In December, 1972, Marvel Comics published the final issue of Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. Again.
The young British artist’s first departure from the book had come just ten months earlier, with Conan #15. But after a mere three issues away (the first of which in fact reprinted earlier work by Windsor-Smith), he was back on the book. reuniting with writer Roy Thomas on Conan #19 to launch an ambitious new multi-issue storyline, the “Hyrkanian War” epic.
Unfortunately, this second run by the Thomas and Windsor-Smith team was plagued by deadline problems from the get-go. The main issue appears to have been the artist’s ever more painstaking attention to detail, which simply required more time both to pencil and to ink, combined with the constraints of a monthly publishing schedule (to which Conan had returned right after Windsor-Smith left the book the first time). But whatever the reason, every single issue from #19 on (with the notable exception of #20) bore the evidence of these deadline pressures within its pages, as parts of stories had to be reproduced from Windsor-Smith’s uninked pencils (#19), or the artist’s layouts had to be finished by other pencillers (#21)), or multiple inkers had to be enlisted to get the issue finished on time (both #21 and #23). And then of course there was issue #22, which had to go to press with a reprint of the two-year old story from Conan #1, after a batch of art pages went astray in the mail.
In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that the second Thomas/Windsor-Smith run on Conan would come not just to an end, but to what appeared to us fans of the time to be a terribly premature one. What was never inevitable, however — and what seems even more remarkable from the vantage point of half a century later than it did in late ’72 — is that the run would conclude on such a spectacularly high note. Knowing that this was to be his last issue of the color Conan comic, Barry Windsor-Smith pulled out all the stops, delivering not only his best pencilling job to date, but somehow also finding the time to both ink and color the story as well. And for his part, Roy Thomas more than rose to the occasion, delivering one of the sharpest scripts of his career.
Finally, by fortunate happenstance, by the time Windsor-Smith began work on issue #24’s cover (another complete pencils-inks-colors job), the “picture frame” design element that had been a standard part of Marvel’s trade dress since August, 1971 had pretty much given up the ghost. While the artist had probably worked within the confines of that frame at least as well as (and probably better that) anyone else at Marvel, who would want this cover’s wonderfully detailed crowd scene cropped in the slightest?
Of course, the splendid cover offered only a taste of the visual wonders to be found within the book’s pages… so let’s get to it, shall we?
The creator of Conan, pulp author Robert E. Howard, gets a credit for that deed in every issue of Conan the Barbarian — and occasionally for other contributions as well. This issue, those contributions include “poems written by” Howard… although as best as I’ve been able to determine, there’s only one such poem utilized in “The Song of Red Sonja” — and the script’s quote from it can be found on the very first page.
As noted by Roy Thomas in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1:
With the permission of REH literary executor Glenn Lord, I chose some lines from Robert E. Howard’s poem “Tarantella,” despite the fact that it contained the word “Hades,” which isn’t a part of Hyborian mythology.
As regards Thomas’ stated concern, I don’t recall being at all fazed by the appearance of “Hades” in a Conan story, figuring that it was just a poetic way of referring to Hell — a word that gets thrown around a lot in such stories, including the ones Howard wrote himself.
The other listed credit for Howard, “characters created [by]”, refers to the fact that not only does this story feature Conan (obviously), but that Red Sonja, too, is a creation of the pulp wordsmith — mostly, at least. As we covered in last month’s post on Conan #23, Sonja entered our Cimmerian hero’s world courtesy of that issue’s adaptation of “The Shadow of the Vulture” — in its original form, a non-Conan historical adventure yarn by Howard that features the one and only appearance of Red Sonya of Rogatino. That Red Sonya — a 16th century mercenary soldier who claims to be the sister of the Ottoman sultana, Roxelana — undoubtedly shares quite a lot of creative DNA with her Hyborian counterpart, but may still reasonably be considered a separate character… although I’m not sure that Roy Thomas would agree with me on that point. Per Barbarian Life, Vol. 1:
I don’t remember whether having Sonja dance on the table was Barry’s idea or mine. I think it was Barry’s, because neither Howard nor I had ever pictured this character doing anything so feminine or erotic.
Well, maybe. But even if we accept the premise that Howard’s Sonya and Thomas and Windsor-Smith’s Sonja are the same character, I’m not so sure that the earlier author might not have eventually had his scarlet-tressed warrior woman kick up her heels on an appropriate raised flat surface, had he gone on to write further stories featuring her (as I suspect he at least considered, prior to his untimely, self-inflicted demise).
When I first read this story back in December, 1972, I’m pretty sure that my fifteen-year-old self took “wank” to be some sort of Hyborian-specific slur, on the same order as “Brythunian pig”. Such was not quite the way of it, of course. Again, here’s Roy Thomas:
This sequence was the reason behind the only serious falling-out Barry and I had during those years (or at least the only one I was aware of). In one of his marginal notes, he suggested that on page 3 one of the soldiers should call the other one a “wank.” Barry asked me to use the word in the dialogue, something he hardly ever did. Back then, I didn’t know that “wank” is a vulgar British term for masturbation. But I wasn’t naïve, either. I asked Barry if it was a “dirty” word, and he assured me it wasn’t. So I used it. Because the Comics Code enforcers weren’t that familiar with British slang, I didn’t learn the truth until after the issue had already come out.
Yeah, I can see why Thomas might have been a little irked with his collaborator for pulling that stunt. But having said that — shouldn’t it have been “wanker“, anyway?
At this point, Conan’s had enough, and so has Red Sonja. And so, after liberating a few bottles of something-or-other from the tavern’s supply, they take their leave…
Conan the Barbarian had run afoul of the Comics Code Authority on more than one occasion in the past, and it was about to do so again. Here’s the next row of panels, as published in Conan #24:
And here’s Roy Thomas on what had gone on behind the scenes that resulted in those panels looking like they do:
It was probably Barry’s idea for Sonja to take off her mailshirt when she and Conan dive into the water, and that overstepped the bounds of what the Comics Code was willing to accept. They made us alter the drawings (I think it was Barry himself who did it, on a photocopy) so that Sonja would be holding the mailshirt in front of her and not show her bare breasts (though you couldn’t see much in either version). In the third panel, on page 6, Barry had drawn Conan with his hands clearly at work, even if it was under water, and once again we had to make changes. Luckily, Barry hung on to the original drawing for this page…
How does Conan intend to acquire horses? Why, by stealing them of course. Which they do, amusingly enough, from the Makkalet city guards who’ve come to break up the very tavern brawl they abandoned a couple of pages back…
Immediately following Part I is a one-page interlude which, by way of its generous use of white space and its stylized lettering, immediately recalls the devastating epilogue that concluded Conan #20’s “The Black Hound of Vengeance!” Unlike that earlier sequence, however, this interlude (as well as another one later in the book) utilizes word balloons for the presentation of dialogue, rather than incorporate it into the captions.
You’d think that his experience with “The Tower of the Elephant!” back in Conan #4 would make our hero at least a little skittish at the prospect of scaling a mysterious tower in the dead of night in search of treasure, but apparently not. Well, I suppose he’s got other things on his mind…
Conan tosses down the rope for “Son-ya” to climb up and join him. As she makes her ascent, she complains about how he pronounces her name, saying she’ll have to teach him his “Hyrkanian demi-vowels” some day soon. But soon enough she’s climbing through the window, and then she and Conan are feasting their eyes on what they’ve both come for… or at least what Conan assumes they’ve both come for…
Writing about this second interlude in Barbarian Life, Roy Thomas says:
Whenever I see this page, it reminds me that this was the period during which my first wife and I were separated for several months. It’s possible that my own feelings affected what I wrote, because a young lady I was going out with got quite emotional when she read it (I was separated, not dead).
Erm… thanks for sharing, Mr. Thomas. (I think.)
“Ka nama kaa lajerama“? You know, that does sound familiar, somehow…
The serpent’s coils release Conan, who tumbles painfully into a pile of gold coins. When Red Sonja comes to see if he’s OK, he tells her sure, but that’s snake’s about to not be. “This night, either it dies — or I do! Now stand aside!”
Oh, right, that’s where we know those words from: Robert E. Howard’s first published story of King Kull, “The Shadow Kingdom” — as adapted for comics by Roy Thomas and Marie and John Severin, in Kull the Conqueror #2 (Sep., 1971).
Acknowledging in Barbarian Life that Red Sonja’s declared policy of chastity-until-defeat is his “most controversial contribution” to the character,* Roy Thomas goes on to write:
I took the idea and Sonja’s pronouncement almost word for word from one of my favorite literary works, On Baile’s Strand, a short play by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, which was first performed in 1904. In this beautiful poetic drama, the Irish medieval hero Cuchulain kills a mysterious young warrior who sets foot on the Irish coast and refuses to give his name or his lineage. From the conversation between two characters known simply as “Fool” and “Blind Man,” little by little, the reader learns, long before Cuchulain does, that the hero has killed his own son (following the model of the ancient Persian legend of Rustem and Sohrab). The young man’s mother, the Amazon queen Aiofe, had taught her son to hate his unknown, absent father. Cuchulain is finally made aware of the terrible deed he has committed when the Fool tells him, “He [the Blind Man] said a while ago that he heard Aiofe boast that she’d never but the one lover, and he the only man that had overcome her in battle.” And we already know that that man was Cuchulain. I wanted Red Sonja to turn Aoife’s words into a statement of intent…
While I appreciate Thomas’ detailed explanation of the literary inspiration for his idea, I still believe something’s gone awry here, and it mostly has to do with that last phrase regarding “a statement of intent”. As best as I can determine, neither Yeats nor his medieval sources ever claim that Aoife, prior to fighting Cuchulain, made her defeat in battle a precondition of her having sex, either with him or anyone else. Rather, Cuchulain himself demanded the warrior woman’s sexual submission after he defeated her, as one of his conditions for letting her go free. That, to my mind, is a very different concept than what Thomas has instituted here with Red Sonja’s “statement”.
Even so, one might be able to let the dialogue slide as a simple, one-time taunt offered by Sonja to Conan, rather than an expression of some sort of sacred vow — might, that is, if Thomas hadn’t turned around a couple of years later and plotted an “origin story” for the character that explained how, after being raped, Sonja had in fact made a sacred vow of chastity to a divine being (later identified as Scathach, a name derived from the same Irish story cycle in which Aife and Cuchulain appear), who then empowered the girl with exceptional strength and skill with a sword — the implication being, of course, that no woman could hold her own against such a mighty male warrior as Conan unless she had supernatural help. It was the wrong choice to make in regards to the character in 1975, and it’s aged terribly since then. (I’m not an expert on Red Sonja’s solo comics at Dynamite by any means, but I get the impression that their creators have been trying to write their way out from under this awful premise for the last decade or so; I’ll leave it up to readers of this post who have more knowledge in this area to weigh in on whether or not they’ve succeeded.)
But given that all that additional baggage lay two-and-a-half years in the future at the time Conan the Barbarian #24 was released, and that Barry Windsor-Smith had nothing to do with it — and, in fact, might not have even known about the slightly less unsavory (if only by comparison) version of Red Sonja’s vow that appears in the closing scene of our story, since Thomas would presumably have written his script only after the tale had been drawn — I’m opting not to allow this business tarnish my appreciation for “The Song of Red Sonja”, at least not by very much. (Your mileage may of course vary.)
And speaking of “The Song of Red Sonja”, we’ve still got seven panels left of it…
When Barry Windsor-Smith left Conan the Barbarian the first time, he’d marked the occasion with a full-page splash panel of the hero saying farewell; he doesn’t attempt anything nearly that dramatic here, and it’s not hard to imagine several reasons why. For one, it might seem silly to make too much of a fuss over this second exit, just ten months after the last one. For another, he might have been thinking about the fact that although he was done with the color Conan comic, he wasn’t quite done with its titular star; indeed, he had already committed to produce one more Conan story in collaboration with Roy Thomas: a black-and-white adaptation of the Robert E. Howard story “Red Nails” for Marvel’s soon-to-be-revived Savage Tales magazine. That story, when it appeared, would quickly establish itself as being probably the only Thomas/Windsor-Smith joint worthy of being considered on the same level as “The Song of Red Sonja”. To this day, some fans prefer one, some the other… but you can make up your own mind, when we take a look at “Red Nails” (or at least the first half of it), six months from now.
The final reason why Windsor-Smith might not have wanted to make a big deal over leaving Conan is, I’ll admit, something of a long shot — and that’s that he felt a formal farewell wouldn’t be appropriate, since he wasn’t completely gone yet, not even from the color comic. Indeed, he would receive a credit in the very next issue of Conan the Barbarian; though not for any artistic contribution, but rather as the co-plotter with Thomas of its story, “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad”. Because, as the two “interlude” pages of issue #24 clearly indicated, there was still a good bit of story left to tell in the “Hyrkanian War” saga the two creators had initiated back in Conan #19 — and it was only just that Barry Windsor-Smith continue to be recognized for his contributions to its continuing plotlines, even if John Buscema would be the one to actually visualize them.
But how that visualization turned out is, naturally, the stuff of future posts. I hope to see you back here next month for our look at Conan the Barbarian #25, featuring the artwork of John and Sal Buscema, as well as the writing of Roy Thomas… and Barry Windsor-Smith.
*For the record, there’s no indication in Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture” that Red Sonya of Rogatino is in any way chaste; while at one point she does spurn the advances of the story’s Conan-figure, Gottfried von Kalmbach, the reason appears to be simply that she’s just not that into him, rather than that she’s avoiding sex in general.
Apart from the chain-mail bikini, the ‘vow’ was one of the things that always irked me about the on-going RS series. as you say, she couldn’t be allowed to be a good fighter without supernatural assistance? Apart from anything else, most writers seem to think that it meant RS would HAVE to sleep with anyone who defeated her, rather than even is she wanted to, she wouldn’t UNLESS they did. So you would need both elements – RS WANTING to sleep with them AND RS being defeated by them, rather than just being defeated.
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I could see Sonja saying she wouldn’t bang a guy unless he was a better fighter than she was (which leaves her open to the possibility of changing her mind) but specifically wanting someone to defeat her? And yes, making it a binding oath made it worse. Possibly Thomas figured it was simpler than having her not succumb to Conan or worrying about pregnancy.
“You’d think that his experience with “The Tower of the Elephant!” back in Conan #4 would make our hero at least a little skittish at the prospect of scaling a mysterious tower in the dead of night in search of treasure, but apparently not. ” Over time Conan did develop some savvy — in one story a couple of years later he warns his companion against snatching the big gem from a skeleton’s hands because Conan knows that never ends well.
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Barry Smith clearly went out with a bang here, and leaving Conan not too happy for not having gotten the bang he wanted! I didn’t get this when it was new but read about it much later and eventually did get it (I forget the price, but fortunately it wasn’t too high). Magnificent art and some really nice writing too, although I concur with the assessment that Sonja’s “can’t make out with me unless ya beat me in battle” taunt is seriously problematic, whatever Thomas’ inspirations or intentions were. Smith’s artistry underwent a remarkable evolution during his roughly 4 year tenure at Marvel, from very crude Kirbyish imitations to this very-skilled work. Sadly, few artists of such unique talents stayed very long on any mainstream monthly comics, aside from the likes of Kirby, John Buscema and Gene Colan, who all found their own ways to do masterful comics art fairly quickly on a monthly basis for decades.
Another very fine write-up on one of comicdoms finest achievements, Alan!
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I read Dynamite’s recent Gail Simone-written Sonja and it retains part of her origin — village and parents destroyed by raiders — but then has her sold into slavery, becoming a gladiator and acquiring her skills that way.
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Thanks for another great post Alan. There is an old saying that each comic is every person’s first…and believe it or not, 50 years ago, Conan 24 was the first issue of Conan that I bought. I was 15, and I had been buying comics off and on for about 6 years. I had even seen Conan 1 on the stands and passed when I first saw it. Let’s face it…it was not very good…in retrospect Roy had not quite figured out the character and Barry was still developing his style. All I knew of Barry Smith in 1970 was a few issues of Daredevil and Avengers that were pretty raw. And at the time I guess I just didn’t care for sword and sorcery. But 1972 was different. I was becoming more of a fan of Barry’s work because of Avenger 98-100, Iron Man 47 (even though Jim Mooney’s inking was a little strong) and Marvel Premiere 3 and 4. I was now more receptive to sword and sorcery, and the cover of Conan 24 was incredibly beautiful. I did not realize that Conan 24 was part of a multi-part story and bought it anyway. The newsstand that I bought Conan 24 at still had Conan 23 and I bought that too. I actually read Conan 24 first, and even though I was a bit confused at first, I remember that I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I was fortunate enough to quickly be able to obtain several back issues (such as 19-22) in the next few months so was able to catch up on the multipart story. In 1973, I actually started buying the Conan paperbacks by Howard and others and started to get even more back issues of Conan. I was really impressed by how quickly Barry got better and better on Conan, starting with around 3 or 4, and Roy, really with around Conan 2. I even started buying Kull with Kull 7 and was impressed with the work by Roy and Gerry and the Severins. I did not mind when John Buscema took over in Conan 25 since I already enjoyed his work, and I believe Roy did something smart when after the multi-issue story line ended in Conan 26, he did many one issue stories. I personally enjoyed those stories very much. I would stay with the Conan book until Roy left. A quick side note regarding Barry’s departure from the color book: it appears deadlines played a part but from what I read compensation also was part of it…I am certain he was not adequately compensated for the work he did on Conan 24, and it is not likely he could have continued that kind of work on a monthly basis. Returning to Conan 24, I remember that I loved the art and story in Conan 24, and your taking us through this book demonstrates to me, that if anything, I appreciate Barry’s art even more today. Barry really did an incredible job here (of course his art on Red Nails was amazing but that is clearly a whole separate discussion). I have seen some comics critics state that Conan 24 is simply, “the best comic of the Bronze Age.” Is that true? I don’t know….there was all kinds of great work by Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Starlin and many others in the Bronze Age, but I certainly do think that Conan 24 is definitely a high point…one of the best written and drawn comics of all time. Of course that is just my opinion and could be because it was the first Conan comic I ever read.
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I don’t think Conan #24 was the best of the Bronze Age, but it certainly ranks high, especially in mainstream comics. O’Neil and Adams certainly did seminal work in Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the Batman titles (especially the Ra’s al Ghul issues like 232, 243, and 244), and Neal’s work on the Kree-Skrull war in Avengers 93 – 96. Then there was Wein and Wrightson on Swamp Thing 1 – 10, Kaluta’s short-lived run on The Shadow, Amazing Spider-man 121 – 123 (yes, I regard 123 as a vital denouement to the death of Gwen Stacy storyline), Englehart/Brunner’s work in Marvel Premiere 10 and Dr. Strange 1 – 5, the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter stories in Detective Comics, and so on. And that’s not even mentioning the Warren magazines of 1973 – 1977 or Heavy Metal from 1977 onwards, or many great non-US comics of that era.
I honestly don’t know when the Bronze Age ended, but even the early 1980s seemed to belong to a different era.
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Not much to say here. This is an excellent analysis of an excellent comic. Like many, I find Red Nails to the be the superior BWS Conan story, but this one gets extra points for being the first major appearance of Red Sonja. Barry had obviously gotten his groove back in regards to Conan and it shows in every line. Thomas was undoubtedly inpired by such beautiful artwork and turned in some of the best work he ever did on the character. Even the throw away joke on the pronounciation of Sonja’s name delightful and entertaining. Like most, I think Sonja’s vow to have no man who hasn’t defeated her in battle got overblown, perhaps beyond what even Thomas originally intended over the years, especially since you can arguably attest that Conan never really got his shot in regard to the “title.”
Oh, by the way, since Thomas so completely re-created Howard’s character from scratch in these stories, does that mean Thomas version of the “She-Devil with a Sword” isn’t “conan-acle?” I’m sorry…I’ve been wanting to use that lame joke for months.
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It is very nuanced, but in the UK, to call someone a wanker is an insult but to call then a wank is really insulting.
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A-ha! Thanks for clarifying that for us, Brian!
Then there’s Willie Wonka—-such a naughty name for a children’s book character.
Great Job as always breaking down Conan #24, Alan. My God, did Barry Smith leave on a high note, or what? Incredible, museum quality work as I’ve said before. I especially loved your showing us the tweaks brought on by the Comics Code Authority. I can just see poor Roy Thomas in his Editor hat, having to stress over such silliness when you come right down to it. I will say though that as much as I was enamored with the art the plot was pretty..ehhh. Conan and woman/ fellow thief/ sidekick/ enter forbidden area and attempt to steal gems/ magic icon/hostage serves as the plot for at no less than 33% of all these stories. Ah well, at least the dialogue is snappy and well written. I particularly love Red Sonja’s line “For what? Not letting them KISS you?” As much as I would’ve liked to see Smith finish the entire “War of the Tarim” storyline I can remain thankful for what he did accomplish.
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I first read this issue in a British b&w reprint in, I think, ’74 or ’75 and “wank” had by then been replaced by “wonk”. It was only when I read Roy Thomas’ “Barbarian Life” that I became aware of there having ever been an issue.
All that being said, I spent thirty years working in the criminal justice system in N-W England and never once heard someone referred to as “a wank”. On the other hand, if you were to add the “er” then, yes, it was used as a pejorative term in half the cases that came before the court each day!
If I recall correctly though, BW-S was from London and there were – and remain – some stark differences between language usage “oop North” and “dahn Sarf”.
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Yes, he was from Forest Gate near London’s East End.
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I own Conan #24 and quite enjoyed it, then and now. Barry Smith continued to grow artistically, as his subsequent work in The Studio attests.
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Great review, I was blown away when I first saw this, like David in an old Marvel UK black and white reprint and absolutely loved Barry’s work.
A generic plot, but very well scripted, with great characterisation.
I must admit I was disappointed that you couldn’t show BWS original colour work unless I’m sadly mistaken, in that case my apologies.
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John, I used the digital editions currently available from Marvel, which follow Windsor-Smith’s original coloring guides.
Conan actually should have learned 2 things from his Tower of the Elephant adventure. One, that climbing jewel-encrusted towers is risky. And two, when someone sends you to go check on the guards, it’s just a diversionary tactic to get you out of the way.
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