This is something that I’ve never been able to figure out.
There have been a whole bunch of tough guys with swords in comics before Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and Mike Grell’s Warlord, and a whole bunch more after. But those are the only two that ever got any traction.
Yeah, Conan and Warlord were both good. But they weren’t the only good ones.
Just for fun I thought it would be kind of cool to look at some of the other guys. There have been a lot of sword-and-sorcery type comics out there and quite a few are worth checking out.
What was the first? It depends who you ask. Purists will tell you that it was Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant comic strip, first appearing in 1937.
Others give it to DC’s Nightmaster, who appeared first in Showcase #82, back in 1969, and has been kicking around the edges of the DC Universe ever since… most recently, I think he was drafted into the Shadowpact.
Personally, I split the difference. My pick is for Jon, the Viking Prince, who premiered in Brave and the Bold #1 back in 1955.
The Viking Prince edged out Robin Hood, the Golden Gladiator, and the Silent Knight to be the first real success from that book.
The Viking Prince eventually took over Brave and Bold entirely, lasting until issue #24 before succumbing to the superhero revival that was sweeping over the comic book industry. He still gets revived every so often — there was a stunning hardcover that came out a few years back from Lee Marrs and Bo Hampton, and the original stories are getting collected in a book due from DC on July 14th.
But — as much as I like the Viking Prince — if I’m honest about it I have to admit that he only gets in on a technicality, he counts mostly because he occasionally dealt with wizards and magical foes. “Sword and sorcery,” the genre as comics fans understand it today, really started in comics with Robert E. Howard’s Conan the barbarian.
Except, if you were there in the late 60s and early 70s, it felt more like it was Frank Frazetta’s Conan the barbarian. And it didn’t actually start in the comics themselves. Rather, it started on the paperback spinner racks that were often adjacent to the comics in drugstores and grocery stores.
Conan did okay in the pulps, but it was the paperback reprint series from Lancer Books that really launched the character’s success. And it was Frank Frazetta’s covers that sold those books.
I’ve talked before about the incredible paperback cover illustrations of the 1960s and 1970s, and I can’t emphasize enough how vital those covers were in selling a genre book back then. Exhibit A would probably have to be James Bama and Doc Savage, but you can make just as strong a case for Frank Frazetta and Conan. Suddenly every publisher wanted a brawny barbarian paperback series with covers done in that style. Frazetta himself did lots of them and if it wasn’t him it was usually Boris Vallejo. Sometimes Jeff Jones, or occasionally Bob Larkin… but all of them under orders to get their Frazetta barbarian groove on.
Of course, the Robert E. Howard rights that were still in play were immediately snatched up by other publishers and those stories were given the Conan/Frazetta treatment as well, even if they had nothing to do with barbarians, wizards, or an age undreamed of.
There was another factor at work, as well. It wasn’t just about Conan during the fantasy paperback scene back then. It was also about J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was more frustrating for publishers, simply because there wasn’t as much material — it was harder to capitalize on the boom. He really only had the four novels, a couple more posthumous collections that were padded out to book size, and there weren’t a legion of guys out there doing knockoffs. But that didn’t stop publishers from trying to cash in.
As a brand, “In the tradition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings!” got almost as much of a workout as “In the tradition of Conan!”
There had been a few tries at doing Tolkien-esque comics. Mostly from Wally Wood in his self-published witzend.
Wood also tried it at Marvel, in a one-off story that appeared in Tower of Shadows.
There were a couple of other half-hearted tries at doing Tolkien-esque fantasy, but none of them ever really caught on with comics fans.
Marvel’s Weirdworld never quite found an audience, though it was a feature in Epic Illustrated for a while. And Ralph Bakshi lifted a lot of Wally Wood’s stuff for his animated Wizards (some say, to the point of outright theft, but we’ll leave the argument over when homage becomes plagiarism for some other columnist to thrash out.)
But by and large, it was the Frazetta-style barbarians that were the real moneymakers.
It was in this atmosphere that Marvel editor Roy Thomas started thinking about trying to adapt the sword-and-sorcery genre to comics. Just as the Executioner paperbacks begat the Punisher and the Doc Savage paperbacks begat the pulp/retro revival, it was Frazetta, Tolkien, and the paperback fantasy boom that got sword-and-sorcery comics their tryout. There was always a sort of cross-pollination going on between the world of comic books and the world of paperback originals throughout the 60s and 70s. Remember, in pop culture, the axiom is always, “Hey, that worked. Do it again.”
Since Marvel had embarked on its “Phase II,” with Stan giving up a lot of the day-to-day editorial chores in favor of taking over as publisher, touring college campuses, and just generally being Stan Lee, the push was on to experiment at Marvel. Horror titles, off-beat SF, anything seemed possible — or at least worth trying. Roy Thomas reasoned that Conan the barbarian and sword-and-sorcery would be a natural fit for comics. And he was right. “The rest is history,” as they say.
Except that’s not QUITE the way it happened. First, in early 1970, came Starr The Slayer.
This was a little trial balloon 7-pager that appeared in early 1970, in Chamber of Darkness #4. Starr’s first and only appearance.
If you’re thinking you can’t really tell the difference between this and the Thomas/Smith Conan, well, you’d have a point. The truth is that this was sort of the Conan pilot… not so much for the readers as for the folks in the Marvel offices, especially Stan, who didn’t really get it. The story was later reprinted in #16 of Conan’s regular book, a couple of years later.
Conan the Barbarian, when it did launch, was an immediate hit– and remember our mantra. “Hey, that worked… do it again.” Which meant that, starting in 1971 Roy Thomas and Marvel gave us, in quick succession, King Kull, Brak the Barbarian, Thongor of lost Lemuria, and Red Sonja.
None of them really stuck. The ones that did the best, naturally, were the ones that had the Robert E. Howard/Conan connection, King Kull and Red Sonja, who each managed to sustain their own title for a couple of years. (They also had the best artists, in my opinion, with the Severins on Kull and Frank Thorne on Sonja.)
Thongor got off to a fairly good start with SF novelist George Alec Effinger on scripts and Val Mayerik on the art, but Effinger didn’t stay and Mayerik’s art suffered from substandard inks. The feature was dropped after only seven issues headlining Creatures on the Loose! And Brak never got to headline at all — he only appeared in an 8-page story in Chamber of Chills, and a couple of issues as a back-up feature in the Ka-Zar version of Savage Tales. About thirty or thirty-five pages of comics, all told.
Meanwhile, the lesson of Conan’s success was not lost on other comics publishers. Gold Key took a swing at it with their own Dagar the Invincible.
Dagar’s book was actually titled Tales of Sword and Sorcery, which trips up collectors every so often, when they try to look it up on a dealer website and can’t find “Dagar” listed…or, alternatively, they get it right only to find out later the book’s been listed as “Dagar.” (Gold Key was trying to create a brand with the “Tales Of” prefix, tying it in to their horror and suspense titles, hence the awkward logo issue.)
But Dagar was very much its own thing. It was, in fact, part of a short-lived attempt to create a Marvel-style continuity at Gold Key. Dagar even crossed over with Dr. Spektor at one point.
Written by Don Glut and drawn by Jesse Santos, Dagar lasted a respectable eighteen issues from 1972 to 1976, though several of the latter issues just reprinted the early ones.
Some fun Dagar trivia: Glut had originally named the character “Dagger” but his editors hated that; so Glut changed it to “Durak” for his original story, a one-off for Mystery Comics Digest. Then Gold Key wanted a sequel, and then a series, but his editors wanted a name change again. (“Durak” was too close to “Turok,” they said.) Glut obliged them, but they hated all the alternatives– they went round and round with dozens of different names before settling on Dagar, almost the same as where they started with Dagger. So just for fun, Glut eventually did a story where he had the original guy, Durak, meet both Dagar AND Dr. Spektor.
Whatever the name, the book itself was good clean fun and probably would be great for younger readers who aren’t quite ready for Conan or Red Sonja, but want their fantasy with a little oomph to it.
DC Comics certainly wasn’t going to be left out. Their first foray into this new genre was adapting Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in what had to be the single weirdest launch ever of a sword and sorcery title.
They did it with one of the oddest crossovers this side of Archie and the Punisher… Fafhrd and the Mouser met Wonder Woman and Catwoman. And that’s the de-powered, groovy-era Wonder Woman. (Interestingly, that’s the only DC Leiber adaptation stuff that’s been reprinted, in the fourth Diana Prince trade collection.)
At any rate, this was judged enough of a success to give Fafhrd and the Mouser their own book, Sword of Sorcery.
This is one of those things that should have worked and just… didn’t. Good scripts adapting Leiber’s stories from Denny O’Neil, good art from talented newcomers like Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson… but it didn’t sell.
Fritz Leiber’s two swordsmen from Lankhmar got another shot in comics, from Marvel this time, in 1990.
This time Howard Chaykin was scripting the adaptation, not handling the art chores. Instead, the art was by Mike Mignola and Al Williamson, and it was quite something to look at. This four-issue mini was re-issued in a trade paperback collection from Dark Horse not too long ago, and it’s certainly worth checking out if you have any interest in those characters.
DC wasn’t done with the genre after Sword of Sorcery tanked, though. Bronze Age barbarian fever was just beginning.
…but this is getting a little long, so we’ll pick this sword-slinging survey up next week with DC’s Adventure Line, Atlas/Seaboard, and even some of the undergrounds. See you then!