Conan: Beginnings and Endings

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 1: The Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories: written by Roy Thomas, based on stories and fragments by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp; illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith and others (1970-1971; collected 2003): Marvel’s long-running affair with Robert E. Howard’s mighty barbarian begins here, with the first few early-1970’s issues of the Conan colour comic book (a B&W magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan, would soon follow).

Roy Thomas was always a bit of a wet blanket as an adapter of Howard’s stories. He buffed away all the sharp edges of Conan for the Comics Code Authority while indulging in that peculiar sin of 1970’s comic books, the endless description of things one can already see in the comics panel.

Nonetheless, the strength of Howard’s original stories still shines through, especially in the title adaptation of what I’d say is Howard’s finest Conan short story. “The Tower of the Elephant” offers us a thieving young Conan, a seemingly impregnable fortress, a wicked sorcerer, a giant spider, and a surprisingly sympathetic character who allows Conan to showcase his rough-hewn Cimmerian honour. Other stories introduce such Conan staples as giant snakes, wicked Set-worshipping wizard Thoth-Amon, and an endless string of slave girls, prostitutes, and thieves.

Main artist Barry Windsor-Smith, a Kirby knock-off artist before his stint on Conan, grows with astonishing swiftness from issue to issue. He maintains the dynamism he learned from Kirby while coming quickly into an early version of his fluid, evocative style. He’s the only comic-book artist I can think of whose two main artistic influences are Jack Kirby and the Pre-Raphaelites. It’s neato. Recommended.

The Chronicles of King Conan Volume 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories: written by Roy Thomas, based on characters created by Robert E. Howard and stories by L. Sprague de Camp, Bjorn Nyberg, and Lin Carter; illustrated by John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Danny Bulanadi (1980-81; collected 2010): Writer Roy Thomas’s decade-long affiliation with Conan at Marvel Comics would end fairly early into this early 1980’s spin-off series, which gives us a 50-something Conan ruling the Hyborean Age’s greatest kingdom, Aquilonia.

The five double-length adventures reprinted here present King Conan’s final, multi-issue battle with the wizard Thoth-Amon, owner of the most unwieldy hat in Marvel history. Conan’s son Conn is a chip off the old block, already a decent fighter at the age of 13. Penciller John Buscema’s Conan is stolid and solid and grim. Buscema is strong on humans and, as always, somewhat uninspired when depicting the fantastic — unlike seminal Marvel Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith, Buscema is too representative in his art to convincingly depict magic and monsters. It all makes for a good time-waster, but not much else. Lightly recommended.

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