Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Barry Windsor-Smith, and the story is “Red Nails” (part one) from Savage Tales #2, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated October 1973. These scans are from Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian #1, which was published in 1983 and features a colored version. Enjoy!
It’s harder than it should be to get a hold of Windsor-Smith’s run on Conan. I know that Dark Horse has reprinted them over the past few years now that they have the license, but those reprints have ugly coloring, and occasionally the art doesn’t even look like the original. When Dark Horse reprinted this story, they had Richard Isanove color it, and while Isanove is a good modern colorist, I shudder to think what he did to this story. (Actually, I guess I don’t have to think – through the magic of the Internet, I found this. Yeah, that’s not good. I feel bad for Windsor-Smith, and I feel bad for Isanove, because Dark Horse shouldn’t have tasked him to color that.) I suppose I could have looked harder to find an early issue of Conan (this story was published after he had been working on the book for about three years), but I found this at my comic book store and picked it up and later decided to use it. The colors aren’t awful, but they are added later (by an unnamed colorist), so we’ll just ignore them and look at the line work, okay?
Windsor-Smith had developed his own style by this time, although it’s still not the “Mature Windsor-Smith” that he turned into. This is kind of a transitional phase, as his faces are very odd in this story, something halfway between the Kirby homage we saw yesterday and the faces that would eventually become his trademark. Conan has nice high cheekbones and the wide chin of a Kirby character, but Windsor-Smith doesn’t give him a wide nose – in fact, as we see in profile, he doesn’t have much of a nose at all. Windsor-Smith gives him a thick neck, which isn’t surprising, and while his torso is also wide in that Kirby way, Windsor-Smith adds more muscles than we usually see from Kirby, and either he or Pablo Marcos (both are credited as inkers) make the lines thicker and rougher, which fits well with the milieu of Conan. Valeria, we see, also has a small, pushed-in nose, and both she and Conan has unusually-shaped heads – their foreheads slope backward into a rounded skull, which looks a bit strange. Roy Thomas certainly isn’t going to win Feminist of the Year with that script, is he?
Conan and Valeria are attacked by a stegosaur, which Conan poisons and then, because that’s not manly enough, kills with his sword. Windsor-Smith has become much better at action (even though he started off pretty well), as his figures are nice and fluid and move the way we expect people to move. Conan’s sword stroke in Panel 1 is violent and Windsor-Smith shows the effort he puts into it, while Valeria tumbles away because Conan threw her out of the picture. The dinosaur’s swipe at Conan in Panel 2 gives Windsor-Smith a chance to show Conan himself tumbling out of the way, and he does well with it. Of course, because this is a Marvel book (yes, it’s a magazine, but still) from the early 1970s, Thomas’s narration – the stegosaur “dashes out its brains” on the tree – doesn’t jive with Windsor-Smith’s drawing, because you couldn’t show an animal’s brains being dashed out, but it’s still a nice drawing. Windsor-Smith does a nice job with the reptile – in Panel 1, he closes its eyes and turns its head, and it actually does look like it’s in some kind of pain. Once again, we get the heavy line work, which adds a lot of nice texture to the figures and the landscape. I assume Windsor-Smith and Marcos inked it a bit more heavily because of the lack of color, but I could be wrong. I often am!
Windsor-Smith has always been very detailed, as he’s one of those artists who have never become more abstract, which many artists seem to gravitate toward as they get older. Here he was still young, so that doesn’t come into play too much, and he still did a lot of work to make an impact. When Conan and Valeria enter the great hall, Windsor-Smith draws every door, window, alcove, balcony, and bannister of the jade buildings, which makes it both more impressive and more intimate, as it’s obvious people once lived there. As they move throughout the buildings, he adds more details, so Panel 5 shows a luxurious banquet hall, with beautifully worked columns in the background and ornate dinnerware in the foreground. I imagine that one reason Windsor-Smith got slower as he got older was because he loved doing these details, and they do add quite a lot of wonderful life to his drawings.
Valeria dozes and Conan wanders off, and when she wakes, she sees a skeleton about to attack a man, so she leaps to his rescue. This is a terrific page, as Windsor-Smith slowly reveals that it’s a man wearing a skeleton costume (for Halloween, presumably) – in Panels 1 and 2 (and on the previous page), he draws it as an actual skeleton, but when Valeria attacks him in Panel 3, Windsor-Smith puts a border around him that looks like light but is really his outfit, which he gradually fills in on the next two panels. It’s a clever device. He lays the page out really well, too. Valeria leaps off the balcony, and we see her from above, so we can see the skeleton and his victim below and see that things are not good for Techotl (Howard seemed to get his inspiration for these folk from the Aztecs). As she rushes toward him, we get a long view so we can orient ourselves before Valeria tears into the villain, and with the back stroke, she takes his head off. Windsor-Smith again returns to a higher angle to show all three characters, with the dead man between Valeria and Techotl, and then he gives us closer-in views. It’s a short fight, obviously, but Windsor-Smith does a very nice job with it. His Valeria is wonderful in motion, as there’s no stiffness as she leaps over the railing, charges the skeleton, and chops him up. We’ll see in the next scan that the skull is supposed to have magical properties, and while the coloring wasn’t there in the original, Windsor-Smith uses white around it to light it with a hellish glow, while he or Marcos do fine work with the thick, black lines emanating from the skull in Panel 4. Notice Valeria in Panel 7, as we get a straight-on view of her. In later years, Windsor-Smith would shrink his characters’ eyes, but he would keep the rounded jaw for his figures – it’s a softening of the Kirby face, but it’s stemming from that, which is kind of neat. The biggest difference we’ll see in later years is that he uses more lines, but we’ll get to that soon enough!
Windsor-Smith’s overlaying of the skull on Valeria’s face is tremendous, as it drives home the evil nature of the skull and shows how easily mesmerized someone can be by it, even after they’ve been warned. It also ratchets up the horror, as Valeria’s eyes are obliterated in Panel 2, which leads to the multiplication of the eyes in Panel 3 (the change in eye color would have been cool in the original, but of course, it wasn’t there). It’s a haunting sequence, and Windsor-Smith nails it. When Valeria comes out of the trance in Panel 4, he draws circles around her to show that she’s still hazy, and then he draws wavy vertical lines around her in Panel 5 to imply more haze, fuzzing her brain as she realizes she has to destroy it. Once again, we get the explosion of thick, black lines emanating from the violence in Panel 6, drawing our eye to it and showing the power of Valeria’s stroke and the power within the skull. This is a terrific page, and I imagine it’s even more powerful in black and white.
I found a scans of a few of these pages in black and white, just for comparison. Here’s one and here’s another. The colors didn’t obscure too much, which is why I feel okay about using the reprint. Sometimes colors really obscure the lines, but the flatter colors used in 1983 don’t, so this isn’t the worst example to use.
As I noted above, this is the only Windsor-Smith Conan work I own, which is a pretty big hole in my collection. This story was drawn after most of his Conan work, or at least published after it, so for the purposes of this series, it’s not too big of a gap, but I know I should probably get them. Windsor-Smith left comics soon after this, and when we meet up with him next, his style had evolved into what we think of as “Windsor-Smith.” I don’t know if there are any comics that show too much of a transition, or if his years working in fine art is what refined his style into what we recognize today. So come back tomorrow, when we arrive in the 1980s and one of Windsor-Smith’s first comics after he came back. It should be fun! Find more fun comics in the archives!
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