Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sword & Sorcery Heroes in the Bronze Age [Part 1]

This is an article originally written for my friend Jim's Flashback Universe Blog.  It's part of a series called Bronze Age Spotlight.  This particular piece examines the S&S characters adapted to comics in the so-called Bronze Age.  I thought it was relevant here and worth repeating...

"Know, O Prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet."
- The Nemedian Chronicles (Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix in the Sword”)

In 1970, Conan came to Marvel comics, and by some reckoning, brought the whole of the Bronze Age with him. In the years that followed, other swordsman and thieves and various treaders of bejeweled thrones, would follow on Conan’s sandaled heels. They would be visitors from another time—another world—in more ways than one. The four-color world of superheroes would collide with the realm of Sword & Sorcery, a literary sub-genre born in what Lin Carter called “the sleazy, gaudy, glorious golden age of the pulps.”

So come with us now, back to the Bronze Age, where--in the Roy Thomas penned words of Conan the Barbarian #1—“A man's life is worth no more than the strength of his sword-arm!”

Marvel's Swords & Sorcery: “THE MOST SAVAGE HEROES OF ALL!”

Robert E. Howard’s Conan was the first literary sword and sorcery character to make it into comics, but he wasn’t the first sword and sorcery character. Conan made his debut in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales in a story titled “The Phoenix on the Sword.” This story takes place late in Conan’s life, when he’s king of Aquilonia. It seems a strange place to begin chronicling the barbarian wanderer’s adventures, given the distinct lack of wandering and the decreased levels of barbarism, but this beginning seems to have come by accident. Conan debuted in a story Howard rewrote from a story he had been unable to sell featuring an entirely different character. The original story was “By This Axe I Rule!” and the original hero was Kull. It was Kull, debuting in Weird Tales August 1929 with “The Shadow Kingdom,” who is often considered the first sword and sorcery hero.

Only two Kull stories were published during Howard’s lifetime, though others have made it into print in collections since. Like Conan, Kull’s a barbarian that winds up winning a kingdom. Unlike Conan, the majority of Kull’s adventures deal with his life after becoming king, and mainly center around how heavy the head is that wears the crown. Kull’s a more philosophical and introspective character than Conan—which may explain why he’s never been as popular.

He’s a (relative) latecomer to comics, too. He first appeared in 1971 in Marvel’s Kull the Conqueror, then a succession of two more short lived series of that same title from 1971 to 1985. He also starred in a short-lived, black and white magazine Kull and the Barbarians (which sounds like a gothabilly band, doesn’t it?) in 1975, and made some crossover appearances with Conan in Savage Sword of Conan. After years of quiet repose, King Kull loosed his blade again, this time for Dark Horse, beginning in 2008.

You just can’t keep a good barbarian down.

Not only wasn’t Conan the first sword and sorcery character, he almost wasn’t the first to make the leap to comics. Roy Thomas, tasked by Martin Goodman with bringing sword and sorcery to Marvel, had assumed Conan would be too expensive. As he relates in his essay in The Chronicles of Conan Volume One (Dark Horse), he had initially pursued the first sword and sorcery character he had gotten into—Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria.

The Thongor novels were a canny attempt by serial pasticher Lin Carter to combine two of his passions in one. To wit: Thongor--Northern Barbarian (remember Cimmerians? Like them) who adventured in a pseudo-prehistoric milieu (the Hyborian—uh, Lemurian Age) but one which included city-states, airships, and invented flora and fauna (like Barsoom, or Amtor, or—well, you get the idea). In other words, they were Conan if written by Burroughs, or Howard doing planetary romance (which he actually did once, but that’s another story). Thongor swung his first sword in The Wizard of Lemuria (1965).

Roy Thomas and Stan Lee figured the younger, less established Carter would cut a deal for less. And apparently, Stan thought “Thongor” sounded more “comic book”—and he has a point.

Such was not to be. Due to the vagaries of negotiation, Conan came through, and Thongor would sit on the sidelines until March 1973 with Creatures on the Loose #23, where he would begin flexing mighty thews and generally behaving in a Conan-esque manner. Ravenhaired Thongor became a red-head after a couple of appearances, perhaps to distance him visually from his barbaric forebearer. Only, presumably, his hair-dresser knows for sure. Thongor battled monsters and foul sorcery until Creatures on the Loose #29 (1974), when he lost the book to Man-Wolf. Several of his appearances were written by George Alec Effinger, whose 1986 cyberpunk novel, When Gravity Fails,  was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Gardner Fox, with a long history of comics work and sword and sorcery (with his barbarian, Kothar) would work on the run as well.

Thongor is obscure today, but he had shining moment of popularity (apparently) in the seventies. Lin Carter relates in Imaginary Worlds, that a Thongor musical was in the offing, though I’m unsure if it was ever actually performed. A Lin Carter website tells of a Thongor movie in production that was reported in Starlog #15, apparently from the same cinematic titans that brought us the Doug McClure (and Caroline Munro!) vehicle The Land that Time Forgot.

L. Sprague De Camp, pasticher-in-chief, and his aide—uh—de camp, Lin Carter, had been adapting Howard’s non-Conan yarns into Conan stories to feed the maw of the Lancer Conan paperback series. Thomas had copied that approach in the comics, but expanded it to the adaptation of even non-Howard stories into Conan stories. In March 1972, he’d port over another character into Conan’s world—aided and abetted by that character’s creator. The two-part story beginning in Conan #14 (“A Sword Called Stormbringer!”) adapted the original thin, white duke, Elric of Melnibone, in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Conan and Elric team up against Xiombarg, the Queen of Chaos, burrowed from the Chronicles of Corum, another of Moorcock’s fantasy series.

Elric, albino prince and sort of anti-Conan armed with the don’t-call-it-a-phallic-symbol sword Stormbringer, is the creation of Michael Moorcock, and first appeared in literary form in the 1961 novella, “The Dreaming City.” His story continues to this day, the most recent novel having been published in 2005.

This Marvel Team-Up-esque two-parter wasn’t Elric’s only foray into comics. French artist Philippe Druillet of Metal Hurlant fame, produced an unauthorized Elric graphic novel in the late sixties. Later, the “Dreaming City” was adapted as a Marvel (Epic) graphic novel by P. Craig Russell and Roy Thomas. Since the end of the Bronze Age, Elric has periodically raised his runesword in comics from First, Dark Horse, and DC.

One of the writers who provide more Conan comics material was John Jakes. Before he became forever linked with Patrick Swayze (at least in my mind) by the TV movie adaptation of his 80’s best-seller historical saga, Jakes wrote some Conan-inspired tales of sword-swinging adventure. His barbarian hero was blonde with a braided ponytail, named Brak. Brak first appeared in “Devils in the Walls” in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic. He went on to star in a series of novels beginning in 1968 with Brak the Barbarian. In 1982, Jakes’ second successful historical fiction series, North and South began, and Brak has been seen no more.

Jakes first foray into comics was without his creation. He wrote the plot that became Conan the Barbarian #13, “Web of the Spider-God” (January 1972). Exactly a year later, Brak debuted in the second issue of the horror anthology Chamber of Chills. This story was reprinted in the black and white Savage Tales (vol. 1) #4 (July, 1974), whose cover promised “THE MOST SAVAGE HEROES OF ALL.” Brak went on to do battle with the minions of evil, god-thing Yob-Haggoth, in his quest to reach Khurdisan the Golden and the high life, for just two more stories in Savage Tales (issues 7 and 8) before disappearing into the mists of Bronze Age legendry. Brak never even got a cover appearance, most of those having been hogged by Ka-Zar.

Next time, we'll take a look at Sword & Sorcery as adapted by DC.


Marty Halpern said...

A well-thought-out post. One correction to your comment about author George Alec Effinger: his novel WHEN GRAVITY FAILS was nominated for both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, but he didn't win either. He lost the Nebula to Pat Murphy's THE FALLING WOMAN, and he lost the Hugo Award to David Brin's THE UPLIFT WAR.

Marty Halpern
blog: More Red Ink

Trey said...

Thanks, Marty. I stand corrected--and I'll make that change in the post.

Regardless, When Gravity Fails is a great book.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Great post. The Thongor movie would have been called Thongor in the Valley of Demons had it been made. I have a copy of the portfolio of about two dozen drawings that was shown around to drum up interest in the film. Weird stuff.