In January, 1973, the cover of Conan the Barbarian #25 — a collaboration between Gil Kane and Ralph Reese — hardly gave any hint of the enormous artistic shift this issue represented for Marvel Comics’ award-winning series. After all, Kane had pencilled four Conan covers prior to this one, and while two of those had graced issues that also featured Kane art on the inside (the first of those, #17, also happened to have been inked by Reese), the other two — including the most recent one, for issue #23 — had fronted stories drawn by the title’s original and primary regular artist, Barry Windsor-Smith.
So, if you were a regular Conan reader who’d somehow managed to miss issue #24 (and if you were, you have my sympathies), you may well have been startled to open #25 to its first page to see that the story had been drawn by a penciller previously unseen in these pages (though his name and work were hardly unfamiliar to Marvel fans)… namely, John Buscema:
Buscema had been considered for the job of regular penciller on Conan when Marvel was first getting the title off the ground, but had been disqualified by virtue of his page rate being too high (thus opening the door for the younger and hungrier Windsor-Smith). Since the series’ 1970 launch, he’d drawn the barbarian hero on at least one prior occasion, having contributed a cover painting to the first (and to date, only) issue of Marvel’s black-and-white “mature readers” comic magazine, Savage Tales… but “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad” was his first Conan story. Little did he (or anyone else) know that this would be the beginning of a 14-year run during which his art would appear in 137 out of 166 issues of Conan the Barbarian; an epic stand that would ultimately serve as the cornerstone of a nearly three-decade long association between artist and character, involving multiple spin-off titles (both in color and in black-and-white) and lasting almost until Buscema’s death in 2002.
But all that lay in the future, of course. In January, 1973, John Buscema — while unquestionably a popular artist — was still the guy who had to follow Barry Windsor-Smith on the series that had made the latter a star. And it was a particularly awkward juncture at which to do so, seeing as how Conan #25 would be the penultimate chapter of the ambitious “Hyrkanian War” saga that Windsor-Smith had begun with writer Roy Thomas back in issue #19 — and the British artist’s contributions to the ongoing storyline remained significant enough for Thomas to give him a plotting credit for “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad”. In that sense, Barry Windsor-Smith wasn’t even completely gone yet.
Of course, John Buscema wasn’t the only individual responsible for the artwork in Conan the Barbarian #25. His younger brother Sal, who’d inked Windsor-Smith’s pencils in twelve previous issues (and who’d even pencilled a single page himself, uncredited, in #23) was on board to finish his sibling’s art; a choice that Thomas (also the book’s editor) may have made thinking that it would help provide visual continuity during the transition from one penciller to the other. In addition, John Severin worked on a couple of pages — and unlike in earlier instances, this time the bringing in of an additional inker on a Conan story was being done for creative rather than deadline reasons… but we’ll have more to say about that anon (at which time we’ll also explain just how this story is, as it says in the credits box, “inspired in part” by the Robert E. Howard short story “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”)…
Readers had first met Makkalet’s guard-captain Chumballa Bey (albeit briefly), in the previous issue, when — as his dialogue above attests — his horse was purloined by Conan and Red Sonja as part of their caper to steal a magical serpent-tiara from the palace. (Stolen again — this time, literally out from under Conan by the duplicitous Sonja — the animal is presumably halfway to Pah-Dishah by now.)
Robert E. Howard’s “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” — which was published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1929, and which can be read in its entirety online here, if you’re so inclined — isn’t one of the author’s original Conan prose stories (such as, for example, “Rogues in the House”, adapted by Thomas and Windsor-Smith in Conan #11). Nor is it a historical adventure yarn that’s been transmuted into a Conan tale (a la issue #23’s “The Shadow of the Vulture”). Rather, it’s a story of Howard’s second most famous barbarian sword-and-sorcery hero, King Kull — the titular star of Marvel’s Kull the Conqueror — who’s about to make a cameo-by-flashback in our present comic’s next two pages:
With their lack of conventionally defined panel and caption borders, and use of script-style lettering, these two pages recall the two interludes that Thomas and Windsor-Smith produced for Conan #24, as well as the epilogue in Conan #20 (the eschewing here of word balloons, a la Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” comic strip, is another point of commonality with the sequence in #20). But they’re set apart from those, not only by the obvious factor of John Buscema’s having taken over for Barry Windsor-Smith, but also by John Severin’s spelling of Sal Buscema on inks for just this sequence. As Severin was at this time regularly embellishing his sister’s Marie’s pencils on Kull the Conqueror, as well as serving as that title’s cover artist, the effect is to make the reader feel rather as though he’s wandered over from Conan’s book into Kull’s, if only for a couple of pages. It’s hard to imagine this working quite as well had Severin been working with Windsor-Smith’s pencils rather than the elder Buscema’s, as both Severins’ pencilling styles seem more similar to the latter’s than to the former’s, at least to the eye of your humble blogger.
Howard’s original story is relatively short; even so, Thomas and Buscema have to compress its content considerably to fit their telling into a mere couple of pages. Perhaps that’s the main reason why Thomas decided to present a more complete adaptation a few years later; his eleven-page version, drawn by Mike Ploog, would appear in the 34th issue (Oct., 1978) of Marvel’s black-and-white comics magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan (opening page shown at right).
And the mystery introduced in Interlude #1 in last issue’s “The Song of Red Sonja” — what does the mirror show Kharam Akkad? — has been answered, only to be replaced by a new one — what the heck does it mean? (Besides the obvious, that is.)
The preceding scene represents the longest span of time the Living Tarim has been on stage so far — indeed, it’s the only non-flashback occasion on which he’s been seen by us readers, save for Conan’s own brief almost-but-not-quite encounter in #20. Which is kind of interesting, when you think about it, seeing as how the whole “War of the Tarim” is supposedly being fought over the guy in the first place. He sure seems to be a docile, quiet fellow, though, doesn’t he?
At this point, our scene changes to Conan’s current lodgings. Our hero has finally made it home after his night’s misadventure with Red Sonja, only to find Chumballa Bey and six guardsmen there waiting for him. Assuming that they’ve come on account of Bey’s stolen horse, and averring, “One place to sleep is as good as another,” Conan goes with them willingly enough… at least, until he finds out on whose behalf he’s actually being arrested…
Writing in his 2018 book Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Volume 1, Roy Thomas acknowledges that, compared to how Barry Windsor-Smith had drawn him, Conan “seemed at least several years older when John drew him… and quite a few pounds heavier.” That’s accurate, and it would become even more pronounced and noticeable within a few months’ time. Simultaneously, Buscema would make other, non-age-related adjustments to Conan’s physiognomy, subtly flattening his nose and lowering his brow to give him a generally more brutish appearance. The end result of Buscema’s changes — at least for your humble blogger — was that his Conan seemed to be almost a completely different person from the barbarian that Windsor-Smith had drawn.
In his book, Thomas goes on to claim: “In some ways, John’s version was probably closer to how Robert E. Howard had envisioned Conan than was Barry’s.” Perhaps that’s true, as Howard did consistently describe his hero in terms of his impressive height, broad shoulders, massive chest, and so on. On the other hand, the Windsor-Smith version of Conan — especially in the latter issues of the color title, as well as in his and Thomas’ adaptation of “Red Nails” for Marvel’s black-and-white Savage Tales — isn’t exactly what you’d call a puny or weak-looking specimen, either — at least not in comparison to most human males who aren’t Buscema’s Conan. Just sayin’.
Anyway, to get back to our story… Conan manages to temporarily stop three of the guards by heaving a full wine barrel at them. But it’s only a delaying tactic…
Bey and his men haul the unconscious Conan away, just in time for a scene change…
Prince Yezdigerd seems to have pretty well moved on from his obsession with having Conan killed (which began, you’ll remember, when the Cimmerian slashed his face in the aforementioned epilogue of issue #20). Maybe his getting the head of the guy he’d assigned to assassinate Conan sent to him as a “gift” by Conan instead (per the epilogue of issue #23) has put a damper on that particular grievance. Or maybe it’s because the results of Conan’s own mission to seek military aid for Makkalet (see #21 as well as #23) have turned out to be a bust, as the whole Pah-Dishah expeditionary force seems to have been sent only as a cover for Red Sonja’s serpent tiara-stealing mission, and now that that mission has been accomplished, they’ve cleared out — a development which has provided the Prince of Turan with the opportunity to bring an end to his siege of Makkalet, once and for all. In other words, he’s got other things to think about.
But before he gives the order for a full-out assault, the prince’s adviser Sulimar says, he needs to consult the augurs as to whether this is indeed “the hour of the griffin” — since, after all, there are those among his soldiery who care more about bringing the one, true Tarim back home to Aghrapur than they do about looting Makkalet of its wealth. Fine, Yezdigerd grumbles as the two men walk to the augurs’ tent, just so long as those seers “cast favorable runes”. “They have been so advised, my prince,” Sulimar assures him as they enter…
And so the word goes out across the camp — the army of Turan will storm the walls of Makkalet that very night.
Meanwhile, Chumballa Bey has delivered Conan to Kharam Akkad — reluctantly, since, as he says, “I’ve rarely seen one who could be worth more to Makkalet alive — as a warrior!” Awakening to find himself a bound and (presumably) helpless prisoner, Conan behaves just as you’d expect — taunting the wizard for not being willing to fight him “man to man“…
Once he’s availed himself of both sword and shield, Kharam Akkad is confident that he can take Conan. “In leaner years, I learned the art of the blade from swordsmen who could have split you with closed eyes.” Um, if you say so, dude.
Meanwhile, as Yezdigerd’s army advances on Makkalet, the city’s defenders prepare to make their last stand…
And so ends “The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad”, with a twist ending that calls forward to events that still lie several years in Conan’s future, thereby anchoring the current story more firmly within the hero’s established “biography”. This device — along with the earlier Kull sequence, which in its turn anchored Conan’s career within the much longer fantastical prehistory imagined by Robert E. Howard — was just the sort of thing that would keep me invested in the story content of Conan the Barbarian for a long time to come… even as I became less enamored of the book’s visual content.
I’ve wondered from time to time how I might feel differently about John Buscema’s work on Conan had he been the title’s regular artist from the start — in other words, if he had never had Barry Windsor-Smith’s act to follow. After all, I’d enjoyed and valued Buscema’s art from the very first time I’d been exposed to it, back in Avengers #53 (June, 1968). And it’s not as though I thought his take on Conan was bad, either in this issue or in those that followed. But, for better or worse, after two years of Barry Windsor-Smith’s vision of Howard’s Hyborian Age and its best-known denizen impressing itself upon my imagination, just about anyone who followed him was going to fall into a category not only of “after”, or even “other”… but of “lesser”.
I have a bit more to say about Conan the Barbarian‘s transition from the Windsor-Smith to the Buscema eras… but I think I’ll save it for next month, when we’ll be looking at the issue which arguably completed that transition, not only by presenting the final chapter of the “Hyrkanian War” storyline begun by Thomas with Windsor-Smith and finished with Buscema, but also by featuring the arrival of the inker whose embellishment of Buscema’s pencils would eventually become almost as much a part of Conan‘s visual identity as those pencils themselves. I hope you’ll join me then.
Well this was certainly A very well researched and comprehensive overview in such a well rounded article. Very much looking forward to reading about the transition period of Windsor-smith to Buscema. I am actually a monumental fan of Both and I would say enjoy both of their works very equally across all lines….”Not just Conan”
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Though Buscema was a much stronger draughtsman than BWS, his work looked too clean in Conan, and thus better suited to Marvel super-hero fare (like his stellar work on Silver Surfer 3 & 4). Once Marvel had him inked by some of the great Filipino artists in the b&w mags then the level of detail and textures were more appropriate for the look of these Hyperborian tales.
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Excellent article, Alan. One of Thomas’ talents has always been his ability to take Howard’s stories of Conan and Kull and whoever and recontextualize them for Conan while at the same time working the original story into the background for a deeper more satisfying story. The pages where the wizard tells the original story of his mirrors and the story of King Kull may suffer somewhat from lack of space, but it’s inclusion lets us know that Thomas is not dismissing the original story, but adding to it and weaving a path from the Kull mythos and into Conan’s. Very well done.
Before we move on to discuss the change from BWS to Big John, can we talk about the cover for a sec? I’m a huuuuge fan of GIl Kane and don’t like to criticize the master’s work, but this cover seems a little “less” than what it could have been. The angle, looking up as it does from near the floor is good and dramatic and the figures of Conan and the unnamed girl (who does not appear anywhere in the story, but thanks to Frazetta, we all know Conan has to have a girl attached to his leg in order to be authentic) are excellent, but the mirror is…a little small, isn’t it? Certainly compared to the one in the story and why is there only ONE mirror for a story called The MIRRORS of Kharam Arkkad? Shouldn’t the walls be covered with them they way there were in the actual story? I mean, I love me some Kane, but usually his covers over-sell the stories they illustrate and make them seem better than they are. This one doesn’t really do that, does it?
As for the art, looking back on this from fifty years of hindsight, Buscema’s version of Conan is as comfortable as an old coat, worn and familiar and completely natural. He seems born to this book and it’s no surprise he stayed with the character for so long. Looking at it from the perspective of a Windsor-Smith fan losing their favorite artist to just another Marvel penciller, I can see where folks would be upset. I also understand why, if Roy knew he was losing Barry for good, that he chose Buscema to replace him. They’d already tried Kane, right? And he couldn’t keep up with the schedule or something? But Big John was already the hardest working pencil in the Marvel box, as well as one of the most popular, so I’m sure Roy figured folks would come around and accept it in time. Obviously, that’s exactly what happened. Buscema isn’t nearly the “artist” Barry is, but he’s solid, dynamic, and best of all, from a production standpoint, he gets the work done on time, which is something BWS struggled with all along.
All in all, this is a good story to introduce John Buscema. Would it have been better if Barry could have finished this story before moving on? Sure. It would have been better if he’d never have to give the book up at all, but while the story of a prophecy that turns out to be a self-fulfilling one (if the wizard hadn’t known Conan was destined to kill him, would he have ever met him at all?), is a bit trite and overdone, Buscema’s art along with Roy’s mixing and merging the story with it’s original version into a new continuity makes for a great additon to Marvel’s Conan mythos. Nice job, sir!
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To my understanding, John Buscema very much wanted to draw the Conan series and it was natural that since Conan the Barbarian had become a successful series that when Smith left, Buscema would take over, and given how long he stuck with it, it was the likely the series he most loved drawing, certainly more than any superhero series, which he had stated he didn’t particularly care for. It would still be a few years before I started collecting Conan, circa 1976. In that period, of the mid to late ’70s, it was common for Buscema to do one or two issues of a new superhero series, such as Nova, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk, to better suck in fans before another artist took over. He also did the Tarzan series when Marvel had the rights to that, and to my recall other than his second main run on the Avengers in the ’80s, since leaving Thor in the ’70s, Buscema didn’t stay with any other superhero series very long. I’d guess he only stuck with Thor as long as he did due to its mix of standard superheroics with touches of sword & sorcery and other fantasy aspects far beyond what would be typical for Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, etc. Hitching a ride on a viking ship going deep into space? Just another day for Thor!
Anyhow, I enjoyed Buscma’s work on Thor, although I’d read many references to Windsor-Smith’s run and in those years when I’d only seen ads featuring his work on Conan, it had a sort of mystique for me for ages before I was able to obtain some of the original back issues or reprints of them, and, yes, I found them wonderful. IMO, they lived up to the hype, even if given that Smith’s artistry developed considerably during the roughly two years he worked on Conan, so there’s a significant difference between his art on CtB # 1 and that on CtB #24, such that the issues almost look to have been drawn by different artists rather than the same person. With Buscema, he was already a long-time veteran when he took over and he was one of the top masters from the time he started at Marvel in the mid-60s, and along with Kirby and Romita, pretty much codified the Marvel “look” that most other artists were expected to adhere to. In his latter issues, Winsor-Smith’s style gave Conan a beautifully unique look, but Buscema’s style, as exemplified in this issue, made Conan look somewhat more like a typical Marvel title, albeit in atypical settings. Of course, Conan still stood out for having one of the best artists in the industry, and one who clearly loved what he was doing, as with Colan on Tomb of Dracula.
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I’ll use a football analogy to describe my reaction to the transition from Smith to Buscema. Suppose I’m a New England Patriot’s fan. Tom Brady was our quarterback. But now..we’ve got Matt Jones. Matt Jones. Well, Matt’s an ok fellow, he’s thrown some good passes but HE’S NOT TOM BRADY! Same thing here.
I really loved Thomas script. The foreshadowing by the high priests of the Griffin and the Serpent. (Actually revealed to it’s full extent in the next issue) The simple barbarian logic of Conan “if I go in..I’m not coming out..so I’m not going in!” That perfect panel wherein Chumbulla Bey states “Perhaps YOU would wish to see to his majesty” leaving so much unsaid with that line. The great phraseology Thomas employs on the final page “and men shall call him Amra..which means the Lion!” Sends a chill up my spine every time. Comic writers, to my mind are often under appreciated for being able to pack so much pathos and story telling into so few lines.
I eagerly await the conclusion of the Tarim war.
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I suppose I am of two minds on the subject of Barry Windsor-Smith vs John Buscema.
One the one hand, I really appreciate BWS’s leaner, athletic, younger-looking Conan, especially in the stories set earlier in the character’s timeline, and I love the increasingly ornate work BWS brought to the series as he grew & developed as an artist.
On the other hand, for an entire generation Buscema’s Conan became THE definitive version of the character. It’s also clear that Buscema, who famously disliked drawing both superheroes and “real world” elements such as cars & buildings, enjoyed working on Conan, where he was drawing the adventures of a non-costumed protagonist and he could design fantastical settings pretty much from scratch. I feel the enthusiasm Buscema had for this series really translates to the printed page.
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Buscema’s different. I can’t feel he was lesser. Though I think his Savage Sword work is even better than on the monthly.
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Where did the Conan “Amra” nickname came from? I remember that it appeared in the Marvel adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast, but I was surprised to see no mention of it in the original tale – or in any of the REH original stories. Was it created later by Lin Carter or other Conan autor?
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IIRC it’s from Hour of the Dragon, REH’s only Conan novel. At one point Conan returns to piracy and the Black Corsairs recognize him as the legendary Amra.
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To quote: “But, for better or worse, after two years of Barry Windsor-Smith’s vision of Howard’s Hyborian Age and its best-known denizen impressing itself upon my imagination, just about anyone who followed him was going to fall into a category not only of “after”, or even “other”… but of “lesser”.”
For me, it was Frank Frazetta’s version of Robert E. Howard’s Barbarian on the covers of the Lancer paperback book series during the 1960’s that was the definitive artistic version. It was the Lancer paperback book series that made Frazetta famous. There is a documentary on Frazetta that was made before he died, “Frazetta: Printing with Fire” that came out in 2003. The Collector’s DVD has who else on the cover, CONAN!! I remember Frazetta making an amazing admission in an interview in the documentary. He said he had read only a little of Howard’s stories, just enough to know what to do and then he went to work. It only took him a few hours to do each painting, usually just before the deadline to get it done.
To quote: “Roy Thomas acknowledges that, compared to how Barry Windsor-Smith had drawn him, Conan “seemed at least several years older when John drew him… and quite a few pounds heavier.” That’s accurate, and it would become even more pronounced and noticeable within a few months’ time. Simultaneously, Buscema would make other, non-age-related adjustments to Conan’s physiognomy, subtly flattening his nose and lowering his brow to give him a generally more brutish appearance.”
John Buscema is interviewed in the Frazetta documentary. He said that when Roy Thomas was prepping him to be the Conan artist, Roy sent him the Frazetta Lancer paperbacks. Buscema used the Frazetta paintings as his reference for drawing Conan. Essentially, the Buscema Conan is a “Marvelized” version of the Frazetta Conan, an adaption of the Frazetta Conan using the Marvel house style.
The Barry Windsor-Smith Conan strikes me as an anomaly to the usual visual depiction of Conan. It wasn’t the Frazetta Conan. I think he had other inspirations that he used to visualize the young Conan. He might not have even seen the Frazetta version, he certainly didn’t make it a reference. He was British. They have their own ancient heroes, myth figures and folklore.
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Correction: “Frazetta: Printing with Fire” s/b “Frazetta: Painting with Fire”
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BWS didn’t like Frazetta’s work, dismissing it as “shallow,” to which his Studio mate Mike Kaluta replied, “Yeah, but it’s GOOD shallow.”
I think “primal” or “visceral” would be better adjectives for some of Frazetta’s paintings. He was superb at what he did.
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Agreed. Though I can see why a college friend of mine found his women “fetishistic” too.
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Alan, it’s been really interesting from my perspective to relive the “War of the Tarim” in Conan 19-26 through your reviews. Since I only started reading Conan with #24, I had to catch up on the other parts later, so this may be the first time I am seeing the story sequentially. Certainly at the time the shift from Smith to Buscema did not bother me, and I was certainly familiar with the team of John and Sal from seeing them work together on Silver Surfer. But in reading your reviews I do see the differences and have some questions for you. When we see Kharam Akkad in his appearances drawn by Smith, he looks very mysterious and sinister and almost scary. Did you notice that in Conan 25, he looks too “clean” (the reference to Buscema’s art)…he looks angry, etc, but he does not look very menacing or sinister, don’t you think? And when he attacks Conan at the end, he does not seem like much of a threat to Conan and Conan takes him out pretty easily and quickly. Another fairly obvious question…if Kharam Akkad always knew Conan was such a danger to him why didn’t he have him immediately killed? Yes I remember Conan 21 but still… But of course if he did that, that would be the end of the series. But my main question is…what was Kharam Akkad’s endgame here? Why did he kidnap the “Tarim” and what did he hope to accomplish against the enormous army of Yezdigerd? I realize now that I did not consider this at all at the time, was just reading an entertaining story. And I did enjoy Conan 26 which I know you will be getting to in a few weeks. Thanks again for another entertaining review.
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You’re welcome, brucesfl… and you also raise some good points! Taking them each in turn: (1) I agree that BWS’ Kharam-Akkad looks more spooky and menacing than the Buscema’s version — but since I prefer BWS’ “Conan” to J. Buscema’s in general, that’s not really surprising. 🙂 (2) I don’t really have a problem with this, since from issue #20 on, K-A is consistently trying to kill Conan, either directly or indirectly; plus, we don’t really know how long the mirror has been showing K-A the vision of his death at Conan’s hands — only that he’s viewed it 1,001 times. (3) This is more of a tough one… and, frankly, I’m not sure that Roy Thomas himself ever thought it all the way through. We are told, however, that the Hyrkanian city-state which hosts the Living Tarim can claim homage from all the others in the region… so it may be that K-A thought that his spells would keep the city from being overrun long enough for the other Hyrkanian kingdoms to rally to Makkalet’s banner… then, once Turan was defeated, he’d be the “power behind the throne” of a new empire. That’s *my* best answer, right now… but I’m certainly open to other suggestions!
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Another great post. I, too, was enamored of Smith’s Conan, and when it changed, I was a bit let down. It makes sense that Buscema wasn’t as detailed as Smith, but he could crank out a book month after month with no delays, so it was worth it. I didn’t stick with Conan too much longer in the comic world, but it had inspired my 10 year old self to seek out the Conan paperbacks, which luckily for me were the ACE editions hanging around in used bookstores. I discovered Savage Sword, also, which, as someone previously mentioned, really was Buscema’s best work.
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I’ll try not to repeat anything the other commenters already mentioned. One thing about Barry Smith, when he started Conan, his work was clearly rather rough, a work-in-progress. But he quickly improved as the issues went along. Nonetheless, I think he was a good enough artist that he was trying to show a young Conan. Compare those early Conan issues to his illustrations of Conan in Red Nails, where he is clearly not so young any more.
John Buscema was good, but too clean. He was never going to match the intricate ornateness BWS had been developing as he went along. Buscema was better with an appropriate inker like Tony DeZuniga or Alfredo Alcala, who could add a little more intereset to Buscema’s pencils, especially in the B&W Savage Sword of Conan magazine, with its larger page size.
Actually, my favorite “memories” of the early Conan comic came from the paperback reprints Marvel did later in the 70s/early 80s. Instead of just shrinking the comic page down, as they did with most of the other paperback reprints, they (I don’t know who actually did it, probably not BWS) cut up the page and laid out the panels in various ways to retell the story. This gave it a nice non-standard, “graphic novel” type of approach to the books. It wasn’t until later that I saw reprints of those early comics as BWS actually drew them and laid them out.
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