The Chronicles of Conan
Tower of the Elephant
And other Stories
As with most Robert E. Howard fans of a certain age, I came to his most famous creation—Conan of Cimmeria– through the astonishingly successful Lancer paperbacks of the late sixties and early seventies. It doesn’t matter that most of we hardcore fans now would never look at those volumes, textually unsound as they are. And in many cases the reason that they were unsound was down to editor L. Sprague de Camp guarding his copyright; that is another story. As to his appalling biographical takes on Howard, the less said the better. (Don’t even get me started on his biography of H.P. Lovecraft.)
Still, without him most of us would never have heard of the great Texan writer and for that we have to forgive de Camp a lot. Which is all a rather round-about way of saying that I was recently thinking of the origins of my life-long love affair with Howard and, as one memory led to another, I thought of the Marvel comic book adaptations of the early seventies, titled…Conan the Barbarian.
As it happens, I have the first fourteen volumes on my shelves (I stopped collecting when it came to the end of writer Roy Thomas’s run) from back in those long-gone days when money wasn’t a problem. So—as I hadn’t read them in a long time—I got the notion to see how well they stood up all of forty-odd years later.
And the answer is…rather bloody well, actually.
The first thing to be said for these collections from Dark Horse is that they are ravishingly beautiful. The artwork by Barry Smith (or Windsor-Smith as he later wished to be known) is, once he has settled down, very good indeed. The colours, reworked, are far more vivid than they were when these early issues first appeared; and of course it is fascinating to follow the evolution of this artist.
“An Age Undreamed of…”
It didn’t start out in a particularly promising manner: Marvel were better known then, as now, for their costumed heroes, not sword-and-sorcery, and that first issue certainly betrays the publishing home that it comes from, right down to the corny title: The Coming of Conan. (I refuse to put in the comic-booky exclamation marks after most of these titles.)
Still, writer Roy Thomas showed a respect for Howard’s original material right from the beginning and he does a very adequate job of introducing us to the Hyborian Age, a time when Atlantis had sunk beneath the waves and before recorded history began.
It is a little difficult here to see where he is going with Conan’s age. The caption ‘behold a baby born not twenty winters ago’ would seem to indicate that he is older than he is in Howard’s texts, which place him at the raid on Venarium much earlier. However, since Howard is the avowed primary source and as Thomas was understandably still finding his feet, I think that it is safe to put him at around sixteen/ seventeen. And Volume 1 alone will cover close enough to a year in the life of the young barbarian.
Issue #2, Lair of the Beast-Men, is already a marked improvement, even if it still smacks too much of the typical comic book storyline. At this point, though, we see an early example of something that Roy Thomas would become very adept at. Here he takes a couple of lines from Howard’s brilliant pseudo-historical essay The Hyborian Age and creates an enjoyable episode in the Cimmerian’s early life from it. Smith’s artwork has also loosened up considerably.
For me it was with the next offering that the team really began to gel. I still recall as a youngster thinking of how amazingly cinematic The Twilight of the Grim Grey God was. I don’t think that I had ever seen a comic book up until then that ran one line, ‘for this is the day the ravens drink blood’ across the top of six tiny-but-detailed images, just like the fast-cutting in a movie. Here too was the first of Smith’s distinctive silent panels, which always made me think of slow-motion shots. It was also the beginning of Thomas’s loose adaptations of Howard’s non-Conan work. In this case it is his tale of the Battle of Clontarf, The Grey God Passes; and he and Smith give it a somber, melancholy feel.
Much of The Tower of the Elephant is quite exquisite and is a terrific adaptation of one of Howard’s best-written tales.
Unfortunately, Zukala’s Daughter in issue #5 is an enormous step backwards in terms of storytelling and artwork. As it turns out, we discover from Thomas’s end notes that it was actually done earlier. Certainly, with its Dr. Strange-like villain, awful dialogue and hokey demon it is the worst piece in the compilation.
“When Shining Kingdoms lay Spread Across the World…”
Conan next hits the most Wicked City in Zamora for Devil-wings Over Shadizar; and in terms of good solid storytelling, gorgeous art depicting beautiful women and great fight scenes this is a true high point. Thomas is even relaxed enough at this stage to allow himself a few subtle joke-references with nudges towards Fritz Leiber’s heroic fantasy characters, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and even– believe it or not– Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon!
This is also the issue where Conan loses the war-helm that he has habitually worn and which irritated so many readers of the day.
The Lurker Within is another standout issue. It is ‘freely adapted’ from Howard’s posthumously published Conan tale, The God in the Bowl (and what the heck was wrong with using that title?) and Thomas does a superb job of playing with, opening out and mixing up that short story. As to Windsor-Smith, he is really flying it by this point. This is a great comic-book. My only real gripe is in terms of where it is placed in the saga.
Thus far Conan has moved from far-northern Vanaheim through Aesgaard as a youthful mercenary; then continued east to Hyperborea where he is imprisoned for an unnamed period in slave pens before escaping southwards through Brythunia. He spends issues #6 -#8 honing his skills as a thief and then…he takes the long, long trail westwards on the Road of Kings before finally hitching up for all of one night in Nemedia’s capital of Numalia. Apart from meaning that this would have necessitated crossing Corinthia, it appears to me a ridiculous diversion to what had hitherto been a logical drift.
It’s not really Thomas’s fault, though. In 1970-71 he was adhering pretty much to L. Sprague de Camp’s chronology which these days no true fan would take as anything other than a rough guide. Without a doubt, this should have taken place before The Tower of the Elephant—but that’s kind of being-wise-after-the-event and given how damned good the story is, just a small mis-step.
If possible, this volume concludes with an even better tale, The Keepers of the Crypt and has Conan fleeing across the border back into Corinthia. It is terrific; and Thomas shows his complete ingenuity and growing mastery of his subject by basing the whole thing on an untitled Howard fragment and doing it better than de Camp and his co-writer Lin Carter ever did when completing a synopsis by REH.
The great thing about having these first eight issues of Conan the Barbarian collected in such a beautifully attractive package is that we can see how quickly Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith came to be in complete control of their material. Especially Smith. The difference between the rather timid artist of that first outing and the very confident one of issues #6 through #8 is astonishing.
There is an afterword by Thomas which is genuinely informative; not only in how the comic came into being but almost in an unconscious manner giving an insight into his working experience with editor Stan Lee and with the Marvel corporation as a whole.
There are two things missing that would have made this a perfect introduction to Conan of the Comics: a gallery of Smith’s covers and a good detailed map of the Hyborian Age.
That aside, I would recommend this very highly for both the comics fan and the Howard enthusiast.
*Published by Dark Horse Comics.