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Saturday in an Age Undreamed Of

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday in an Age Undreamed Of

Last week, we took a look at how the Frazetta/Conan/sword-and-sorcery craze swept through 1970s-era spinner-rack paperbacks like a brushfire, and how that brushfire eventually spread to comics. That look back got to be too much for one column, so here’s part two.

*

DC’s failure to generate their own Conan-level success by adapting Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories in Sword of Sorcery didn’t discourage them. A couple of years later they tried again…. hard.

In 1975 DC tried to launch an entire line of fantasy/adventure comics.

Tor and Kong both fall a little out of the realm of this survey, being more straight caveman-adventure strips, and honestly I think DC just threw the Avenger in there because they didn’t know what category he belonged in. (If they’d asked me, I could have told them — even in 1975, I knew that Richard Benson belonged in the top tier with the rest of the superhero types. He had special powers, wore a costume, and fought crime. Duh.) But the others bear looking at.

The star, of course, was Mike Grell’s Warlord, and the reason for that strip’s success can be summed up in two words — MIKE and GRELL.

WARLORD was the same kind of personal effort for Mike Grell that SABLE and GREEN ARROW would be. As a result, it worked, and it worked in a non-Conan kind of way.

Warlord had something that almost none of the other 1970s barbarian knockoff strips had going for them — a creator that was personally invested in the character, and who was willing to stay on the book. Moreover, Mike Grell wisely chose to avoid the Conan model in favor of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter/Pellucidar one…. choosing a main character from our modern world and putting him in a strange and magical place, rather than going with a hero that was born and raised there. Travis Morgan was an Air Force pilot that went off course and ended up marooned in the lost world of Skartaris, and so we discovered it along with him. It was a great strip and it has stayed consistently good over the last three decades, but only as long as Mike Grell was involved with it. It’s simply too personal a creation to pass on to other hands.

However, it took DC a lot of tries before they got a success with Warlord, which actually was the last title of the “Adventure Line” to appear.

The first try was the short-lived Beowulf, Dragon Slayer. It ran six issues.

Beowulf began as a loose adaptation of the original epic poem, but very quickly went off in a direction that can be charitably described as demented. It was one of the strangest books DC ever put out that was not written by Bob Haney or Robert Kanigher.

Certainly it felt like writer Michael Uslan was channeling his inner Haney when he had Beowulf battle, in addition to his traditional nemesis Grendel the ogre — wait for it —

* Dracula
* one of the lost tribes of Israel
* a group of space aliens
* Ulysses
* soldiers of Atlantis
* …and Satan.

Yeah, that Satan.

Uslan gave Beowulf a supporting cast, as well — most prominent being his girl Nan-Zee, who had the usual Frazetta-Red Sonja-hot babe thing going on.

It’s easy to bag on Beowulf, and many bloggers have — but truthfully I kind of like it. It’s not good, exactly, but it’s got boundless energy, and that only-in-comics charm going for it. And it looked good — I’ve always thought the art on Beowulf was some of the best work ever done by Ricardo Villamonte, one of the few times in comics where his skills were used to their full advantage.

BEOWULF, DRAGON SLAYER, was a comic that was often completely insane. But it was a hell of a ride.

Even so, it’s probably just as well Beowulf ended when it did… after all, once your hero has jumped out of a Sumerian spaceship to land on a live volcano and kicked Satan in the ear, where do you go from there?

Beowulf was what fashion types call a Hot Mess... it was fun, but fun in a VERY WEIRD WAY.

Anyway, Beowulf Dragon Slayer‘s a good time if you see it in a dollar bin somewhere, but don’t spend real money.

DC did better with its next couple of tries, Stalker and Claw the Unconquered.

These were both actually pretty good… while they lasted. Which wasn’t very long.

Of the two, Claw was the more traditional… which may explain why he was slightly more successful. This was the DC title that came closest to Marvel’s Conan.

David Michelinie wrote it, and Ernie Chan drew it for the first few issues. It was okay, but it was a brief enough run that it could almost have been published as a long Conan story about how he tried to remove a demon curse that gave him a claw.

Later Keith Giffen came on board and together he and Michelinie tried to give Claw a more individual backstory and direction than just a Conan who needed a manicure.

David Michelinie also tied in Claw with his other sword-slinging DC series, Starfire. It wasn’t officially included in the DC “Fantasy Adventure Line,” I think because it premiered a little after the others. But I’d certainly consider Starfire a candidate for inclusion here, although there are those that would classify this warrior-woman book as more of a science fiction title.

Starfire existed in the same genre gray area as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars… sort of SF but not really. (John Carter himself has a pretty fair comics pedigree, but I already did that column a couple of years ago.) Anyway, in Starfire the science was only there as an excuse to get to the hot babe with a sword that fought monsters… calling it science fiction is, to me, like calling Baywatch a Coast Guard drama. She was pretty obviously DC’s shot at creating its own Red Sonja. But your mileage may vary.

Anyway, whatever you call it, it didn’t succeed. Starfire was canceled after issue #8. Claw hung in there a little longer — that series was canceled with issue #9, revived a year and a half later with #10, and then canceled again with #12 as part of the “DC Implosion” in 1978. There were a couple of inventory stories that appeared as backups in Warlord and as part of Canceled Comics Cavalcade.

DC writers have occasionally referenced Claw and his homeland of Pytharia since then in Swamp Thing, Sandman, and most notably the short-lived Primal Force which featured a modern-day version of Claw. But the actual character didn’t get revived until a Wildstorm mini-series that came out in 2006, in a crossover with Red Sonja (done as a cooperative venture with Dynamite, who’d picked up the rights to Sonja by then.) This was followed by a solo Wildstorm series, and though both are collected in trade, neither was hugely successful, and the Wildstorm Claw was canceled after six issues.

The trouble with Claw is that once he solves his hand problem, what's left?

I can’t really fault the decision. Again, the books were kind of interesting but not that great. The Claw solo title from Chuck Dixon and Andy Smith especially seemed to be struggling for a real direction. The trouble with Claw is that he’s too close to Conan to be seen as anything other than a knockoff, but when you concentrate on the curse of his Demon Claw in an effort to differentiate him, you run into the difficulty of setting up a problem that, if solved, effectively ends the series.

Stalker was a much more interesting book, but it didn’t last long either.

Stalker was a cool-LOOKING book, certainly, with that Steve Ditko/Wally Wood art.

This was written by a DC newcomer named Paul Levitz — hey, whatever happened to him? — with really breathtaking art from Steve Ditko and Wally Wood.

The premise of Stalker was similar to Claw, in that it was about an adventurer trying to get out from under a demon curse, but that was where the similarities ended.

Levitz kicked off the series with a loosely-structured four-parter that ended with Stalker confronting the demon lord Dgrth and they struck a compromise that would have laid the foundation for the rest of the series… but sadly, it never came to pass. The fourth issue was the last.

Stalker has popped up a couple of times in recent years. David Goyer and James Robinson used him as a mystic villain in their revival of the Justice Society in 1999. This story was set in the World War II years and had a group of Nazis accidentally release Stalker upon the earth in an effort to acquire mystic power for Hitler.

The deity-murdering Stalker the Soulless is, of course, a natural resource for the Nazis to seek out.

And in the Wonder Woman story Ends of the Earth Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti used him as a guest star, along with Beowulf Dragon Slayer and Claw the Unconquered.

Which, considering Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser made their DC debut in Wonder Woman back in 1973, kind of brings the DC sword-and-sorcery effort full circle.

Ends of the Earth is available in trade, as is Justice Society Returns by Goyer and Robinson. Stalker itself is, sadly, only out there in back issues but it’s not terribly expensive to pick up.

*

Marvel and DC weren’t the only comics publishers dipping their toes in the barbarian pool back in the 1970s.

The short-lived Atlas Comics line had a couple of sword-and-sorcery efforts among their number. Both of them were interesting books, at least to start with. (Of course, that was true of virtually all the Atlas titles. The history of every book Atlas Comics put out can be summed up as “strong start, but sputtered to a lame finish soon after.”)

Wulf the Barbarian was the brainchild of Larry Hama, who supplied both script and art.

Hama created Wulf as a warrior prince on a journey to reclaim his kingdom, which is a different enough concept from Conan that the book might have had a shot.

The initial effort was promising. However, Hama laft after issue #2 and the book itself was canceled with #4. That’s a pretty brief tenure even for Atlas.

Ironjaw fared slightly better than Wulf, but only slightly.

Ironjaw at least got Neal Adams covers for his launch.

Ironjaw was created and written by Michael Fleisher, who already had something of a reputation for weird and creepy comics from his time at DC scripting the Spectre and Jonah Hex.

Certainly Ironjaw was weird enough, and more than a touch creepy. (When your titular hero has a bear trap for a face, really, you kind of have to go with weird and creepy as your mission statement.)

Since Ironjaw came earlier, he got a better launch…. Neal Adams covers, and slightly wider distribution. Certainly, you could tell they had hopes for the book.

However, despite all the effort, Ironjaw crashed and burned after four issues, though he also got to headline in Atlas’ The Barbarians for an issue, which puts him one up on Wulf.

Coulda been a CONTENDA!

These have never been reprinted anywhere… in fact, I’m not sure who even has the rights to these stories. However, I will once again suggest that some sort of Best of Atlas trade paperback wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. During their two years or so of publishing, Atlas put out some really good-looking books. (Well, in the first year they did, anyway.)

In the meantime, you can content yourself with the excellent Atlas Archives web site, which is a wonderful resource for guys like me. I got a lot of these pics from them so the least I can do is provide a link. Here you go.

*

Even the undergrounds caught barbarian fever in the 1970s.

Not even the underground cartoonists could resist the urge to play in Frazetta's sandbox.

There had been an enthusiastic Howard/Conan fandom going for quite a while already, springboarding off the paperback boom. There were already several fanzines and Amateur Press Association ‘zines that had strong followings, aided in part by art contributions from professionals like Roy Krenkel and Steranko.

Back in the olden days, it was a lot easier to persuade a pro to contribute a little something you could put in your 'zine.

So it really wasn’t that big a leap for someone to try their own barbarian comic using the underground/zine/indie model instead of the Marvel/DC/newsstand one.

Which is exactly what Bud Plant did. After Barbarian Killer Funnies came out in 1974, he followed that up with The First Kingdom, from Jack Katz.

One of the first true graphic novels, FIRST KINGDOM was very much its own thing.

The First Kingdom was a story of a post-apocalyptic world reduced to savagery. The hero is Darkenmoor, a hunter who loses his tribe and is doomed to tragedy, as foretold early on by an old seer. His path is quickly crossed by a group of “gods,” who live in a civilization atop high mountains. Darkenmoor gathers other people, fights monsters, and founds a kingdom of his own — the better to do battle with the first kingdom.

But I’m not really doing it justice. This was a complex, layered story that was every bit as much about society, humanity, and politics as it was the swords and monster fighting. And the fact that the writing was so ambitious is nothing compared to the amazing strides Katz made with his art.

The progression from the early issues to the later ones is extraordinary, in both writing and art.

The First Kingdom was one complete story, told over the course of 24 issues. Today those issues are difficult to find and expensive when you do, but there are a couple of trade collections of the early issues out there as well — sadly, those are out of print too, but marginally easier to find than the original comics. One hopes one of these days some smart publisher will get the whole thing back in print.

The other big underground success in the genre would have to be Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest.

This series is just a remarkable achievement.

There is just way too much ElfQuest material out there to even begin to try to sum it up in the space of a paragraph or two. Wendy and Richard Pini broke so much ground, both in the fantasy genre and in the arena of creator’s rights, and other people have already written so much about those things, that I really don’t know what’s left to say. Other than that you have to admire someone who’s been able to maintain the kind of clear and consistent vision for a work the way Wendy Pini has done with her creation even as it bounced from being an underground property, to a pioneering piece of self-publishing through WaRP Graphics, to being one of the brighter stars at Marvel/Epic, back again to self-publishing at WaRP, and most recently at DC — all without a single compromise. ElfQuest has stayed ElfQuest all the way through, without being co-opted or crossed over or messed with. Even if you’re not a fan, that’s something to be applauded.

These DC Archive collections are my pick for the best way to read ElfQuest, but it's not like you don't have options.

The good news is that it’s easy to find. I favor the new archive editions from DC but there’s any number of collections new and old available to you.

*

The trouble with doing an article like this is that it very quickly becomes obvious that it really could be a book. After all, where do you stop?

Even confining the scope of these two columns to the Frazetta/Conan-inspired stuff from the late 1960s through the 1970s, something I have been desperately trying to do, I still find myself running across more and more comics that should be included. What about the black-and-white magazine comics that occasionally did this kind of thing? (There was a lot of Frazetta work at Warren, after all.) Should Cerebus count? Or Groo?

Inclusion by mentioning their non-inclusion. This is what we columnists like to refer to as CHEATING.

Those are humor books and that’s how most people think of them…. but Groo and Cerebus both fall into the time period in question and certainly both can be said to be spinoffs of the 70s barbarian craze. Neither would have existed without the Conan comics to react to. And so on.

Truthfully, you reach a point where you don’t finish so much as stop.

And we’re there. I’m stopping. I am certain I left out a lot, but I hope these two columns have given you a little snapshot of how it was, back when I was a sprout and the paperback spinner racks were all about guys in loincloths fighting big ugly lizards. I have tremendous affection for that stuff and very fond memories of those days, which is why I love movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer and Fire and Ice out of all proportion to their actual virtues. I can even enjoy the Kevin Sorbo Kull, a film that sends most fans into paroxysms of the kind of rage usually reserved for Jar Jar Bniks.

I love these. I can't help myself. Pity me.

I don’t mean to imply this kind of comic isn’t still around. Dynamite Entertainment has been doing some nice stuff with their revival of Red Sonja, and I’m delighted with what Dark Horse is doing with the Howard properties like Conan and Kull and Solomon Kane. I never miss any of those…but I have to admit that what I really love is Dark Horse’s conscientious reprint program of the old Marvel stuff.

Never in a million years did I think I'd get comics packaged like this back when I was a kid.

And DC’s reprinting of Warlord and Elfquest. And so on.

Because when I was thirteen and arguing with my art teacher about whether or not it was valid to do sword-and-sorcery paintings in art class, the idea that this material would ever be published in book form and treated with actual respect — well, that was really an Age Undreamed Of.

See you next week.

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