Back in July of this year, we took a look at Wonder Woman #202 — an issue which, in addition to being the penultimate issue of that title’s four-year “Diana Prince” run (which had found the Amazing Amazon battling bad guys sans her traditional powers or costume), featured the comic-book debut of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, two heroes of sword-and-sorcery fiction who’d been appearing in the stories of Fritz Leiber since 1939. In the comic’s story, Diana and Catwoman journeyed to the the world of Nehwon (spell it backwards), where they tussled briefly with the two blade-wielding adventurers before teaming up against their common foes.
Immediately following the story’s conclusion, a half-page ad promised us readers of 1972 that this was by no means the last we’d see of Fafhrd and the Mouser:
“Watch for it!”, DC instructed us, and so we did… for a full five months, at the end of which Swords Against Sorcery finally made its debut — though now the title was Sword of Sorcery (which was perhaps a bit less unwieldy than the original, albeit all but nonsensical in this context). What accounted for the delay? Your humble blogger has no clue, frankly — though if pressed, I might speculate that working out the final details of licensing the rights not only to Fritz Leiber’s characters, but to several of his individual stories as well, took a little longer than Denny O’Neil — who’d served as both editor and writer on Wonder Woman #202 (and would, not so coincidentally, perform the same double duty for Sword of Sorcery) — had expected back when that issue went to press. But, again, that’s just a guess. Perhaps DC just wanted to take extra time to ensure that this foray into the sword-and-sorcery genre would be more successful than had their last, back in 1969.
That previous venture — three issues of Showcase featuring “Nightmaster” — hadn’t resulted in an ongoing title, despite its boasting such talents as the aforementioned O’Neil, Jerry Grandenetti, Joe Kubert, and a very young Bernie Wrightson. Perhaps it was just a year or two ahead of its time — or maybe its premise, which featured a young American rock singer being swept into a fantastic otherworld of, um, swords and sorcery, hadn’t quite cracked the nut of this specific genre. A couple of years later, DC might have observed the relative success of Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian (which, even it it wasn’t quite a sales juggernaut yet, was still doing pretty well) and figured that maybe the trick was to adapt an existing property — one that already had a built-in audience. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if that property came with a barbarian attached.
Looked at from that perspective, licensing Fritz Leiber’s two heroic rogues must have seemed an obvious move. While they’d been around almost as long as the sword-and-sorcery genre itself — the first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, “Two Sought Adventure”, had been published in the August, 1939 issue of the pulp fantasy magazine Unknown, just three years after the last Conan story by Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails”, had appeared in Unknown‘s competitor Weird Tales — they were still very much a going concern.* Beginning in 1968, in the wake of the recent success of Lancer Books’ Conan paperback series, Ace Books had been bringing out new editions of Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories; not only did these volumes (all of which were graced with terrific covers by Jeffrey Catherine Jones) place the tales in chronological sequence for the first time, but Leiber was also continuing to write new adventures that slotted in among the old ones. One the most recent such, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, had recounted the previously untold tale of the two heroes’ first meeting; it had gone on to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella of 1970. Finally, for the cherry on top, one member of the duo, Fafhrd, was even a barbarian. So to sum up: as far as sword-and-sorcery properties available for licensing by DC in 1972 were concerned, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would have been hard to beat; and though this is purely speculative on my part, I suspect that DC didn’t even try.
As already stated, Sword of Sorcery would be edited as well as written by Denny O’Neil, who, though relatively new to the editorial chair, was at this time pretty much incontestably DC’s top writer (especially if one were to judge by awards won). The name of the title’s artist, on the other hand, was one considerably less familiar to most comic book reader in late 1972: Howard Chaykin.
Chaykin, who was twenty-two years of age at the time Sword of Sorcery #1 was released, had been working at the fringes of the comics industry for a couple of years — serving as an assistant to such well-established artists as Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Gray Morrow, and Neal Adams, and occasionally getting his own work published in fanzines. But as of December, 1972, his list of professional comic book credits was not only quite brief, but also only about seven months old. Most of his assignments to date had been for short pieces for DC’s romance and war books, with just about the only published work indicating an aptitude for fantasy being a single 6-page episode of an ongoing adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Beyond the Farthest Star, which had appeared as a backup in Tarzan #216 (Jan., 1973) just a month prior to Sword of Sorcery #1 itself.
So how did Chaykin land the SoS job? Here’s his own account, per a 2017 interview for Tripwire:
I got the Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stuff through demonstrating, maybe for the first time, my capacity to be a grind. Another artist had been assigned to the job, but O’Neill had his doubts about this guy’s ability to deliver on time. He sent us both home on a Friday, with a charge to come in with character designs. I busted my ass, he phoned it in, and I got the gig.
I have no idea who the artist Howard Chaykin beat out to land the Sword of Sorcery assignment may have been, and honestly, it probably wouldn’t have mattered to me even if I’d known back in 1972. I was already pre-sold on the title, simply based on its subject matter; if the art was good, that was going to be a bonus. Anyway, even if I didn’t yet know Chaykin’s name (if I did know it, it was by way of his single Marvel job to date, a 10-page Man-Thing story in Fear #10 which had come out in July), I’d liked what I’d seen so far of DC’s visualization of Leiber’s heroes and their world — which, in addition to the house ad shared earlier in this post (unsigned, but presumably drawn by Chaykin) also included Dick Giordano’s cover and interior artwork for Wonder Woman #202. That pretty much brings us up to Sword of Sorcery #1 itself, and its very attractive cover — a cover which I had until very recently assumed was by Chaykin, but which my research for this post indicates was in fact drawn by his fellow up-and-comer at DC Comics, Michael W. Kaluta. (You learn something new every day, y’know?)
In any event, my fifteen-year-old self’s expectations were fairly high, art-wise, when I was at last able to open the book to its first page…
Along with the name of Howard Chaykin, there’s another artistic moniker given in the credits box on this opening splash page, “the Crusty Bunkers” — a name which was even more obscure than Chaykin’s was at this point, having only appeared in a single other comic book (Weird Worlds #3) which had come out in October. Who were the Crusty Bunkers? Essentially, Neal Adams, and anyone who was working at his and Dick Giordano’s commercial art studio, Continuity Associates (or who may have just been hanging around the place on a given day). Approximately sixty different artists have been named as having worked under the “Crusty Bunker” pseudonym from 1972 to 1977; but according to the Grand Comics Database, the lion’s share of the inking in Sword and Sorcery #1 was done by just three individuals: Alan Weiss, Rick Bryant, and Neal Adams himself.
I’ve read a number of comments made by Chaykin over the years where he’s generally dismissive of his early ’70s artwork, particularly in comparison with what he produced in later decades; on at least one occasion, he’s implied that whatever appeal this material has is a result of the high quality of the inking he received from Adams, et al. Your humble blogger certainly appreciates where the artist is coming from in holding this opinion; nevertheless, I hope he won’t begrudge me the pleasure I found in his work back then, and continue to find in it to this day… pleasure that I don’t think is only due to the inking. Chaykin’s visual imagination, strong sense of effective page design, and storytelling skills were evident from the beginning.
One more thing to note before we leave the first page, and that’s that our story (not actually given a title in the comic) is an adaptation of Leiber’s “The Price of Pain Ease” — which, in 1972, was the most recent Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to have seen print, though not the latest in the series’ internal chronology.
Speaking of Chaykin’s visual imagination, one area in which it’s always been particularly evident — at least when he’s dealing with fantastic or science-fictional subject matter — is in his approach to clothing. For the fashions favored by the denizens of Nehwon, the artist seems to have taken Renaissance European costume for his starting point, and then let his creativity take him where it would. Just check out the bell-bottoms on the eyepatch-wearing guy (the skull accessory on his left knee, visible on the splash page, is another nice touch).
Our heroes now find themselves outnumbered three-to-one, but they don’t seem especially concerned…
Soon afterwards, the Mouser and Fahfrd rendezvous in a crowded marketplace… which, for the former, is a little too crowded, considering how many foes they surely have searching the streets for them by now: “We require shelter — away from prying eyes!”
The two rogues flee to the nearest window, then leap from its balcony to the courtyard below. But they’re hardly home free, since, as the Mouser notes, “The walls are too high to be either lept [sic] or climbed… and there’s no gate!”
Actually, it’s two unicorns… although, oddly, O’Neil’s script only ever refers to a single mount:
Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes are recurring characters in Leiber’s Fafhrd & Moiser stories — although the first meeting between the heroes and wizards goes down a little differently in the original version, and occurs in a story other than “The Price of Pain-Ease”.
Does the interest of Duke Danius, whose palace they just escaped, in the very same object that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have just been charged to purloin seem like a very unlikely coincidence? For what it’s worth, it does in Leiber’s story as well. (Granted, Leiber at least gives Sheelba a line about the heroes’ previous encounter with the Duke being “not altogether by chance” — but since no further explanation is forthcoming, that doesn’t amount to much more than lampshading, in my opinion.)
Speaking of Duke Danius, the scene shifts to him at this point, as he collects an enchanted war axe from an old witch; and then, in lieu of the thousand silver pieces he’d promised her as payment, orders his henchmen to slay her. Immediately following this unpleasant business…
I’ll say it again: Howard Chaykin can rag on this artwork all he wants to; I think it’s terrific.
The Duke’s response to the Mouser’s query is polite, but direct: “I’ve come on a mission of murder! Since my quarry isn’t present, I shall practice — on you!”
Seeing as how the odds are two to one, the Gray Mouser opts to let Fafhrd handle this interruption on his own, and the Northman concurs. As he advances on the Duke, his sword at the ready, Fafhrd assures his friend that the matter will take only a second. “You’re confident, barbarian,” sneers Danius…
As he watches the Gray Mouser lay down his sword, Scalpel, Duke Danius expresses disappointment that his foe won’t at least put up a token defense before surrendering. “Did I mention surrender?” the Mouser asks rhetorically. “You misunderstand —”
While it’s probable that my fifteen-year-old sword-and-sorcery-loving self had read a Fafhrd & Mouser story or two by the time this comic came out, I know I hadn’t yet read “The Price of Pain-Ease” — and so, I was unaware of the substantial liberties taken by O’Neil in his adaptation. Examples of such include the inclusion of the opening tavern brawl scene, which has no equivalent in Leiber’s text; having Faf and the Mouser receive their charges from Sheelba and Ningauble together, rather than separately, as in the original; and giving over a whole page to the two friends’ duel, whereas in Leiber, Duke Danius interrupts them before either lands a blow..
Arguably, all of these changes (as well as some others I could mention), while significantly altering the story’s structure and pacing, leave its tone and themes pretty much intact. The same can’t be said, however, of another alteration, which involves the placement of the story in the internal chronology of Leiber’s series. As originally conceived, “The Price of Pain-Ease” is a direct sequel to the aforementioned “Ill Met in Lankhmar” — a story which not only tells how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser first met each other, but also relates how, on that same night, they both tragically lost their first great loves, Vlana and Ivrian. In “The Price of Pain-Ease”, Fafhrd and the Mouser are haunted by the ghosts of these two murdered women; their primary motivation through most of the story is to relieve themselves of the torment caused by this situation, whether that’s by seeing their lovers fully restored to life, or, conversely, by having their memories of Vlana and Ivrian completely wiped from their minds. While Leiber’s story isn’t completely devoid of humor, to call it less of a romp than its comics adaptation would be a serious understatement; in the end, it may be just as well that Sword of Sorcery #1 leaves its version unnamed, since the original title makes virtually no sense in the context of the new version.
Granted, it would hardly have done for DC to begin their Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series with a story that would not only depend so much on another, earlier-set adventure for its full effect, but would be generally more downbeat than the average Faf & Mouser story, besides… which is what a faithful adaptation of “The Price of Pain-Ease” unquestionably would have been. But then, why adapt this particular story at all? Was Denny O’Neil simply not interested in exploring any darker tones or themes while writing his two protagonists, whose “distinctly light side” he writes approvingly of in this first issue’s text page? Or, rather, was he disinclined to tie himself too much to any kind of strict continuity in regards to Fafhrd and the Mouser’s lives and careers, preferring to write one-off stories that could be read in any order (kind of like the majority of superhero yarns he’d written for DC to date)? Either could be true, or both, or neither; at this point, we can only speculate.
But one thing that is clearly and incontrovertibly true is that the approach that Denny O’Neil — and by extension, DC — decided to take in adapting Fritz Leiber’s characters and their stories was just about the opposite one from how Marvel had chosen to approach adapting Robert E. Howard’s Conan, back in 1970. There, writer Roy Thomas had opted to follow the established outline of the hero’s prose fiction career in the comics version of same, having Conan age more-or-less in real time, and slotting in Howard’s stories where they properly fell in the barbarian’s “biography”.
Would such an approach, which engendered greater reader investment in the hero’s life and fortunes for at least some readers (such as your humble blogger), have helped Sword of Sorcery attain a longevity even marginally closer to Conan the Barbarian’s 275-issue run than the brief stand of five issues that ultimately saw release before the title, its many excellent qualities notwithstanding, succumbed to cancellation? Again, one can only speculate… but it’s an interesting idea to consider, at least.
This is the final installment of Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books for the year, and so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank any and all who’ve sampled our offerings in 2022. Whether this is the first post you’ve read in the past twelvemonth, or the 67th, or somewhere in-between, your time and attention is greatly appreciated. Happy New Year, and I’ll see you all in 1973.
*Of course, Conan himself was still a going concern in prose fiction as well as in comics, as new writers licensed by the late Howard’s estate continued to add fresh adventures to his literary canon. But somehow, the stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter never felt entirely authentic; or, at least, not any more authentic than the new stories that Roy Thomas and company were simultaneously crafting for Marvel’s Conan comics. (Or so at least it seemed to my younger self, all those years ago.)