Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Classics - Conan the Barbarian #1

As the 1960s came to an end and the '70s began, the comics industry was rocked as Jack Kirby left Marvel and moved over to DC Comics.

But as surprising as that was, there was another event that shook me even more and had me anxiously scouring the stores - it was the publication of the first issue of Conan the Barbarian!

I first learned about it in a house ad in Marvel Comics (this being long before I was aware of comics fandom), and I practically jumped for joy, because I had become a huge fan of Conan courtesy of the Lancer paperback reprints of Robert E. Howard's original stories (augmented by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter).

Here's how it happened: when I was in the 6th or 7th Grade, I was visiting my Aunt Rudy (who lived nearby). She was a wonderful, slightly eccentric and cantankerous older woman, but she had one flaw - she hated that I read comic books.

In those days, most kids gave up comic books by the time they hit my age, and Rudy did her best to get me to fall in line. Her grown son Harry was in the Navy and had left behind a room full of cool stuff, including a bookcase featuring a number of paperbacks - including military, historic, fantasy and science fiction.

Rudy was always urging me to take any of the books I wanted to read, in hopes that if I read more "real" books, I'd give up comics. I always hesitated, because I wasn't sure Harry would want me swiping his books - but finally I gave in and picked out a couple, including the book called Conan the Warrior.

(By the way, later I offered to return the books I'd borrowed to Harry, but he said to keep them - so my conscience was clear.)

To say that paperback had an impact on me would be an understatement. The book collected three Howard short stories - "Red Nails," "Jewels of Gwahlur" and "Beyond the Black River." They were loaded with action, horror, monsters, beautiful (and sometime naked) women, (implied) sex - all the things my teenage self was interested in!

I tracked down every other Conan paperback in existence (ordering several from the Captain Company, which some of you old-timers might remember) and read them immediately.

So as a huge fan, I was anxious to see the Conan comic book. And when it finally arrived... I was a bit disappointed.

That's because the art was by Barry Smith (later he became Barry Windsor-Smith), who had not impressed me much up to that point. He had drawn a terrible issue of the X-Men (reportedly penciled while sitting on a park bench) and a couple of issues of Daredevil that were only a little better.

I had to admit that his art was improving - there are several striking pages in this issue - but the problem was, of course, he was no Frank Frazetta, whose incredible, animalistic paintings appeared on the cover of those Lancer paperbacks.

But a funny thing happened. Smith's art started improving rapidly, and it grew on me more and more. By the time he wrapped up his run a couple of years later, he had become an amazing artist, putting insane amounts of detail in his work, and filling each page with incredible characters and images.

I don't think I've ever seen an artist improve so much in such a short period of time. His Conan became the definitive image of the character, and he's still one of my all-time favorite artists.

Oh, and I should extend kudos to Roy Thomas, who was responsible for bring Conan to Marvel, and did a fantastic job scripting the book for a decade (and maybe more).

But for me, none of it would have been possible if not for Rudy. She's at the big library in the sky now, but I hope she realizes how much I appreciate the difference she made in my life.

She couldn't make me give up comics, but she taught me a greater appreciation for reading. What a wonderful gift!

Grade: A-


Anonymous said...

I had the same learning curve; first I read the Conan paperbacks
(but often paused to stare at the
glorious Frazetta covers) and then
I heard about the upcoming MARVEL
Conan comic, and my two friends and
I biked from pharmacy to grocery
store in search of that desired
first issue...and finally found
just THREE copies of Conan #1!
One for each of us! Clean living
wins again...
And, yes, I grew to appreciate the
rapidly improving art of Barry
Smith, in time.

Sam Kujava

Chuck said...

One of those early Conan issues I missed - #6, I think - and it was years later before I managed to track down a copy. In those days before comics shops, it was quite a trick to manage a complete collection.

Al Bigley said...

My Mom, bless her, was never upset about my rampant comics love, but she spent only ONE summer(between my 3rd and 4th grade years) enrolling me in book clubs, etc. All those "real books" in the mail that year....

As soon as she saw my accelerated reading grades, she put any fears aside..

Al Bigley

Chuck said...

Al, I think that's why my parents didn't worry about it - I was always way ahead on my reading levels and comprehension and all that edumacational type stuff.

(Can you tell I've been reading the second volume of Segar's Popeye strips?)