinary soldier pulled from Yezdigerd’s ranks. Perhaps this was included as a way of having “the Vulture” display his fighting skills (thus setting him up as a worthy opponent for Conan), but since it’s clear from the beginning that the poor schlub of a soldier is hopelessly outclassed, it doesn’t really do that job all that well. On the other hand, the scene does allow for an opportunity for our storytellers to add to the comic’s action quota, so there’s that.
Anyway, moving on…
Conan tries to convince Ivga to flee with him immediately; she, however, is reluctant to leave her people behind. But even as they argue, their time runs out, as Mikhal Oglu and his mounted soldiers arrive (and so does Chic Stone, who takes over as inker with this next sequence, according to the GCD…)
The main point of this scene is, obviously, the tragic death of the unfortunate Ivga, and the additional motivation it will provide our hero for taking out the Vulture. But there’s something else that occurs here that has some significance to the Conan the Barbarian series as a whole — and as with the Sal Buscema pencils on page 6, it’s something that I’d missed completely prior to Roy Thomas bringing it to my attention in Barbarian Life:
Barry put a lot into Conan #23. Over and above the basic adaptation, he decided (and I concurred, probably after the fact) that it was time for Conan to lose his trademark necklace-medallion, just as he had doffed his horned helmet back in #6. We’d included both initially to make up for the fact that Conan had no “costume,” and we were trying to sell in a market geared to costumed superheroes.* But by now we both felt Conan needed no props, so Barry had him give his necklace to a village girl.
It proved a dramatic point in the story, because that lass is then killed by Mikhal Oglu’s Turanians, dying with Conan’s medallion around her throat..
Ducking out the rear of the hut, Conan seizes one of the Turanian solders’ horses by the bridle, dislodging its rider. “Now, easy, boy,” he tells the animal as he mounts. “We’re riding out of this hell…”
And now we’ve come to the event for which Conan the Barbarian #23 is best remembered, fifty years after its original publication: the first appearance of Red Sonja, She-Devil with a Sword.
I’ve called this the “first appearance” of Red Sonja, though, of course the reality is rather more complicated than that. According to Thomas’ account in Barbarian Life, he’d been planning to introduce a new woman warrior into the Conan series for some time, and in Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture”, he found the perfect candidate — Red Sonya of Rogatino, a soldier fighting in the service of Vienna against the besieging Ottomans.
Red Sonya enters Howard’s narrative about halfway through his story, much as she does in Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s comics adaptation. In her initial encounter with the tale’s ostensible hero, a German knight named Gottfried von Kalmbach, she’s described as follows:
It was a woman, dressed as von Kalmbach had not seen even the dandies of France dressed. She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was carelessly thrown a scarlet cloak.
It’s fair to say, I think, that the Red Sonja we know from the comics of Marvel and other publishers both is and isn’t Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya — and that the distinction between the two amounts to more than the slightly different spelling of their names, or the comics version’s general penchant for rather more revealing attire.** Rather, it’s their underlying motivation. As Sonja tells Conan in the sequence shown above, “I’m a soldier in the service of King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah,” who’s only here defending Makkalet (and helping to save Conan’s ass) because it’s her job.*** Sonya, on the other hand, has a personal stake in the Viennese’s struggle against the Ottomans; she’s the sister of Roxelana, a real-life historical figure also known as Hürrem Sultan. Stolen from her home in Ruthenia and sold into slavery, the actual Roxelana rose through the ranks of the harem of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, eventually becoming first his chief consort and then his legal wife; as far as her fictional sibling is concerned, however, she’s a “hussy”, and (at least by implication) a traitor to her people.****
Howard’s introduction of Red Sonya in “The Shadow of the Vulture” continues as follows:
This surprizing figure was bending over the cannon, sighting it in a manner betokening more than a passing familiarity, at a group of Turks who were wheeling a carriage-gun just within range.
“Eh, Red Sonya!” shouted a man-at-arms, waving his pike. “Give ’em hell, my lass!”
“Trust me, dog-brother,” she retorted as she applied the glowing match to the vent. “But I wish my mark was Roxelana’s—”
A terrific detonation drowned her words and a swirl of smoke blinded every one on the turret, as the terrific recoil of the overcharged cannon knocked the firer flat on her back…
As this passage suggests, Red Sonya’s background offers considerable storytelling potential, which Howard barely begins to tap in this particular adventure. But as far as I’ve been able to determine, none of the versions of Red Sonja that have appeared in comics to date have established any history for the character that incorporates anything resembling the Roxelana angle. Which, in my opinion, helps make a fair case for considering Sonya and Sonja to be separate characters (though very closely related ones, obviously), at least from a certain perspective.
Returning now to Conan #23, we have a brief interlude set in the Turanian camp, where Mikhal Oglu is shown supervising the secret shooting of a message-bearing arrow over the walls of Makkalet — and then, it’s back to our hero…
For all the lethal violence I’ve seen Conan engage in against his fellow human beings in virtually every issue of this series, it’s somehow more upsetting to watch him mildly abuse a dog. And evidently, I’m not the only reader who’s had this kind of reaction; indeed, the scripter of this scene felt the same way, back in 1972.
As Thomas writes in Barbarian Life:
Barry… tossed in one scene I was never comfortable with: on page 21 he had Conan annoyed by a yapping dog, and actually had him kick at it and throw a cup at it. It’s funny that this minor cruelty to a mongrel (which wasn’t shown to be hurt) bothers me, when carnage administered to an army of humans never did. Oh, well…
If Conan were a more thoughtful sort of fellow, he might reflect on how odd it is that Queen Melissandra, whom he believes set him up to be eaten by a toad-god, shows no surprise or discomfiture whatsoever at his having survived that experience… and might eventually even conclude that he may have gotten the wrong idea about her involvement with the whole episode. But, alas, he’s not that sort of fellow, and so…
The next scene brings a return to action, as well as the return of Sal Buscema on inks:
Conan is quickly carried off by the treacherous Naram-Pyr and the latter’s club-wielding ally, his son Rhupen, as the senior traitor explains that the Turanian attack on the southwest wall is merely a ruse, intended to divert the Makkaletian defenders’ attention from their enemies’ true purpose this night…
Remember the several hints about the Turanians’ “inside men” in Makkalet that Thomas dropped over the course of Conan #20? Sure you do.
The scene in which Conan finally confronts the Vulture is original to Thomas and Windsor-Smith; in Howard’s prose story, Mikhal Oglu is shown riding off into what the reader can guess will be a fatal ambush, but that ambush itself is never described. The comics version is better, at least to my taste (and not only because it allows Thomas to have our hero quote from Howard’s 1932 poem “Cimmeria”, though that’s definitely a nice touch).
The two-page epilogue with which the comic story concludes, however (and for which Dan Adkins once again picks up the ink brush), hews very closely to Howard’s original text — which is all to the good, since it’s probably one of the most memorable story endings Conan’s creator ever wrote:
The main difference in the endings of Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture” and Marvel’s “The Shadow of the Vulture!” is that in the former, the “gift” of the Vulture’s head is accompanied by a note, “written in a bold yet feminine hand”:
To the Soldan Suleyman and his Wezir Ibrahim and to the hussy Roxelana we who sign our names below send a gift in token of our immeasurable fondness and kind affection.
Sonya of Rogatino, and Gottfried von Kalmbach
In Howard’s original, then, Red Sonya’s antipathy towards her sister is at least as important as Von Kalmbach’s need to settle scores with Mikhal Oglu. One may speculate that this episode may not even have been the end of the two soldiers’ adventures in Howard’s mind; in the scene that introduces Oglu earlier in the story, there’s a line that refers to the Vulture’s acceptance of the mission of taking Von Kalmbach’s head as the beginning of “a feud which should spread over years and far lands, swirling in dark tides to draw in thrones and kingdoms and red-haired women more beautiful than the flames of hell.” That sure reads to me like Howard was at least considering writing more tales of Gottfried von Kalmbach and Red Sonya of Rogatino. And perhaps he would have, if given enough time; but, as most of you reading this probably already know, the author’s time would run out in 1936, when he took his own life at the age of thirty — just two years after the publication of “The Shadow of the Vulture”.
But although Red Sonya’s creator may have never been able to completely realize his vision for his 16th century warrior woman, her Hyborian analogue would have a long and varied career ahead of her — a career whose next chapter would be coming in just one short month, as the creative team of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith reached the end (and, arguably, the apex) of their history-making collaboration on the color Conan the Barbarian comic book. I hope you’ll join me in December for our discussion of “The Song of Red Sonja”.
*Although Thomas doesn’t mention it, your humble blogger would also include our favorite barbarian’s brown, furry briefs as an essential piece of his original “costume”, along with his helmet and necklace. Conan had worn that garment (or others identical to it) from issue #1 on through the last new story prior to the present one, at which time he’d turned it in in for the Makkaletian military-issue leather skirt (well, what would you call it?) that he continues to sport in issue #23. In retrospect, it’s somewhat ironic to see Windsor-Smith making these sartorial adjustments to our hero so very late in his run on the color Conan comic (he’d be gone with the very next issue, #24), but I guess he wanted to leave the Cimmerian looking better (or at least different) than he’d found (or, more accurately, first designed) him.
For the record, the only one of these changes that I recall my younger self consciously registering at the time it happened was the loss of the helmet — an accessory which, in addition to being such an obvious visual touchstone for Conan the Barbarian‘s earliest issues, actually had its abandonment addressed directly in the story’s dialogue; I (or anyone, really) would have had to have been pretty dense to have missed that one.
**In Barbarian Life, Thomas confesses to not being especially enthused about the outfit Windsor-Smith designed for Red Sonja (accurately described as “a mailshirt and something which can only be described as red ‘hot pants'”), saying, “This wasn’t the way I had seen Red Sonja in my mind.” While the author doesn’t go on to tell us what sort of look he would have preferred, one may be tempted to draw certain conclusions from his later wholehearted embrace of Spanish artist Esteban Maroto’s unsolicited “scale-armor bikini” design, which would become indelibly imprinted on the minds (if that’s the right word) of a generation of cis het male comics fans.
***As it happens, Sonja’s “job” in Makkalet involves a bit more than run-of-the-mill soldiering… but we won’t learn any more about that until “The Song of Red Sonja” in Conan #24.
****Sonya (and by extension, her creator, Robert E. Howard) may take a dim view of Roxelana, but the modern reputation of this Ottoman empress seems to be considerably more nuanced. Among the more recent tributes to her legacy are a postage stamp that was issued in her honor in Ukraine in 1997, and a statue that was erected in the central square of her Ukrainian home town of Rohatyn (Howard’s “Rogatino”) two years later, where it replaced the previous Soviet-era monument to Vladimir Lenin.
If nothing else, this former slave girl who became one of the most powerful women of her age must have been an extraordinary person; and at least as fascinating as either Red Sonya or Red Sonja in her own way, even if she never picked up a sword. And just in case you’re wondering… yes, she is in fact reputed to have had red hair.