Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Classic Comics - Conan the Barbarian #4

   I've written before about how excited I was in the '70s when I heard that Marvel was creating a comic book based on the adventures of Conan the Barbarian.

   But I have to admit I wasn't sure the series was going to work. The first three issues were "new" Conan stories written by Roy Thomas (with the third issue adapting a non-Conan story by Robert E. Howard story I hadn't read). As for artist Barry Smith - the art just didn't "look" like Conan - at first.

   It was silly, of course, to expect Smith (later known as Windsor-Smith) to match up to those Frank Frazetta painted covers, but instead we were getting art that seemed to be trying hard to be a combination of Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby (and not really succeeding at either one).

   But with the fourth issue, published in 1971, my opinion started to change.

   Here was a story based on one of my favorite Howard stories, "The Tower of the Elephant," which picks up early in Conan's life, as he tries his hand at being a thief. He decides to break into a strange, mystic tower, where he encounters a surprising ally - and one of the strangest creatures he'll ever meet.

   It's an action-packed story, loaded with surprises and unexpected turns.

   And it's also the issue where Smith's art turned a corner - at least in my eyes. Perhaps it was the inking by the always-excellent Sal Buscema, or perhaps it was just Smith hitting his stride (he would improve with every single issue at a shocking - and delightful - rate).

   Whatever the case, the Hyborian Age really started coming to life with this issue, with lush (and gritty) environments, riveting characters, original monsters and an underlying reality about the proceedings.

   In other words, Smith was realizing his own potential, and his work was merging perfectly with Thomas' scripts. They were becoming that rare creative team that just clicks perfectly - and together they'd make Conan the top title at Marvel.

   And one of my all-time favorites, too!

Grade: A




El Vox said...

Chuck, I agree, those first couple of Conan stories for me were a bit of a slog, and didn't have much impact. But by issue #4 they pick up considerably.

I often wondered if Marvel or Thomas wanted Smith to draw these stories as he did, more or less portraying Conan in his youth, still learning the ropes, savage, and easily angered, with the intention of aging him as the series progressed. Either way it sure works.

Chuck said...

I agree, I think Thomas planned all along to follow Conan's career from start to finish. A bit scary to realize that, if they had stayed on that track, he'd be nearing retirement age now!